John 20:19-31, Receive the Holy Spirit

[April 27, 2014] At the heart of this passage, which takes place on the evening of Easter Day, Jesus breathes into his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It is the fulfillment of everything for which the Gospel according to John has been preparing us. John’s gospel (written decades after Matthew and Luke wrote theirs and after Peter first gave the substance of Mark’s gospel, in the early 90s of the first century) was written by the “beloved disciple” John, a young man who took the mother of Jesus into his home after the crucifixion. He probably lived at one time in or near Jerusalem, perhaps in Bethany where Lazarus and Martha and Mary lived.

By now John is an old man in his eighties living in the Hellenic city of Ephesus in Anatolia, facing the Aegean Sea and its many isles. Mary the mother of Jesus, who had come to Ephesus with him (according to tradition), has long since passed away, being thirty years his senior. This means that when they had first come to Ephesus, the center of the Paul’s apostolate around the Aegean, Paul would still have been active (he last spoke to the Ephesian elders on the isle of Melitus in April of 57 on his final trip to Jerusalem, and he wrote the circular “Epistle to the Ephesians” that same year). For maybe thirty years John and Mary together had reflected on the significance of the Gospel, and now, for the next thirty, he imbibed the influence of Paul. He would have been familiar with the gospels of Matthew and Luke. And he was, like Mary and Paul and Matthew, and like many, if not most, in the Christian community, a Jew—a Jew of the synagogue, but also one closely familiar with the Judaism of the Temple, now over. Out of all this, he composed his own gospel.

It is a spiritual masterpiece, reflecting the historical Jesus, no doubt, but also decades of meditation on what it all means—the coming of Jesus in the context of the Torah and the meaning of his death and resurrection, and his presence among us now “as” the Holy Spirit. He was the first to understand clearly that Jesus was God no less than the Father, and no less was the Holy Spirit, and that the Three were co-inherent, each dwelling in the others. Moreover, he understood that as they co-inhere in each other, so the believer, by the divine indwelling, participates in this co-inherence by grace and is glorified (divinized) by it.

Not only is the gospel a mystical and theological masterpiece, it is literarily one as well. The language is simple, John’s second language for sure, but the organization of the gospel is meticulous, the entire work a mandala of two crossing chiasms, creating a series of seven concentric circles, each reflecting a succeeding day of creation as the artist works out from the center. In a chiasm, a rhetorical form based on concentric parallelism, the second unit of each pair adds to, intensifies, specifies, heightens, enhances, and/or completes the first. These parallelisms guide our attention to the pivotal unit at their center which focuses our attention on the essence of what the author wants to convey and often acts as the “hinge” around which the parallelisms turn. Thus the pivotal center is the focus of meaning.

Thus we will find that today’s text is the first half of a unit that includes 20:1—21:25 (the center of which is 20:30-31—“These things have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”) and that this corresponds and fulfills 1:19-51 (the pivotal line being in verse 34, “This is the Son of God”). In the first, at the Jordan, the Baptist bears witness to and the disciples witness the Lamb of God and the descent of the Holy Spirit, and Simon is called Peter; two unnamed disciples and Nathanael are present and they speak of Jesus’ first coming. In the second, the Holy Spirit is given and Thomas and the disciples witness Jesus, and at the Lake, Simon Peter is told to “feed my sheep;” two unnamed disciples and Nathanael are present; and they speak of Jesus’ second coming. There is an emphasis in both units on witnessing and discipleship as the stakes escalate from Jesus’ coming in the first place to his coming as the resurrected One.

On further reflection, we find that the Prologue (1:1-18) corresponds to chapter 21 (the number of letters in one, indeed, corresponds to the number of words in the other). Furthermore, we can see that the Spirit abiding on Jesus in 1:33, and Jesus abiding and the disciples abiding with him in 1:38-39, is parallel to the coming of the Spirit and Jesus now abiding in each disciple and among the community of believers as foretold in chapters 14—15. 1:19-51 and 20:19-31 thus corresponds to the seventh day of creation, the Sabbath. Then, 2:1-12, the story of the wedding in Cana, is parallel to 20:1-18, Jesus and Mary of Magdala at the tomb, corresponding to the sixth day of creation, when God created the male and female. Perhaps this is enough for now.

