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!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:19-23 TNIV)
It’s texts like this that make me glad to be a part of the Reformed tradition. Not because this tradition explains them so well, but because, for the most part, these texts are ignored and therefore are there for me to meditate on on my own. And, on the rare occaision that they are dealt with, they are quickly explained away or explained in such a way that they no longer apply to one’s personal walk with the Messiah.
Here is an explanation of the last verse in the above passage from one prominent Reformed theologian and scholar:
The apostles, as the founders of the church and acting for it, receive the authority to declare God’s judgment on sins. Fundamentally, this declaration is made in the preaching of the gospel.
(R. C. Sproul. The Reformation Study Bible (ESV). Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries. 2005. 1553)
I find two issues with this interpretation. Firstly, he seems to be ignoring what they are being told. They are not only being told that they have the power to pronounce God’s judgment on sins, but they are also being told that they are being sent out with the same mission that Jesus was sent with. They are being told that if they forgive someone’s sin, it is forgiven and if they don’t forgive someone’s sin, it is not forgiven. There seems to be something much deeper and more mystical happening here than just the apostles being told they have authority to preach the gospel.
Secondly, this removes the passage of Scripture from having any true personal application. With Sproul’s explanation, there is no sense in which this passage of Scripture, particularly the last two verses, is useful for what Scripture is said to be useful for. According to Paul,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)
I see things quite differently from Dr. Sproul. I think that there is a very important lesson to be learned and personally applied from what Jesus is saying here.
In the above passage, Jesus confers upon those present the promised Holy Spirit. And then He tells them what the Spirit empowers them to do. The Spirit’s power, in this case, has to do with the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus tells His followers,
If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:23 TNIV)
This speaks volumes to our current cultural context and especially to how we as followers of Jesus are to respond to it.
If we do not act in love, we are, by process of elimination, acting in hate. Acting in love looks like this:
Love is patient; love is kind. Love does not envy; is not boastful; is not conceited; does not act improperly; is not selfish; is not provoked; does not keep a record of wrongs; finds no joy in unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a HCSB)
But how do we generally act toward our fellow man? Or, let me bring this closer to home. How do we generally act toward the unbeliever or our enemies?
When it comes to the unbeliever, we only show love to certain kinds of unbelievers. Others are condemned right out. Case in point: We lovingly embrace the alcoholic or drug addict who needs Jesus, but we avoid, insult, and cast condemning judgment on the homosexual or the child molester who is unsaved. In the case of unbelievers, we show partiality, which is expressly condemned by Jesus’ brother, James:
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-9 ESV)
And then there are our enemies. I have heard recently, on a couple of occaisions, that countries like North Korea and Iran should be completely wiped off the map. Is this even remotely in line with the attitude that Jesus taught us to have? Does it even remotely live up to His example?
In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8 TNIV)
Thomas Merton once said,
As Christians, we believe that [the highest ethical and spiritual norms we know] have been given to us in the Gospel and in the traditional theology of the Church. We must however live by these norms in all their depth and seriousness, and not merely invoke them to justify conduct which actually violates their true spirit.
(Thomas Merton. Peace in the Post-Christian Era. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 2004. 26)
So often, though, we do tend to invoke the Messiah’s commands “to justify conduct which actually violates their true spirit.” I believe that this is what is being done when the suggestion is made that we should wipe whole countries off the map. We don’t necessarily invoke Jesus’ commands in this way, but we love to use the Old Testament’s idea of war in this way as justification for preemptive strikes and military strongarming.
Strangely enough, Jesus commanded us to act the exact opposite of this mentality. He said,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:27b-36 ESV)
Looking back at our passage from John, we see a completely different way of living being promoted. When we, as the Messiah’s followers, don’t forgive someone of their sin, what does that say about our attitude? What does that say about our attitude of mind?
It says that we are unwilling to deny ourselves, embrace death, and follow Jesus is what it does.
It shows that we hate our fellow man. Love forgives someone when they haveacted wrongly (ie. “keeps no record of wrongs”). When we don’t forgive someone’s sin, we show most clearly just how we feel about that person.
But the same is true when we do forgive. Jesus died to make atonement for every sin that humanity ever committed. He showed us just how He felt about us. And then He called us to do the same. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”