Our Power and MessageJohn 20:22-23 • Dr. Andy Woods • May 10, 2015 • JOHN - The Life and Light Revealed
Our Power and Message
5-10-15 John 20:22-23 Lesson 123
Good morning everybody, of course a very happy Mother’s Day to everyone… well, not to everyone, to the mothers. As a matter of fact, raise your hand if you have a mother. All right, see, how important motherhood is, right there. I saw the quote this morning and I just wanted to share it. It’s “she who rocks the cradle rocks the world.” And it just seems like in our society we are losing sight of where the true source of power is. It’s nurturing godly children in the home and of course all of the sacrifices that mothers play are very much appreciated, even though the culture is forgetting the significance of mother hood to a large extent.
I also want to extend a very hearty and happy congratulations to our graduates. We had an event last night commemorating our two high school graduates, Briana Hannan and Alison Camplen, and of course, as we just heard earlier, Will Miller graduated from the College of Biblical Studies. So it’s a happy time but it’s also a time of transition and it’s a time, really, to continue to walk with the Lord despite the transitions of life.
If we could take our Bibles and open them to John 20:22, looking today at verses 22 and 23 as we find ourselves in the final section there of John’s Gospel, specifically dealing with his death and now we’re taking a look at His resurrection. The empty tomb is given in the first ten verses of John 20 and then what follows at that point, until the end of John’s Gospel, is Christ’s various post-resurrection appearances. We saw Him appear to Mary Magdalene, and now to a group that’s called the ten; this would be the disciples without Thomas present.
And we’ve seen their state of fear and that fear quickly turns into joy with the appearance of Jesus to them in the small room where they had gathered. We’ve looked at His appearance and His comfort and the key thing to understand about His comfort is the repetition of the phrase, “peace be with you.” And we’ve talked about that in prior sermons and then what begins to take place is their commission, their job description. And this, of course, by extension is our commission. This is actually called the great commission. John reveals a little bit of it, the other Gospel writers reveal a little bit more of it; the book of Acts reveals a little bit more of it. We’ve talked about the great commission last time, in verse 21. We’ve seen that the church has a very simple task: number 1, glorify God; number 2, edify the saints or the believers; and number 3, fulfill the great commission, world evangelization being part of that.
We also what the great commission is not; the great commission is not setting up the kingdom of God on the earth. The great commission is not the social gospel, where you become preoccupied with humanitarian concerns to the neglecting of the preaching of the eternal gospel. But we saw all of those concepts last time in verse 21 and what we move into today is our power to fulfill this, and then what will follow is our specific message.
One of the things I love about God is whatever He orders He pays for. In other words, he’s not like the guy that you sit down and have lunch with him and then he says oh, I forgot my wallet, can you pick up the tab. You know, when God orders something it’s paid for. When God commands something into existence, like the great commission, He reveals the power or He gives the individuals the power that they need to fulfill His will. Which, of course, is encouraging. You know, as Will is thinking about seminary he’s got the power of God on his side to fulfill those duties; as we reflected just a few moments ago about motherhood and the exhausting nature of it we have resources on our side to fulfill that calling. What God orders He empowers; what He commands He pays for (in a sense).
And what we discover in verse 22 is the empowerment that is given to the church to fulfill its purposes on the earth. Notice, if you will, verse 22, it says, “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” I like to refer to the Holy Spirit as the forgotten member of the Trinity. One of the reasons He’s forgotten is the Holy Spirit, for whatever reason, doesn’t like to draw attention to Himself. We saw in the Upper Room Discourse that His job is to glorify the Son. So we have a tendency to know an awful lot about the Father in the Triune Godhead; we know an awful lot about the Son, and for whatever reason we don’t know a lot about the Holy Spirit. Yet the Holy Spirit is so essential and critical because that is the source of power by which we must draw upon to fulfill our purposes in God upon the earth.
