So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
– John 20:19-23, NAU
It was resurrection Sunday night. Now, we would say Easter Sunday night. The disciples were meeting in Jerusalem in a room with the doors shut when Jesus appeared among them. This scene highlights John’s last reference to the Spirit in his gospel.
At least two points stand out in John 20:19-23. First, Jesus is dealing with the unbelief and fear of the disciples. He inspires faith and bestows peace upon them. Second, He sends them out for their task. It is not enough that they believe; the disciples must fulfill their commission as well. They must be witnesses.
These two emphases provide the immediate context for the impartation of the Spirit. Verse 22, as we might anticipate, relates to both points. In verses 19-20 Jesus establishes their faith. Then, in verses 21 and 23 He deals with mission and service. Nestled in this passage is Christ’s bestowal of the Spirit.
As we consider this passage, it will help to talk about how John 20:19-23 relates to Luke 24:33-53. Without question, John 20:19-23 and Luke 24:33-43 are parallel and describe the same scene. Many writers hold that Luke 24:44– belongs with Acts 1:4, but others hold that these verses belong with John 20:19-23. For example, Lenski (Luke, p. 1203), declares:
Moreover, Mark 16:14 is clearly parallel to John 20:19-23. It appears to me that Jesus gave the commission of Mark 16:15-18 on the same evening. However, Lenski (Matthew, p. 763) believes this passage is parallel to Matthew 20:18-20. If so, Jesus uttered the works of Mark 16:15-18 on the mountain in Galilee.
Normally, the ascension in Luke 24:50-53 is held to be parallel to Acts 1:9-11. However, assuming there can be more than one ascension, then Luke 24:50-53 may represent an Easter evening ascension. In the longer reading of Mark 16, Mark (verse 19) tells how Jesus ascended. This could be parallel to Acts 1:9-11, as is usually maintained, or to an Easter evening ascension (Luke 24:50-53).
The Restoration of Faith
On resurrection day two disciples (Luke 24:13-14) were on the way to Emmaus when “Jesus Himself approached” them. After He visited with them, they returned to Jerusalem and found (Luke 24:33) “the eleven and those who were with them.” While they were meeting with the doors shut, Jesus stood among them.
The disciples were (Luke 24:37) “startled and frightened and thought they were seeing a spirit.” According to Mark 16:14, Jesus “reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen.” Peter was among those (Luke 24:34) to whom Jesus had appeared.
Jesus immediately began to put their minds at ease. John (verse 19) tells us that He said, “‘Peace be with you.'” This was a common greeting, but as Wescott (p. 294) says, “here it was employed with a peculiar force.” According to him, it was “the restoration of personal confidence.” Going further, we believe it was the restoration and strengthening of their faith.
Immediately, Jesus took concrete action to help the faith of the disciples. He showed them His hands and His side. Luke says (Luke 24:38-40) says that Jesus showed them his hands and His feet. Luke does not mention His side. Jesus says (Luke 24:39), “‘touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.'” Although Jesus had a resurrected body, He appeared with the form of flesh and bones.
Even with this encouragement, the disciples (Luke 24:41) “could not believe it for joy and were marveling.” As Robertson (p. 314) says, “It was too good to be true.” That is the way it seemed to them, but in this case it really was true that Jesus had arisen! So Jesus asked the disciples for something to eat. The disciples gave Him a piece of fish, which He then ate. John concludes (verse 20), “The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” This fulfills the promise of Jesus in John 16:22. The disciples would see Jesus again and rejoice.
Jesus Commissions the Disciples
Now, Jesus states, “‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.'” Once again, Jesus uses the common Peace greeting. Again, He uses it with deeper meaning. According to Wescott (p. 294), this time the greeting “was the preparation for work.” Not only were the disciples restored in their faith, they were prepared for their mission. Jesus bestowed upon them the Peace that would be required as they embarked on their task.
