So I send you: receiving

john20 v21“Receive the holy Spirit” The sacred writer had already introduced the giving of the Holy Spirit in John 7 in a scene during the Feast of Tabernacles in which the Spirit is promised at a future time when Jesus was glorified. In the Fourth Gospel it is at the crucifixion that Jesus is glorified in that his willing obedience manifests the nature of God, which is love. It is there on the cross that Jesus deliver the Spirit into the world (19:30), symbolized immediately afterward by the flow of the sacramental symbols of blood and water.

And now, at his first encounter with the believing community, Jesus breathes the Spirit again as a re-creation (cf. Gen 2:7) of God’s people. The word used for ‘breathe’ is emphysaō, which, though found only here in the NT, occurs several times in the LXX where it refers to God breathing life into the man formed from the dust (Gen. 2:7; cf. Wisdom 15:11), Elijah breathing into the nostrils of the widow’s dead son while calling upon the Lord to restore his life (1 Kgs. 17:21 LXX), and Ezekiel prophesying to the wind to breathe life into the slain in the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37:9). The allusions to the life-giving work of God in creation seems clear.

In many places in the Fourth Gospel the promise of the Spirit is foreshadowed (1:33; 4:10, 13–14; 7:37–39; 14:16–17, 26, 28; 15:26–27; 16:7–15). Could it be that v.22 is the fulfillment of these promises? There are scholars who have identified 20:22 as the Fourth Gospel’s equivalent of Pentecost, but there are problems with such a view. Thomas was not included (20:24), nor was there any great change in the disciples’ behavior—they were still meeting behind closed doors when Jesus next appeared to them (26). Others have suggested it constituted a lesser bestowal of the Spirit to be supplemented with a greater endowment at Pentecost, or that what Jesus was bestowing was not the personal Holy Spirit but some impersonal power/breath from God. There is little to support either of these views in the Fourth Gospel. Finally, there is the view that Jesus’ action was symbolic, foreshadowing the bestowal of the Spirit to take place on the Day of Pentecost. But then these problems mainly arise as people attempt to harmonize the gospels. There are many scholars who suggest that we simply leave John to narrate the gospel as the Spirit inspired him.

Notes

20:22 he breathed on them: The word used for ‘breathe’ is emphysaō, which, though found only here in the NT, occurs several times in the LXX, where it refers to God breathing life into the man formed from the dust (Gen. 2:7; cf. Wisdom 15:11), Elijah breathing into the nostrils of the widow’s dead son while calling upon the Lord to restore his life (1 Kgs. 17:21), and Ezekiel prophesying to the wind to breathe life into the slain in the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37:9).

Receive the holy Spirit: In many places in the Fourth Gospel the promise of the Spirit is foreshadowed (1:33; 4:10, 13–14; 7:37–39; 14:16–17, 26, 28; 15:26–27; 16:7–15). The clearest of these is 7:39, where, following Jesus’ promise of streams of living water for those who believe in him, the evangelist adds, ‘By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.’ In John 7:39 we learn that the Spirit will be given when Jesus is glorified because until this moment, the role the Spirit is to point to Jesus (14:26, 15:26), but now the Spirit becomes the animating dynamos for mission in the world. This scene is often understood as the Johannine version of Pentecost.

There are problems with such a view. Thomas was not included (20:24), nor was there any great change in the disciples’ behavior—they were still meeting behind closed doors when Jesus next appeared to them (v.26). If in addition one is trying to harmonize all the Gospels, then one wonders how to explain Pentecost (assuming harmonization is a valid way to compare the Synoptic Gospels and John – and there are serious questions regarding such an effort). Some scholars have suggested v.22 constituted a lesser bestowal of the Spirit to be supplemented with a greater endowment at Pentecost, or that what Jesus was bestowing was not the personal Holy Spirit (the promised Paraclete) but some impersonal power/breath from God. There is little to support either of these views in the Fourth Gospel. Another view is that there was a real impartation of the personal Spirit on this occasion, but that the Spirit was only experienced as the Paraclete, the one who replaced Jesus’ earthly presence, after Jesus’ final post-resurrection appearance and ascension. Finally, there is the view that Jesus’ action was symbolic, foreshadowing the bestowal of the Spirit to take place on the Day of Pentecost. All the explanations’ problems assume a harmonization with Pentecost and do not simply let John tells his account.

20:23 Whose sins you forgive: These words have affinities with the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus said to Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19). It also has affinities to what he said to the disciples generally in relation to those who would not heed admonition who must be treated as pagans or tax collectors: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). The reference to forgiveness (or lack thereof) may echo the reference to “the key to the house of David” in Isa. 22:22. If so, what is at stake is the authority to grant or deny access to God’s kingdom. In a Jewish context “binding and loosing” described the activity of a judge who declared persons innocent or guilty and thus “bound” or “loosed” them from the charges made against them.

This is the only place in the Fourth Gospel where forgiveness of sins is spoken about, though the idea of sins remaining unforgiven is mentioned a number of times (8:24; 9:41; 15:22, 24; 16:8–9; 19:11). The non-forgiveness of sins is always related to refusal to believe in Jesus. It is important to notice the passive voice used in the statements in this verse regarding the forgiveness and non-forgiveness of sins. They function as divine passives reminding us that God alone forgives sin (cf. Mark 2:3–12; Luke 5:17–26) and Jesus’ disciples declare what God does.

20:21-23: The disciples’ commissioning in 20:21–23 climaxes the characterization of Jesus as the sent Son and shows Jesus’ followers as drawn into the unity and mission of Father, Son, and Spirit (cf. 15:26–27; 17:21–26). Succession is important both in the OT and in Second Temple literature. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus succeeds the Baptist and is followed by both the Spirit and the Twelve (minus Judas), who serve as representatives of the new messianic community. OT narratives involving succession feature Joshua (following Moses) and Elisha (succeeding Elijah).

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