It was Charles Feinberg; you may recognize that name, a very famous Bible expositor, who at a conference, during a Q & A session was asked, is the Holy Spirit mentioned in the Old Testament? And Charles Feinberg had committed in his life vast volumes of biblical material to memory. And as he started to answer that question He began in Genesis 1:2 with the Spirit of God moving on the waters, and then he went into the book of Exodus where the Spirit of God came upon the tabernacle workers, and they were able to build the tabernacle. [Genesis 1:2, “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.”]
And then from there, by memory, he went through every single verse in the Old Testament that dealt with the Holy Spirit. And the audience sat there spellbound. He held their attention for multiple hours just answering this question. And the audience was stunned, first of all at the ability of Charles Feinberg to recall information, but they were also astonished to learn that the Holy Spirit is so dominant in the Old Testament.
Many people have an idea that the Holy Spirit just shows up in the book of Acts, but you see, nothing could be further from the truth. The Holy Spirit is active all the way through the Bible. In fact, if you want a fancy name for this, this is a study that we call pneumatology; pneuma is the Greek word for spirit, and ology, of course you recognize as the study of, and it’s the study of the Holy Spirit. What does the Bible, Genesis to Revelation, say about the Holy Spirit?
If you ever get a chance to search the Scriptures to discover this it will be one of the most rewarding studies you could ever give yourself to. Here is just a very abbreviated list but we discover the Holy Spirit in the great commission. For example, in John 20:22, as Jesus commends them he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Luke 24:47-49, laying out the great commission says this: “and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.  And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
You’ll notice there that the Holy Spirit is referring to clothing; clothing covers all of us. And that is the covering that God has given us to fulfill His purposes, a source of power. In Acts 1:8 Jesus says this, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’” You’ll notice that every time He mentions the great commission, right alongside of it He mentions the power of the Holy Spirit. And I often think, where would the church be if the church early on had ignored the Lord’s instructions and sought to do the work of God through human power? May I just say to you that Christianity would have never gotten off the ground? It would have quickly fizzled. But Christianity, as we know, became and continues to be a worldwide influence; that has to do not with the ingenuity of man, not with his various marketing schemes and things of that nature, but it has to do with the power of the Holy Spirit.
One of the things to understand about the Holy Spirit is it is power; in fact, the Holy Spirit was active in creation itself. Genesis 1:2 says this: “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” Think about that! The very Spirit of God that was active in creation is the same Spirit of God that wants to assist you and empower you in your life. In fact, it was the Holy Spirit that brought Jesus out of the grave. Romans 8:11 says this: “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,” isn’t that an astonishing thing? The very Spirit of God that brought Jesus out of the grave is actually dwelling in us. As I mentioned before, the Spirit of God is all over the Old Testament. There are so many verses we would have to have Charles Fienberg come back from the dead to remind us of them.
But just 2, Judges 14:6, speaking of Samson, “The Spirit of the LORD came upon him mightily, so that he tore him as one tears a young goat though he had nothing in his hand….” Samson became a different person under the power of the Holy Spirit. And then sort of a lifelong verse for me is Zechariah 4:6, which says this: “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel, saying, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD….”
And you think about Zerubbabel, who was active in bringing the nation of Israel out of the seventy years of captivity, how they went back into the land that was desolate and they started to rebuild the temple there, the temple which had been destroyed seventy years earlier, at least, by Nebuchadnezzar. And you think of that building project that he had and you think of this task of bringing the Jews back into the land, into this barren wilderness that had once been theirs, the city of Jerusalem in rubble, the temple having been destroyed, and you can only put yourself in the mind of Zerubbabel to think what was going on in his mind. Most likely he was thinking how can I do all of this? The task that God has given me is so powerful; the task that God has given me is so awesome, and no doubt he became discouraged and Zechariah was raised up to remind him that is it “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the LORD….”
