Commentary on John 20:19-23
Liturgical observances of Pentecost are informed almost entirely by the familiar story in Acts 2, with images of fire, prayers offered in multiple languages, and attention to the church’s prophetic vocation.1
“The Johannine Pentecost,” as this passage is sometimes called, gets much less attention.
That makes sense, since in John’s Gospel Jesus does not impart the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (the Jewish Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot, which falls on the fiftieth day after Passover). Here, the Spirit comes on Easter, during Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance to a collection of his followers. (Earlier in the day, outside the tomb, he spoke to and commissioned only Mary Magdalene.) Also, in this passage we encounter the Spirit with less of a universal tone (in comparison to Acts); the focus here is more particular, focused on the identity and sending of a community.
The Spirit, at last
In John, this is an incredibly weighty and long-anticipated scene. The Baptizer introduced Jesus in John 1:33 as “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus himself has said that his ability to give the Holy Spirit “without measure” would offer proof that he is from God and speaks the words of God (3:34). He promised that “rivers of living water”—a metaphor for the Spirit—would flow from his innermost being (7:38-39; see the CEB and NET translations of these verses, which are superior to those in the NIV and NRSV). And of course Jesus has had much to say about the coming “Advocate”:
- It is “the Spirit of truth,” who dwells with believers forever yet cannot be received by “the world” (14:16-17).
- It is the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, who will teach Jesus’ followers everything and remind them of all he told them (14:26; cf. 16:13).
- It is the Spirit, whom Jesus sends “from the Father,” and who testifies about Jesus and equips people to offer testimony about him (15:26-27). This Spirit glorifies Jesus (16:14).
- It is He who can “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8-11).
The close connections John draws among Jesus’ promises about the Spirit, his glorification and ascension, his intimacy with the Father, and his commissions to his followers caution us not to skip over “the Johannine Pentecost” too casually, as if it serves merely as a final “Good bye, and good luck” from Jesus to his friends.
With this culminating scene, the christological climax of John’s Gospel (Jesus’ departure as the exalted Christ) is part and parcel of the Gospel’s apostolic impulse (the equipping and sending of the men and women who believe in him). That is, in the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers receive nothing less than the fullness of the glorified Son. Their lives (ours, too) can therefore accomplish ends similar to his life’s, insofar as they reveal God.
Fear colors the scene, as Jesus’ followers have secured themselves from the authorities (that is the referent of the problematic expression “the Jews” in 20:19). Note, then, the importance of the language that introduces Jesus’ commission: “Peace to you.” Jesus gives peace not “as the world gives” (14:27); he gives peace that provides solace in the face of persecution, a promise of new possibilities, and confidence in his ability to overcome “the world” (16:33). (In this Gospel, “the world” usually indicates a hostile and ignorant response to the truth that Jesus embodies.)
Recalling the moment when God breathed life into the original earth person in Genesis 2:7 (cf. Ezekiel 37:9), Jesus breathes the Spirit of life into (not merely “on”) his followers in John 20:22. A new creation is afoot. This creation does not replace “the world.” It engages it.
“Forgiving” and “retaining” sins
The final verse requires some attention in a sermon, because many people experience “the Johannine Pentecost” like this:
- Jesus bestows peace upon his worried followers. Great!
- Jesus fills them with the Holy Spirit. Great!
- Jesus tells them they can forgive or retain other people’s sins. Huh?
The things mentioned in verse 23 (“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”) sound at first hearing like responsibilities that few of us would choose for ourselves. Maybe fewer of us would trust an institutionalized church to wield them. What is Jesus talking about?
It is imperative that we make sense of this verse in light of all that has come before it. Too many mistakes have been made in the past by those who have read John 20:23 in isolation or with a sloppy connection to the unrelated words of Matthew 16:19. We must attend to how the Johannine Jesus has already characterized the problem of “sin,” the role of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of his ministry. If not, we risk perpetuating a legacy of misuse and polemic that has muddied this verse across the history of its interpretation.
Jesus is not appointing the church as his moral watchdog; nor does he commission it to arbitrate people’s assets and liabilities on a heavenly balance sheet.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus talks about sin as unbelief, the unwillingness or incapacity to grasp the truth of God manifested in him. To have sin abide, therefore, is to remain estranged from God. The consequence of such a condition is ongoing resistance. Sin in John is not about moral failings; primarily it is an inability or refusal to recognize God’s revelation when confronted by it, in Jesus. (Note what Jesus, says, concerning the world, in John 15:22: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin,” see also John 9:39-41).
Consequently, the resurrected Christ tells his followers (all his followers) that, through the Spirit that enables them to bear witness, they can set people free (“set free” or “release” is a better translation than “forgive” in John 20:23) from that state of affairs. They can be a part of seeing others come to believe in Jesus and what he discloses.
Failure to bear witness, Jesus warns, will result in the opposite: a world full of people left unable to grasp the knowledge of God. That is what it means to “retain” sins (“retain” is the opposite of “set free”). Jesus is not—at least, not in this verse—granting the church a unique spiritual authority. He is simply reporting that a church that does not bear witness to Christ is a church that leaves itself unable to pay a role in delivering people from all that keeps them from experiencing the fullness that Jesus offers.
Receiving the Spirit, the church receives Jesus. And so the church receives Jesus’ own capacity to make God manifest, bringing light to the world. The Trinitarian intimacy inferred from John’s presentation of these ideas is striking, but even more so is the intimacy expressed between the Divine and humanity.
Such intimacy between God and us is but one consequence of the rich Easter confession about what happens when God raises a corpse to new life. Jesus lives, yes—not apart from us, but in and through us.
We Christians tend to be cautious folk. Too many churches have locked their doors to a vibrant understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in their midst. We don’t know how best to bear witness to Christ in a world populated by multiple religions and plagued by ecclesial hypocrisy. Maybe it would inspire us to bold and creative witness if we saw the risen Jesus miraculously pass through our barricaded doors. But probably all it takes is a preacher who can help us see that this same Jesus is already present, dwelling within us and eager to enlist us to carry on his work of setting people free.
- Commentary first published on this site on June 12, 2011.