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Why Foreign Missions? 18b. John 20.20-23 and Mission of the Disciples in John’s Gospel

Why Foreign Missions? 18b. John 20.20-23 and Mission of the Disciples in John’s Gospel

In the following short study,[1] I will suggest a possible explanation for what unites the three verses of John 20.21-23 with their three foci of mission, receiving the Holy Spirit, and the forgiveness of sins. The passage reads as follows in the New Revised Standard Version:

John 20:20 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[2] 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" (NRSV).

My suggestion is that these verses are both theologically related and appear to be based on an Old Testament passage, Ezekiel 36-37.  This Old Testament background brings out the theological point, the narrative theme of the restoration of Israel from captivity.  This theme is actually a major theme in John’s presentation of Jesus’ ministry—as it is, no doubt, also a theme of Jesus’ own intentions and ministry itself. Just as the first Passover signalled the departure of Israel from Egypt, so Jesus' death on the cross as the Lamb of God and his resurrection from the dead signalled the second Exodus spoken of by prophets like Ezekiel.  The return from exile due to sin meant the inauguration of mission ('so send I you'), receiving the Holy Spirit, and forgiveness of sins.

Initial Comments on the Passage

Ben Witherington sees the creation narrative, where the Spirit hovers over the chaos in creation, and certain Wisdom passages (Wisd. 15.11; 9.17-18; 7.22ff; 9.1-4) behind Jn. 20.21.[3]  Wisdom passages speak of Wisdom as active in creation (Prov. 8.30) and equate the sending of the Spirit with the sending of Wisdom (9.17-18). God breathed a living spirit into human beings (Wisd. 9.17-18).  Wisdom is said to be ‘the fashioner of all things,’ a ‘breath of the power of God,’ and the one who renews all things (Wisd. 7.22ff).  Again, in Wisd. 9.1-4, Wisdom is said to form all living things, including humans, and is equated with God’s word, and Wisdom is said to sit by God’s throne.  Similarly, in 1 Enoch 42, Wisdom creates humans by a breathe, dwells at the right of God’s throne, comes to earth and returns to dwell at the right of God’s throne, and ‘can come again to the faithful in the form of the Holy Spirit.’[4]  The parallels with Wisdom are, indeed, noteworthy, but seem to be of little help in interpreting the passage.

Don Carson argues that the giving of the Spirit to the disciples in v. 22 has to do with sanctification: ‘they have been sanctified by Christ and will be sanctified by God’s word’ (Jn. 17:17).[5]  He further notes the possibility that Jesus’ breathing on the disciples is related to Gen. 2.7 and Ez. 37.9, but he otherwise does not engage the texts further.[6]  He primarily focuses his comments on how this passage is related to the giving of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

Gerry Wheaton has argued that John 5-10 presents Jesus as the climax or realization of the Jerusalem festivals associated with national restoration.[7]  The feasts of Passover, Tabernacles, and Dedication ‘lead the reader toward the conclusion that the restoration of the nation, which the prophets foretold and for which pilgrims at the feasts hoped, has as its highest goal the worship of Jesus as the God of Israel.’[8]  With Andreas Köstenberger, whose focus was on Jn. 4 and 9, Wheaton demonstrates that Jesus is also seen with respect to the Jewish festivals in Jn. 5-10 as the ‘new locus of worship in the absence of the Jerusalem Temple.’[9]

Ezekiel 36-37 and John 20.20-23

If the theme of the restoration of Israel from exile is a key to interpreting John in general, as Wheaton argues, then the case for seeing Ezekiel 36-37 as the background for Jn. 20.20-23 may have further merit than whatever we might say about the Johannine passage per se.  The identification of the theme of creation in Jn. 20 occurs through the Ezekiel passage.  In Ezekiel, the Holy Spirit that departs from the Temple (ch. 10) returns into the dry bones of the exiles, symbolizing the restoration from captivity as a re-creation episode.  The Spirit accomplishes several things: He gives new life, unifies divided Israel (37.15-20, 22), restores her from exile (37.14, 21), and cleanses the Israelites from their sins (37.23) such that they can now follow God’s laws (37.24).  Also, David will rule over them forever (37.24-25), God will make a covenant of peace with them, establish them and increase their numbers, and will dwell among them, locating his sanctuary among them forever (37.26-28).

In Ez. 37.9, Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to the ‘breath’ or ‘wind’—the same word as ‘Spirit’ (pneuma).  He is to say, ‘Come from the four winds and breathe on these dead and they will live.’  This verse reflects Gen. 2.7, where God breathes into man’s nostrils and the man becomes a living being.  The same verb, ‘emphysaō, for ‘breathe’ can be found in Gen. 2.7; Ez. 37.9; and Jn. 2.22:

Genesis 2:7 then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (italics mine).

Ezekiel 37:9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live" (italics mine).

John 20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit (italics mine).