How easy it is to become weary in well doing, to just become fatigued because the tasks of life, the tasks of ministry, are overwhelming. The tasks of simply living in a fallen world can be overwhelming and we need to be reminded that God will bring forth in your life what He seeks to bring forth, “Not by might nor by power,” but by His Spirit. It will not be done by our innovativeness, our ingenuity, our I.Q.’s, our gifts and talents in and of themselves; it will ultimately be done by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is all over the Old Testament. In fact, Jesus said this in the Upper Room, about the Spirit, “that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, but it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” When Jesus introduced the doctrine of the Holy Spirit to these disciples there in the Upper Room, they didn’t sit around and say well, what Holy Spirit is He talking about? They were devout Jews; they were folks coming out of an age of time that we call Old Testament history. They knew all about the Holy Spirit. In fact, Jesus says, specifically to him, “…but you know Him,” He is abiding with you but the day will come when He is actually going to be in you.
You look at the ministry of Jesus Christ; you think of the fact that there was no more powerful of a man that ever walked the face of the earth than Jesus Christ, and it is so interesting to note His dependency upon the Holy Spirit. Jesus, in Luke 4:18-19 says this: “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE HAS ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,  TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.”
You’ll notice that Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, specifically said I am doing these things in ministry because the Spirit of the Lord is upon Me. And we look at something like this and we say if Jesus had to depend upon the Spirit to become what He had to become on this earth, how much more dependent are we upon this ministry of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the early church would not have become what it became without the Spirit of God inspiring and propelling that church. Acts 4:31 says this, “And when they had prayed the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.”
Do you need boldness in your life? Are you intimidated by evil all around you, as we all can get? Then what you need is to draw upon the Holy Spirit. I am reminded of what Paul says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:7, where He says the Lord, has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of boldness and power and of self-discipline.” [2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.”]
And in fact, as a New Testament Christian we simply have no capacity to walk the walk that God has for us without daily moment by moment dependency upon the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:16 says this, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” Are you battling “the desires of the flesh?” We all “battle the desires of the flesh,” the temptation to return to the old way of life, and to allow sinful propensities to reassert themselves in our lives, even as Christians. And Paul says in Galatians 5:16 there is a remedy for that, “I say walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the lusts of the flesh.”
One of the things I like to say is I like to correct this idea where people say the Christian life is difficult and the correction I like to give is, the Christian life is not difficult, the Christian life is impossible. The tasks in front of Zerubbabel were impossible tasks. The tasks in your life, from our vantage point, look like they are an impossibility and yet with the power of the Holy Spirit things that are impossible become possible.
And so what is happening here is Jesus, as He is commissioning these disciples to a worldwide ministry is quick to reveal to them that this will not be pulled off by human strength; it will be rather accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit. Verse 22, immediately after getting their commission it says, “when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.” And how we need to adhere to that today; I know so many times when trouble comes I try to solve it in human ingenuity. I try to solve it in human flesh. The problem is the arm of the flesh is only so long. There is only so much that you can do through the arm of the flesh. How important it becomes to tap into the power of the Holy Spirit.
We just celebrated a little earlier Will and Rachel; how could something like this have happened in their lives without God. There is no amount of human wisdom that can rescue people. It is a work of God; it is the power of the Holy Spirit; Will and Rachel have no corner on God. In other words, God is the same, yesterday, today and forever. What He has done in their lives He can do in my life and He can do in your life. Sometimes we drive automobiles without gas in the tank; that describes a lot of our lives in Christ, doesn’t it? We try to do certain things, to please God, and we quickly forget about the resources that He has given us to fulfill His design on our lives.
Now as you might imagine, verse 22 is somewhat debated. Jesus says, “when He had said this He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Many people teach, and there are many find Bible teachers that teach this, I remember hearing a sermon once by the founder of the Christian Institute Research Institute, the late Walter Martin, who argued that what the disciples received at this point was some kind of temporary infusion of the Holy Spirit; there was some kind of temporary enablement given to these disciples, waiting for the key outpouring that would happen in Acts 2.
