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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Stir One Another to Love and Good Works

Sunday evening I had the opportunity to deliver a short sermon on Hebrews 10:23-25 which was aimed at encouraging the church toward having an eternal perspective and how that perspective, along with the indicative of what Christ has done and who He is, ought to govern how we behave amongst the elect.  I hope you find these notes engaging and encouraging!

PJW

Hebrews 10:23-25

Stir One Another to Love and Good Works

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. [24] And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, [25] not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

  1. The foundation of our good works and our service to the body of Christ is the Lord Himself.
  2. We must respond to His faithfulness in-kind by doing three things:
    1. Stirring each other up to love and good works
    2. Meeting together regularly
    3. Encouraging one another
  3. Conclusion: Perspective is everything
  1. The foundation of our good works and our service to the body of Christ is the Lord Himself.

Hold Fast

We’re told here in verse 23 to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.” He expresses the command in both positive (hold fast) and a negative (without wavering) terms.

What does it mean to “hold fast to the confession of our hope”?

In this passage, as in the rest of the book of Hebrews, the author’s words are dripping with eschatological richness. What do I mean by that? What I mean is that he always has the future in mind. Furthermore, he sees how Christ’s past work solidifies our future, and guides our present life. That is why he uses the word “hope” here. He is pointing us toward a future time when our hope will be realized.

This hope is ours now – otherwise it would not have made sense for him to tell us to hold fast to it – yet it will not be realized until the Lord returns.

This confession is our profession of faith in Christ and our identification with Him, and the entailment of riches that come to us by means of that confession.

As Calvin says, hope is the child of faith and “it is fed and sustained by faith to the end” (Hughes, pg. 414).

Therefore, we don’t simply confess His Lordship; we confess the hope we have because of His Lordship. Being a Christian comes with great cost, but it also comes with great reward. That reward is packed into the word “hope.”

What does it mean to not “waver”?

John Owen tells us that this generally means that our confession, our lives, must be “immovable and constant” and gives us four different ways in which we must not waver:

  1. No halting (going back and forth) between two opinions as the Israelites did between God an Baal. We must not waiver and be tossed back and forth doctrinally for convenience sake.
  2. No giving in to weakness and irresolution of mind when we encounter difficulties and trials.
  3. No yielding doctrinally or in worship to opinions which do not comport with our professed faith.
  4. No apostasy from the truth of the gospel.

The Imperative is Grounded in the Indicative

Now I want us to learn some theological grammar this evening. Let us note that in this first verse the apostle commands us to do one thing, and not do another thing, as we have just examined. We are to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.” That command is called an “imperative.” When we tell someone to do something, we’re using the “imperative.”

But there is something sweet about living in the New Covenant and that is that as you read the New Testament you will notice that these commands, these “imperatives”, are always grounded in finished work of Christ.

When we talk about the finished work of Christ, and His character and Spirit and so forth, we are using phrasing that falls into another category, the “indicative.”

An easy way to remember this is that the indicative “indicates what Christ has done, what He is doing, and who He is.” At least that’s my theological shorthand!

So putting it all together: when we say that “the imperative is grounded in the indicative” we are saying that the commands we are given as Christians are always given in light of the finished work of Christ and His continuing work within us.

He is the rock upon which we rest our hope, and He is the one who is faithfully working within us to build His church. He is faithful therefore enabling US to be faithful.

Perhaps the most classic example of this is found in Philippians 2 where we read:

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, [13] for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

In one breath Paul calls them to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, and in the very same sentence tells that that it’s God who is doing the work within them!

We find the same thing here in Hebrews 10.

We are commanded to “hold fast” to our confession, but this obedience, this work of continuing to “hold fast” is made possible only by the faithful work of Jesus in our lives.

Therefore our foundation for obedience is the faithfulness of Christ Himself.

  1. We must respond to His faithfulness in-kind by doing three things: Stirring each other to love and good works, meeting together regularly, and encouraging one another.

Stirring each other up to love and good works

This “stirring” requires an intentional mindset toward interacting with one another. Not just “I’m going to say hi to him today.” But more along the lines of, “I want to find out how to encourage him today, to spur him/her on!”

In order to do this there is an unspoken prerequisite: you have to actually know each other well enough that you can do this is a meaningful way!

If you don’t know the needs, hurts, goal, desires of the men and women sitting in the pew next to you then you won’t be very good at stirring them up toward love and good works will you!

Secondly, before you can stir someone to love you must first stir with love. In other words, you can’t be much of encourager if your words aren’t governed by love. Paul said it best:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. [2] And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. [3] If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Meeting together regularly

The next thing we’re told to do is to “meet together regularly” – something we’re doing right now! But you know, there are some folks who fall into the trap of thinking that the don’t need to come to church because they’re already saved, and doing just fine on their own. They have their fire insurance.

