John 20:19 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’s narrative moves from fear to peace. Fear led Peter to denial. Fear moved the crowd to call for crucifixion. Despite their fears, two disciples risked asking Pilate for permission to bury Jesus’ body. Mary feared Jesus’ body had been moved or stolen. Jesus’ disciples were in a locked room for fear of the authorities. But now Jesus stands among his followers with a greeting of ‘Peace.’ Confusion is replaced by comfort and joy. Although the greeting of peace is in the common form, on the lips of Jesus after his resurrection it takes on heightened significance. He gives his peace; not as the world gives (cf Jn 14:27). This is shalom, the restoration of God’s goodness and the defeat of chaos and death.
Jesus here not only demonstrates his victory over death, showing his hands and side to prove that it really is him, he also commissions his disciples. Just as the Father sent the Son, now the Son sends his disciples: we are “co-missioned”, doing God’s work together with him (cf Jn 17:18).
Jesus breathing on his disciples and saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ seems to me to be a proleptic action— a symbolic dramatisation of what will happen at Pentecost (about 7 weeks hence). No visible signs immediately follow; no speaking in tongues, no works of power. The Spirit has not yet come because Jesus has not yet ascended to his Father. Instead, Jesus acts prophetically to indicate the means by which the mission will proceed.
The giving of the Spirit in verse 22 must be connected with verse 23. The giving of the Spirit gives authority to the disciples to do as Jesus has been doing, for he has been exercising the authority of the Father to forgive sins (much to the chagrin of the Pharisees!). The verbs in v23 are in the passive which further implies that it is God who is acting through his people. The apostles– for now they have been formally commissioned by Jesus in Jn 20:21 — exercise this ministry now too. The implication of these words is that the ‘sending’ was in some way to fulfil the commission which Jesus had received from the Father.
This ministry of ‘forgiving sins’ is best understood as being exercised through the preaching of the gospel, although it is not immediately apparent here. Those who do not respond to the preaching of the gospel are left in their sins. The sins that the are forgiven are forgiven on the basis of the gospel.
Dear God, knowing your peace, please empower me to do what you want in this world. May you forgive many people their sins as they hear the gospel, even through me. Amen.