May I just say to you that I do not think that that is what is happening here? And there are many reasons why I think that; for one thing, Jesus, in the Upper Room, never spoke of two comings of the Holy Spirit, that they would receive the Holy Spirit before He ascended, and then they would receive it a second time after He ascended in Acts 2. When Jesus spoke of the coming Spirit in the Upper Room He talked about one coming upon the church. John 14:16, He says, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper,” it doesn’t say He will give it to you and then give it to you again. John 15:26 says, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you,” He doesn’t say I will send Him once and send Him twice.
John 16:7-8 says, the Helper who comes whom I will send to you, singular, not multiple sending.
[John 16:7-8, “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.  And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.”]
John 16:13 says, “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes,” not multiple comings but one coming.
Beyond this, the main event whereby the Holy Spirit would live inside the church would not begin here in the Upper Room, but rather it would begin on the day of Pentecost. The day of Pentecost is the key shift in the work of the Holy Spirit. Acts 1:5 says this, “for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Acts 2:4 says, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, [as the Spirit was giving them utterance].”
When did the change happen? Not before the ascension but after the ascension. And if Jesus was giving some kind of temporary or temporal endowment of the Holy Spirit before He ascended, then why did Thomas not get involved in that? Why was Thomas not included? Because you see, Thomas shows up eight days later and Jesus meets with the disciples a second time. Thomas was not there when Jesus said receive the Holy Spirit so therefore why didn’t Thomas get this temporary enablement after he showed up but before Jesus ascended.
And beyond all of this the change that happens in the lives of these disciples does not happen before Acts 2. Prior to Acts 2 they are just ordinary people. In fact, following this event John 21:3 says this, “Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’” Does that sound like a Spirit filled man; he just quit on the whole thing and says I’m going fishing. And then they went out and they got into a boat and they were out there all night and they caught nothing. And then over in Acts 1:6-7 they are still confused about the kingdom. It says, “When they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’” They don’t even understand the age of the church yet despite the fact that Jesus has disclosed this age to them in the Upper Room. I mean, these people that Jesus is interacting with here show no sign of change in their mentality or their lives or their behavior.
But once Acts 2 happens the change occurs. So therefore I don’t think Jesus was offering some sort of temporary endowment of the Spirit prior to His ascension. Rather, what I think He is doing is making a promise, a promise that would not be fulfilled right here as Jesus is talking to the ten but rather a promise that was eminent, that was coming, and that would take place in Acts 2. This is a promise of a prediction of the Holy Spirit that would come upon them in Acts 2.
And when Jesus says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” He is not speaking of something that is happening right then and there; I believe He is speaking in what we call proleptic speech. You see, God is not bound by time; to God tomorrow is already today. God does not have to wait for Sunday to be over before He can experience Monday. This is Peter’s whole point in 2 Peter 3, that to God a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as one day. [2 Peter 3:8, “But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.”]
And because God is not confined by time the way we are He can speak things into existence in present tense terms, although they will be future realities. Well, why does He speak them in present tense terms? Because even though the promise has not materialized yet in fact, it’s certain that it will, because God cannot lie. And God is not bound by today before He can experience tomorrow.
So there are things in the Bible that are spoken of as if they are happening at the present time. The reason they’re spoken of in the present tense is because they are certainties. In fact, these things are so certain that God can reveal them in the present tense as if they were happening now, although factually the filling of the Spirit and the coming of the Spirit would not take place until Acts 2.
Did you know that you are already glorified? You say well, I don’t feel glorified. And you all don’t look glorified either. But biblically speaking you are already in glory. Notice what Paul does as he articulates for us the phases of our salvation, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;  and those whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also” what? “glorified.”
