Last Sunday evening as we worked our way through John chapter 20, we encountered a couple of verses which raised questions: first, verses 6-7 (which I will, from this point forward, refer to affectionately as “Jay’s verses”) and, second, the verse examined by this post. I might add that verse 23 is also a very interesting Scripture to ponder.
The Text in Question
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” John 20:22; King James Version.
It is Sunday evening, the very Sunday on which Christ arose from the dead. The disciples are in a locked room in the city of Jerusalem (except for Judas Iscariot, who is dead, and Thomas, who is absent) for fear of the Jews. Suddenly, Jesus appears in their midst and greets them with a wish for peace. In verse 21, he calls them to the mission of spreading the Gospel. This call is followed by our verse.
In the original, the verse is a mere ten words. Here is the Greek version translitered into English.
Kai touto eipon enephusesen kai legei autois, Labete pneuma hagion.
Translating directly from the text: “and this having said he breathed on and said to them, Receive spirit holy.”
The verb rendered “breathed on” is an imperative expressing a command or a prohibition. Contextually, Jesus is giving the disciples a commandment. However, there is nothing in the verb or in the statement which tells us when that reception is to take place. In other words, Jesus did not say, “Receive NOW the Holy Spirit” or “Receive TODAY the Holy Spirit”.
What Does John Mean?
So, is Jesus breathing on them and commanding them to receive the Spirit indicative of His actual dispensing of the Spirit? Is He giving them the Spirit at this very moment? If so, how do we reconcile this giving on Resurrection Sunday evening with the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days later, on Pentecost?
Personally, I have “flopped” around on my understanding of this verse. I’ve taught the Gospel of John in college and in church multiple times as well as preached through the entire book once. My review of various commentators over the centuries has led me to divide the primary interpretations of the verse into four groups. There are differences even within groups. Nevertheless, here are my four divisions and some of the comments made by others holding that interpretation.
1. John is viewing a unified event.
This interpretation views no conflict between John 20:22 and Acts 2. Both events are the same event being described by different authors in different ways. Luke, in Acts 2, describes the specifics of the coming at Pentecost in a chronological, historical manner. But, John views the resurrection, the ascension, and the giving of the Spirit as a single event. In other words, the evangelist is not concerned about the chronology and merely joins the future coming of the Spirit at Pentecost to his discussion of the resurrection.
Gerald L. Borchert, a 20th century scholar, holds this position.
“From my perspective, however, the arguments offered by Measley-Murray and Burge are to be preferred because they fit more faithfully into the style and logic of the writings by the Johannine evangelist. … the evangelist views the life of Jesus as a whole. Therefore, chronological sequences are not of primary concern to him. John viewed the resurrection, the gift of the Spirit and the ascension of Jesus as a unified event.”
I agree with Borchert in one sense. Of the Gospel writers, John is the least concerned with chronology. He is sharing those truths he knows to draw people to Christ. But, I find this interpretation to “strain” the text. Specifics are given here. It is, without question, Resurrection Sunday. The subsequent event with Thomas flows chronologically (eight days) after this one. To “shove” the thought of Pentecost into verse 22 is a bit too much for me. Furthermore, Jesus breathed on them and “said”. Nothing of the kind happened at Pentecost. Surely, this is not the correct interpretation.
2. Jesus gave the Spirit to indwell the disciples.
While the New Testament teaches the believer receives the indwelling Holy Spirit at his regeneration (new birth), we are at a transitional moment of history. In the Old Testament, we saw the Spirit come upon individuals and then depart. Jesus has yet to ascend and then send the Spirit. These disciples have been born again during their time with Christ (implication of John 15:3) but have yet to receive the indwelling spirit. This verse reflects the coming of the Spirit TO THEM.
Arthur W. Pink, 20th century Biblical scholar, appears to hold this position, if I am reading him correctly. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, he writes:
“This was supplementary to ‘Go tell my brethren.’ … From this moment the Spirit dwelt within them. We have been accustomed to look upon the change which is so apparent in apostles as dating from the day of Pentecost, but the great change had occurred before then. … What happened at Pentecost was the baptism of power, not the coming of the Spirit to indwell them!”
I understand what Pink is saying but I have a couple of issues with this interpretation.
(1) Jesus said He must go before He would send the Spirit (John 16:7). He is still present with them, so I would think sending the Spirit now makes His previous comment false. One might get around this difficulty by interpreting Jesus’ “going away” as His death, but that seems a stretch to me.
(2) What happens to poor Thomas? He’s not there! Does he not receive the Spirit until later? Does Jesus perform the same act (though unrecorded) eight days later?
No, I have difficulties with this understanding.
3. Jesus gave the Spirit to the disciples for apostolic ministry.
In verse 21, Jesus has just commissioned his apostles to proclaim the Gospel. This verse is a continuation of that commission. First, he breathes on them, symbolic of their commission. Then, He commands them to receive the Spirit meaning to receive the Spirit’s gifts necessary to carry out that ministry. The full, indwelling, powerful Spirit will be given at Pentecost. In other words, Jesus gives them the measure of the Spirit they require for Apostolic ministry. The full giving of the Spirit awaits Pentecost.
Church history has several Biblical scholars holding to this or a similar position. The great Reformer, John Calvin, expressed such a view in his New Testament commentaries.
