Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:21-23)
For the second time in this first appearance to His original disciples, Jesus says to them, “Peace be with you.” Jesus announced to them that their lives may be well and prosperous. This statement was made in conjunction, or in union with, what Jesus would say next. “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
This was a divine commission from Jesus to the disciples who would become apostles. It is comparable to what Jesus prayed to God the Father in John 17:18: “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” This means that the disciples became “sent ones” by the authority of Jesus Christ. As God the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus was sending out the disciples as apostles. He gave them the authority to preach, teach and do miraculous signs (Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:47-49).
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit.” Evangelical scholars understand that this receiving of the Holy Spirit was a partial and limited gift of the Holy Spirit providing understanding up to the Day of Pentecost 50 days later (Acts 2).
Jesus then said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” What did Jesus mean by this statement?
Jesus was announcing to the apostles that He was giving them the commission of preaching the Gospel. The proclamation of the truths that (1) God exists; (2) Sin exists; (3) One Savior exists; and (4) Salvation exists by grace alone, through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone would be the only message by which God could, and would, forgive sinners of the penalty, power and presence of their sin.
Dr. John MacArthur writes, “This verse does not give authority to Christians to forgive sins. Jesus was saying that the believer can boldly declare the certainty of a sinner’s forgiveness by the Father because of the work of his Son if that sinner has repented and believed the gospel. The believer with certainty can also tell those who do not respond to the message of God’s forgiveness through faith in Christ that their sins, as a result, are not forgiven.”
John Calvin writes, “While Christ enjoins the Apostles to forgive sins, He does not convey to them what is peculiar to Himself. It belongs to Him to forgive sins. This honor, so far as it belongs peculiarly to Himself, He does not surrender to the Apostles, but enjoins them, in His name, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, that through their agency He may reconcile men to God. In short, properly speaking, it is He alone who forgives sins through His apostles and ministers.”
The believer’s responsibility to the felicity of the Gospel must remain ever strong. We must never compromise the Gospel because in it alone rests the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16-17).
May God’s truth and grace reside here.
Soli deo Gloria!