Notice that all of these things, foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, those already happened. And yet the glorification, when we enter glory, is also put in the past tense. How could that be put in the past tense if it hasn’t happened yet? And the answer is in God it’s an absolute certainty because God, who is not bound by time, already sees tomorrow and He can speak it as if it has already happened, proleptic speech.
I remember my very first class I was teaching at the College of Biblical Studies, we went over a verse in Jude and it says this: “It was about these men that Enoch, the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones,” [Jude 14] I was going on and on about isn’t it great that Jesus is coming back, isn’t it great that He’s coming back with His holy ones, and a student raised their hand and they said, well, if this is talking about a future event why does it say “the Lord came”? And I paused in my talk because I didn’t have an answer; I gave kind of that deer in the headlights look. And I said let me get back to you on that. And I started to look into this concept of proleptic speech, that there are things revealed that will take place in the future and yet God can put them in the present tense, He can put them in the past tense because God is not bound by time. I came back the next week with a more intelligent answer and that was the answer I gave. It’s common in Scripture to have this reality, called proleptic speech.
It’s like when we sing the song in church, which is the dentist’s favorite song, “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” And we sing that, we sing “Crown Him With Many crowns” and we’re actually singing as if He has already been coronated. May I just say to you theologically, biblically Jesus has not been coronated yet. He has not yet been coronated as King; He is not yet ruling as King. Well, if that is so then how can we in church sing a song, Crown Him With Many Crowns as if the coronation has already happened? Because it’s a song that reflects a proleptic attitude that is to exhibit the church and her mindset. We are to be so confident, in other words, that the crowning of Christ and the coronation of Christ and the ruling of Christ is a certainty and as a reality we can sing it as if it is happening now or has already happened, even though the event, theologically and biblically speaking is yet future.
What is being said here then, I believe, is simply a statement, receive the Holy Spirit, not referring to some sort of temporary endowment of the Spirit to sort of tide things over until the day of Pentecost, but it is proleptic speech whereby He is announcing, He is decreeing that the Spirit of God is on the horizon. It’s on the horizon from your point of view, it’s future from your point of view, but in the mind of God it is such a certainty that it’s already happened. So whatever view you take on this, it’s an interesting discussion about it, I’ve sort of given you my leaning, but the more important thing to understand is the power that’s available to the church. Jesus does not simply commission the church to go without revealing to her the source of her empowerment.
So the church has power, verse 22, to fulfill the great commission, verse 21, so then what is our message? I’m glad you asked. Take a look at verse 23, another tricky verse. It says this, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” Now the first time you look at this and read it, it looks as if we, as the people of God, as those who are fulfilling the great commission, it looks as if we have the power to forgive people’s sins. And of course, there are many religious systems today, Roman Catholicism comes to mind but I could mention many others where you actually have to confess to a human being to have your sins absolved or forgiven. And they would gravitate, those that build such systems, they would gravitate to a verse like this.
But you see, there’s a major problem with that. You say what’s the problem? The problem is what Jesus said in Mark 2:7, “…who can forgive sins but God alone.” So if only God forgives sins, what in the world do we do with a verse like 23 which says, If you have forgiven “the sins of any, there sins, “their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
What you have to understand is we have to look at the sentence grammatically. Grammar matters; syntax matters! Why is that? Because God decided to disclose Himself, not just through creation, not just through His Son, but through the Scripture. He opted to disclose Himself in verbal form.
Since He opted to disclose Himself in verbal form we have to pay attention to the laws of language because language has laws, just like science has laws. Language has principles; there are grammatical rules that must be adhered to when you study the Scripture, just like you would adhere to those grammatical rules when you’re studying a contract in business or any other work of literature. I am not the type of teacher or preacher that likes to, just for the sake of unloading it, unloading grammar on you because sometimes a nuance understanding of the grammar of a passage really doesn’t help us clear away the mist and explain what a passage actually means. But in those instances where the interpretation of a passage hinges on grammar I will bring that up because we have to understand the principles of grammar, because God has decided to disclose Himself in verbal form.
