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What does John 20:21-23 mean?

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Many will be preaching on John 20 over the next two Sundays.  Often the question comes: "What does Jesus mean in John 20:23?"  Let me give you the context.

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”  (John 20:19-21)

How do we understand this?  Can Christ's followers run out into the street and address passers-by: "Forgiven... forgiven... UNFORGIVEN... forgiven"?  Is Jesus promising a heavenly underwriting of any and every act of forgiveness?

No.  Verse 21 interprets verse 23: the disciples will forgive just as Christ has forgiven.  How has Christ forgiven?  On the basis of His death and to be received by faith.  How should the disciples forgive?  On the basis of Christ's death and to be received by faith. So as the disciples declare Christ and His forgiveness in the power of the Spirit, the world's response to their message will be its response to Christ (which, in turn, is its response to the Father).

Jesus has already taught them this in John 14.  When Judas (not Iscariot) asks why Jesus will only appear to the disciples, Jesus essentially answers: "I don't need to appear to the world.  I don't need to go on a resurrection roadshow to the nations.  You need to go on the roadshow and take my teaching with you. The world's response to my teaching will be its response to me. So go in the power of the Spirit and take my words with you..."

23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.
25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:23-26)

Even before His death, Jesus has taught His disciples how it's going to unfold.  So in John 20, when He comes and breathes His Spirit on them, He's saying: "Now's the time.  Go and testify. And as you go with my message, my forgiveness goes with you."

So does this verse endorse the willy-nilly preaching of an abstract forgiveness, divorced from the Forgiver?  No. But it does give us great confidence as we share the words of Jesus.  As we offer the apostolic gospel in the Spirit of Christ we are offering divine mercy.

This verse should not so much produce confessionals as confessors of Christ.  But those confessors of Christ (which I hope is all of us) ought to know the power and privilege of offering Jesus.  To confessing Christians and to seeking non-Christian we hold out the Christ in whom is all forgiveness (Col 1:13f).  We don't just speak about forgiveness, we speak forgiveness itself, because, by the Spirit, the Forgiver Himself is given through the gospel.

10 thoughts on “What does John 20:21-23 mean?

  1. Cal

    This is excellent. All sorts of problems arise when Christ is separated from some aspect of teaching: be it faith, justification and forgiveness.

    On the one hand: it is devilish to talk of Christ's forgiveness and then not "going and doing likewise". This is James' point.

    On the other, it makes no sense to talk of forgiveness or to forgive when we have no placed it within the very work of Christ.

    We look to Christ, see how He has loved us, how He has forgiven us before we sought Him, and then we can go and do likewise.

    Legalism ignores the first, libertines ignores the second. Gospel is both: "Look..Go and Do Likewise!!"/ "Look how I Forgive...Go and forgive!!"

    Maybe I'll write about it or stand on a box somewhere and shout. Probably the first.


  2. Timoth Ezat

    It goes hand in hand with Matthew 10: 40 - 42: "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person's reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward."

  3. A3B7A29B44 BW 4,6 some part of me with 1 Adam

    "And the believers from among the circumcised...were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles."Earlier,"Peter opened his mouth and said:'Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you...know what happened throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were opppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and Jreusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, n o t to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead....To him all the prophets bear witness that everyonewho believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.'"

  4. Will

    I'm not sure this is a correct interpretation. Born Again believers have the Spirit of Jesus in them and a new nature. We have a new sensitivity to sin in the world and ability to discern it via this new divine sensory ability God gives His children called the Holy Ghost.

    We receive people with Jesus WITHIN us. Not beside us.

    Our (Born Again Christians) personal judgment holds weight with the coming King and is informed by His Holy Spirit active in the world today. "Do you not know you will Judge the 12 tribes of Israel?" Jesus asked His Jewish Disciples.

    Those who's sins we forgive, we forgive with God inside of us and we forgive righteously and in alignment with His will. Those who's sins we do not forgive... we do not forgive them because God is inside of us and we have that same divine input via the Holy Spirit. This forgiveness is very closely tied to God's judgment and is why He says "Honour your Mother, Father" etc... - Born Again Believers are placed all throughout humanity and at every level. Heaven has it's agents preaching the Gospel and preparing to pass Judgement alongside God. The best the unbeliever can do outside of calling on God is have true Children of God who know them, love them and will give account for them at the Judgment. I know as a Spirit filled Child of God that God judges the world through my eyes and ears as part of His walk and that this is crucial f we are to know Him.

  5. Cindy Rehder

    Not sure I am fully understanding your answer. Why were they given power to forgive or not forgive? I find no confidence in the not forgiving.

