This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday. The gospel is taken from John 20:19-31, the scene in the Upper Room on the evening of the Resurrection. In today’s post we briefly consider: 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. 23 Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
The sacred writer had already introduced the giving of the Holy Spirit in John 7 in a scene during the Feast of Tabernacles in which the Spirit is promised at a future time when Jesus was glorified. In the Fourth Gospel it is at the crucifixion that Jesus is glorified in that his willing obedience manifests the nature of God, which is love. It is there on the cross that Jesus delivers the Spirit into the world (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, Jesus breathed the Spirit again as a re-creation (cf. Gen 2:7) of God’s people. 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 LXX), and Ezekiel prophesying to the wind to breathe life into the slain in the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37:9). The allusions to the life-giving work of God in creation seems clear.
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). Could it be that v.22 is the fulfillment of these promises? There are scholars who have identified 20:22 as the Fourth Gospel’s equivalent of Pentecost, but 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 (26). Others have suggested it 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 but some impersonal power/breath from God. There is little to support either of these views in the Fourth Gospel. Finally, there is the view that Jesus’ action was symbolic, foreshadowing the bestowal of the Spirit to take place on the Day of Pentecost. But then these problems mainly arise as people attempt to harmonize the gospels. There are many scholars who suggest that we simply leave John to narrate the gospel as the Spirit inspired him.
Forgiveness of sins. At the core of every interpretive position of Scipture is a held ecclesiology, i.e., how one understand “Church.” Certainly, the Catholic understanding of this passage is made clear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Only God forgives sins. Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, ‘The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ and exercises this divine power: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name…. In imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church. “ (§1441, §1444)
There are several understandings of this same passage in Protestant and Reformed Christian churches. There is a wide range, for example: “yes, Jesus imparted the authority to forgive and reconcile, but did not limit it to just the Apostles, rather it is a gift and a mission of all believers.” At the other end of the spectrum are Christians in the “once saved, always saved” camp. Such an understanding appeals to the Greek words translated “forgive” and “retained” in John 20:22-23 and points out that these words indicate a past completed action. Those who believe in “eternal security” then argue that these sins must already have been forgiven or retained before the apostles said or did anything. In other words, the apostles aren’t forgiving sins, but only proclaiming to Christians that their sins have already been forgiven back when they were first saved. The next step of these understandings is the conclusion, “Hence, sacramental confession is not necessary.”
What is interesting is our Catholic NAB provides v.23 as “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” The New American Standard Bible (a Protestant translation that sticks closely to the literal sense of the text) translates v.23 as: “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” The NASB, NSRV and most non-Catholic translations seem to be more linguistically accurate. The verbs are in the aorist tense, which in this case have no time reference, and in the subjunctive mood, which indicates potential or possibility – thus properly including “if.” The upshot of all this is that Jesus is clearly giving authority “If you forgive…” and is not referring to a past conversion that ameliorates any sins in the future. So, clearly the people in the upper room are being given such authority. How broadly is this given? It depends on how one understands the Church.
And then is the “everyday person” understanding. Jesus is in the room breathing the divine Spirit upon the disciples. When the Divine breathes into the world, we should pay attention. What follows is a passage about the conditions for the possibility of the disciples forgiving sin in the name of Jesus and in the context of the Church. We should pay attention.