The Commissioning of the Disciples: John 20:19-23

Below are my notes on the commissioning of the disciples. Jesus has been resurrected from the grave, and now suddenly appears before His followers. Read on to learn what happens…

20:19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

Walking Through Walls?

It is still Sunday, only now the day has reached its conclusion and evening has come. The disciples – this could be a group comprised of more than those later known as “Apostles” – are huddled in a meeting room when Jesus arrives on the scene.

Our author notes that far from the great alacrity with which we hope to meet our Lord upon His return, these men were fearful. John tells us the reason why – they feared the Jews. When Jesus suddenly appears in their presence, this must have given them a great start. Already on high alert, suddenly this man seemingly comes from out of nowhere.

Jesus, it is said by some, must have walked through the locked doors of this gathering place. As MacArthur presumes, “The locked doors were no deterrent to Him; His glorified resurrection body simply passed through the walls.”

But I think Morris, Hendriksen, are correct to urge caution to readers, that we might not jump to the immediate conclusion that we know exactly how He entered the room. Carson, usually very thorough on these kinds of things, agrees with MacArthur, though he actually gives a reason where as MacArthur (in his usual confident style) simply assumes the fact. Carson says,
“The function of the locked doors in John’s narrative, both here and in v. 26, is to stress the miraculous nature of Jesus’ appearance amongst his followers. As his resurrection body passed through the grace-clothes, so it passed through the locked doors and simply ‘materialized.’”

He has a point – at least contextually. And I believe that though the passage doesn’t explicitly say how Jesus got into the room, it seems implicit from the context that He arrived through some spectacular means.

That being said, I think this is a perfect example of a passage where we must read up to a certain point and then stand back in awe of the Lord, without pressing it or adding to it in such a way that it would bring judgment upon us. Therefore some, for example, who use this passage as a way to say that one day we will have some sort of translucent or metamorphic powers. It is not wrong to look forward in hope to the glorious new body Christ will clothe us in upon the resurrection, but those who presume to confidently erect an entire scheme of eschatological physiology based on this verse alone ought to temper themselves, and leave such things in God’s hands.

The Peace of God

Jesus (the embodiment of peace) then greets the disciples with the customary greeting – this would have been salom alekem in the Hebrew. It seems pretty normal, but as Carson wisely points out, Jesus says it twice. Therefore most scholars agree that there is more than a simple greeting here. As J.C. Ryle says, “He who ‘spake as never man spake,’ said nothing without meaning.”

This leads us to ponder two things in particular.

First, the gentleness with which Jesus addresses His disciples. These men have been cowering in fear. They’ve completely abandoned His grave – unlike the brave women and two influential members of the Sanhedrin, they don’t seem to have been spending a lot of time at the tomb.

But as Ryle points out, “’Peace’ and not blame, ‘peace’ and not fault-finding, ‘peace’ and not rebuke, was the first word which this little company heard from their Master’s lips, after He left the tomb.”

Secondly, this leads us to ponder the fulfillment of the promises He made before His death:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Thus the first thing He says to His disciples after defeating death has a tinge of the fulfillment of that great promise He made, and the reminder that because of His work they (and all who come to believe in Him – see Ch. 17!) would have everlasting peace. Indeed Paul saw this clearly:

…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:12-16)

It is significant in my own mind that the first thing Jesus says to our souls when we come to Him in repentance and seeking protection is “peace be with you.” As Christians we have that peace, and that rest. We simply come into His presence, we ask for forgiveness, we ask for His power and His peace, and He will be faithful to not withhold what He so enjoy to give:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)

20:20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

He’s Really Real

He is not an aberration – there is a physical body, this is a real resurrection, He is not merely a Spirit. In John’s day, the Docetists were claiming that Jesus hadn’t really appeared on earth with a real human body. They felt that the physical world (much like the Gnostics) was evil, or corrupt, and they didn’t think that God would have subjected Himself to such an evil.

They believed that though He appeared to be human, He was really only spirit – not only post-resurrection, mais après as well.

John lays out the case against this simply by recording historical fact. Jesus, for His part, shows His disciples unparalleled love and kindly condescension. He wants them to know that He is not a mere aberration, but the One they love and have followed these past three years. This is the Lord.

20:21-23 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.”

The Commissioning

This seems to be a very difficult passage, but I believe the main theme is found in this commissioning of the disciples. Their commission is ours, and is an extension of the Son’s mission, just as the Son’s mission is an extension of the Father’s plans for His creation and chosen people, and that mission is given to the church as a whole to be carried out by individuals empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus makes this plain when He uses the words “as” and “even so” – these words are what remind us of the fact that He is the vine and we are the branches. Without Him we can do nothing.

What a thrilling charge! No sooner has Jesus arisen from the grave than He says, “its go time! Let’s roll. We have a great mission in front of us.” We.

