“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 condemned the proposal that this power to forgive sins was offered to each of Christ’s faithful – something one often sees is 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!
20:23 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).
- 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