Just as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus is sending the disciples in the world to be witnesses. Jesus uses the present tense, which means, “I send you” or “I am sending you.” Jesus commissions the disciples to go and witness. According to Lenski (p. 1368-1369):
The Polar Positions
Some scholars view John 20:22 as symbolic rather than an actual bestowal of the Spirit. Other exegetes regard this event as the Johannine Pentecost. Under this view the Spirit was fully given. These views stand at the two ends of the theological spectrum and represent polar positions.
First, some scholars view what Christ did in John 20:22 as a symbolic heralding of Pentecost. As Burge (p. 117) states, “The most attractive feature of this approach to the text is the ready harmonization that results with Luke-Acts.” Because it points to Pentecost there is no chronological problem.
The arguments for this view sometimes take the form of objecting to the possibility of an actual bestowal of the Spirit. Some writers object that Jesus did not have the authority to bestow the Spirit. They often hold that the Spirit could not be bestowed until Jesus ascended and was, thereby, fully glorified. They assume that Jesus did not ascend until 10 days before Pentecost. Our view, as explained elsewhere, is that Jesus ascended on resurrection day.
Another objection has to do with Christ being present. In John 16:7 Jesus said, “”‘if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.'” Some argue that Jesus had to send the Spirit while He is absent. The key point, however, is that He had to go away to complete His work. When He appears in His resurrection body, with His work accomplished, nothing prevents Him from giving the Spirit.
Everything John writes about the Spirit causes us to anticipate the bestowal of the Spirit. This is particularly true in Christ’s Farewell Discourse. As we read the discourse, we eagerly look forward to Jesus giving the Spirit. Thus, the thought that Jesus actually would bestow the Spirit on the night of His resurrection is in total harmony with all that Jesus said. It seems to me that the burden of proof is on those who assume otherwise.
Therefore, my view is that everything was in order for Jesus to bestow the Spirit. He had ascended, was fully glorified, and was exalted. He had received the promise of the Father. Therefore, as I see it, the key question is not whether or not Jesus could bestow the Spirit, but rather what was the purpose of God at the time. Each bestowal is an expression of God’s purpose and timing.
Second, at the other end of the spectrum is the view that the action of Jesus in John 20:22 represents the Johannine Pentecost. This takes the anticipation of John that Jesus would bestow the Spirit to its ultimate fulfillment. In other words, as far as John is concerned, Jesus fully bestowed the Spirit at this time. Those who hold to this view make no attempt to harmonize John 20:22 with the account of Pentecost in Acts. This view concentrates more on what John says in his gospel and the anticipations he had for the bestowal of the Spirit. Supporters suggest that nothing in John forces us to call the gift of the Spirit in John 20:22 partial or provisional.
Given this understanding, some writers hold that this is the baptism in the Spirit as anticipated by John. In John 1:33 John the Baptist says about Jesus, “‘this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.'” John 20:22 fulfills John 1:33. Under this view, the bestowal of the Spirit in John 20:22 would represent all the dimensions of the Spirit’s activity portrayed in the gospel of John.
Although the Spirit actually was given on Easter evening, we need not call it the Johannine Pentecost. John does not use the term Pentecost; the event did not occur on the Day of Pentecost; and it does not take the place of the Pentecostal outpouring. Nothing that John says limits the future bestowal of the Spirit.
Intermediate Stage Views
Most views regard the time between resurrection day and Pentecost as an intermediate period. Each view makes its own statement as to the nature of the gift in John 20:22. All of the views presented here hold that the Spirit actually was given. They include comments on what was given fully or partially. These are what we might call intermediate stage views. These views have to do with regeneration, our new life in Christ, and empowerment for mission. Each of these views has its own nuances and variations.
First, many scholars hold that John 20:22 represents regeneration. The term regeneration is used in different ways. Some use the term in a very narrow sense to refer especially to the new birth; others use it more broadly to refer almost to the whole of Christian life.