And what I want to just point out here is that once Christ’s “peace” has come upon us, we are commissioned in a similar way. We are to be “doers” in the missional sense of James’ words. He has commissioned the church for action. Now what is that action? We’ll come to that in a minute…

Empowered by the Spirit – A Preview of Pentecost

First, I want to note that this commissioning is grounded in the reality that the disciples were empowered to carry out the mission. They are empowered by the Holy Spirit. They couldn’t do this job alone, and neither can we.

John Owen rightly said that there is a “natural popery in man,” by which (and I believe Tim Challies is right on this account) we naturally want to work our way through ever sin, every problem and every mission of life, depending very little on help from others or from God.

So let us not fall into that trap. As Christians we are commissioned for the spreading of the Gospel and the living of a victorious life. That only happens when we walk in the Spirit.

Now, there is an interesting situation here which scholars of all stripes have long disputed. The scene as we have just read it, involved Jesus breathing on His disciples. He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Only then does He commission them for action.

Some have said that there is a conflict between this mini Pentecost, and the one in Acts 2. How can we reconcile these two events?

Because of the context, and the order of what Jesus says and does here, I believe that He is grounding this imperative (the charge) in the indicative (the receiving of the Spirit). The Bible never asks us to do anything without giving us the help and power to do so. This is the case in numerous examples throughout the New Testament especially because of the New Covenant promise of the Spirit.

A perfect example of this is found in Philippians:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

Note that there is a command, which is promptly followed by the reassurance that it is God “who works in you.” So the imperative is grounded in the comfort of the indicative.

With all of this in mind, I think that this breathing on of the Spirit is symbolic of what will happen soon at Pentecost (Acts 2) – it is anticipatory of that event, just as the commissioning is anticipatory of their upcoming mission (this view of the anticipatory nature of the “breathing” is taken by Schreiner, and fits well with my own contextual interpretation of the commission as a whole). Note that He will later instruct them to remain in the city until the Spirit comes upon them.

Therefore He commissions them with instructions grounded in His own promise to help through yet another “extension” of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. This all anticipates the day they will be sent into all the world to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18).

Second, I think this breathing is symbolic because the disciples don’t immediately show fruit of being filled with the Holy Spirit. As Carson points out:

There is too slight a demonstration within the Gospel of John that this alleged bestowal of the Spirit made the slightest bit of difference in the lives of Jesus’ followers. The disciples still meet behind locked doors (vs. 26) and the natural inference is that they are still afraid of the Jewish authorities (vs. 19). When Thomas comes to faith, it is not because of the promised witness of the Spirit (15:26-27), but because he sees the risen Jesus for himself. Those who accept John 21 as part of the Gospel, even if it is cast as an epilogue, cannot fail to observe that the disciples are sliding back to their old employment (21:1-3), sorting out elementary reconciliation with the Master (21:15-19), and still playing ‘let’s compare-service-record’ games (21:20-22). All this is not only a far cry from the power, joy exuberant witness, courageous preaching and delight in suffering displayed by the early Christians after Pentecost, in Acts, it is no less distant from the same virtues foretold in John’s farewell discourse, where the promise of the Spirit receives such emphasis.

Carson goes on to say that if this is really John’s version of Pentecost, it’s really disappointing! And I agree with him. This must be a preview, an anticipation of what is to come.

The Instruction

Now looking at the instruction itself, He tells them that, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” This can only make sense if we understand that He is not talking to the individual (like priests or the pope etc.), but to the church as a whole (cf. Morris).

Furthermore, to understand this we must touch on that foundational truth we just discussed about the Spirit. Our work is grounded in the work of God – our power is assumed to come from Him. And this is the same here as it pertains to forgiveness. Those the church forgives are forgiven, but not because the church has a mystical power outside of God’s prerogative to forgive whomever we want, but rather because the church (when operating in a Spirit-filled manner) agrees with God’s Spirit to forgive, or not to forgive.

Some denominations – Catholics and others – have taken this to mean that priests have the right of “absolution”, but if we are to truly understand the ancient practice of ablution we must understand it to mean that form of agreement with God that reassures a church member that he/she has been forgiven (see esp. Sproul on this).

The Catholic “church” has in recently centuries enumerated unto itself such “powers” as were never meant in this practice (or ought not to have been meant in any case). Catholic priests say now, “et ego auctoritate ipsius te absolvo”, which is to say, “and by His authority I absolve you.”

In sum, the church can bind and loose, can forgive and hold back forgiveness, because it is a Spirit-filled institution, the very bride of Christ, and His body. So long as the church is connected to Him as His branches, we will agree discerningly with Him in all His judgments as we proclaim the gospel of forgiveness and the warning of eternal punishment to all who reject this free offer. What Jesus is saying here is none other than that the church has the commission to preach the gospel to all people in power endued by the very God who had just raised Him from the grave.

For as Peter would later recall…

God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it…This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. (Acts 2:24, 32-33)

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