“What does the following passage mean? ‘And when he [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on them, and said unto them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22).

The surrounding context in John’s Gospel record reads as follows:

“Jesus therefore said to them again, Peace be unto you: as the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit: whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose sins you retain, they are retained” (John 20:21-23).

Elsewhere1 we have discussed the matter of the apostles declaring the “forgiveness of sins.” In this article, therefore, we will address only the Lord’s urging, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

This incident cannot be isolated from other complimentary information regarding the reception of the Holy Spirit by Christ’s disciples. Here are some important things to consider.

The Scope

First, there is the matter as to whom the term “disciples” embraces. Does the word include more than the “apostles”? Or, in this context, is “disciples” restricted to them?

While many respected scholars hold that a broader range of people than the apostles were involved in this promise, it must be admitted that in numerous passages “disciples” becomes a more technical term that is the equivalent of “apostles” (cf. Matthew 10:1-2; 11:1; John 2:2; 3:22, etc.). It is especially significant that the expression involving Christ being “sent” by the Father, and thus he would “send” the apostles (see John 17:18), is employed in this context. It is perhaps worthy of mention that the expression, “apostles,” is never used of the Twelve in John’s Gospel.

J.H. Bernard (1860-1927), the brilliant scholar of Trinity College in Dublin, has argued that while other disciples may have been present on this occasion, this particular entitlement was made to none but the apostles, who had been chosen specifically, and were to be “sent forth.”Bernard cites considerable testimony from the earliest patristic “fathers” (e.g., Justin, Origen, Cyprian, etc.) in favor of this view, and says he knows of no dissenting voice among the ancient writers who discussed this text2.

The Action

While some scholars argue that this “breathing” upon the disciples referred to a reception of the Holy Spirit at that moment in time, this view does not seem to comport with the full range of New Testament evidence3.

There is a case to be made for the view that this “breathing” of the Lord was but a symbolic, visual suggestion of the power that would be bequeathed to the apostles on the day of Pentecost. Here are some points worthy of reflection.

Prophetic grammar

At the conclusion of verse 21, the Lord declared: “as the Father sent me, even so I am sending you.” The present tense here appears to be employed here prophetically, in view of the certainty of their mission that would begin formally on Pentecost.

This seems clear inasmuch as the “sending forth” did not commence until after Pentecost, because they were charged not to depart from Jerusalem until the Spirit descended upon them. Note that the same type of prophetic present is used by Luke to depict that event. “And behold, I am sending [present tense] the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

The Holy Spirit connected with forgiveness of sins

The presence of the Holy Spirit is here connected with the apostolic declaration relative to the “forgiveness of sins” (v. 23). But this commission of redemptive deliverance was not announced and implemented in its fullness, based upon the death and resurrection of Christ, until several weeks following this incident; not until the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38).

It thus would appear to be the case that the episode in John 20:22 did not involve the actual reception of a supernatural empowering of the Holy Spirit on that immediate occasion. Rather, that circumstance was only a foreshadowing of the promise that would be fulfilled almost fifty days later. I believe W.E. Vine captured the sense of the text quite well.

“Receive ye the Holy Spirit” (R.V. margin) referred not merely to His own breath, it was symbolic of the Holy Spirit as about to be sent at Pentecost. It was connected with their being sent out into the world, and with the effect of their ministry of the Gospel in the forgiveness of sins by the Spirit’s power, or the retention of sins by the rejection of the message (vv. 23,24). It was a prophetic act as well as symbolic4.

In his commentary on John, Frank Pack wrote:

[T]here is no indication here that the apostles at this time received the Holy Spirit. Jesus symbolically was assuring them on resurrection Sunday that what he had promised them would occur. But Luke puts the ‘beginning’ of the church on Pentecost (Acts 11:15) and Peter finds the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy of ‘the last days’ beginning on Pentecost (Acts 2:17). Here Jesus connected the Holy Spirit with the forgiveness and retention of sins, looking forward to the apostles’ preaching of ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’ (Luke 24:47)5

For a more thorough discussion setting forth this view, see: D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991, pp. 651-655).