The Bible and Culture

One of the more interesting sayings of Jesus with equally interesting theological implications is found in Mt. 18.18–” I tell you whatever you (i.e. Peter and the gang) bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The Greek here is straight forward, and the contrast between the present and future tenses have clear enough implications. One can point out of course the use of ean plus the subjunctive form of verbs, which with the future of the verb ‘to be’ in this case refers to a ‘future more probable’ condition, but the point remains the same. If the Evangelist, and/or Jesus before him had wanted to say “whatever is bound on earth, was already bound and determined in heaven” he could certainly have done so, first in Aramaic and then in a Greek rendering of the same. The fact is that Jesus here says the opposite. This saying, which is actually quite typical of early Jewish ways of thinking about such matters, and may reflect an inter-textual echo as well, is of momentous import for understanding Jesus’ view of things.

Firstly, Jesus believes that decisions taken on earth, have eternal consequences. We of course can understand this in a discussion about soteriology– see for example Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where earthly behavior by humans determines afterlife outcome. Heaven is not seen as the place where all things have been pre-determined, rather there is an inter-active relationship between events on earth and things in heaven. The influence can go in either direction.

Secondly, human decisions matter tremendously, and in this particular text Jesus is telling his close disciples that their leadership decisions are of such incredible importance and moment, that they had best be very careful what they ‘bind and loose’. Now we could debate endlessly about what this refers to. In my view it has to do with decisions about community matters such as are described in vss. 16-17. The point is that there is a heavenly ratification of such a spiritual decision on earth.

Thirdly, we may compare the immediately following say in Mt. 18.19– which tells us that if believers on earth come together and 2-3 agree on something (which assumes that Christ is there with them, and they are thinking within the parameters of God’s revealed will) then “it will be done for you by my Father in heaven”. God is said to respond to the human decision making process.

Of course there are numerous Biblical texts where God takes the initiative and humans respond. I am not for a minute disputing that. But a view of God’s sovereignty that does not take into account viable human choice, and the fact that those choices can have heavenly and indeed eternal consequences, has not reckoned with the full scope of what the Bible says about the relationship between God’s power and will, and the human response to the same.

Whilst, God could have done otherwise, he has chosen to allow us to be viable partners with God in ministry and the working out of his will and Kingdom on earth, beings capable of making un-predetermined choices that have incredible consequences. The issue is not the sovereignty of God– the issue is how God has chosen to exercise his power and will. And what the Bible says about this is that he has not pre-determined all things from before the foundations of the world.

Human history is not merely a preordained play, played out perfectly to a pre-ordained script. On the contrary while there is a blue-print, or a general script, God has allowed, indeed invited us to make the drama like a night at the Improv, improvising our roles as we go, and making viable choices of moment and consequence along the way. Are we supposed to follow the general instructions in the script? Well yes, as they provide the boundaries beyond which we ought not to go and show us what character and kind of roles we should play. But of course we may fail to play our parts well, or indeed at all.

God’s desires and will are not the same thing as what always or inevitably happens. But lest we think it is only about us just acting out are parts well or poorly, this is forgetting that God, the script writer has written himself into the play over and over again, and God comes again and again to correct, guide, goad, redeem, restore and so on, as the drama goes on. And since God is the lead actor and the star of the play, we are tasked with taking our lead from, and following the example of the lead actor and star, falling in line behind Him– and that is the very nature of discipleship. Walking in the paths trod by Christ, for his namesake.

Think on these things.