21 May 2016

John 20:19-23

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 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 retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (vv. 21-23)

Psalm: Psalm 1


If Christians think of Pentecost according to the account in Acts 2 of the Holy Spirit falling with a great force on Jesus' followers so that they begin to speak in a multitude of tongues, then the 'Johannine Pentecost' in John 20 may seem somewhat subdued by comparison. Yet, the story is no less significant in reinforcing John's version of the good news or in highlighting the ongoing work of the Spirit through all who follow Christ.

There are several significant references in the passage to other parts of the Gospel or to Old Testament parallels. Verses 21-23 are the fulfillment of the prophecy of John the Baptizer in John 1:33. Jesus is the promised one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. The opening verses of John's Gospel recall the account of creation in Genesis through the Word (cf Genesis 1:1-5), and now these verses in today's passage recall that God breathed life into the first humans (Genesis 2:7). Thus, Jesus breathes on his disciples and they receive the Holy Spirit to empower their life and work in the world. The story also fulfills the promise that Jesus made in chapter 14 (the passage with which we started the week). In this encounter with the resurrected Christ, the disciples receive the promised paracletos/Advocate - the Spirit of truth - to abide in them and unite them with the Father and the Son.

Jesus' words about forgiveness of sins may bring to mind John 3:11-21, in which Jesus explains to Nicodemus that his purpose of coming into the world is to redeem it. Although verse 23 is often interpreted to be about forgiveness of personal sins in the sense of moral infractions, the term 'sin' has a much broader meaning here. Sin in this sense is the world's separation from God. The incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ are all for the purpose of reconciling the whole creation to God. Sin in verse 23 may refer to continuing separation from God because of the refusal to believe in Christ's saving purposes or actions. There is, again, a connection to John 3:17-21, which includes references to judgement for choosing to live in the darkness of unbelief and evil. This does not necessarily mean a future judgement, but indicates the outcome of choosing estrangement from God.

Through their witness to Christ's work of redemption and reconciliation, the disciples have a powerful message that can release people from the prison of unbelief and separation. The retention of sin is the choice to remain in darkness and the rejection of a life that abides in union with God. Forgiveness in this context is more like releasing people so that they may have God's love abiding in them and experience the peace that Christ gives to his disciples.

To Ponder

  • The presence of the Holy Spirit is described in various ways in the New Testament. How helpful do you find the image of breath for the Spirit?
  • What do you think it means for God's spirit to abide in human beings?
  • How do you thinkthe ideas of peace and forgiveness of sin are related?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Cindy Wesley

Cindy Wesley is the director of studies at Wesley House in Cambridge. She is responsible for the life of the chapel and for advising students about their courses and modules.