Over the last twenty years or so God’s people have been increasingly put on the defensive about their faith. In a climate where people of faith are dismissed as intellectually inept, many are fearful of speaking up about what they believe.
Come with me to a very important scene that occurred on the day Jesus rose from the dead, recorded by John the Gospel writer (John 20:19-23). That Sunday evening, the first day of the week, Jesus suddenly stood in the midst of his disciples. John doesn’t explain how Jesus came to be there. He simply records, Jesus stood.
Last time the disciples had seen him, he was wounded and bleeding, wracked with pain, dying on a cross. When they had seen a spear thrust in Jesus’ side and the fluid that had flowed, they knew he was truly dead. Yet here he was, not weak and limp, but tall and erect, standing, speaking the very words he had uttered at the Passover meal, ‘Peace be with you’. And to prove he was physically alive and not a ghost, significantly he showed them his hands and his side.
Bewildered and confused though they doubtless were, they knew, utterly amazing miracle though it was, that Jesus was truly alive again. ‘Peace be with you’, he repeated. At the Passover meal he had promised, ‘My peace I leave with you… Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in me’ (John 14:27). In a world of turmoil and injustice, the peace he held out to his followers had not been meaningless comfort. His resurrection was now proof of that.
Overjoyed, they still couldn’t fully grasp what was happening. It was so surreal it was like a dream. But then, as GK Chesterton once rightly observed, Truth is stranger than fiction.
The Commission: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you…’ (20:21). These were challenging words to men who moments before were bewildered and fearful.
More than once they had heard Jesus say, ‘As the Father has sent me…’ But now he was drawing them into this work as well. ‘What, me …?’ they may have immediately thought. He was giving them a job to do: ‘As I was sent, so now I am sending you…’
Jesus had been sent to speak God’s words in person to the world. Supremely he had been sent to be lifted up on a cross at Calvary to rescue humanity (John 12:32). Now, he was sending his disciples and, in turn his people, to announce his life-giving news to the world. But they would not be alone. They need not be fearful. They would experience the peace of Christ at every twist and turn along the way.
The Gift. And, with this commission John tells us, Jesus breathed and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven, if they are retained they are retained’ (20:22).
There are two very different interpretations of Jesus’ words here. The Roman Catholic Church understands they apply only to priests: they alone have the power to forgive sins through the confessional. However, the Protestant church teaches that any Christian can hold out God’s forgiveness by encouraging others to turn to Jesus Christ in repentance, asking for his forgiveness.
John’s record of Jesus’ words and actions here is important. We should notice that Thomas wasn’t present, and that John’s Gospel doesn’t record the events of Pentecost and the specific coming of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, it is very significant that the verb, breathed does not have an object – despite many English translations.
This indicates that Jesus’ action in giving the Spirit was not just for the disciples, nor just for ministers, but also for all his people throughout time. It suggests that in the same way that God breathed life into all men and women in creation (Genesis 2:7), Jesus, the Word of God, the life-giver (John 1:1-4), now breathes his Spirit, the Spirit of his Father, into the life of all who turn to him. Paul the apostle draws this out when he says, Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him (Romans 8:9b).
To return to sins retained and forgiven. Jesus’ words retained and forgiven are verb forms that indicate decisions with a fixed and final outcome. Further, being in the passive voice, the verbs indicate that it is not humanity, but God, who retains or forgives sin.
John’s Gospel announces the news that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, so that anyone who believes in him will have life in his name (John 20:31). This draws together the narrative theme that Jesus was sent to be lifted up for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life for all who believe (John 3:14-15, 12:32, 35-36). People of the first century needed to hear the news – as do all of us in the twenty-first century.
John’s record of Jesus’ resurrected appearance and his promise of peace, his commissioning of his disciples and the gifting of his Spirit, is most important. From the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, the disciples had been terrified. Now, he was commissioning them, empowering them with his peace, and equipping them through his Spirit for the task of announcing the good news of God’s offer of forgiveness and with it, life eternal.
It is a section we cannot ignore. We all have the wonderful privilege of being sent by Jesus to play our part in announcing his good news. ‘What me…?’ you say. Yes: all of us. Because Jesus is the risen Lord, we have no reason to fear: we have his peace. We also have his Spirit at work within us and at work in the world, unstopping deaf ears, opening blind eyes, and softening hard hearts. Do you really believe this?
We need to pray – for ourselves and for our family and friends. Let me also encourage you to check out TheWord121 – an annotated version of John’s Gospel that anyone can use to introduce others to God’s good news – perhaps over coffee: www.TheWord121.com.
A Prayer. O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: do not leave us desolate, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to where our Savior Christ has gone before, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for evermore. Amen.
You may want to listen to Christ Our Hope in Life and Death from Keith & Kristyn Getty and Matt Papa.
© John G. Mason