Now what did I learn in high school grammar? About nothing! I majored in basketball and I had no interest in grammar; to me it was just a boring exercise. But one of the things you discover about God is when you get saved the Bible comments on every area of life. Since God decided to reveal Himself in language, all of a sudden I got interested in grammar. What did I learn in history? About nothing, until I got saved, because the Bible talks about history, so I had to learn something, a little bit, about history. What did I learn in geography? About nothing, until I got saved, and then I became interested in geography because the Bible talks about geographical issues.
You see, the deeper you go with God the more you have to become a student of almost every discipline because the Scripture comments on every area of life. The Bible reveals scientific truths; it’s primary purpose was not a scientific manual but it brushes on that subject. The Bible reveals archeological truths. The Bible reveals geographical truths. The Bible reveals historical truths. Therefore to understand the full counsel of God and the mind of God, then knowledge of those subjects becomes important.
And see, I wish I had known that in high school. I wish I had known that these subjects I would one day be interested in because the Holy Spirit would be inside of me and I would have a natural interest and curiosity in the Word of God. But you see, I was sound asleep when most of those classes were taking place. And it’s somewhat tragic that I can look back and say I wish I understood some of those points a little better because they are relevant in my relationship with the Lord.
There are two realities to understand about verse 23 in order to unpack it correctly; two grammatical realities, and here they are: the second part of each conditional clause, this will be the part that says “their sins have been forgiven,” and in the second clause that latter part says, “they have been retained.” Those verbs are in what we call the passive voice; the passive voice is different than the active voice. In the active voice the subject does the action of the verb. Bill hit the ball. In the passive voice the subject receives the action of the verb. Another way of saying it would be Bill was hit by the ball.
So what it is saying here is the second clause in each conditional statement, the verb, whether it be “forgiven” or the verb “retained,” is in the passive voice. In other words, someone has already done the forgiving or the retaining. It’s not something that we do, it’s something that has already taken place. What we do, as I’ll show you in a minute, is we announce what heaven has already done.
And beyond this each verb is in the perfect tense. What is the perfect tense? The perfect tense is a onetime action in the past with ongoing benefits. It’s something that happened once but the benefits are ongoing. That, beloved, is the significance of Jesus’ and His death on the cross when He said, “It is finished!” The translation “It is finished?” comes from the Greek verb, tetelestai, which is in the perfect tense, a onetime action in the past with ongoing results. In other words, we do not believe in multiple deaths of Jesus Christ. When somebody tells you that in order to participate at the mass you are re-crucifying Christ anew, the doctrine of transub¬stantiation as practiced in Roman Catholicism and other groups, we would take that as a heretical statement.
We do not participate in a mass so we can take the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ over and over again. Beyond all of that it would be cannibalism, wouldn’t it? We don’t believe in multiple crucifixions of Jesus Christ. What we believe in is it is finished, tetelestai, perfect tense, a one-time action in the past with ongoing results. This is why the author of Hebrews keeps saying over and over again related to the death of Jesus Christ, once, one time; you’ll see that all the way through the book of Hebrews. In fact, the Greek word translated “once” or “one time” is the word hapax, which kind of sounds like a disease at first. It’s called a hapax legomena, hapax means once, legomena is a spoken word. If we call something a hapax legomena what we are saying is this is a word used only here in the New Testament. That phrase, hapax legomena that we use to describe words used once and one time only comes from that Greek word hapax, once, which is used to describe the death of Jesus Christ.
Back to our passage, when he says, they “have been forgiven” and they “have been retained,” what He is saying is these things already transpired, one time. They are not ongoing things that transpire over and over again. Passive voice, someone has already done the forgiving or the retaining; perfect tense, one time action in the past with ongoing results. In other words, what Jesus is saying is simply this: someone who already forgave sins one time is God; it has to be God because only God can what? Forgive sins!
