Many will be preaching on John 20 over the next two Sundays. Often the question comes: “What does Jesus mean in John 20:23?” Let me give you the context.
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:19-21)
How do we understand this? Can Christ’s followers run out into the street and address passers-by: “Forgiven… forgiven… UNFORGIVEN… forgiven”? Is Jesus promising a heavenly underwriting of any and every act of forgiveness?
No. Verse 21 interprets verse 23: the disciples will forgive just as Christ has forgiven. How has Christ forgiven? On the basis of His death and to be received by faith. How should the disciples forgive? On the basis of Christ’s death and to be received by faith. So as the disciples declare Christ and His forgiveness in the power of the Spirit, the world’s response to their message will be its response to Christ (which, in turn, is its response to the Father).
23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.
25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:23-26)
Even before His death, Jesus has taught His disciples how it’s going to unfold. So in John 20, when He comes and breathes His Spirit on them, He’s saying: “Now’s the time. Go and testify. And as you go with my message, my forgiveness goes with you.”
So does this verse endorse the willy-nilly preaching of an abstract forgiveness, divorced from the Forgiver? No. But it does give us great confidence as we share the words of Jesus. As we offer the apostolic gospel in the Spirit of Christ we are offering divine mercy.
This verse should not so much produce confessionals as confessors of Christ. But those confessors of Christ (which I hope is all of us) ought to know the power and privilege of offering Jesus. To confessing Christians and to seeking non-Christian we hold out the Christ in whom is all forgiveness (Col 1:13f). We don’t just speak about forgiveness, we speak forgiveness itself, because, by the Spirit, the Forgiver Himself is given through the gospel.