TODAY’S READING: JOHN 20-21
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” – John 20:22
After his resurrection, Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene on the morning of the first day of the week. Later that night Jesus appeared to the disciples. It was on this night, in his second post resurrection appearance, that Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples.
The context of this event is fascinating and yields some wonderful insights if we study it carefully. Let’s look at each step of Jesus’ second appearance.
- Jesus said to the disciples, “Peace be with you.”
- Jesus showed the disciples the wounds in his hands and his side.
- Again, Jesus said to the disciples, “Peace be with you.”
- Jesus said to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
- Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
- Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Jesus’ first words to the gathering of the disciples were “Peace be with you.” He said this twice. But, between his two utterances of “Peace be with you,” Jesus did something very interesting. “He showed them his hands and his.” Jesus showed the disciples his wounds.
But, Thomas was not at this gathering of the disciples. So, eight days later Jesus appeared a third time. This time Thomas was present. When Jesus showed up, he said, “Peace be with you.” And Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.” Again we have the linkage of the words “Peace be with you” with the showing of Jesus’ wounds.
Isaiah 53:5 says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
Jesus is showing the disciples the fulfillment of this scripture. He is showing them his pierced side. He is letting them see the wounds in his hands. The piercing of his side and the nails that went through his hands brought us peace and healed us.
Yes, Jesus spoke the words “Peace be with you” to the disciples, but those words sandwiched the revelation of the act that brought peace to the disciples. Jesus’ pierced side and nail scarred hands brought peace to us because of forgiveness, which we will see as we go on.
Having shown the disciples his wounds, which brought them peace, Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Earlier this week I wrote about God sending Jesus in “Why Did God Send Jesus?”
The first time that gospel of John speaks of Jesus being sent is in John 3:34. “For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.” Jesus was sent to speak the words of God and give the Spirit without measure, without any limit.
What is the Spirit?
The Spirit is life and peace.
Romans 8:6 says, “To set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
John 6:63 says, “It is the Spirit who gives life.”
2 Corinthians 3:6 says, “The Spirit gives life.”
Romans 14:7 says, “For the kingdom of God is…righteousness and peace and joy and in the Holy Spirit.”
Galatians 5:22 says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is…peace.”
Ephesians 4:3 says we should be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Indeed, Jesus is “the last Adam” who “became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45.
So, God sent Jesus to give life and peace without measure, without limit. Now, Jesus tells the disciples, and us, that he is sending us the same way that the Father sent him.
Having said that he was sending the disciples, and us, the same way he was sent, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus, as the son of God, is breathing into men.
The first time we see God breathing into men is in Genesis 2:7, which says, “Then the Lord God formed the man of the dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
God breathed in the man he formed from the dust, and Adam became a living creature.
“Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”
We were once living beings like Adam. But, Jesus says he is sending us in the same way he was sent. So, he is breathing into us, not to become living beings again, but to become life-giving spirits just as he was sent to be a life-giving spirit, a spirit which brings peace to you through his wounds.
“The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Corinthians 15:47-49)
We are to bear the image of the man of heaven, the life-giving spirit. We are to become life-giving spirits. We are to give life and peace without measure, without any limit. And, like Jesus did this through his wounds, we primarily give life and peace to others through our wounds, through our response to the wounds others inflict upon us.
So, Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
The word breathed, although in two different Greek words, appears just four times in the gospels. All are an action of Jesus. All are connected to the Holy Spirit.
Mark 15:37 says, “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.”
Mark 15:39 says, “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!'”
Luke 23:46 says, “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.”
In each of these three verses, the Greek word for breathed is ekpneo. It means to expire, to breathe out, to exhale.
On the cross, the place of Jesus’ piercing and wounding, the last thing he did was breathe out.
What did he breathe out?
The Holy Spirit.
What did he say shortly before he breathed out the Holy Spirit?
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
So, Luke connects the breathing out of the Spirit with the forgiveness that Jesus gave.