I read to you a little bit earlier Mark 2:7, Jesus says, “…who can forgive sins but God alone.” You might remember Matthew 9:2-3, it says, “And they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, ‘Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven.’  And some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This fellow blasphemes,’” because who can forgive sins but God alone, Mark 2:7 [“…who can forgive sins but God alone.”] Matthew 9:2-3; Luke 5:21, “Who can forgive sins but God alone.” We are not in the business of absolving people’s sins. Those things, passive voice, have been done by somebody else. Those things, perfect tense, have already taken place through the death of Jesus Christ, one time, in the past.
Now our ministry is the same in terms of missions as was Christ’s ministry. In fact, when you back up to verse 21, remember what Jesus says, “…as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’” Jesus was sent by the Father to preach the gospel; as the Father sent Him, the Father now, and He now sends us, we are sent forth to preach the gospel. And guess what happened to Jesus? He preached it, some believed it, some didn’t. Some responded to it, some did not. That’s why we should not lose heart when we share the gospel with people if people reject it; the same thing happened to Jesus, we are simply walking out our Christianity. We are His disciples. The servant is not greater than the master; we will proclaim truth, some will believe, some will not.
So having given us all of that background, what is He saying there in verse 23? “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” What He is saying is this: you’re going to go out and you’re going to preach the gospel. If anybody believes it, in other words, their sins are forgiven because they believe it, the disciples could tell these new believers what God has already done in heaven. Your authority comes from announcing what God has already done. You share the gospel with someone, they respond to it by faith; you, at that point, in your evangelism have the authority, under God, to say your sin debt is wiped clean.
Conversely, if you go out and people disbelieve the gospel, reject the gospel, want nothing to do with the gospel, just as it happened many times in the life of Jesus Christ, in other words, you go out and you preach the gospel, second clause, “if you retain the sins of any,” in other words, you preach it, they reject it. What do you, as a child of God, have the authority to do at that point? You have the authority to declare to them a heavenly truth that what Jesus has done for them does not apply to you. If any believes the disciples they would tell these new believers that God has forgiven their sins. If anybody disbelieves the gospel these disciples had the ability to tell the unbelievers that their sins had been retained or not forgiven.
And what He is modeling for these ten is what He Himself did. You might take your Bible for a moment and go back to John 9:39-41, watch Jesus in action. John 9:39-41, “And Jesus said, ‘For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” In other words, if you don’t see you’re humble and you can be saved; if you do see in a human sense you’re arrogant and you cannot be saved.
He says in verse 40, “Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Hmm, “We are not blind too, are we?’” You see, they’re mocking Him. He’s calling individuals that are not believers blind and the religious leaders of the country say well, are You calling us blind? And notice what Jesus says to them in verse 41, “Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’” a euphemism or a metaphor for unbelief, “since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
You see what Jesus just did there? He went to a group of people, some accepted it, He says your sins are forgiven; it’s what has already happened in the heavenlies, proleptically at this point. Another group of people hears the gospel, the scoffing religious leaders, they mock Jesus Christ, they are in unbelief and He specifically tells them “your sin remains.” And when we go back to John 20:23 what He is doing is he is commissioning the disciples, and by extension us, to do the exact same thing.
Again, verse 23, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” You share the gospel and there’s one of two responses only,
there’s belief or unbelief. Unbelief masquerades as postponement; unbelief masquerades as wanting to argue with you, but the fact of the matter is the gospel is proclaimed and preached, there is only one of two responses. We would like for everyone to believe, but it just is not going to happen because a servant is not greater than his master. [John 13:16, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.”
John 15:20, “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my Word, they will also keep yours.”]