In fact, there are some who are good Christians – using that term loosely – and they will tell you that they don’t need to attend church or Bible studies all the time because they read the Word on their own.

Philip Hughes accurately describes the problem here:

Selfishness and divisiveness go hand in hand; for self-love breed the spirit of isolationism. He who does not love his fellow Christians fervently from the heart (1 Peter 1:22) feels no compelling need to associate himself with them. Indeed, the genuineness of the Christian profession of a man in this state must be seriously suspect, for those who are one in Christ cannot help loving one another.

When Martin Luther sat down to translate the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into his native tongue – the common vernacular that everyone could read – there were some well-meaning friends of his who said this could be a major problem. And he didn’t rebuke them, in fact he agreed. But continued on because he believed that the blessings brought by the principle of private interpretation (the idea that every child of God should have access to the Word of God), were worth the risk of that principle being abused.

In isolation and without guidance wiser men of God, people come to all kinds of wacky conclusions about what God’s Word is saying. We need to have God’s shepherds guide us through His Word and fellow believers correct our misguided ideas sometimes.

Furthermore, in isolation we cannot serve each other or the poor in our community, we cannot worship God together, and we cannot enjoy the Lord’s table together and much more. Lone-wolf Christianity is foreign to the pages of Scripture.

It is vital – absolutely vital – that we meet together “regularly.”

Encouraging one another

When we meet together what is it that we should do? Well the author has an idea on that as well! We’re to “encourage one another.”

You know what this rules out? Slander and gossip. This is easy to do – especially with prayer requests. When we are such a close knit group, its frighteningly easy to throw each other under the proverbial bus, or talk rudely or insensitively about those whom we will spend eternity.

My Sunday School class took this into consideration early on in its formation. We wanted to be able to share prayer requests with each other, and yet we wanted to guard against slander and gossip. So at the end of our weekly prayer request email we’ve always included the following statement:

Please remember that as we share our prayers with one another, we do so because we are family, and we have the desire to lift each other up to our Father, and because we believe that our prayers are delightful to Him and He delights in listening to them and working powerfully through them. Please take our prayer emails as opportunities to enter into the presence of God on behalf of another person with whom you will be spending eternity. They are, quite literally, your family.  Please treat them as such, and avoid slander or gossip. Take your thoughts captive for Jesus Christ, and magnify the name of our great God and Father!

This is far from being the end-all-be-all solution, but it strikes a chord with folks and sets a tone. We need to remember who we’re talking about – these are brothers and sisters who we will spend eternity with.

In that vein, let’s read the final verse and conclude…

3. Conclusion: Perspective is Everything. We are doing all of these things “all the more as (we) see the Day drawing near.”

As Christians we need to have a sense of eternity. Our perspective needs to be calibrated through the lenses of Christ’s eyes. We have to have the “mind of Christ.” We know these things, we’ve heard the truths, but how often do we govern our actions based on a timeline that doesn’t end at 5pm on Friday? We section off our lives based on the calendar on our iPhones, instead of the eternal lifespan ahead of us.

How much easier would it be to share the gospel, stir each other up, encourage each other, and meet together if we governed our attitudes about such things based on a timeline that didn’t end at the beginning of the school year, or the end of the weekend (etc.)?

Christians ought to behave different because they have a different perspective. That is what the author of Hebrews is saying. Perspective rules our lives.

One of the things that fascinates me about the Biblical accounts of angels is their perspective.

We meet one such example when Gabriel visits Zachariah in the temple and tells him about how his wife Elizabeth is going to bear a child he is aghast at Zachariah’s reaction – unbelief. Here’s how he responds:

And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. [20] And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” (Luke 1:19-20)

Gabriel is saying “I was JUST in heaven before God’s throne. He’s gives me this message and you don’t believe me??? I mean, I was JUST there – in heaven – in the throne room!”

Christ’s perspective is also infinite. Listen to the account of when Jesus had risen from the grave and Mary mistook Him for the gardener:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (John 20:15)

It isn’t as though He is curious about the reason for her crying (see Gerhardus Vos sermon ‘Rabboni’). No. It’s that He’s just come from a party in heaven and what He encounters here is so out of step with reality that He’s taken aback! It’s as He’s saying, “Why in the world are you crying? It’s time to celebrate!”

These reactions are governed by a reality that we must apprehend by faith for the present time.

Therefore, we must behave, think, feel, and talk in such a way that takes into account the “Day of the Lord.”

Those thoughts, feelings, and speech must all be taken captive to the truth – the reality – of a perspective governed by an eternal timeframe.

Let us leave here with that perspective – this is just the start! Life is eternal! I will know each of you FOREVER! We will rule over this earth together FOREVER! How does that change your week, your day, your evening? And how does it change the way you interact with and speak about those here in the church?

Let us bear in mind the truth of what R.C. Sproul is prone to say, “Right now counts forever.”

Let’s pray…