But, Mark does so in a very subtle fashion as well.
Mark 15:37 says, “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.”
The Greek word for uttered in this verse is aphiemi. Aphiemi has a number of meanings, but the most common translation is forgave, forgive, forgiven.
Is it possible to get the sense that Jesus, forgiving with a loud cry, breathed out the Holy Spirit?
They may not be the literal translation or meaning, but I think it is possible to see this in Jesus’ actions, especially given Luke’s account.
While Matthew’s account doesn’t mention breathing, perhaps it is interesting that aphiemi is used.
“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded [aphiemi] up his spirit.” (Matthew 27:50)
So, Jesus forgave us and breathed out the Holy Spirit on the cross. The next, and last time, breathed is mention in the gospels is our passage under consideration.
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'”
However, breathed is a different Greek word here. Here the Greek word for breathed is emphysao. It means to breathe into, breathe on, or blow in.
Jesus breathed out his Spirit on the cross. But, after the resurrection, Jesus breathes his Spirit into us.
Jesus forgave us and breathed out his Spirit, who is life and peace. Jesus resurrects and speaks peace showing us his wounds, and breathes his Spirit, who is life and peace, into us. And, he does this because he is sending us the way his Father sent him – as a life-giving spirit to give the Spirit, who is life and peace, without measure, without any limit.
Therefore, when Jesus tells the disciples to “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he gives them a specific instruction.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.
Jesus forgave us. Then he breathed out his Spirit.
Now, he breathes his Spirit into us because he is sending us as the Father sent him. Then Jesus tells us to bring life and peace to everyone by forgiving their sins.
In Jesus’ instruction to forgive the sins of any, he uses the word aphiemi. While the most common meaning of aphiemi is to forgive, the next most common meaning is to leave.
“If you leave the sins of any, they have left them.”
How did Jesus get us free from our sins, our sins that he bore in his body, our sins of violence that led to his crucifixion?
He forgave us.
Jesus caused our sins to leave us because he forgave us.
We wounded him and he forgave us.
“With his wounds we are healed.”
“Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace.”
How are others to get free from their sin?
We forgive them.
How are others freed from their desire to wound us?
We forgive them.
How are others healed?
Despite their wounding us, we forgive them.
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”
When others wound us and we forgive, death, Jesus’ death, is at work in us. But, the death, Jesus’ death, that is at work in us brings life, brings peace, to others.
There is another interesting connection between Jesus’ instruction to forgive, aphiemi, and peace.
In John 14:27, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”
The word leave is aphiemi. But, there is no Greek word for with in the original text.
Perhaps a more literal reading, or at least an underlying subtext, of what Jesus said is, “Peace I forgive you.”
How does Jesus bring peace?
Forgiving our violent sins against him that led to his crucifixion.
Jesus gives us this peace. He gave us his Spirit, who is life and peace.
But, Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives. The world gives peace through violence and war. War and violence until you were subdued was the peace of Rome, the pax Romana.
Rome, the kingdom of this world, doesn’t forgive sins. It uses sin, war, murder, violence, to subdue you and bring a false peace.
So, while Jesus instructs us that whoever we forgive of their sins has their sins forgiven, if we withhold forgiveness from anyone then they, their sins, are withheld.
The Greek word for “withhold forgiveness” is krateo. It means to seize, arrest, be strong, take possession of. It’s the same word to describe what the Jews and Romans did Jesus. It has the idea of taking control of someone.
See what Jesus is saying?
You can forgive and free others from their sins. Give peace as he gave it.
Or, you can take hold of others, control them, and keep them bound in their sins. Give a false peace through violence as Rome, the kingdom of this world gives it.
So, why did Jesus breathe on the disciples?
So, they would become life-giving Spirits just as he was. And, in this way, the disciples could give peace and Jesus gave it. As they were wounded, they could forgive. This would be peace, life, healing, the freeing from sin for others.