Jesus said, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23). Jesus gave this proclamation to His disciples after His resurrection. Only God can forgive sins, and this is reinforced throughout Scripture.
This very thing was a point of contention between Jesus and the religious leaders during His earthly ministry. Jesus, being God in the flesh, had the power and authority to forgive sins. So, what did Jesus mean when He stated this to His disciples?
What Is the Context of John 20:23?
As we study God’s Word, we must do so in context. In context, simply means understanding the message that the writer was trying to convey to his reader.
If taken out of context, a passage can be misunderstood or even misapplied to support an erroneous belief. There are many “false gospels” being taught today that find scriptural support by pulling passages from the Bible and using them out of context.
To set the stage for John 20:23, it is now the evening of Resurrection Sunday. The disciples are in hiding and have shut themselves in a room. In fact, they may be in the very same room where they celebrated Passover.
They are afraid that at any moment, they, too, are going to be arrested and possibly executed. So much has happened in a single day. They know the tomb has been found empty, and Peter and John inspected it themselves.
They are perplexed. And to add to their confusion, Mary Magdalene has even reported seeing the risen Jesus. Abruptly, an intruder appears in the room among the frightened disciples! It is Jesus in His new resurrection body, and this is clear because He did not have to open the door.
However, the disciples initially have no idea who He is. His first words to those present are, “Shalom aleichem,” translated, “Peace be with you.” The disciples only recognized that it was Jesus after He showed them the scars on His hands and His side.
Jesus again says, “Peace to You!” and follows with, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Jesus then breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven…” (John 20:23).
This receipt of the Holy Spirit, when Jesus breathed on them, was in preparation for what was to happen on the day of Pentecost. What the disciples received should be understood as being a limited gift or a down payment of which they would receive, in full, 50 days later.
The disciples were being equipped to share the gospel in power, and it is through the gospel that one hears about God’s offer of forgiveness. Jesus was also giving the disciples, now called apostles, authority over His emerging Church.
As one travels through the Book of Acts, you witness them exercising that authority and making decisions on issues that may not have been directly addressed by Jesus during His earthly ministry. This authority extended to announcing whose sins were forgiven and whose sins were retained.
What Is the Application of Forgiveness?
The first recorded application of John 20:23 is recorded in Acts 2. A total of 50 days have passed since the Passover and the Day of Pentecost, and as Jesus had promised, they received the Holy Spirit. Peter, now the leader of the disciples, preached before the crowds.
In Acts 2:38, Peter declared, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remissions of sins…” In his sermon, Peter emphasized that it was through Jesus that a man’s sins were forgiven.
In Acts 3, we find Peter and John healing a lame man in Jesus’ name. Miraculous healings were meant to draw attention to God, and this miracle certainly did. The man was healed and went with Peter and John to Solomon’s portico, which was part of the new temple complex.
A crowd quickly gathered to see the man who was healed, and Peter preached to them. In 3:19, Peter said, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out…”.
As Peter preached, he pointed out that it was in Jesus that sins would be forgiven. Such a stir occurred that Peter, John, and the lame man were arrested by the temple guard.
In Acts 10, we find the conversion of Cornelius. Peter preached before Cornelius and his household and stated that “to Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.” Here again, Peter emphasized that it was in Jesus that sins were forgiven.
We find Paul in Antioch of Pisidia preaching the gospel in Acts 13:13. In verses 38-39, he declares, “…that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him, everyone who believes is justified from all things…” Paul proclaimed that it was in Jesus that a person could find remission of his sins.
Paul, writing to the church in Colossae, stated that “in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14). It is in Jesus’ blood that we have forgiveness of sins. Colossians 2:13-14 declares that Jesus has “…forgiven you all trespasses…”
The author of Hebrews writes, “…that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
Over and over again, we are reminded that it is God’s gift through Jesus’ sacrifice. The disciples were given the authority to proclaim that a person’s sins have been forgiven through Jesus. Every believer that preaches the gospel is announcing God’s terms for forgiveness.
It is faith in the finished work of Jesus on the Cross that one can be saved. Like the disciples, we can and should pronounce that a person’s sins have been forgiven upon their receiving Christ’s forgiveness through belief and faith.
It is a momentous occasion, and this decision in a person’s life is of paramount importance. We should shout it from the mountain tops! Even the angels are joyful when a sinner repents! (Luke 15:10).
Now we come to the second half of Jesus’ words in John 20:23, “…if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” For those that rejected the gospel, the free gift offered by God, the disciples had the authority to declare that the sins of that person were not forgiven.
This authority extends to us as well. If one refuses Jesus’ sacrifice, there is no forgiveness. In fact, “…the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). That should cause one to tremble. A person who rejects the forgiveness of his sins through Christ Jesus is the one retaining them.
In their self-centered obstinance, it is they who are holding on to a debt that they cannot pay for with anything less than their eternal soul. I cringe even writing these words.
It is his debt owed to God, and he will have to stand before God and give a reckoning for that debt. There are but two choices: a man can look to his Creator and say, “Thy will be done,” or God can look upon the created and say, “Thy will be done.”
What Does This Mean?
John 20:23 came at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. That God forgives sins through the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross is the very core of the gospel message. Though we cannot forgive sins, we are commanded through the Great Commission to bring them before the One that can.
This is accomplished through the preaching of His Word. Our Lord, our Savior, Jesus Christ, is the One that saves. He is the One that forgives sins. The only One.
For further reading:
Why Is it So Hard to Forgive Ourselves?
Prayers for Forgiveness – Forgive Others and You Shall Be Forgiven
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Curtis Klingle has authored several articles in the forensics field, but his real passion is for souls. In his own words, he is “abandoned” to Jesus. He serves as a Texas Peace Officer in what he believes is one of, if not the most difficult of mission fields in American society. He has a Bachelor of Science in biblical studies and Christian leadership. He serves as a lay minister, as well as being active in jail ministry, and is an avid student of Christian writers, especially the works of C.S. Lewis.