“Because no mortal man is fit for such a difficult office, Christ institutes the apostles by the grace of His Spirit. … He testified by an outward symbol when He breathed on the apostles; for it would be meaningless if the Spirit did not proceed from Him. … The Spirit was given to the apostles now in such a way that they were only sprinkled with His grace and not saturated with full power. For when the Spirit appeared on them in tongues of fire, they were entirely renewed.”
The 17th century Puritan George Hutcheson, thought highly of by C. H. Spurgeon, appears to teach this interpretation. In his commentary on the fourth Gospel, Hutcheson writes:
“In the next place, Christ who sends them doth also furnish them with the gifts of the Spirit for that office, some fruits whereof, before that full measure was let out upon them, Acts, ii … This breathing on them when he communicated this furniture, being an extraordinary sign of his communicating this extraordinary furniture, is therefore not to be imitated by any in ordinary who have not the dispensing of those endowments”
Leon Morris, a 20th century Anglican writer, speaks similarly in his commentary on John. He writes:
“Having commissioned them Jesus bestows on them the equipment they will need for the discharge of their commission. … John is not writing as though there were a series of gifts made to individuals. Rather, he speaks of a collective gift made to the church as a whole. … But the important thing is not this, but the presence of the Holy Spirit within them. … It is false alike to the New Testament and to Christian experience to maintain that there is but one gift of the Spirit. Rather the Spirit is continually manifesting Himself in new ways. So John tells us of one gift and Luke of another.”
The gift, to which Morris refers, is the gift to forgive or retain sin (see verse 23).
I prefer this interpretation to the two previous ones. Jesus is not technically giving the Spirit to them now. The Spirit will come later. Furthermore, these men are special since they will hold the office of Apostle. Certainly, Christ, in his commissioning them to service, could endow them with special spiritual gifts. I’m not certain, though I agree with Morris that Christ is merely giving to them the authority of verse 23.
Yet, I have a problem once more with Thomas. He is overlooked, again, in this interpretation. Did he have to wait until Pentecost to be endowed as an Apostle? Does Christ make a second visit and breathe on him?
Another thing about these previous two interpretations: one must be careful NOT to interpret the “two givings” of the Spirit as normal for Christians. The concept of the “second blessing” may be read into these views of the passage. Someone might teach that we receive the Spirit at conversion but receive His power at a second giving (“baptism of the Spirit”). Even if this were true for the Apostles (either interpretation 2 or 3), this was a UNIQUE moment in history. Like the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, or Pentecost, these events happen once and only once. They are not the “norm” for a believer.
4. Jesus symbolically proclaimed the future coming of the Spirit.
This interpretation views Jesus’ breathing on His followers and His subsequent remarks as prophetic. He is, once more, foretelling of the future coming of the Spirit. For now, He does not give the Spirit to indwell the men. Nothing is given to the disciples apart from the promise of the coming Spirit.
The 18th century Baptist pastor, John Gill, agrees with this understanding as he has written in his commentary.
“… meaning not the grace of the Holy Ghost in regeneration, which they had received already; but the gifts of the Spirit, to qualify them for the work He now sent them to do, and which were not now actually bestowed; but this breathing on them, and the words that attended it, were a symbol, pledge, and confirmation, of what they were to receive on the day of Pentecost: hence it appears, that it is the Spirit of God, who by His gifts and grace, makes and qualifies men to be ministers of the Gospel.”
Also, 20th century scholar William Hendriksen follows this line of reasoning.
“This blowing had symbolic significance. It symbolized a particular gift of the Holy Spirit. In a sense, that gift is given to the entire Church. Nevertheless … it is to be exercised by the officers, by them alone, by them corporately. This particular gift which is here indicated is that of forgiving or retaining sins, which in this connection must mean, declaring that someone’s sins are either forgiven or retained.”
Hendriksen, like Morris, refer to the gift given as the one listed by Christ in verse 23. But, as I read Hendriksen, unlike Morris this gift remains future until the day of Pentecost. What transpires in verse 22 is merely symbolic.
Modern day pastor John MacArthur also views the verse in this way.
“These disciples, of course, were already regenerate men (John 15:3). So the fact that they still were waiting to receive the Holy Spirit indicates that the Spirit’s relationship to individual believers in the new covenant era is profoundly different from His Old Testament ministry. … Jesus’ actions here indicated the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that was about to occur, completing the transition between the two covenants. … When Jesus breathed on them at this point, however, it was a powerful illustration … The simple act of breathing on the disciples was thus a meaningful emblem on multiple levels.”
In a sermon preached April 7, 2012, John Piper communicates this interpretation.
“So here in John 20:22, Jesus performs a kind of acted out parable. ‘He breathed on them and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit.’ He didn’t say, Receive him at this very moment. He said in effect: Realize that my breath, my life, my word will be in the Holy Spirit.”
While the text reads as though the Spirit is being given by Jesus to the disciples at this very moment, as I noted above, that is not necessarily the case. Though each of these interpretations present problems, I believe this last one is the best reading of the text. Jesus will ascend (i.e., go away) and He will, then, send His Spirit on the day of Pentecost. These ten men PLUS Thomas will be present along with others when the promised Comforter truly arrives. That is God’s appointed and foretold time for His arrival. From that moment forward, believers receive the indwelling Spirit and His ordained gifts for service at their new birth.
No matter how one interprets verse 22, praise the Lord He DID send His Holy Spirit!