About that weird stuff in “John’s Pentecost” from John 20

No spoiler alert necessary. None of the following will appear in my Vinebranch sermon tomorrow. It’s too technical, too lengthy, and maybe a little boring for a sermon (as opposed to a Bible study). Needless to say, I find it all terribly interesting. Maybe you will too. It’s about the same passage of scripture I’ll be preaching on: John 20:19-29.

The scripture includes an intriguing image in John 20:22: “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” What does it mean to be “breathed on” by Jesus?

This scripture continues the New Creation imagery that I’ve discussed elsewhere (here and here). These words intentionally recall those words found back in Genesis Chapter 2, describing how God “breathed into the nostrils” of that first human being the “breath of life” (Gen 2:7). This breath that Jesus breathed into the disciples was the breath of new life. This was nothing less than the beginning of God’s new world, God’s new creation, and these disciples are being re-created. Jesus is sending his friends into the world to announce the good news of this new creation, which is beginning right now, in the here and now, and will be completed on the other side of our future resurrection.

This passage is sometimes called “John’s Pentecost,” because in John’s gospel, Jesus gives this group of disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit before his ascension—just as he does in Acts 2 after his ascension, while Jews are gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost.

The passage also includes the controversial verse 23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What on earth does that mean? This has been a source of division in the Western church between Catholics and Protestants. Over the centuries, Catholics began interpreting this verse to mean that Jesus gave his apostles (and by extension their successors, ordained elders) a special role in forgiving sins—thus the Catholic sacrament of penance.

In my view, this distorts the meaning of the scripture. For one thing, in the context of John’s gospel—making no attempt to harmonize John with the three Synoptic gospels—the Twelve (or Eleven, after Judas’s defection) play no special role. Instead, disciples who are not identified in the Synoptic gospels as part of the Twelve play important roles: Nathanael, Mary Magdalene (who is the first apostle commissioned by Jesus to announce his resurrection), and that unnamed “beloved” disciple (who is first to believe in the resurrected Lord). I’m well aware that the beloved disciple was identified later as John the apostle, and Nathanael is often identified as Bartholomew, but these identifications come to us from a later tradition not based on evidence from this gospel.

Regardless, most scholars believe that the group of disciples mentioned here include these and other disciples—a group of both men and women larger than just the Eleven. Jesus’ words, therefore, are not directed simply to those disciples (like me, ha!) set apart as elders (translated by way of Latin as “presbyters,” later “priests”). They are directed toward all disciples—the Church in general. The Church’s commission—the “great commission” in Matthew 28—is to do what Jesus says to do in verse 23. By continuing Jesus’ ministry (“As the Father sent me, so I send you”), the Church is also continuing Jesus’ ministry of forgiving and retaining sins.

This forgiving and retaining sins should be understood in terms of John’s gospel. In John’s gospel, Jesus says that failing to believe in Jesus means that judgment has already come upon us (John 3:18-19)—i.e., the forgiveness or retention of sin that comes by believing or failing to believe in Jesus. Jesus also tells the disciples in John 16:8ff that one role of the Holy Spirit—which Jesus has just given his disciples—”will prove the world wrong about [or alternatively, “convict the world of”] sin and righteousness and judgment.”

All that to say, from the perspective of John’s gospel, the forgiveness or retention of sins will occur naturally as a result of the Church’s mission. As people are given opportunities to respond the Good News of Jesus Christ, they will either find forgiveness—or they won’t. This is in my view the best interpretation of John 20:23. I think I’ve also roughly characterized Gail O’Day’s interpretation in her excellent New Interpreter’s commentary on John. (The volume is sitting on my office shelf, and since I’m at home, I don’t have access to it at the moment!) It can also be found in our church library.

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