What Did He Mean by That?…

I was meeting with Cameron today, one of our Forge interns and we were discussing some theological stuff.

He asked what Jesus meant in John 20, the part bolded:

John 20: 21Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

I don’t have a great answer.

How about you?

If I forgive someone’s sins are they then forgiven by God?..

If I choose not to forgive are their sins then not forgiven?…

16 thoughts on “What Did He Mean by That?…

  1. Maybe he was just stating the obvious – something like, “if I give you this piece of cheesecake you can eat it, if I don’t you can’t”????

    Hmmm. Why do people have to ask difficult questions? 😉

  2. The Roman Catholics believe that this verse is a mandate for ordained priestly ministry. They interpret this verse in the context of Jesus talking directly to his apostles and not the wider body of believers at that time. Therefore, through the apostolic succession of the Church, only ordained priestly ministers are able to forgive sins in the sacrament of confession.

    I am not a Roman Catholic (although I was raised in an RC family) but for me this verse is the strongest support from scripture that I believe the RC church has to rest it’s authority on.

  3. Here are a couple of thoughts I had….

    context tells us it is a word delivered to the disciples not us. Disciples on which the apostolic church will be founded.

    I don’t think we can peel it out of its context and aply it to ourselves in a primary way.

    The apostles are eyewitnesses of Jesus. Their testimony proclaimed his death and resurrection and invited repentance and faith. Their authority to forgive is tied to their apostolic message given to them by Jesus, symbolically affirmed through the Spirit being breathed on them.

    As we submit to their apostolic witness we too can share in the forgivness that the death of Jesus secures…


    there is my initial thinking…

  4. Yeah Gav, I began in a similar vein this morning, but Cameron corrected me that the apostles were just people like us and that this distinction (apostle v ordinary bloke) is probably not valid.

    Biblically, I really don’t think we can ascribe more authority to them than what we have ourselves.

    it makes for a somewhat plausible explanation, but I’m not sure it has strong theological currency.

    What do you think?

  5. As I see it, this was before Jesus’ death, at this time there was still a separation between God and Man. At the moment of Jesus’s death the curtain in the temple was torn signifying that all could now go directly to God. In John 20 we are in a time of transition, God was present in the form of Jesus and could be approached directly for the first time. Jesus often told people their sins were forgiven, and it was revolutionary. A time was coming when all could be saved by the power of the Holy Spirit thought faith in Christ but for a time that power rested with Jesus, as such he could pass that power to others and work through them as in John 20. This “limited” forgiveness was ultimately surpassed by Jesus at the cross. Forgiveness became “generally” available.

    that’s how I see it anyway.

  6. I am probably where Gav is at with this one.

    I wonder though, is there not room within this text to also suggest that within a ‘confession’ type situation, a representative of Christ has a level of responsibility and authority to determine/question, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and reason as to whether the confession of sorrow is genuine.

    For instance, there is a difference between:

    a) sorrow driven by an awareness of the wrong done toward another and it’s subsequent effects and;

    b) false sorrow (driven by the regret that we were caught out and/or look bad as a result)

    Would it be inaccurate to suggest God doesn’t forgive them if their sorrow is driven by (b) because they are not sorrowed by their affect on another and toward God?

    There have been conversations i have been engaged in where some form of assessment has, in fact, been made as to the motive of the sorrow shown. Assessments made of my own confessions (which have proved life-changing) and, at times, by me of others.

  7. The apostles were ordinary blokes: fisherman, tax collectors, twins, etc…

    However they were eyewitnesses of extraordinary things: the baptism, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

    We have the Gospels because they wrote down what they saw, smelt, heard, and touched (or in the case of Luke he wrote it down for them)

    Acts 1 defines an Apostle when they replaced Judas

    An apostle is:

    “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

    We will debate Paul another day.

    The notion of apostolic Church is critical to New Testament faith. Ordinary guys seeing extraordinary things and writing it down for us as they were carried by the Holy Spirit to do so…

    So Peter as Apostle says

    “…For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty… We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

    Apostles are critical to the christian faith

    No Apostles, no Witness written down, no Gospel, no Faith, no christianity…

    Biblically, their authority is given to them by Jesus.

    They are ordinary guys who were there and heard and saw. They were ordinary guys who were chosen to bear witness to these things


  8. I guess the source of discussion is the assumption of “by God” for the verse. “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven (by God); if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven (by God).” If you take out this assumption of “by God” then what’s the problem? Maybe Jesus was talking about the Apostles own act of forgiveness.

  9. I’m inclined to think the passage does apply to all disciples. I heard missionary David Watson (cpmtr.org) explain the passage something like this:

    Before tackling the forgiveness part we have to wrestle with the “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” part.

    The context of this passage is key to understanding what Jesus meant. In this context Jesus is sending his disciples on his mission to share the gospel, and he is sending them in the same manner that the Father sent the Son – which is going to require sacrifice and doing things that can only be accomplished with the help of the Holy Spirit. We need the Holy Spirit to share the gospel, yes. We also need the Holy Spirit to make the sacrifices necessary for sharing that gospel. As we read in passages like Acts 4-8, being “sent as Jesus was sent” meant facing persecution as Jesus did for the sake of the gospel. And in passages like Acts 10 and 15, sharing the gospel with non-Jews meant that the disciples had to give up their culture and preferred ways of doing church (as Jews) for the sake of sharing the gospel with Gentiles. Fulfilling our “sentness” is hard. We have to go, not stay. And we have to give up stuff we like and march into the unknown and unfamiliar. But it’s worth it, and the Holy Spirit helps us.

