John’s account of Jesus’ final commission to his followers (John 20:19-23) puzzles me in some ways, and there are things about it I don’t understand. Instead of going into all those matters, though, I’ll focus on the key things that seem clear.
After his resurrection but prior to commissioning his disciples, Jesus appears to them. It seems that ten of the twelve were present on that first day of the week when he was raised from the dead and showed himself to them (vv. 19-23). Judas Iscariot had forfeited his place, and Thomas was not around, although he did see Jesus later (vv. 24-29), apparently the following Sunday (v. 26).
On both of these occasions, Jesus demonstrated that he really was alive again (vv. 20, 25, 27). On both, his opening words were, “Peace be with you!” (vv. 21, 26). Although a blessing of peace was not an unusual greeting among Jews, this blessing would have been all the more powerful in light of his bodily resurrection from the dead. It produced great joy among the disciples (v. 20) and led to a profound confession that Jesus is Lord and God (v. 28). This connects to John’s stated purpose for his book, that people would believe Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God, and so have life in his name (John 20:31). Thus Jesus’ bodily resurrection shows his identity, is the basis for great joy and peace, and is paramount to others believing who he is. It is the basis for the commission.
The commission itself is, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (v. 21). Two different words for sending are used (apostello and pempo), but the difference in meaning is not great. Both words are used both of God’s sending Jesus and of Jesus’ sending the apostles. Sending is at the heart of the commission. Christ has sent his people to do something; he has given us a mission.
Jesus’ words indicate there is a parallel between God’s sending him and his sending us. Not every aspect of these two commissions is fully the same (see John 3:17), but there are a number of parallels. As in the case of God’s sending Jesus …
- We are not sent to do our own will but the will of the One who sent us (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38-39).
- We are not sent for our own glory but that of the One who sent us (7:18).
- We must do the works of the One who sent us, as long as we have opportunity (9:4).
- Our teaching is not our own but comes from the One who sent us (7:16).
- We do not speak on our own authority; rather, the One who sent us has revealed what we are to say and speak (12:49 see ESV or NASB).
- We testify to what we have seen of God, but the One who sent us also testifies (8:18; cf. 15:26-27).
- The One who sent us will work to draw people toward him (6:44).
- If people receive us, they receive the One who sent us (13:20; cf. 15:20b).
- We are not greater than the One who sent us (13:16). A particular application of this is that we follow his example of serving (vv. 14-15).
- They will persecute us as surely as they persecuted Jesus, and this is ultimately because they don’t know the One who sent us (15:20-21).
- If we do what pleases the One who sent us, he will be with us and not leave us alone (8:29).
It is worth re-reading that list and asking to what extent we are acting on our commission in the specific ways mentioned. We are sent as he was.
After stating the commission, Jesus breathed on his followers and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). This is one of the lines that puzzles me. Taken at face value, I would conclude that they received the Holy Spirit at that moment. In Acts, however, we read that Jesus sent the Spirit on the apostles on the day of Pentecost after he ascended into heaven (1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4, 14-21, 33). Perhaps, then, in John 20:22, Jesus is not yet actually imparting the Spirit but is instructing them about something that would happen not many days later. Regardless, in either case, it is clear that the Holy Spirit is essential for the commission.
Another somewhat puzzling line is, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (v. 23). If you take this English translation at face value, it would seem to be saying that Jesus’ followers have the authority to determine who will get their sins forgiven and who won’t. That likely won’t sit very well with a lot of us, especially if we apply the words of the commission not only to the first apostles but to all followers of Jesus, as we have been doing throughout this series of posts. It is clear elsewhere that, even though we can forgive each other, only God and Christ can forgive sins ultimately (Mark 2:1-12, esp. v. 10; Luke 24:47; Acts 10:43; 13:38). In Mark 2 the teachers of the Law are not wrong in thinking that only God can forgive sins; they are wrong in failing to recognize that Jesus is God (Mark 2:7).
Greek grammar helps us some here. The lines “their sins are forgiven” and “they are not forgiven” in John 20:23 are both in an unusual tense called “pluperfect.” We hated this tense in Greek classes because the form seemed complicated and because it was so rare. This is a legitimate tense, however, in both English and Greek. It is used to describe something that was done prior to some point in the past. It is often rendered by the word “had,” as in “the man had received his degree before he was twenty.” So in our sentence, a literal translation would be, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they had been forgiven them” (previously) and “if you do not forgive them, they had not been forgiven.” Perhaps the awkwardness of such renderings is the reason why English versions avoid it, but the NASB2020 does include a footnote that explains, “i.e., have previously been forgiven.”
All this suggests that Jesus is not so much giving them the authority to decide who has or has not been forgiven but affirming that their decisions and actions will be based on forgiveness that has already been granted by God and Christ. The implication for us takes us back to what was stated above, that forgiveness is in the name of Christ and by the authority of him and his Father. We can and should base our perspective, statements, and actions on what we have learned from him about forgiveness. In all this nitty gritty discussion, as we try to understand the Lord’s words, don’t lose sight of the fact that people getting their sins forgiven is a vital part of our commission. God sent his Son into the world to save it (John 3:17), and he has now sent us, acting on his authority, to proclaim salvation in his name (John 10:9).
So John’s account of Jesus’ final commission to his followers bases it squarely on the fact that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and is our Lord and God. The Lord sends us on mission in ways that parallel how God sent him into the world. The Spirit is needed for fulfilling this mission, and it will entail extending the forgiveness of sins to others based on what Christ has done.
The parallels between God’s sending Jesus and Jesus’ sending us are striking and helpful. Again I encourage you to re-read the list of parallels above and consider in what ways we may need to correct how we are acting on our commission so that we carry it in a way that is “as the Father sent” the Son.