Jesus, when He proclaimed the gospel, received one of two responses. To the unbelievers he announces to them, your sins have not been forgiven. To the believers he tells them that their sins have been forgiven. And as Jesus role modeled that to us we are to go forth and do the exact same thing
We are to reveal to people the consequences of their decision, in other words, good or bad. We are to reveal to them the repercussions of their belief or unbelief to the gospel. If they receive it and believe it, then you have all the authority in the world to announce what heaven has already decreed what God has done. You have the authority to announce them the good news: your sins are forgiven. But if they reject it you have all of the authority in the world to announce what heaven has already decreed, your sins remain, they are retained.
We are not in the business of forgiving people’s sins; only God can do that. Let me tell you what we are in the business of doing—announcing what God has already done. That’s the grammar of the passage; announcing what heaven has already decreed. Our authority does not come from acting as God, as many people like to do, but it comes from announcing the will of God as disclosed from heaven.
Looking at this great commission, our commission, as the Father has sent Jesus He now sends us. Our power, receive the Holy Spirit which I do not believe was some sort of temporal endowment at that point but it was the proleptic statement about the life altering empowerment of the Holy Spirit that would descend upon the new church on the day of Pentecost. And then our message, as Jesus role modeled for us there’s only one of two responses that people give to the gospel; if they receive it, you have the authority to announce to them the positive benefit that heaven has already created, their sins have been forgiven. If they do not believe you have all of the power and the authority in the world to announce the bad news, that their sins remain or are retained.
So let’s try it out, shall we? What is the gospel? The gospel is Jesus Christ stepped out of eternity into time to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. He lived a perfect life in our place; He paid through His sacrificial death on the cross and then His bodily resurrection from the dead, proving who He was, he paid the sin debt of the whole world. It is a onetime action in the past that has already taken place. And He says to fallen humanity, your relationship with God can be restored, that was lost in Eden, if you receive, as a free gift, what this gospel is. There is only one way to receive a free gift, which is by faith alone. We trust not in ourselves, not in our talent, not in our background, not in our denominations, not in our achievements, we trust exclusively in the promises of Jesus Christ. Faith, which is another way of saying trust, which is another way of saying reliance, dependence, confidence. At some point in our lives we change our minds about Jesus where we’re not trusting in other things for the safekeeping of our soul, but we’re trusting totally in Him, and if that’s something that you have done, then on the authority of the Word of God your sins are absolved. I didn’t forgive your sins; I announced what heaven has done.
But conversely, if you’re sitting there saying well, I’ll make a decision later, then on the authority of the Word of God I’ll announce to you the opposite, that your sin debt remains and that, of course, is a tragic thing, isn’t it? John 3:18 says this, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” If you have believed this gospel, trusted in it, your future looks very bright. If you have not trusted in it, then a dark storm cloud, called the judgment of God, remains over your life. And that dark storm cloud, which is ready to fall any minute, cannot be done away with any other way other than to changing your heart and responding by faith to the gospel.
That’s the gospel. The Spirit of God assists us in the proclamation of the gospel because He convicts men and women of their need to respond to it. The Holy Spirit is not going to believe for you. There are those theologians that teach that the Holy Spirit kind of overrides you and forces you in, and that, frankly, there’s not a shred of proof of that other than a bunch of verses wrenched out of their context. The plain teaching of John’s Gospel is what separates an eternity with God versus an eternity separated from God, an eternity in heaven verses an eternity in hell, is the singular condition of believe. And as the Spirit of God convicts you of that our exhortation to you is to trust in this gospel. If it’s something that you’ve already done then you’re destiny has already been changed.
But you see, your destiny can be changed right now with a response in the heart, a moment of privacy between you and God where you acknowledge and you singularly depend upon Him and Him alone for the safekeeping of your soul. We call that faith or the reception of a free gift. If that’s happened and is happening, and you can do it now without raising a hand, walking an aisle, joining a church, giving money, it’s between you and the Lord, then your destiny is changed. If today is just another day of procrastination for you, then on the authority of the Word of God I have the authority and the power to announce to you the opposite: your sins are not forgiven, they are retained. If it’s something that you need more information about I’m available after the service to talk. Shall we pray?