    As for the the forgiveness part. Jesus sends his disciples in this passage so that others will receive God’s forgiveness. It seems weird that would say, Anyone you forgive, will be forgiven. Anyone you don’t forgive will not be forgiven.

    How do we not forgive? We don’t go. We don’t tell. We say “no” to God when he sends us out.

    What would salvation look like if Jesus said no to God when His Father said I want you to be born in a stable and die on a cross? Would we have forgiveness as we have it today? Of course not, it was his sacrifice (atonement) that provides us forgiveness.

    Jesus is saying if we don’t do what he did, forgiveness doesn’t come to others. All we have to do to withhold forgiveness is do nothing. Don’t go. Don’t live an obedient life. Don’t share the gospel. And by withholding it you prevent others who would have otherwise heard it from experiencing forgiveness.

    After 9/11 some Christians said Muslims don’t deserve us to go share the gospel with them. Again, how is it that so many people remain unforgiven? We withhold. That’s how. When we do go, often we must give up culture and comfort and familiarity so that others will be forgiven.

    Some withhold in another way. They expect everyone is going to surrender to Christ to worship and do church the way they do. They add to the gospel message the Christian culture they’ve created for themselves, and deliver it as an all-or-nothing package. Paul criticized Peter for doing this and we see God correcting Peter in Acts 10 for confusing his culture with his message. He did it by showing Peter that God wanted to forgive Cornelius the God-fearing gentile without making Cornelius adopt Peter’s Jewish culture. The more we hold onto our way of doing church, the less we bring salvation to people who don’t want that way of doing church. The more we hang on to our Christian culture, the less we offer God’s forgiveness.

    Just some thoughts (via what I understood D. Watson was saying). Resonates with me.

    What do the rest of you think?

  10. A quick thought before I head out…

    Was the great commission then given to them or us, or both. ‘All authority…”

    I agree Gav that they were alive at a special time in history, but I don’t see that there were of a different order of person to the rest of us.

  11. I think the Great comission ought to be read in the same way. Jesus commissioned the eleven disiples first their witness has been handed down the ages to us.

    We aren’t witnesses of the resurrection. We weren’t there. We believe in Ressurection of Jesus as Christians because we read it in the Book, or someone told us about it from the Book.

    The Apostles were comissioned by Jesus to write the Book and preach Resurrection

    John 13 -17 ought to be read like this too…

    It doesn’t mean no application to us

    but if we miss the step of primary application to the apostles we risk misapplying the New Tertament promises.

    There is certainly secondary application for us

    as those who recieve the apostolic witness about Jesus.

    Paul explains this and his own extraordinary commissioning in 1 Cor 15

    “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance : that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

    The Great Commission was given to the Apostles first, and then handed down to us we wouldn’t know about the Grerat Comission if Matthew had not of written it down for us

    Keep making disiples!


  12. When Jesus forgave sins, people grumbled, “How can he say that? Only God can forgive sins.” (Mark 2) I am used to looking at that passage as evidence that Jesus equates himself with God.

    But “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you,” and we are told to do the same thing (with the Holy Spirit). As I re-read it, it sounds like Jesus is summarizing the mission (of proclaiming freedom).

  13. Regardless of the passages we look at I struggle with forgiveness all the time.

    I am constantly aware of forgiving those who offend me but when they seem to completely ignore the fact that they may have caused offence then how can I forgive? Are we forgiven (by God) if we don’t repent? If not then we can’t forgive others also who don’t repent?

    What do you think?

  14. Perhaps the intention of the statement was along these lines: If you forgive someone their sins, your act of forgiveness will have a profound impact on that person. If you choose not to forgive them as part of your priestly role (we are a royal priesthood), then how on earth are you going to expect them to be forgiven. The job of representing Jesus is yours, don’t handball that work to someone else.

  15. All are called and all are sent.

    Christ’s act of forgiveness was completed on the cross – what remained was the sharing of that truth.

    How are we to know that we are forgiven if nobody tells us? God calls everybody into a redemptive relationship – some believe some do not. Those that believe are in turn sent to share the message of forgiveness. The scripture above involves a commissioning to go forth and share the message and an empowering of the Holy Spirit to fullfill the commission. It is a continuous cycle – people are called to accept the message of forgiveness – those who believe are sent to spread the message of forgiveness.

    Simple explanation from a Sojourner who tends to get lost in heavy theological discussions :0)

  16. I’m just throwing this out as another way to look at it.

    I someone sins against me I have a choice to forgive them or not. That is where the matter of them being forgiven comes from.

    Jesus told them they to receive the Holy Spirit as he breathed on them. In Acts he tells them they would receive the Spirit to become witnesses, which ties in with what Rob was saying.

    I’m not sure Jesus is talking about God forgiving sins in this particular passage, it doesn’t appear that obvious.

    Anyway, just an idea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *