In John 20, Jesus does something entirely unexpected. The resurrection itself was quite surprising, but now, in the upper room, Jesus breaths on the disciples and states, “Receive the Holy Spirit. John 20:22 (CSB). This essay will review the background understanding of the Holy Spirit for the Jewish disciples, exegesis of John 20:21-23 with observations and interpretations, and conclude with an application.
Coming into the scene, the disciples had a distinctly Jewish understanding of God’s Spirit. In the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament), God’s Spirit was not considered a separate entity, a person. The Holy Spirit was framed in words רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים rûaḥ ’ᵉlōhîm – the Spirit of God. What this indicates is that God’s Spirit was an extension of Himself – an expression of His power and presence. For instance, the Spirit of God was in the temple or the Tabernacle. Ordinary people had to be ritually clean and go through the Levitical priesthood to have a little experience with God’s presence. God’s Spirit was seen as “over there.” However, there is no concept of an ongoing, permanent indwelling presence of God’s Spirit.
With His death and resurrection, Jesus brought a new – completed – experience of God. The concept of “Messiah” would not have been understood as God himself as Messiah, but God working through a human who was the Messiah. With the resurrection of Jesus, a new understanding of the Messiah was born. In Luke 24:13-35, the disciples on the road to Emmaus encounter the unrecognized risen Jesus. Jesus opens their eyes to what the Jewish Scriptures taught about Messiah. With this new knowledge, their hearts were “burning” (vs. 32), and when He broke bread, their eyes were opened (vs. 31).
This new understanding of the Messiah leads to the scene in John 20:21-23.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you. As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” After saying this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:21-23 (CSB)
The context for this passage is that Jesus has been crucified on Friday. Sunday, the tomb was discovered empty. Mary Magdalene spoke with the risen Jesus. The disciples were gathered “with the doors locked because they feared the Jews” (vs. 19a). Jesus showed up (vs. 19b) and greeted them with peace. He proved to the disciples that He was indeed the risen Jesus by showing the scars of the crucifixion.
Vs. 21, starts with a restating of peace, but also with commissioning. “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.”. The next thing He does in vs. 22 after this commissioning is to breathe on them and state, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The action of breathing ἐμφυσάω emphysaō producing breath πνεῦμα pneuma, or in this case Holy Breath (Spirit) ἅγιος πνεῦμα hagios pneuma. The disciples receive the Holy Spirit. But the interesting part of this passage is not only the gift of the Holy Spirit but the ordination that followed – the power to forgive sins.
N.T. Wright’s take on this passage is that this “breathing” was not for a spiritual experience or an elevation of moral authority but an indication that what Jesus had been doing with them and teaching them can now be brought to the rest of the world. John Rea presents two interpretations of Vs. 22. First, the passage was a symbolic foreshadowing of Pentecost, and, second, the disciples received new birth when Jesus breathed on them. These interpretations, along with Wright, are complementary and not contradicting. Together they provide a full picture of the Holy Spirit’s activity.
Following this passage is the story of Thomas, who, through the evidence of the risen Jesus, came to faith. Therefore, John may be telling his audience that the new life in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is available now, but also greater empowerment for mission was to come.
In conclusion, as an application, this passage leads the reader to connect new birth with Holy Spirit reception. As people give their lives to Jesus, the remarkable thing is that God’s Spirit immediately indwells them and begins the process of sanctification and renewal. In ministry, it must be remembered that all persons can receive the Spirit. Not just the clean, or good, or upright, or socially acceptable. God wishes, through Jesus, to impart His Spirit upon anyone who makes a commitment of faith in Jesus. New Christians can expect that the Holy Spirit will directly work in them, but also have assured hope that further empowerment for ministry is to come. The Holy Spirit is not “over there” but “right here.”
 J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology: Salvation, The Holy Spirit, and Christian Living (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 140.
 N.T. Wright, John for Everyone: Part 2 Chapters 11-21 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) Kindle Edition 148.
 John Rea, Charisma’s Bible Handbook on the Holy Spirit (Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, 1998), 142.
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