This passage is similar to what we see in Matthew 16, and I have to admit, both are difficult to interpret within the context.
In Matthew 16, Jesus talks about binding and loosing. That whatever you bind on earth would be bound in heaven, but whatever you loose on earth would be loosed in heaven.
As I look back on Matthew 16, it seems the reference is to God’s kingdom and salvation. Throughout the New Testament, it seems that God wants to use us to reach people, rather than appearing to them directly. As Christ’s body, we are his mouth, hands, and feet to those around us. And if we are going out and preaching the gospel, sharing the keys to the kingdom to those around us, God’s hands will be completely loosened to work for their salvation. But if we refuse to go out, if we refuse to tell others about Jesus, God’s hands will be tied to some extent. Not literally, of course. But most times, he will not work unless we do.
Peter “loosened” God’s hands in two ways. One was by preaching the gospel. First he preached to the Jews, loosening God’s hand to work in their lives. Yet by failing to go out to the Gentiles as Jesus commanded in the great commission, the disciples limited God’s work of salvation. God then had to do what he prefers not to. Direct intervention, first talking to Cornelius through an angel, and then through a vision to Peter. But throughout the rest of the New Testament, salvation came only as people preached to others.
Peter also loosened God’s work in the Gentiles’ lives by freeing them from the requirements of the Jewish law. By doing so, it made it so much easier for them to enter God’s kingdom.
In this passage, however, the context of these words are different. Again, Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (18)”
What does Jesus mean in this context?
I think the idea is that when we’ve been hurt, and the other person refuses to repent, we are to pray for them, loosening God’s hand to work in their lives.
Too many times, we are bound by bitterness and anger toward the person that hurt us. Too many times, we are not praying for that person that hurt us, we are praying about that person.
“Lord, I am so hurt and angry. Look at what he did! I can’t believe it. Give him what he deserves!”
But when Jesus was on the cross, he didn’t pray about those who hurt them. He prayed for them.
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
By praying for those who mistreated him, it allowed God to work in the lives of those who hated him. Indeed, it allowed God to work his work of salvation.
When we pray for those who hurt us, rather than simply pray about them, it loosens God’s hands so to speak, and allows him to work in their lives. Not to say that God can’t work without our prayers, but most times, he only chooses to work because of them.
But if we hold on to bitterness, we stay the hand of God, both in our lives, and in the lives of the people who hurt us.
It’s not easy to let go. But that’s why God has given us brothers and sisters to support us. They can help us in reconciliation with those who hurt us. And they can help us in prayer. And Jesus said,
I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (19-20)
How about you? Are you binding the Father’s hand or are you loosening his hand in your life and in the lives of those who have hurt you?
Put another way, are you simply praying about those who have hurt you, or are you praying for them?