To Forgive or Not Forgive – John 20:19-23

“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ 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’.” (John 20:19-23, ESV).

In this passage, the disciples have circled the wagons and are hunkered down in their bunker for protection. The Lord has been crucified and all bets are off now, as the disciples expect the Empire to be after them, so as to eradicate this Jesus movement that has been going on for three years.

The resurrected Christ appears in bodily form, having entered despite the locked door. He issues the typical greeting of “peace be with you” and shows them it is indeed him by letting them inspect his wounded hands and feet. Having moved them from fear to celebration, he again greets them and moves on to the other reason for His visit.

“As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” How has the Father sent Him? In humility to be the Gospel.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,” (Philippians 2:5-7a ESV).

The disciples have now been commissioned as Christ’s Apostles, the ones who are sent and endowed with miraculous power (Acts 1:8) when Jesus breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

There are a few words here that are rich in meaning: The word used for “power” in Acts 1:8 is dunamis, which denotes a supernatural or miraculous power from the Spirit that is beyond what human will and abilities can generate. It is the dunamis of the Holy Spirit that is responsible for the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22, 23) and the Gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:8-10).

When Jesus breathed on them, he anointed them with the Spirit. The Greek word pneuma is used for both “breath” and “Spirit.” It is the New Testament counterpart to naphach, the Hebrew word translated as “breathed” in Genesis 2:7, which reads:

“then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (ESV)

The New Adam, in whom and through whom atonement is offered through his person as the One who recapitulates the wholeness the First Adam made broken, breathes into his disciples – not only commissioning them as His Apostles, but renewing the human family in a way extending from His role as the New Adam. Hallelujah!

He goes on to tell them “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Some interpret this as being Christ’s instituting the Rite of Reconciliation, also known as the Sacrament of Confession. I do not dispute that, but my study has not led me to conclude that the Apostles could tie God’s hands, so to speak; that God’s forgiveness is limited to the Apostles’ decision to be forgiving or unforgiving. Rather, it seems that having been endowed with great authority, Christ is telling them they have a great responsibility to keep their human will in check. They must “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25) in their participatory role as conduits of God’s grace and enfleshed connection points between God and His children. This is what it means to be Christ’s ambassadors and following through tasks us with keeping our will and pride in check through the humility of Christ, so that our will/fleshly power/false self/ego participates in Grace instead of sin; that we would walk in the Spirit by flowing in God’s forgiveness. The Apostles were being told they would live at a fork in the road and God’s love (forgiveness) would either flow through them or it wouldn’t – depending on the Apostles’ decision to be forgiving or unforgiving.

We are in the same position.


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