John 20:19-23 (NIV)
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
This first appearance of Jesus to the gathered disciples was a watershed moment for all of them. It was when the news of Jesus’ resurrection moved from second-hand information through Mary Magdalene to first-hand, personal experience.
They were still laying low, locked into the upper room out of fear that the Jewish leaders would come and arrest them now that they had disposed of Jesus. The news of Jesus’ resurrection brought them more confusion than comfort at this point.
Suddenly, Jesus was right there with them. Bypassing the locked door, He just seemed to “appear” in the room. All of them jumped with fright, crying out from the sheer suddenness of His appearance. And they all pulled back from where He stood.
But Jesus simply smiled and gave them a hearty “Shalom!” (“Peace be with you!”) It took a little encouraging, but He drew His followers closer to Him. He held out His hands and showed them the holes pierced through his wrists. He pulled aside His robe and showed them the spear wound in His side. All of this proved to them that He was no ghost; it was really Him in the flesh!
The disciples were thrilled. Everyone was talking at the same time, asking questions and exclaiming their pleasure at His being there. Jesus raised a hand to silence them. They still had much to learn, and much to relearn in this new context that would make a whole lot of things they had only dimly understood before a lot clearer.
John squeezed a whole evening’s worth of teaching into one short paragraph. But he hit all the essentials. Jesus commissioned the disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” These men, “apostles,” or “sent ones,” would now fully live up to that title. Before, Jesus had sent them on a couple of what we might call “short-term mission trips.” But now the mission would occupy the entire rest of their lives. As long as there was someone who had not heard the good news of the kingdom, as long as there was a single captive remaining in satan’s grip, they were to consider themselves on duty.
Jesus breathed on them to confer on them the Holy Spirit. This was a precursor to the complete filling that they would receive on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) but was necessary so that they could more fully understand all that He needed to teach them.
Finally, Jesus gave them great authority. This authority to pronounce forgiveness of sins ties in closely with His words to Peter (Matthew 16:19): “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” He also said essentially the same thing to all of the disciples a little later in Matthew 18:18 in the context of forgiving the brother who sins against them. The upshot is that, as the people of the kingdom, they would have the authority to forgive sins committed against them, and those sins would be forgiven by God. Conversely, they could withhold forgiveness, and that person would have to deal with God to have their sins forgiven.
A really good example of this in action (an example which shows that this promise is not just for the original apostles, but for all the people of the kingdom) is seen in Acts 7:60, where Stephen, dying from being stoned by the Sanhedrin, prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In that moment, based on his prayer and Jesus’ promise, that sin was not recorded against them in God’s record.
Father…WOW! I had never thought of it that way before. What an amazing thing we can do, just like Jesus did on the cross, praying for those who had hung Him up there, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Of course, it is clear that we can only forgive as Your representatives those sins committed against us, not simply issue a blanket forgiveness for the whole world. But still, that is a mind-boggling thing – a great privilege and a great responsibility. Help me to be more forgiving of others on the spot, realizing as I do now the power that that forgiveness can hold. Amen.
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