Let us then consider 20:19-29, when Jesus first comes to the disciples as a group, on the evening of first day of the week, the Lord’s Day when Christians gather to break bread. He had appeared to Mary of Magdala privately in the morning. Now the disciples are gathered and he suddenly appears in their midst. This reflects the two ways we meet with the Lord, privately (usually in the morning) and in the community of disciples (which seems to have been, perhaps typically, in the evening of the Lord’s Day). Mary represents our fellowship with Christ and our longing for union with him. The gathered community represents where that union becomes effectual. Mary is sent to the disciples, but the gathered disciples are sent and empowered to go out to the world. What has taken place between verses 18 and 19 is the ascension that Jesus spoke of in verse 17. His breathing the Holy Spirit into the disciples apparently depended on his ascension to the Father in his resurrected body. Notice that he presented himself in his resurrected body to his human loved one before he presented himself to his divine Father. Notice also that once he has ascended to the Father, he remains so. When he manifests himself to his disciples, he is in two places at once—with the Father and with them (or rather, now that he is with the Father in “glory” he is in all places at once, though he is manifesting himself to his disciples in particular places).

(This is confusing, no doubt, because people tend to think of the ascension only in terms of the first chapter of Acts, and the giving of the Holy Spirit only in terms of Pentecost, in Acts chapter 2. Those are quite different events and depict something much different. There is no contradiction, but John is revealing something to us that Luke did not yet apprehend. We do not need to choose one account over the other nor conflate the two as if they were the same. We do need, however, to give each their due in their own context.)

There is some correspondence of this gathering with the gathering in 21:1-14, where Thomas is again present, but I want to leave that aside for now because the parallelism is too subtle for the moment.

What we see is that 20:19 is parallel to 20:26-29 (notice the repetition of the disciples, the first day of the week, the doors being shut, Jesus coming and standing among them, and Jesus saying, “Peace to you”). Inside of this parallel is another pair: 20:20 is parallel to 20:24-25 (notice the repetition again of the disciples, of his hands and his side, and their seeing the Lord). These lead us to the center verses, 20:21-23 where in the first part Jesus repeats to his disciples, “Peace to you,” and commissions them, “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you,” and in the later part he pronounces, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In between these two pronouncements, at the very center of 20:19-29, Jesus breathes into his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” So this is the focus.

This is how we will view the passage in terms of its structure. Now let us consider its meaning. When Jesus appears to his disciples, what he said to Mary in verse 17 has been fulfilled. He has ascended to the Father in his resurrected body, the body that Mary longed to hold on to. Now Jesus has become, not just hypostatically (in his divine Person, which does not change) but bodily (his created and historical nature), divinized (e.g., eternal and omnipresent). The disciples have now become “my siblings” and Jesus’ Father has become “your Father,” his God, “your God.” This is a new way of speaking. Jesus always spoke of “my Father” and “your Father” and he always spoke of the disciples as “siblings,” not “my siblings,” but until now he had never spoken of his disciples on equal terms with himself. As a result of his going “through” the crucifixion and being glorified, and going to the Father by ascension, he is able to give them himself—when he breathes the Holy Spirit into them—so that they can be what he is, and where he is. We become sharers of his eternal life. And as a consequence, they are now sent into the world as he was—to offer through the Gospel the forgiveness of sins and the peace that flows from this.

Here the word of Jesus to Nathaniel in the parallel passage (1:51) is at last fulfilled, “Amen, amen, I say to you [plural], you shall see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Heaven is at last opened to the disciples, and the Son of Man is the ladder that links the abode of God—we ourselves—to both heaven and earth. In Christ we are also in two places at once (in reality, the two places are not two, but—creation becoming divinized—the same place, while nevertheless, though inseparable, createdness and divinity remain distinct).

