19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews,[a] Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:19-23)
Two things that bring me great joy in life are, one, the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the resurrection we have in Him. The theme of death and resurrection is all throughout the Bible, which prepares us for Christ, who causes us to live lives of death and resurrection. That brings me great joy. A second thing that brings me great joy is the fact that Christ is spiritually present with us when we gather together in worship each Lord’s Day. Taking the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day for the past seven years has absolutely changed me, because it has been a particular time of communion with Christ that I have had in partaking. The point is that a resurrected and present Jesus is fundamental to our faith, it is sanctifying, and life-changing. I want for each of you to truly cherish the time we have in gathering together, not only with one another, but with our risen Lord. When the gospel is preached, it is Christ speaking words of peace to us. When we sing the Psalms, it is Christ singing with us and to us as well. When we pray it is Christ praying for us. When we take the Lord’s Supper, it is Christ feeding and nourishing us.
As we read in our text of Holy Scripture it is the risen Christ who personally comes to His disciples and is present with them and speaks the gospel of peace to them. Just as Christ comes to us and ministers to us, He here ministers to His disciples and they are made glad. So I pray that you are filled with gladness by being at worship here today with Christ. After all, how could you, a believer, NOT be glad that Christ is risen and present with us today? Indeed there can be idols and sins within us that prevent us from experiencing the joy of our salvation. But oh may we not be content to remain in such a dangerous state as unhappiness in gathering with God’s people in the presence of our risen Lord! There is gladness to be had in the confession of sin.
So as we consider these things, we will look at our text of God’s Word under three main headings: New Creation, New Covenant, and New Commission.
First, the New Creation. As we read in verse 19, once again John points out that it is the first day of the week. We have already discussed how Jesus rising on the first day of the week signifies that he is initiating a new creation. Jesus is the firstborn from the dead of this new creation. And as such he has now a resurrected body. And still on this first day of the new creation he appears to his disciples in his resurrected body.
There are several things that we notice about our Lord’s resurrected body. First, is that when he appears to his disciples they are quietly meeting in a locked room. They are fearful of what the Jews may do to them now that their teacher has been crucified. John notes for us that the door was locked in which the disciples were meeting because he seeks to show us that the locked doors could not keep the Risen Lord out just as the grave could not keep our Lord. Since Jesus passed through death obtaining the keys of death and Hades certainly a locked door was no match for him. The text of scripture does not tell us exactly how Jesus appeared through the locked door to his disciples. Typically people today assume that Jesus passed through the walls or the door as a spiritual being. Other commentators simply believe that the doors opened up miraculously for him much like they did for Peter in the book of Acts when he was in prison. If you take the position that Jesus miraculously passed through the walls or door, without them opening up, then you must not believe it is because he appeared to them as a ghost or a mere spiritual being, but he did so in his resurrected physical body. Jesus shows his disciples the scars from his hands and side to show that He has physically risen from the dead and He is there physically with them. He also breathes on them in verse 22. He is certainly not a ghost. Rather, He is so real, it is the walls that are made as a vapor, if you will.
We have seen John emphasize the first day of the week to show us that it is the start of a new creation. But to show us the theme of the new creation even further, John shows us that Jesus breathes upon the disciples in verse 22. There is a specific commissioning that is going on here which we will talk about later, but thematically John is showing us a new creation week. The breath of Jesus upon his disciples in this new creation week ought to bring to mind the first creation in which it was the Breath of God breathing life into man for the first time. As Genesis 2 verse 7 says, “then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the Man became a living creature.” As God did in the beginning, so here in the new beginning Jesus breathes life into man in the new creation, it is a new life, a new beginning. This theme of the Breath of God in the Bible goes together with the work of the Holy Spirit. We see this pictured in the valley of dry bones of his Ezekiel 37, where the Holy Spirit brings life to the dead bones and causes them to live. As Ezekiel 37 verse 4 and 5 says, “then he said to me, “prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O Dry Bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: behold, I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.” And here in John 20 the breath of Jesus on his disciples is in connection with their receiving of the Holy Spirit, As verse 22 says, “…he breathed on them and said to them, “receive the Holy Spirit.””
So John shows us the beginning of a new creation with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his first actions after his resurrection.
What we also have on display In this passage is not only a new creation, but also a New Covenant. And really the idea of New Creation and New Covenant go together. Since Jesus is the last Adam who accomplishes all the terms of the covenant of redemption on behalf of those who are brought into the New Covenant, this New Covenant then is quite better than any previous Covenant of works.
The first thing we notice are the terms of his Covenant. Jesus comes to his disciples saying “peace be with you.” Remember that the disciples have not spoken with Jesus since they ran and fled when he was arrested. They have not had a chance to confess their sin and repent. But Jesus comes to them speaking peace. This Covenant of peace is not initiated or established by man or our works. It is a Covenant of Grace and peace that is bestowed upon us apart from our works.
When Jesus comes to his disciples and says “peace be with you,” He is doing nothing less than preaching the gospel of peace to them. I can imagine the great healing and comfort that it brought to the disciples to hear these words of peace as they are bunkered away in fear behind locked doors. What is this peace that Jesus comes preaching to His disciples?
