Forgiving Others with the Holy Spirit: John 20:19-23

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As the gospel writers conclude the story of Jesus’ life following the resurrection, the gospel of John includes a fascinating description of Jesus when He appears to the remaining disciples the evening after His resurrection.

While the most notable portion of this passage comes immediately after what we are focusing in on, which is when John tells us that Thomas was not with the group of disciples when Jesus first appeared, when we jump forward and focus on that detail, we miss out on what John tells us about this first visit.

Let’s read what happened the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples, this time without Thomas present. Our passage is found in John’s gospel, chapter 20, and we will be reading from the Good News Translation. Starting in verse 19, John tells us that:

19 It was late that Sunday evening, and the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. Then Jesus came and stood among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. 20 After saying this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

While I don’t know if Jesus disappeared immediately after this last statement, I find it fascinating that John sets the stage by telling us why the disciples were together. The disciples had locked themselves in a secret space because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. Thomas might have been out getting something for the group when Jesus appeared, or Thomas might have thought it would be better to be out alone and not with the group if the Jews found their hiding place, but whatever the reason, Thomas wasn’t with the disciples.

John does not tell us the disciples were huddled together, praying, and seeking guidance on how to move forward launching the Christian movement. John tells us the disciples were huddled together because they were scared of the Jewish authorities. They might have even been planning how they would leave the city and return to Galilee where many of them were from.

But Jesus appeared to them and confirmed the rumors that He had risen from the dead. Jesus showed them His hands and His side. This detail matters because the new “perfect” body God had in mind for Jesus was not free from defects. Instead, Jesus’ resurrected body carries the scars of His sacrifice.

This might also imply that our new, resurrected bodies, while they will be perfect in every way that matters, may also carry with them evidence of our lives here on earth. I believe that in heaven, we will be as unique and varied as we are here on earth, except that we will all be perfect and focused on helping each other. Here in our sin-filled world, our temptation is to always be looking out for ourselves first, but I doubt that will be a characteristic that carries over into heaven.

After showing the disciples His scarred hands and His side, He commissions them to go. While John’s version of Jesus’ commission isn’t as glamorous or famous as Matthew’s version, it is no less significant. John’s version might even be more significant because of what Jesus does immediately following this challenge.

In verse 22, immediately after challenging the disciples to go, Jesus breathes on them and tells them to “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This sounds great, and it is something the disciples would ultimately receive a little over a month later, but Jesus didn’t stop there. Jesus continues in verse 23 by saying, “If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven”.

This statement challenges me because it appears to place people between sinners and God. When each of us sins, Jesus has freed us to personally ask for forgiveness. Jesus pushed back at the idea that a person or group of people would be the gatekeepers between God and man. While the Jews were called to fulfill this ideal, they failed to recognize what God had set them apart for, and because of this, the New Covenant was extended to all people.

So then what does Jesus mean when He seems to give the disciples the power to forgive sins? Are the disciples the new gatekeepers?

I don’t believe this to be the case. Instead, I see Jesus giving His followers the ability to release others from the fear of condemnation because of their past sins. Jesus isn’t interested in the disciples withholding forgiveness from anyone, because that doesn’t reflect Jesus’ sacrifice. Instead, I see Jesus commissioning the disciples with the ability to encourage others that their sins have been forgiven.

We can explain this idea by describing someone coming to us who has messed up and sinned, and they are worried that they have messed up too many times for God to forgive them. Will we tell them that they are probably right, and that God cannot forgive them; or will we claim the promise that Jesus tells the disciples in John’s gospel and assure them that their sins have been forgiven. I personally would seek to encourage them, and I’m pretty sure you would too.

When the Holy Spirit is living in our hearts and our lives, we have the authority to forgive someone’s sins. This isn’t something that should make us prideful or arrogant. Instead, this is one of the highest callings a Christian can have, and we are called to forgive responsibly, and in a way that encourages others in their relationship with God.

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

Always be sure to seek God first and to place Him first in your life. Intentionally look for ways you can encourage others in their walk with God and when you see someone struggling spiritually, feel free and empowered to let them know that God loves them and that they are forgiven of their sins!

Also, be sure to always pray and study the Bible for yourself to grow your own relationship with God. A personal relationship with God is incredibly important, and when we dedicate time that we can spend with Him each day, we are more able to walk the path He has called us to.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of or back away from where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Year 4 – Episode 49: The gospel of John includes a commission Jesus gives His followers, and this commission might be one of the most important ones we can pay attention to.

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