What is meant by John 20:21-23? Why did Jesus need to endow his disciples with the power to forgive sins?
John 20:21-23 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “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.” (NKJV)
When you determine the meaning of Scripture, you often must use other Scripture to tell you 1) what is can NOT mean; and 2) what it COULD mean.
In this passage, it’s helpful first to understand what the passage can NOT be saying based on other Scripture.
First, when Jesus breathed on them and said “receive the Holy Spirit” we understand that this was a PLEDGE and not the actual event because Scripture clearly tells us that the Holy Spirit did not descend on them until Pentecost (Acts 1 and 2).
Next, we know that only God can forgive sins, and that through the Gospel forgiveness was made available because of Christ’s sacrifice. No man, other than Jesus, has ever been given the actual power to simply forgive sins because they chose to.
Our eternal condemnation is because of sin against God. Only God can, and did, provide a way for forgiveness.
So what Jesus is saying here is that as His disciples, once the Gospel was responded to obediently by a hearer, they could confidently pronounce that person’s sins forgiven… not because the disciples had “the power” to forgive sins, but because they were witnesses to Jesus life, death and resurrection which gave them complete confidence in the saving power of the Good News.
Jesus was pledging the Holy Spirit, reminding them of their call (to spread the Gospel) and affirming to them that their message would result in the true forgiveness of those who responded. Upon that fact, the disciples would be able to confidently declare “your sins are forgiven”.
Likewise, for just the opposite reasons, they would also be able to declare that anyone who ignored or rejected their Message, those sinners would not be forgiven.