Another divide exists as well. Some scholars, such as Dunn (p. 180), hold that the disciples could not have been regenerated before John 20:22. Others, such as Rea (p. 142) maintain that the disciples already were regenerate. Thus, this could not be a regeneration moment.
Another view is that the disciples previously were regenerated, but something new happens on Easter evening. Turner, for example, thinks in terms of the culmination of a process. He (Spiritual Gifts, p. 99), writes:
Supporters of this view call upon the fact that Jesus “breathed” on the disciples. Our English word “breathed” is a translation of the Greek enephusesen. According to Robertson (p. 314) enephusesen is the same word that is used in the Septuagint’s version of Genesis 2:7 and in Ezekiel 37:9. In both of these verses (Dunn, p. 180) the divine breath brings to life those who are dead.
Dunn (p. 180), and many others, interpret John 20:22 in the light of these Old Testament passages. The bestowal of the Spirit by Jesus resulted in a new creation. This fits well, of course, with the emphasis of John on the new birth (John 3:5) and the quickening of the Spirit (John 6:63).
Although Dunn (p. 181) acknowledges that the new birth and new creation were possible after the death and resurrection, he holds that “full Christian experience” was not possible until after the Ascension and Pentecost. Many others do not hold this view. In my view the disciples were “fully Christian” on Easter evening.
As far as Easter evening is concerned, the term regeneration may be used but is not required. If we wish to use the term regeneration, we would call this New Testament regeneration. The disciples had previously (3:5-8; 6:63; 15:3) experienced regeneration. However, anything that was lacking in their previous experience of the Spirit was now supplied. The Spirit could represent and apply the full work of the Spirit under the new covenant to them.
Second, another view places the emphasis on various aspects of Christian life. We include this category because of the divide between the narrow and broad usages of the term regeneration. Those who use the term regeneration broadly may include this category in their discussion. When regeneration is used narrowly, Christian life becomes another category.
Nearly all agree that the new birth and the indwelling of the Spirit occur at the same time, but some writers distinguish between them. For example, Walvoord holds that regeneration and indwelling are not synonymous. He states (p. 135), “While the new life of the believer is divine and by its nature identified with God’s life, the possession of divine life and divine presence are distinct.”
According to Rea (p. 143), John 20:22 represents the indwelling of the Spirit. He holds that the disciples had not been indwelt until Easter evening. In my view the Spirit already had dwelt in the hearts of the disciples, but on Easter evening, the Spirit as another Helper indwelt the disciples. Either way, the Helper took up His new role and made it possible for the disciples to experience new life in all its new covenant fullness. According to Ladd (p. 295), under the new covenant, there is a new “inwardness” to the presence of the Spirit. This new inwardness results in a much greater work of the Spirit.
In addition Rea (pp. 143-144), holds that John 20:22 represents other elements of the Christian life. He points to the beginning of a new creation, being like God in righteousness and holiness, and the transformation of individual believers into a spiritual community.
Third, many scholars maintain that the gift of the Spirit in John 20:22 represents empowerment for mission. Nearly all who hold this view acknowledge that a greater gift of power came at Pentecost, but they nevertheless see that the context of John 20:22 emphasizes mission.
According to Palma (p. 39), “it is clear that both verse 21 and verse 23 deal with service to the Lord, not salvation.” With regard to the verb enephusesen, he (p. 39) writes: “we see Jesus breathing on them. This could be connected with the ‘rushing mighty wind’ on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:2).” Thus, instead of looking back to Genesis 2:7 and Ezekiel 37:9, he looks forward to Acts 2:2. In verse 21 Jesus says, “‘So send I you.'” Then, in verse 23 Jesus deal with the mission of the disciples in forgiving and retaining sins.
We gain further insight form Luke 24:. Jesus said, “‘I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.'” It appears to me that Jesus spoke these words on resurrection evening. Jesus uses a present tense when He says “‘I am sending forth.'” He was sending forth a measure of power that evening. There will be a greater outpouring later. Although full empowerment was possible that night, it was not God’s time.
