“Receive the holy Spirit” – Verses 21–22 are a key passage in Johannine theology. The disciples receive the Holy Spirit at this second coming of Jesus: the eschaton, the final era, is now; future is present. In 7:39, the Spirit had not yet been given, since Jesus was not yet glorified. On the cross, Jesus, manifesting the nature of God, which is love, delivers over the Spirit (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, he breathes the Spirit again as he celebrates the re-creation of God’s people. Simultaneously, he sends out these disciples just as the Father had sent him (v. 21). His mission becomes theirs; his work is placed in their hands. And that mission, that work, is to manifest God who is love in their words and deeds. Through them now, enlivened by the Spirit, will the presence of God become known and seen and felt in the world. .
Although the text does not use parakletos, there is unanimity among commentators that the Holy Spirit is that Advocate promised in the Farewell Discourse of the Fourth Gospel. That discourse had outlined the role the Advocate/Holy Spirit would play in relation to the disciples. The Holy Spirit will:
- be recognized by the disciples (14:17)
- teach the disciples everything (14:26)
- guide the disciples along the way of all truth (16:13)
- take what belongs to the Jesus and declare it to the disciples (16:14)
- glorify Jesus (16:14)
- bear witness to Jesus in order that the disciples will also bear witness to Jesus (15:26-27)
- remind the disciples of all that Jesus told them (14:26)
Fr. Raymond Brown nuances these promises in that the parakletos describes that aspect of the Holy Spirit which is specifically concerned with witness so that a believer is assured of all the power needed to be witness. Brown [1139-43] makes a case that the full power of the Holy Spirit manifest in others ways not connected to the witness of the person/community – e.g. baptismal regeneration, sacramental forgiveness of sins, and gifts that build up the community.
Thus Jesus’ words about sending his disciples as the Father sent him applied immediately to the apostles both with respect to Christian mission and to them in their specific roles/gifts within the church. It is in Baptism that all believers are privileged to share in this Mission in so far as they all are recipients of the Spirit whom he bequeathed to his disciples (see 20:22). With the particular enabling that Spirit provides, each plays a part in continuing the work and witness of Jesus. What is clear in text such as 1 Cor 12:3-12 (the second reading on Pentecost Sunday, Year A) – to one a particular gift is given, to another, another gift – all from the same spirit.
“Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” – Many scholars see a parallel between v.23 and Matthew 18:18: “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.” The parallel becomes clearer when we know that the words “forgive” in John 20:23 are the Greek words aphiēmi and krateō which mean “send away” and “hold” respectively [EDNT 2:314]. But even with the parallels aside, the meaning, extent and exercise of the Matthean and Johannine powers has been a source of division with the post-Reformation Christian community.
The Council of Trent rejected the proposal that this power to forgive sins was offered to each of Christ’s faithful – something one often sees in commentaries from a Reformed perspective. The Catholic Church has always held that the power to forgive sin was to be understood as that ministry to which the ordained minister was called; something it had maintained as the teaching of the church and only formally declared at Trent when it was challenged by the Reformers. As Fr. Brown notes  this is not a debate that can be settled solely on exegetical grounds – nor does the Catholic Church propose such a solution. The Church looks to Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.
The Church has also looked at Jesus own action toward sin as expressed in John. In 9:39-41 “Jesus says that he came into the world for judgment; to enable some to see and to cause blindness for others. Deliberate blindness means remaining in sin; and, implicitly, willingness to see results in being delivered from sin.” [Brown, 1042] So as Jesus was sent into the world, so too the apostles and their successors to exercise discriminating judgment between good and evil. This idea of the apostles as agents of discriminating judgment is reinforced by the idea that the Advocate/paraclete is working through the apostles as an avenue of the outpouring of the Spirit that cleanses people and begets within them new life. All-in-all this passage is a declaratory statement that the core of Jesus’ ministry, forgiveness of sin and the restoration of right relationship, continues within the community generally, but in specific sacramental ministries in the particular sense.
A Final Thought – This gospel passage makes clear that there is a strong relationship between the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit – and Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit points to the Resurrection as the start, the source and the reason for mission. As Jesus has been sent, so too are we sent on mission. Those are the final words of the celebration of the Mass: Ita misa est – Go! [the church] is mission!
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). The words “on them” do not appear in the Greek text
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).
- G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007)
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29b in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 1018-45
- Neal M. Flanagan, “John” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 1014-17
- Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 373-77
- Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998) 529-36
- John J. McPolin, John, vol. 6 of the New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989) 256-57
- Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 845-48
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995) – TDNT
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990) – EDNT
- David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996) – AYBD
Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970