In our study of John 20 on Sunday, I didn’t have all the answers to the questions being posed about verse 22-23 which says, “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (ESV).
So here are some thoughts on this…
This passage in John 20:22-23 is reminiscent of Matthew 16:19 when Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (ESV).
The important issue for understanding both of the passages, in John 20 and Matthew 16, is in realizing that the context is dealing with the work of the church in spreading the gospel. In particular the gospel of Christ that brings peace and forgiveness of sins.
In John 20, immediately before Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, in verse 21 He said “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (ESV). So the context of giving the Holy Spirit is in light of the apostles mission of carrying on the work of Christ.
David Guzik in his Text Bible Commentary adds these notes regarding verse 22:
“d. Receive the Holy Spirit: Jesus gave His disciples the Holy Spirit, bringing new life and the ability to carry out their mission. It seems John noted a deliberate connection between this breathing on the disciples and when at creation God breathed life into man. This was a work of re-creation, even as God breathed life into the first man. This is where the disciples were born again.
i. “Intimating, by this, that they were to be made new men, in order to be properly qualified for the work to which he had called them; for in this breathing he evidently alluded to the first creation of man, when God breathed into him the breath of lives.” (Clarke)
ii. “The Greek word is the same as used by the LXX in those two pregnant phrases of the O.T., viz. Genesis 2:7, ‘the Lord God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath (or The Spirit) of Life’; and Ezekiel 37:9, ‘breathe into these slain and they shall live’ (the vision of the Dry Bones).” (Trench)
iii. “At an earlier stage in Jesus’ ministry the evangelist had said, ‘the Spirit was not yet present, because Jesus had not yet been glorified’ (John 7:3): now the time for imparting the Spirit has come.” (Bruce)
iv. They received the same Holy Spirit that was in Jesus; the same Spirit that empowered and enabled all His words and works. “The breathing upon them was meant to convey the impression that His very own Spirit was imparted to them.” (Dods)”
One objection that we mentioned to the Holy Spirit being given to the apostles in full measure then, by Jesus, was cited from John MacArthur who noted “Since the disciples did not actually receive the Holy Spirit until Pentecost…this statement [John 20:22-23] must be understood as a pledge…”
Of course, the only problem with understanding John 20:22-23 as only a mere pledge is Jesus actually said “receive the Holy Spirit” and it is always good interpretation to take the Bible as it is literally written, unless there is overriding evidence that the context favors otherwise.
We can not disregard Jesus’ ability and will to bestow the Holy Spirit separately and formally in advance to His apostles before the church universal receives the Holy Spirit on Pentecost 40 days later. In fact, this similar thing happens with the resurrection in Matthew 27:52-53 where saints were resurrected at the time of Jesus’s death. We can not say that they weren’t really resurrected because the rapture hadn’t occurred yet can we? It is even likely that these saints from Matthew 27:52-53 are the ones who ascended with Christ as mentioned in Ephesians 4:8 – the bottom line is God is God and God can do for His what He wants.
Also, let’s not forgot that these disciples who received the Holy Spirit from Jesus in John 20 were the very ones who lead the church at Pentecost to receive the Holy Spirit.
As far as understanding the forgiveness of sins statement in John 20:23, I think this is more of a command to declare the gospel of forgiveness to others and to recognize the forgiveness of sins in others. The gospel is all about forgiveness, and the apostles were the foundation of the church who needed, as do today’s church leaders, to be able to asses spiritual wellness among those in their community and flock.
Again, David Guzik in his Text Bible Commentary adds these notes regarding verse 23:
“e. If you forgive the sins of any: Jesus gave His disciples authority to announce forgiveness and to warn of guilt, as authorized by the Holy Spirit. We can say that Peter’s preaching on Pentecost (Acts 2:38) was an exercise of this promised power to announce forgiveness of sins.
i. The connection with the reception of the Holy Spirit is important. “The words of Jesus emphasize that the Holy Spirit is not bestowed on the church as an ornament but to empower an effective application of the work of Christ to all men.” (Tenney)
ii. This lays down the duty of the church to proclaim forgiveness to the repentant believer, and the duty of the church to warn the unbeliever that they are in danger of forfeiting the mercy of God. We don’t create the forgiveness or deny it; we announce it according to God’s word and the wisdom of the Spirit.
iii. “The Church collectively declares the conditions on which sins are remitted, and with the plenary powers of an ambassador pronounces their remission or their retention.” (Trench)
iv. “He is saying that the Spirit-filled church has the authority to declare which are the sins that are forgiven and which are the sins that are retained. This accords with the Rabbinical reaching which spoke of certain sins as ‘bound’ and others as ‘loosed’.” (Morris)
v. The work of Jesus for His disciples on resurrection Sunday gives an ongoing pattern for His work among His people. Jesus wants to continue this fourfold ministry of assurance, mission, the Holy Spirit and authority to His people today.”