The Promised Helper
Given what Jesus said in His Farewell Discourse about the Helper (Paraclete), we can expect that His gift of the Spirit on resurrection night will have much to do with the Helper’s role. Briefly, we will review what Jesus said about the Helper.
The Spirit (John 14:16-17) will be another Helper like Jesus. Unlike Jesus, He will not go away but will be with you forever. He is the Spirit of Truth who abides with you and will be in you. The Helper (John 14:26) will teach you all things and will bring all things to your remembrance. He (John 15:26) will bear witness of the Christ. As far as the world is concerned, the Helper (John 16:8-11) will relate to it as a prosecutor and powerful persuader. The Spirit will persuade men to believe in Christ. He (John 16:13) will guide you into all truth, disclose things to come, and glorify Christ.
When you put all this together, you see that the scope of the Helper’s ministry is comprehensive. The Scriptures about the Helper do not mention the role of the Spirit in the new birth (John 3:5-8) or the quickening (John 6:63) of the Spirit. However, as some suggest, when Jesus breathed on the disciples, this aspect of the Helper’s work may be included. Definitely, the Helper will abide in you. His work includes the teaching that guides Christian life and ministry. He will relate to both the world and to the believers. All of this will glorify Christ.
As Burge points out (p. 122), some writers hold that the Spirit as the Helper was not given on Easter evening. He cites the view of Porsch that the Helper only later became the Helper. According to Dunn (p. 181), Jesus did not send the Helper until after He departed. By this He means the ascension in Acts 1:9-11. Because of this, he holds that the disciples did not enjoy “full Christian experience” until Pentecost.
However, another view is possible. In my view the Holy Spirit as Helper was bestowed on Easter evening. His ministry is comprehensive. The bestowal of the Spirit represents a culmination and expansion on all that the Spirit had done before. The disciples actually received the Spirit. Thus, the term “receive” applies in this instance to all dimensions of the Spirit’s work. The immediate context strongly emphasizes the mission of the disciples.
None of this precludes the Spirit being poured out again in greater measure. It is always possible to experience the Spirit in greater ways. Lenski (John, pp. 1373-1374) makes these insightful comments:
Repentance for Forgiveness
In verse 23 Jesus says, “‘If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.'” Clearly, this is a mission related statement. Several views are held concerning this verse.
First, Morris (p. 850) holds that the exercise of this gift is not mechanical in any way, but it is a result of the Spirit’s directing. The gift was given to all disciples, not just the apostles, but to the church as a whole. He states (p. 850), “He [Jesus] is saying that the Spirit-filled church has the authority to declare which are the sins that are forgiven and which are the sins that are retained.”
Second, Lenski (John, p. 1375) applies the verse more to individuals. He says that God alone forgives sin, Jesus, however, works through the disciples. The disciples deal with the confessions of men. Thus, they cannot look into the hearts of men and make a final judgment. Based on their confessions, the disciples retain or forgive sins.
Third, the proclamation of the gospel is stressed by Robertson. He makes the following comments (p. 315):
In my view, the Spirit imparted on Easter evening is “another Helper.” The Helper is the Spirit of truth who will teach and guide the disciples. As we learn from the parallel passage, Luke 24:37-48, the disciples will be witnesses. They will proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The Word that they proclaim identifies what is right and what is wrong. The disciples declare that the sins of those who repent are forgiven, but the sins of the unrepentant are retained.
Pattern or Unique Experience
What does the John 20:22 experience mean for us? Like every historical event, the Easter evening experience was in some ways unique. However, there are features that are common to us as well. Whether or not the Easter evening experience is a pattern for us depends much on our view of the history of the time. My own view stands in contrast to the view of Dunn.
First, Dunn holds to the thesis that from Pentecost on baptism in the Spirit and regeneration can be equated. As far as the disciples are concerned, he maintains that this equation may not hold because they lived through a transitional period. He present a chronological scheme, then writes (p. 181):
If you follow Dunn’s approach to salvation-history, you will not see a pattern for believers today us in John 20:22. It was a unique experience in a special time between the cross and Pentecost.
