Coming to believe: mission

john20 v21Commentary. Meanwhile the disciples, still reeling from the events of the last three days, gather in the upper room. In Matthew 28:8, Mary Magdalene’s reaction to the encounter with Jesus was “fearful but overjoyed.” Perhaps this too is the experience of the disciples. All John tells us is that they were gathered together, hiding as it were, for fear of the Jews (v.19)

These are the disciples who scattered and fled at Jesus’ arrest, who stood at a distance from the cross, and in the case of Peter denied Jesus. These are disciples that upon seeing Jesus appear within the room would have likely experienced shame as they remembered all they had done and failed to do. Yet Jesus’ words are not words of recrimination or blame, his first resurrected words to the disciples as a group is “Peace be with you.

Peace be with you. What is this “peace” (eirēnē)? Often we assume “peace” describes either an absence of conflict or an inner personal tranquility, but one should note it most often describes the relationship between two people. The verbal form (eirēneuō) always refers to relationships between people in the NT (Mk 9:50; Ro 12:18; 2C 13:11; 1Th 5:13). Given John’s emphasis on the disciples’ love for one another (13:35), a communal meaning is highly indicated. It is also possible that the meaning of eirēnē refers to messianic salvation, since “peace” is an essential quality of the messianic kingdom. Still, this does not suggest that the “peace” of the kingdom is primarily a personal, inner tranquility, but the way people and all creation and God will relate to each another in whole and complete ways.

This greeting of peace (v.19) is the word of reconciliation and wholeness for the disciples. They are forgiven for their failings and are brought back into relationship with the risen Jesus. Their experience of Jesus is “seeing” but at the same time a moment of graced restoration; these cause the disciples to rejoice (v.20).

Between his greetings of peace, Jesus shows his hands and side to the disciples. Like the earlier encounter with Mary, this action stresses the continuity between the “earthly” and the resurrected Jesus – yet at the same time, the fact that Jesus can enter the locked room also shows there something new here – death has been conquered and more.

As the Father has sent me, so I send you. The Fourth Gospel often speaks of Jesus being sent into the world by the Father: to do his will (6:38–39; 8:29), to speak his words (3:34; 8:28; 12:49; 14:24; 17:8), to perform his works (4:34; 5:36; 9:4) and win salvation for all who believe (3:16–17).

That these same actions would be expected of the disciples, continuing the words and works of Jesus, is foreshadowed at various places in the Gospel. Jesus had urged them to see fields ripe for harvest, and told them he had sent them to reap where others had labored (4:35–38). Jesus told them that those who believed in him would do the works he had done and greater works than these because he was returning to the Father (14:12). The charge to bear fruit was made clear: “I … chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you” (15:16). When Jesus prayed for his disciples he said to the Father, “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world” (17:18). All of this points to a post-Resurrection mission that was larger than simply the confines of historical Israel, but rather a mission to the world.

So I send you… an excursus. There has been (and will be) lots of discussion about who the evangelist intended as “you.” While clearly plural, the question is whether the intention was to address the apostles present, a wider group of disciples that may have been present – John never enumerates the people in the room – or an even wider audience of believers. Who is intended to go on “mission” (v.21), who was to receive the holy Spirit (v.22), and who was to carry the power to forgive sins (v.23). Fr. Raymond Brown (1034-45) writes:

“Some would argue from 21 that the disciples cannot represent all Christians, for this verse refers to an apostolic mission; and even if historically the apostolic mission was entrusted to a larger group than the Twelve, nevertheless all Christians were not apostles (see I Cor xii 28-29). Yet in 21 John has modified the apostolic mission by making it dependent upon the model of the Father having sent the son, and usually for John the Father-Son relationship is held up for all Christians to imitate. Can we be certain that John means “As the Father sent me, so do I send you” in a more restricted sense than he means “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (xv 9)? Nevertheless, even if 21 does give some support to the idea that only the Twelve/Eleven are in direct view, vs. 22 points in the opposite direction. As we shall see, this verse recalls Gen ii 7 and is meant to symbolize Jesus’ new creation of men as God’s children by the gift of the Spirit. Certainly this re-creation, this new beginning, this gift of the Spirit is meant for all Christians…. However, it would be risky to assume that this same widen horizon is in mind in vs. 23, which is a modified form of an ancient saying of Jesus.”

Fr. Brown continues (1040-45) with this latter thought by pointing to Matthew 16:8 and 18:18 wherein the power to bind and loose are given to the limited group of the apostles and the context seems clear that this involves not only community discipline, but also welcoming members back into the community, as well as placing someone outside the community. Such responsibility would also include the formal authority to forgive sins in the name of the Lord. Fr. Brown notes that the meaning, extent and exercise of the power to forgive sins has been divisive in Christianity. The Reformers of the 16th century and late held that the power to forgive sins was offered to each of Christ’s faithful. The Catholic position remained the same as it had been for centuries, that the power to forgive sins was retained in the Sacrament of Penance and was exercised by ordained priests.

As Fr. Brown points out, on the basis of Scripture alone, there will be no conclusive argument made. Each interpretive position relies on other held beliefs and interpretations of the meaning and intent of other passages of NT Scripture. The Catholic position was indeed universal for well more than a millennia in the faith, practice, tradition and teaching of the church. The Reformers would say that it is never too late to correct an error. At the core of every interpretive position is a held ecclesiology, i.e., how one understand “Church.”


20:19 the disciples: by implication from John 20:24 this means ten of the Twelve, presumably in Jerusalem.

Peace be with you: although this could be an ordinary greeting, John intends here to echo John 14:27. The theme of rejoicing in John 20:20 echoes John 16:22. Literally, the Greek expression is eirēnē hymin – there is no verb – meaning “peace to you.” Many translator prefer the declarative statement that peace is already among the disciples.

20:20 Hands and . . . side: Luke 24:39-40 mentions “hands and feet,” based on Psalm 22:17. Where the Lucan account is apologetic in nature, here the Johannine description is revelatory.

20:21 As the Father has sent me, so I send you: By means of this sending, the Eleven were made apostolos (apostles), that is, “those sent” (see John 17:18), even though John does not use the noun in reference to them. A solemn mission or “sending” is also the subject of the post-resurrection appearances to the Eleven in Matthew 28:19; Luke 24:47; Mark 16:15. Especially in John one must also keep is mind the Messiah’s mission: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

To express Jesus’ being sent by the Father, here the evangelist uses the verb apostellō, while for the disciples’ sending by Jesus he uses the verb pempō. However, nothing should be made of this, as the words are used synonymously in the Fourth Gospel for the sending of Jesus by the Father (e.g. 3:17; 5:36/4:34; 5:23), the disciples by Jesus (e.g. 4:38/20:21), John the Baptist by God (e.g. 1:6; 3:34/1:33), and various people sent by the Jewish leaders (e.g. 1:19, 24/1:22).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.