27 May 2015

John 20:19-23

“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 retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (vv. 22-23)

Psalm: Psalm 47


In Hebrew and in Aramaic (the local language that Jesus would have spoken), the word for spirit and the word for breath are the same, and it even sounds like a breath: 'ruah'. John's Gospel is the only one that records the resurrection Jesus 'breathing' on his disciples in this deliberate and symbolic way. It is a gesture that recalls God's act of creation in breathing life itself into human beings (Genesis 2:7). This is the giving of God's Holy Spirit which Jesus has promised to his disciples (John 7:39). It is John's version of Luke's Day of Pentecost.

This bestowed 'breath of God' is not just an intimate blessing; it is linked with tough issues like the authority to forgive, or not to forgive sins. This is the Spirit as the Counsellor or Advocate, the one who exercises judgement about sin, the spirit of truth who will lead us into all truth (John 16:7, 13). In Matthew's Gospel, the power to forgive sins seems to be invested only in Peter as the 'lead' disciple (Matthew 16:19), and it is on this verse that some Churches have decreed that the authority to forgive sins should only be wielded by those ordained to the priesthood. In John's narrative, it seems that all the disciples (and hence, all followers of Jesus) have this power breathed into them.

Perhaps we find it easier to identify with the task of the Church to show compassion and forgive sins than with that of 'retaining' them. Certainly, there have been times when conventionally respectable Christians have used the latter power in ways that became very judgemental and excluding of individuals, in contrast with the hospitable attitude which Jesus tended to show towards those who did not or could not always live up to the rigorous demands of the law. But at the same time, the Church has not always had the courage to examine carefully (in the spirit of truthfulness) wider contemporary, institutional practices and attitudes which may retain deep sinfulness and which should not be glossed over. For instance, only when slavery was denounced as a continuing and retained sin was it possible to legislate against it and make real changes happen. There may be issues today which we should be treating in a similar way, if we are to remain true to the gift of God's Spirit in us.

To Ponder

  • What contemporary attitudes or practices do you think should be exposed and named as sinful, rather than too easily forgiven?
  • What or whom do you personally most need to forgive?

Bible notes author

Janet Morley

Janet Morley is currently the Commissioning Editor for HOLINESS, the journal of Wesley House, Cambridge ( She worked for ten years in the Connexional Team, with the training and development officers, and latterly, as Head of Christian Communication, Evangelism and Advocacy.