Second, my own view is that the new covenant was effective when Christ died. Thus, it was in effect on resurrection day. Therefore, the disciples could fully experience new covenant life, but this did not preclude subsequent outpourings of the Spirit. Given this premise, we may well find both a pattern as well as uniqueness.
With regard to uniqueness, Jesus had just arisen. He was present with the disciples in a visible way, and He was present to breath on them. However, there are features that are common to other experiences in the Spirit as well. For example, it is always Jesus (and/or the Father) who sends the Spirit. The following points stand out.
One, the disciples received the Spirit Easter evening and would receive the Spirit again on the Day of Pentecost. According to Dunn’s approach, after Pentecost believers only experience one reception of the Spirit. In his view the fact that they received the Spirit Easter evening and again on the Day of Pentecost is an exception.
As I see it, new covenant believers can receive the Spirit more than once. The term “receive” is not a technical term for the union of our Spirit and the Holy Spirit. The term is far more flexible that theologians allow. Even though we have received the Spirit, we can reach out if faith to be receptive again!
Second, Jesus’ command to receive the Spirit is not repeated, but its force continues. All believers receive the Spirit. Repentance and faith contain within themselves the commanded receptivity to the Spirit. However, even though people who come to faith receive the Spirit, it is still important to be consciously receptive to the Spirit.
Third, we never fully arrive in our experience of the Spirit. On Easter evening the Helper was bestowed, and the disciples were blessed with new dimensions of experience. Due to God’s timetable and purpose, the disciples were not fully empowered on Easter evening. At Pentecost, the Spirit was poured out upon them. We always are confronted with a “not yet” in our experience.
On Easter evening Jesus breathed on the disciples and commanded them to receive the Spirit. On that evening, Jesus actually bestowed the Spirit; this was not a symbolic gesture. The new covenant was in effect, and Jesus bestowed the Spirit with new covenant results. The gift, although it emphasized mission, was comprehensive. Jesus both restored the faith of the disciples and gave them a measure of power. It was the fulfillment of His promises concerning the Helper.
The disciples actually received the Spirit. Later, on the Day of Pentecost, they received Him again. This clearly shows that believers can receive the Spirit more than once. Indeed, we must keep believing and keep on receiving. Many of our debates about the Spirit would be resolved by recognizing the flexibility of the term receive. We must confront every “not yet” in our spiritual experience with a conscious faith to receive what God has in store for us.
For Further Study
Barrett, C. K. The Gospel According to St. John. Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1978.
Boer, Harry R. Pentecost and Missions. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1961.
Bruce, F. F. The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975.
Burge, Gary M. The Anointed Community: The Holy Spirit in the Johannine Tradition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Erdman, Charles R. The Gospel of John. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1944.
Gordon, A. J. The Ministry of the Spirit. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1964.
Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1961.
Horton, Stanley M. What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1976.
Hull, William E. The Broadman Bible Commentary: Commentary on John. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970.
Keener, Craig. S. The Gospel of John, Vol. 2. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974.
Lenski, R. C. H. St. John’s Gospel. Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1942.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1971.
Osborne, Grant. R. The Resurrection Narratives. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.
Pache, Rene. The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit. Chicago: Moody Press, 1957.
Palma, Anthony D. The Spirit–God in Action. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1974. Rea, John. Bible Handbook on the Holy Spirit. Orlando: Creation House, 1998.
Riggs, Ralph M. The Spirit Himself. Springfield: the Gospel Publishing House, 19.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
Spittler, Russell P., ed. Perspectives on the New Pentecostalism. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976. Swete, Henry Barclay. The Holy Spirit in the New Testament. London: Macmillan and Company, 1910.
Turner, Max. The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996. Walvoord, John F. The Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954.
Wescott, B. F. The Gospel According to St. John. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.
Copyright 2005 © George M. Flattery