  6. John Blanchard

    John 20.23 is a difficult scripture (along with so many!). I don't believe, even as a 'Spirit-filled' believer you could arbitrarily declare this person forgiven and this person not forgiven!
    What I think it might mean is that your witness to the gospel asserting that forgiveness of sins is only to be found in believing in Christ and His atoning sacrifice and outside of that there cannot be the means for sins to be forgiven. Therefore, the person who rejects this truth, cannot but remain in their sin, as stated in so many other scriptures, e.g. John 3. 18, 'Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.'

  7. Joseph Jackson

    I find that this answer to Jesus sending the apostles to forgive is missing something. God the Father sent Jesus to the apostles (to whom He is talking to) as a priest so He could minister to those in the faith, as well as spread the good news of the Lord (the Gospel). So too must the apostles be priests, so they can minister to those whom God sends their way, and spread the gospel of the Lord.

    As for the priests that Jesus has just made through the Holy Spirit on the matters of forgiving and retaining sins, Jesus did all of this in His earthly ministry; he forgave sins to those who had faith, and He also retained sins to those who denied the faith. So too must the apostles do as Jesus did.

    You can even suppose that the apostles did what Jesus did for them in that room; to give the gift of the Holy Spirit to other disciples, so they too may be priests with the Holy Spirit. In fact, this IS what the early church did, they followed Jesus' example all the way to the very last detail.

  8. Bethany

    976 The Apostle's Creed associates faith in the forgiveness of sins not only with faith in the Holy Spirit, but also with faith in the Church and in the communion of saints. It was when he gave the Holy Spirit to his apostles that the risen Christ conferred on them his own divine power to forgive sins: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

    981 After his Resurrection, Christ sent his apostles "so that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations."526 The apostles and their successors carry out this "ministry of reconciliation," not only by announcing to men God's forgiveness merited for us by Christ, and calling them to conversion and faith; but also by communicating to them the forgiveness of sins in Baptism, and reconciling them with God and with the Church through the power of the keys, received from Christ:

    [The Church] has received the keys of the Kingdom of heaven so that, in her, sins may be forgiven through Christ's blood and the Holy Spirit's action. In this Church, the soul dead through sin comes back to life in order to live with Christ, whose grace has saved us.

    984 The Creed links "the forgiveness of sins" with its profession of faith in the Holy Spirit, for the risen Christ entrusted to the apostles the power to forgive sins when he gave them the Holy Spirit.

    985 Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of the forgiveness of sins: it unites us to Christ, who died and rose, and gives us the Holy Spirit.

    986 By Christ's will, the Church possesses the power to forgive the sins of the baptized and exercises it through bishops and priests normally in the sacrament of Penance.

    987 "In the forgiveness of sins, both priests and sacraments are instruments which our Lord Jesus Christ, the only author and liberal giver of salvation, wills to use in order to efface our sins and give us the grace of justification" (Roman Catechism, I, 11, 6).

  9. P Cain

    (The church) did not receive the keys of the kingdom. Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom. The key was the knowledge and understanding of what it would take for people to become part of the kingdom of God. This key was used on the day of Pentecost when the people asked Peter and the rest of the apostles what they needed to do to be saved. Acts 2:38. Peter standing with the 11 apostles told the people to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission ( or removal of their sins) and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. By sharing this information with those who heard him they were able to enter in through the door that was opened into the kingdom of heaven

  10. Eric Holley

    I have the Spirit given power and ability and responsibility to forgive anyone who sins against me, because of the forgiveness that Christ has extended me. I do not have the ability to forgive the sin that is committed against another person. Only the person who is sinned against can forgive that particular sin. A sinner’s faith and confession to Jesus can have all their sins forgiven. However, if a sinner refuses to trust and believe in Jesus, I still have the ability to forgive any sin that is committed against me by that person. This is a gift that I have been given by the Holy Spirit that can be the very thing that opens the eyes of that sinner to the love of Christ. Why are we commanded to forgive if God does not honor that forgiveness? I am not implying that I can grant salvation. Only faith in Jesus grants salvation. What I am saying is that any sin against me that I forgive of another, that sin is not imputed to that person, just as if Christ himself forgave that sin. However, the rest of that persons sins are between that person and whomever that person has sinned against. Whatever sins against me that are not forgiven by me are still imputed against that person, only to be forgiven by faith and confession to Christ. However, the sin that I choose not to forgive has now become a sin imputed to me. The sin of unforgiveness, because I must forgive even as Christ has forgiven me. This is my belief.

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