19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
I remember learning during my stay among Pentecostals that there is a two stage pattern for receiving the Holy Spirit. Reading from John to Acts, this made sense. In John Jesus gives the Holy Spirit by breathing upon them, but then in Acts the Spirit comes with fullness accompanied by the gift of speaking in tongues. Later, I learned that John doesn’t precede Acts chronologically. Instead, Acts is a continuation of the story begun in the Gospel of Luke. John has his own story to tell, one that complements rather than continues or contradicts the ones told in the Synoptic Gospels and in the Book of Acts.
What we know as Pentecost is rooted in the story told in Acts 2. The disciples of Jesus, having been given a commission to preach and told to wait for the Spirit, find themselves together in a room during the Jewish festival of Pentecost. As the story goes, the Spirit falls upon them. They begin proclaiming the Gospel in languages other than their own. People ask what this means. Peter preaches. People get baptized and drawn into the fledgling community of followers of Jesus. From there the mission moves outward to the ends of the earth. That is the story told in the Book of Acts. This is the story that defines for most the meaning of Pentecost.
John tells the story of the coming of the Spirit a bit differently, and yet despite the chronological and logistical differences, there are significant overlaps. We can take the position that these are two incompatible stories, but that’s required of us only if we demand that the stories be taken completely literally. The point then isn’t the chronology – but the foundational message is that Jesus, though absent in body, remains present with us by the Holy Spirit, and from there, those who are filled with the Holy Spirit, are sent into the world. That basic message is present here in John 20.
According to the story John is telling, Jesus is with the disciples on the first day of the week – the day of the resurrection – Jesus appears to the disciples. They are holed up in a house, with the doors locked, because they fear the authorities, whom John, unfortunately, identifies as “the Jews.” He shows them his hands and his side, so that they can see the wounds suffered when on the cross. Later on, we’re told; Jesus will appear again to Thomas who isn’t present at this moment.
That’s the Easter story. While Luke/Acts separates Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost, John brings them together. Remember that Jesus seems to have ascended to the father in between the time he appears to Mary Magdalene (John 20:17-18) and this appearance to the disciples. John’s Jesus seems to come and go as he pleases, where as Luke seems to have a more linear presentation.
So here we have Jesus. He’s been resurrected, ascended, and able to be present with the disciples. But perhaps this coming and going isn’t a permanent situation. Remember that Jesus had the disciples that even as he was departing, he would send the Paraclete – the Comforter (John14:26).
Having demonstrated that he was resurrected – not resuscitated – he gives the disciples their commission. He tells them that even as the Father sent him, so he sends them. This is a key Johannine point. As Jesus shared in his prayer in the Garden (John 17), the disciples are connected to God through Jesus. God sends, Jesus gathers, Jesus sends. We are to be one with each other, even as the Father and the Son are one (John 17:11). In fact, the mission of the disciples is the continuation of the mission of Jesus. Raymond Brown writes:
Their mission is to continue the Son’s mission; and this requires that the Son must be present to them during this mission, just as the Father had to be present to the Son during his mission [The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, Anchor Bible, (Doubleday, 1970), p. 1036]
That is, the disciples demonstrate to the world the presence of Jesus, even as Jesus in life demonstrated the presence of the Father. There is, of course, in this conversation a high Christology. There is a unity between Father, Son, and Spirit that seems to be best represented in Trinitarian fashion. There is oneness of purpose, oneness of divinity, but differentiation of person.
The commission is given. The disciples are sent. The wording is different, but the sentiment is the same as in Acts 1 and Matthew 28.
There is a commission, and there is empowerment as well. Jesus breathes upon the disciples and says “receive the Holy Spirit.” The reference to breath is important. The words for Spirit – ruach (Hebrew) and pneuma (Greek) have the connotation of breath. Breath is needed for life – as demonstrated in the Genesis 2 account of Creation and the Ezekiel story of new creation (Ezekiel 37:3-5). There seems to be here, a symbolic representation of the life breath that God provided the first creation and the recreation of the people of God is now once again enlivening a new creation -- a new community. The result of this breath of life is eternal life. After all, this is the gift that Jesus had provided those who believe (John 17:1-3).
Breath – life – power. That is the gift that Jesus gives the disciples. They have received the call to go. They know they don’t go alone. And their mission, it would seem, is rooted in the message of forgiveness. Jesus tells them that if they forgive sins, they are forgiven. If they retain them then forgiveness is not given. We see something similar in Matthew 16:16-19 with the commission Jesus gives Peter after he makes the Good Confession. Peter is told that whatever he binds on earth is bound in heaven. This is made more explicit in Matthew 18:18, where Jesus gives Peter this commission in the context of church discipline.
In this passage the commission to forgive sins is a continuation of Jesus’ ministry, for on many occasions he granted forgiveness to the people encountered. Jesus also held back forgiveness for those who thought they didn’t need it. Thus, the power to forgive is rooted in the gift of the Holy Spirit that comes as Jesus breathes upon them. If such is true for the disciples, does that calling not fall upon those who follow in their wake?
If this is John’s Pentecost, then are we not the recipients of the same Spirit as Jesus first breathed out upon his disciples?