The divine breath, then, gives life.  For John, when Jesus is glorified he will give the Spirit to believers (Jn. 7.39). With Genesis and Ezekiel in view, the giving of the Spirit is a giving of life.  Ezekiel 36-37, though, yields more.  The giving of life is attached to the return from exile and unification of God’s people—the mission of the breath to restore Israel from exile (Ez. 37.9).  The return from exile entails a giving of the Spirit that cleanses people from sin and enables obedience to God’s Law.  This explains what Jesus is doing:

1. Jesus greets his disciples twice (Jn. 20.19, 21) with a typical Jewish greeting, ‘Peace to you,’ which has the (typical of John) deeper meaning of establishing a covenant of peace (Ez. 37.26-28).
2. Jesus commissions the disciples (Jn. 20.21) on their world-wide (cf. the four winds, Ez. 37.9) mission of restoration (Ez. 37.14-22).
3. The disciples’ reception of the life-giving Spirit (Jn. 20.22) involves a fulfillment of what has been promised earlier in the Gospel: being born of the Spirit (and water) (Jn. 3.5-8); receiving the Spirit without measure (Jn. 3.34); receiving life (Jn. 6.63; 7.39); worshiping in Spirit and truth (Jn. 4.23-24; cf. 14.17); teaching the disciples and reminding them of, and bearing witness to, Jesus (Jn. 14.26; 15.26); and revealing things to come (Jn. 16.13).
4. The reception of the Spirit and the commission make it possible for the disciples to offer life to others through the forgiveness of sins (Jn. 20.23), making obedience to God’s decrees possible (Ez. 37.23-24).

This is what Jesus means by saying, ‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’ (Jn. 20.21).  Jesus was sent to give life as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn. 1.29).  John extends the notion of a restoration of Israel from exile to a restoration of all people from their sins.  The worldwide mission of the disciples is not only for Jews but also for Gentiles, and it is a mission of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and of extending the Spirit-life that the glorified Jesus offers through his missionary disciples to the world.

In further support of this interpretation, one might also note that Jn. 2.13ff has Jesus identify himself with the Temple.  He will stand in place of the Temple (possibly already destroyed (AD 70) when this Gospel is written), with its sacrificial offerings for sin and its place of God’s Spirit.  Similarly, Jesus replaces the worship on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Zion with worship in ‘Spirit and in truth’ (Jn. 4.23-24).  The Spirit associated with the Temple is now separated from the Temple and is given to believers.  The giving of the Spirit to believers is through the glorified Jesus, the new Temple, who offers forgiveness of sins, obedience through the Spirit, and new life—themes found in Ez. 36.22ff.


I have suggested that the risen Lord’s offer of peace (Jn. 20.19, 21), commission of disciples (Jn. 20.21), giving of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 20.22), and statement that the disciples will forgive sins (Jn. 20.23) are related ideas, and have Ezekiel 26.22-37.28 as background.  Jesus is the climax of Israel’s hopes for restoration, fulfilling the restoration of his people.  The giving of the Spirit to God’s restored people in Ez. 36-37 involves a number of themes, including a mission of the ‘breath’ to restore God’s people from the four corners of the earth, the multi-faceted work of the Spirit, and the forgiveness of sins and restoration of God’s people to obedience to God.

John’s vision of mission in this passage builds on Jesus being the Temple where sacrifice for sin takes place and where God’s presence may be found.  Mission, like Israel’s pilgrim festivals, involves restoring God’s people to a worship that is now focussed on Jesus, the resurrected Temple of God, reception of the Spirit, and receiving forgiveness of sins.  This forgiveness of sins involves the new empowering by the Spirit to live holy and blamelessly before God.

Understood through these texts, mission is (1) a sending of disciples even as the Father sent Jesus to restore ‘exiled,’ disobedient Jews--and now also Gentiles--in captivity due to their sins to life lived with God, for we are his dwelling place.  (2) It is a work of the Spirit that involves transformation from being ‘dry bones’ to being Spirit-resurrected people who obey God.[10]  (3) It involves offering the world forgiveness of sins through the sacrificial death of Jesus, the Lamb of God, if people will but believe in him (e.g., Jn. 3.16).[11]

[1] I wish to thank Hennie Swart, dean of Stellenbosch Theological Institute and member of the Timothy Fellowship of East Mountain (Stellenbosch, South Africa), for the rich dialogue that generated this reflection on Jn. 20.21-23 and its relation with Ez. 36-37.
[2] The words ‘on them’ do not appear in the Greek and have been italicized, above.
[3] Ben Witherington (John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995), p. 343).
[4] Ibid., p. 343.
[5] The Gospel According to John (Downers Grove, IL: Apollos Press, 1991), p. 659.
[6] Ibid., p. 651.
[7] Gerry Wheaton, ‘The Role of the Jewish Feasts in John’s Gospel’ (PhD Dissertation, St. Andrews University, ?).
[8] Ibid., p. 175.
[9] Ibid., p. 175.  See Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Destruction of the Second Temple and the Composition of the Fourth Gospel.” Trinity Journal 26 (2005): 205-42.
[10] John allows no easy separation of a law court (juridical) ‘justification’ and a moral ‘sanctification.’  This narrative background in Ez. 36-37 in Jn. 20.21-23 entails both in the restoration of Israel from exile.  They are both forgiven and given the Spirit to live transformed lives.
[11] Jn. 20.23 is not, of course, giving priests the power to forgive sins.  The passage is related to this ministry of what Jesus has accomplished, and, as the Gospel repeatedly emphasises, it is for all but contingent on whether people receive Jesus by believing in him.