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John 20:21-23

Context
20:21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” 20:22 And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, 1  “Receive the Holy Spirit. 2  20:23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; 3  if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” 4 

1 tn Grk “said to them.”

2 sn He breathed on them and said,Receive the Holy Spirit.” The use of the Greek verb breathed on (ἐμφυσάω, emfusaw) to describe the action of Jesus here recalls Gen 2:7 in the LXX, where “the Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” This time, however, it is Jesus who is breathing the breath-Spirit of eternal life, life from above, into his disciples (cf. 3:3-10). Furthermore there is the imagery of Ezek 37:1-14, the prophecy concerning the resurrection of the dry bones: In 37:9 the Son of Man is told to prophesy to the “wind-breath-Spirit” to come and breathe on the corpses, so that they will live again. In 37:14 the Lord promised, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you will come to life, and I will place you in your own land.” In terms of ultimate fulfillment the passage in Ezek 37 looks at the regeneration of Israel immediately prior to the establishment of the messianic kingdom. The author saw in what Jesus did for the disciples at this point a partial and symbolic fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy, much as Peter made use of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 in his sermon on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2:17-21. What then did Jesus do for the disciples in John 20:22? It appears that in light of the symbolism of the new creation present here, as well as the regeneration symbolism from the Ezek 37 passage, that Jesus at this point breathed into the disciples the breath of eternal life. This was in the form of the Holy Spirit, who was to indwell them. It is instructive to look again at 7:38-39, which states, “Just as the scripture says, ‘Out from within him will flow rivers of living water.’ (Now he said this about the Spirit whom those who believed in him were going to receive; for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”) But now in 20:22 Jesus was glorified, so the Spirit could be given. Had the disciples not believed in Jesus before? It seems clear that they had, since their belief is repeatedly affirmed, beginning with 2:11. But it also seems clear that even on the eve of the crucifixion, they did not understand the necessity of the cross (16:31-33). And even after the crucifixion, the disciples had not realized that there was going to be a resurrection (20:9). Ultimate recognition of who Jesus was appears to have come to them only after the postresurrection appearances (note the response of Thomas, who was not present at this incident, in v. 28). Finally, what is the relation of this incident in 20:22 to the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2? It appears best to view these as two separate events which have two somewhat different purposes. This was the giving of life itself, which flowed out from within (cf. 7:38-39). The giving of power would occur later, on the day of Pentecost – power to witness and carry out the mission the disciples had been given. (It is important to remember that in the historical unfolding of God’s program for the church, these events occurred in a chronological sequence which, after the church has been established, is not repeatable today.)

3 tn Grk “they are forgiven to them.” The words “to them” are unnecessary in English and somewhat redundant.

4 sn The statement by Jesus about forgive or retaining anyone’s sins finds its closest parallel in Matt 16:19 and 18:18. This is probably not referring to apostolic power to forgive or retain the sins of individuals (as it is sometimes understood), but to the “power” of proclaiming this forgiveness which was entrusted to the disciples. This is consistent with the idea that the disciples are to carry on the ministry of Jesus after he has departed from the world and returned to the Father, a theme which occurred in the Farewell Discourse (cf. 15:27, 16:1-4, and 17:18).



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