When Jesus comes to the gathered disciples, he fulfills Hebrews 2:9-12 (and here we merely touch the otherwise strong evidence of a significant relationship between the perspectives of the author of Hebrews and John). Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, whereby he was made perfect through suffering, now—as the author of salvation—leads “many sons into glory.” For “he is not ashamed to call them siblings, saying, ‘I will declare your Name to my siblings; in the midst of the church I will sing hymns of praise to you’” (quoting Psalm 22:22). Here Jesus calls his disciples his siblings and declares the Father’s Name to them; his Father is their Father. It is on this basis that we sing praises to the Father when we gather, and according to these Scriptures, the resurrected Jesus in our midst sings with us when we do; or rather, when we sing such praises, we are joining the praises that he sings in our midst.

I refer the reader to my article on this blog, “John 20:19-31, The Beginning of Our Corporate Life,” for an in depth exposition. You ought to read it, or you will miss a great deal of what is going on here, which I have merely introduced.


Until I have time to correct my exposition there, I suggest two adjustments to my 2011 article. (1) I wrote of Jesus’ “vicarious ‘repentance’ acceptable to the Father.” Years earlier I had moved from the notion of his vicarious death to the notion of his vicarious obedience becoming in effect a “substitute” for our repentance. I have become suspicious since then of any notion of “substitution” as fraught with ethical (moral) difficulties. I reject it as an explanation of the atonement. Jesus submitted, no doubt, to the judgment of God that falls on us, but his submission was not a substitution for ours. When he did this, he was identifying with us, as he had been deliberately doing since his baptism, but that does not make either his obedience or his death a substitute for ours. It was, in fact, his own. As his own, we imbibe it when he dwells in us as the antidote to our condemnation. We are crucified with him, as Paul says. But it is still dependent on our own repentance and fidelity to him and to the Father by him. In John’s gospel, “faith” or “belief” take on an added significance to what we see in the synoptic gospels. Believing “into” Jesus refers to an inner enlightenment as to who Jesus is, not just faith in the sense of fidelity. It is the same word in Greek (pistis), but John is always concerned with the inner, spiritual side of salvation. The others are more concerned with the existential side (there is no disagreement here). Ultimately, however, our salvation is not dependent on us at all—our repentance and fidelity to Christ, and our faith into him, is the effect and will be the effect (by the Holy Spirit in us) of what God has done—it is dependent on the Father’s election, the Father giving us to the Son. As Paul says, we are saved by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, the effect of which issues in our faith and our faithfulness (which is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, from our spirit, by means of the living word).

(2) When Jesus says in 20:23, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained,” I do not any longer think that this refers to the ability of the gathered church to discern who is or who is not a believer. (Certainly I reject the crazy notion that this “ability” is given to a sacerdotal priesthood.) I do not disagree with what I said in 2011 in terms of practice, but it is not an application of this verse. This verse, I believe is related to Jesus’ pronouncement of peace, which occurs three times in this passage (verses 19, 21 and 26). “Peace to you; as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” Jesus sends the disciples to testify of him (to proclaim the Gospel)—I know liberals will at once object, but they can do so only by stepping way outside the bounds of this gospel. Peace comes when people “believe into” Jesus, in the words of this gospel. When they believe, their sins are forgiven. This is what it means when Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.” We forgive the sins of others when they believe through our word (17:20). When this happens, we are doing the work that Jesus did in the first twelve chapters of this gospel. Jesus also made it clear that whoever rejected him rejected the Father who sent him. A person who does not believe into the Name of the only begotten Son of God is condemned “already” (in other words, this is everyone’s default status until they are enlightened). When a person rejects our witness, namely the Gospel, then the words are fulfilled, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The tense of the two words, “forgiven” and “retained” is the passive perfect, which implies that it is not the disciples who are forgiving or retaining but someone else (namely, God).

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