Commentary on John 20:19-23
As I travel the country teaching Bible to churches in new ways that address White supremacy, biblical authority, and the belief that Black lives do matter to God, I am struck by the sense that many of us have not experienced sustained peace since 2020. I think that collectively as a society the multiple pandemics of Covid-19, racial injustices, the surge of White Christian nationalism, and rising gun violence have left many of us holding our collective breath waiting for the next tragedy to occur. Many of us desire a double portion of peace so that we can breathe again. In today’s passage, Jesus does that for the disciples. Accordingly, in the following reflection, I believe a double portion of peace is necessary because it
- frees the disciples from fear
- stresses the importance of Jesus’ breath in our lives, and
- ushers in the Spirit to an empowered community.
John 20:19-23 begins with the disciples in a locked room because of “fear of the Ioudaioi.” Most translations render the term as “the Jews.” The phrase “fear of the Jews” occurs in John 7:13; 9:22; and 19:38. Scholars note that these literal words in the Gospel of John seem to show this group as the betrayers of Jesus or, at the very least, accomplices to the Roman empire as they condemned and executed Jesus by crucifixion. While other gospel narratives usually state that the “scribes and Pharisees” did the betrayal, the Gospel of John seemingly takes the consequences of the charge further to a generalization of guilt upon an entire group of people (in other words, The Jews). While the Gospel of John does appear to provide a growing differentiation between Jesus’ followers and Jewish people, I must caution interpreters in contemporary society that they not uphold any anti-Semitic thought and statements during sermon prep that lumps all Jews together as Christ-killers.
Pondering what it means to hide away in fear, the beautiful part of this passage is that the greeting eirēnē hymin (peace to you all) frames the idea of Jesus showing his hands and side while the disciples see and rejoice. The text beautifully shows that in order to move away from fear, the community must constantly expect Jesus to show himself beyond any fears that lurk within the mind of the community. Thereafter, the community can come back to life after receiving the breath of Jesus.
In this particular pericope, after reiterating the second “peace to you all,” Jesus breathes (enephusesen) on the disciples and tells them to “Receive (the) Holy Spirit.” This is where the breath of Jesus becomes important. The use of enephusesen is what scholars call a hapax legomenon, meaning this is the only time the word appears in the Greek New Testament. Greek readers of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) would recognize the word in Genesis 2:7 where “ … the Lord God … breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”1 As a community hiding in fear, I would classify the disciples as “socially dead” and awaiting the breath of Jesus that mirrors the Genesis narrative. This breath brings them back to life.
The concept of “social death” was ushered into academic conversations through the work of Orlando Patterson.2 While studying slavery, Patterson noted that subject formation under slavery equated to social death that undid, eliminated, and distorted the basic conditions of relationality within human life. Because the Johannine community was losing connection to their Jewish friends and neighbors by following Jesus, they were feeling the impact of the deprivation of their interpersonal contacts.3 Although not engaging Patterson, in my own work, I discuss stifled breath.4 Stifled breath is similar to social death, since both concepts point out the inability to give full-throated voice to one’s identity in the midst of living in fear through lost connection. The disciples lived in fear because of their identity as Jesus followers after Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ breath transforms fear into bold living and leads out of social death into community that can uphold and support our varying identities.
Finally, with breath that moves the community from stifled breathing to receiving the Holy Spirit, the Spirit then empowers the forgiveness and release of sin. However, John 20:23 has been difficult for interpreters to understand since it seems to give an extraordinary amount of power to the disciples to forgive sin, which directly contradicts other Gospels’ understanding that only God can forgive sins (see Mark 2:7). Indeed, scholars recognize the harshness of this power in their commentary but interpret the passage as a mandate for “future sanctification of generations of believers.”5 However, I question that mandate for all believers for all time to be under the authority of a presumed group of men as the only model for community leadership. In order to understand the last verse of this pericope, we must begin to understand the sentence in the context of John’s Gospel.
John 20:23 is a complex sentence. The basic construction of the sentence is two main clauses and two subordinate third-class conditional clauses. Third-class conditional clauses state what is not yet happening but what is probable to happen in the future. Accordingly, “If you all forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you all retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In my translation, I add the word “all” in order to highlight the idea of communal forgiveness and retention. When I say community, I am not imagining only the remnant of “twelve” (since the text does not specify) being in the room but a large group of disciples that included the women who told them that Jesus was alive. Jesus releases the Holy Spirit onto a community of both women and men who throughout the Gospel have been suffering continued estrangement from their community of origin. It seems to me that the writer is giving authority back to a community that has the felt sense of lost authority.
Further, in Johannine thought, the term hamartias (in other words, sin) connotes a state of being sinful which is also then paired and paralleled with belief.6 For the gospel writer, the ultimate sin is unbelief. Therefore, if we take the Gospel of John seriously, we must recognize that this verse is in a particular situational context and does not appear to give blanket authority to a presumed group of men to safeguard the sanctification of all future generations of believers. I would argue that this verse is a prompt for the Johannine community to come out of their locked room, accept into their community all of those who proclaim belief in Jesus, and release those who would continue to ostracize them.
Circling back to the multiple pandemics that opened my reflection, it appears to me that the greatest sin of contemporary Jesus followers is the disbelief that we can leave our locked rooms and tackle pressing issues in our communities. We can tackle the sanctification and glorification of guns in our present society. We can tackle the sanctification of White Christian nationalism. We can tackle police reform. Jesus has given us a double portion of peace to breathe again. Let us be Jesus followers that transform society instead of being fearful disciples who are holding our collective breath.
- All scripture comes from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.
- Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: a Comparative Study. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).
- Here I take seriously J. Louis Martyn’s work that points out the language of aposunagagos as an anachronism that signifies being expelled from the synagogue. The Johannine community is suffering loss of community. See Martyn, J. Louis. History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel. 3rd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). See also John 9:22; 12:42; and 16:2.
- Parker, Angela N. If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I?: Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority. (Chicago: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2021). As a Black woman, I experienced stifled breath when I was trying to conform to particular White male biblical scholar viewpoints.
- Moloney, Francis J. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John: Volume 4 (pp. 972-973). Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.
- See John 9:34; 9:41; 15:24, 19:11. See also Hansen, Steven E. “Forgiving and Retaining Sin: a Study of the Text and Context of John 20:23.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 19, no. 1 (1997): 24–32. https://doi.org/10.1163/187122097X00021.