21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And 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 withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Here Jesus gives a form of the Great Commission to the disciples. Just as the Father sent Jesus out, with his authority to accomplish his mission, so Jesus is now sending out his disciples. They are sent under Jesus’ authority. They are sent to accomplish his mission.
Then Jesus blows out or exhales and tells the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit. It will actually be around fifty days in the future when the Holy Spirit will truly come upon the disciples and empower them for the task that Jesus has just given them. But Jesus lets them know that, coming soon to their lives, they will experience the presence of God’s Spirit to help them to accomplish his plan.
Next Jesus says something that may be the most difficult phrase in John’s gospel to interpret. Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Scholars have debated for years about what these phrases mean. Is Jesus authorizing the disciples to grant people forgiveness or unforgiveness at their whim? Is Jesus granting a kind of power to the disciples as church leaders to offer or withhold forgiveness? Is something else in view?
If we take verse 23 all by itself, it is a very difficult passage to understand. That is why it is crucial to study the scripture in context, taking into account the verses around the passage in question. Once we understand what is going on, it will make far more sense how we are to understand the words that Jesus has used here.
Remember, Jesus has just done two things. He has commissioned the disciples to go out and accomplish his mission just as his Father sent him out to accomplish a mission. He also has told them to do this work in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. They will not be able to fulfill the Great Commission if they are not personally filled with God’s Holy Spirit.
In the light of the commission and the promise of the Spirit, it makes a little more sense as to what Jesus is saying. As the disciples go out and work to accomplish their mission in the authority of the Father and the Son and in the power of the Spirit, they are to proclaim the message of the Gospel, the good news. The disciples are to go out and tell people that they are sinners before a holy God. They are to tell people that they stand before God without God’s forgiveness unless something changes. They are to tell people that Jesus died to purchase the forgiveness of anyone who will repent and turn to Jesus for forgiveness. And so, it only makes sense that these men with God’s Spirit and God’s message would be able to declare with accuracy whether or not a person is forgiven.
Let’s make this as simple as we can. Suppose you are talking to a man named Bob. You, like the disciples, have the Spirit of God living within you and the commission of God to take the message of Jesus to everybody. So, you ask Bob if he has ever come to faith in Christ. Bob says, “No, I don’t believe in Jesus at all.” You can say, with absolute accuracy, “Bob, I want to warn you that you stand before God unforgiven. You are lost and in danger of suffering God’s wrath for your sin.” Now, let’s suppose that your words mixed with some study of the scripture shake Bob to his vary foundation. He weeps before you, believes in Jesus, and cries out to Jesus for mercy and forgiveness. You then can proclaim, with great accuracy, “Bob, you now stand forgiven before God because of your faith in Jesus Christ.”
Christians, we have the same responsibility that the disciples had 2,000 years ago. Christ is sending us out on a mission. We are to take God’s word and God’s Holy Spirit with us, and we are to share the good news of Jesus with a lost world. If they will not trust in Christ, we must declare them unforgiven. If they will turn from their sins and trust in Jesus, we must declare them forgiven. It’s that simple. This is not just the job of pastors and revival speakers; this is your job. Become a spirit-filled witness for Jesus Christ.