“whatever you forbid on earth must be already forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth must be already permitted in heaven.” On the flyleaf of the paper cover to The New Testament: A Private Translation in the Language of the People, by Charles B. Williams (1953), the Greek grammarian Mantey, (co-author of the well-respected Greek grammar book, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament by Dana and Mantey) introduced the translation by saying that Williams did a better job of translating the Greek verb into English than any other New Testament he had studied. One of the examples he gave was Matthew 16:19 and 18:18. These are almost always translated as: (NIV) “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
However, the phrase, “will be bound in heaven” is not a good translation of the Greek verb. The “to be” verb is not a simple future, but rather a future passive periphrastic (and thus is most accurately translated “shall have been”), while the verb “bind” is a perfect passive participle. Williams translates the verse as:
Matt. 16:19: “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you forbid on earth must be what is already forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth must be what is already permitted in heaven.”
Matt. 18:18: “...whatever you forbid on earth must be already forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth must be already permitted in heaven.”
The 1995 revision of the New American Standard Bible follows that translation quite closely: Matt. 16:19: “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Matt. 18:18: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
Williams’ translation not only fits the Greek, but is how ministry actually works. God’s ministers do not make commands that God must then follow. Rather, God’s ministers work hard to be aware of what God is doing, and then follow His lead. God’s ministers follow God’s guidance, so what we bind or loose on earth must be inside the will of God, or what He has first done in heaven. Jesus himself worked that way, even as he said over and over: “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise’” (John 5:19 ESV). “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge…” (John 5:30). “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38 ESV). “…I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (John 8:28 ESV). “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10 ESV).
It is clear that even Jesus did not bind and loose on his own, without knowing the Father’s will. Similarly, we also must know what God has already bound or loosed in heaven before we try to act on earth. It is appropriate that when Jesus was giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, he also told Peter that he walk in the will of God and not try to bind or loose on his own. The ministry does not belong to people, it belongs to God and Jesus, and the minister of the Lord follows the leading of the Lord.
Robertson provides a wonderful explanation of this difficult verse, based on his extensive knowledge of Greek and understanding the use of the language at the time by the Rabbis. He writes:
“The same power here given to Peter belongs to every disciple of Jesus in all the ages. Advocates of papal supremacy insist on the primacy of Peter here and the power of Peter to pass on this supposed sovereignty to others. But this is all quite beside the mark. We shall soon see the disciples actually disputing again (Matt 18:1) as to which of them is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven as they will again (Matt 20:21) and even on the night before Christ’s death. Clearly neither Peter nor the rest understood Jesus to say here that Peter was to have supreme authority. What is added shows that Peter held the keys precisely as every preacher and teacher does. To ‘bind’ (dêsêis) in rabbinical language is to forbid, to ‘loose’ (lusêis) is to permit. Peter would be like a rabbi who passes on many points. …The teaching of Jesus is the standard for Peter and for all preachers of Christ. Note the future perfect indicative (estai dedemenon, estai lelumenon), a state of completion. All this assumes, of course, that Peter’s use of the keys will be in accord with the teaching and mind of Christ. The binding and loosing is repeated by Jesus to all the disciples (Matt 18:18). Later after the Resurrection Christ will use this same language to all the disciples (John 20:23), showing that it was not a special prerogative of Peter. He is simply first among equals because on this occasion he was spokesman for the faith of all. …Every preacher uses the keys of the kingdom when he proclaims the terms of salvation in Christ.” (Word Pictures in the New Testament).
Robertson correctly states (above) that the Greek is a future perfect indicative, and could literally be translated “will have been bound…will have been loosed.” As he points out, this construction indicates a state of completion. Williams understands this when he translates the verse such that what we allow or forbid must be inside the will of God, or already allowed or forbidden in heaven. If God had wanted the verse to say that what we bind on earth will then be bound in heaven, the Greek would have been worded quite differently than it is.