First and most fundamentally, it is peace with God. Jesus Christ has died and atoned for sin on the cross, He has now risen from the dead and appears to his disciples as the Risen Lord who has finished His work of accomplishing redemption. Upon the accomplishment of His work on the cross, He has brought peace with God and man. He has propitiated for the sins of the world, satisfying the just wrath of God toward sin. This propitiation for sin makes peace where there was once hostilities between God and sinners. This peace with God is exactly what the disciples needed as they were burdened with guilty consciences because of their sin and fearfulness from failing to stand with their Lord. What the disciples needed most in this moment was to know they have peace with God through Jesus Christ. This is the same peace with God that we also can have through Christ. And Jesus Christ rises from the dead preaching this message of peace, this gospel of peace.
As this is a message of peace with God, it is also a message for the disciples that they also have peace between them and Jesus. They were likely ashamed of how they ran, embarrassed to be the disciples of Christ. If they thought about the possibility of seeing Jesus again, they likely had great thoughts of fear for how He might rebuke them or be angry with them for fleeing from Him. Instead we see how Christ is a Fountain of Grace toward His people, in that the first words He speaks in appearing to His disciples for the first time after his death and resurrection, are words of the gospel of peace. They are words that He is not angry with them. They are words of comfort and assurance that He loves them. They are words that pronounce forgiveness and restoration. They are words that comfort a guilty conscience and bring relief to sinners. What a relief that Jesus is not angry with them. These are words which we so desperately need to hear today. And Jesus is here speaking these words of peace in the message of the Gospel to sinners today in His word. The message of the Gospel is that sinners may have peace with God and that Jesus Christ may be their Savior and not be angry with them. As Jesus Christ is present with us today in His word, He speaks to us and says peace be with you. He reminds us that we have peace with God and with Him. Would we believe that today, we would have great comfort and joy and relief.
Furthermore, since the disciples have peace with God and peace with their Lord they can also have peace in their hearts and rest from the anxiety and fear they experience because of the Jews. They had reason to fear the Jews and what they might do to them, but they now have greater reason to not fear the Jews no matter what they might do to them. So we also may be granted a peace that passes all understanding in the face of our foes and those who would seek to harm us if we have this peace with God that comes through Jesus Christ. In the times in which we live today where potentialities for dangers, persecutions, and opposition from tyrants and enemies are increasing, the most fundamental necessity that we need in order to face those things valiantly is peace with God through Jesus Christ. This is one of many reasons why it is so necessary for the Church of Jesus Christ to continue to gather together in any and every time, including ours today, because in our gathering Jesus gathers with us and is present with us. And in the preaching of the Gospel He comes preaching to us, “peace be with you.” He reminds us that we have peace with God. This strengthens us, it encourages our faith, and It prepares us to face whatever He has ordained for us to face in the coming week.
So these are the terms of the New Covenant: peace be with you. Next we see the ratification of the New Covenant. We see this in the nail scarred hands of Jesus, and in the pierced side of Jesus, where a scar remains. Upon speaking peace to His disciples, Jesus then proceeds to show His disciples these scars. These wounds where Christ’s blood flowed from, remind the disciples, and us, that this covenant is ratified and accomplished in the shedding of blood, and in the shedding of the blood of Christ Alone. If we are to have peace with God, that means that our sins must be forgiven. And if we are to have our sins forgiven, that means there must be the shedding of blood. And it is the blood of Jesus Christ that was shed for the forgiveness of our sins.
We also get to see a particular benefit of this New Covenant and of receiving forgiveness of sins and peace with God. In verse 19 Jesus said to them, “peace be with you.” Then verse 20 says, “when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” Peace with God and the presence of our resurrected savior brings gladness to the heart of the believer. In one moment they were fearful, in the next, Christ has brought them gladness in their hearts speaking peace to them and showing Himself to them. So also in the life of a believer, maybe in your own life, you may experience times of fear or clouds or doubt, but all it takes is for Jesus to come to you in the next moment and remind you that you have peace with God, to remind you that He is present with you, that He will never leave you nor forsake you, and then your fears and doubts and anxieties may be replaced with the gladness of knowing Christ and the joy of His presence. There is no other religious messiah figure who is present with his people like Jesus is. Indeed there could not be for all others are dead, but Jesus is Alive. It can be easy to become fixated upon our enemies who may greatly surround us or seem to outnumber us, but as we are faithful to continue to gather together on the first day of the week, we will be reminded each week that Christ is with us, that we have peace, and in so doing our hearts may be made glad, our hearts may be flooded with the gladness of knowing Christ, and our fears may flee like the darkness at dawn. Oh how we may be made glad when we see the Lord. How we may be made glad when we see Christ in the scriptures as they are preached and read. How we may be made glad when we see Christ in the bread and the wine as it is presented to us – representative of His body and blood. How we may be made glad when we see the Lord in the Psalms that we sing. How we may be made glad when we see the Lord in the love and service that our brothers and sisters here do for others.
If you want to see the Lord and so be made glad, one of the best ways to do it is to not forsake the gathering together of the church. For Jesus has said He will be here.
In fact, this entire scene of Jesus appearing to His disciples is representative of the perpetual gathering of the church to worship. We note that they were gathered together on the first day of the week. That is the Lord’s Day when the church gathers for worship following Apostolic example. And as they are gathered together on the Lord’s Day the Lord Jesus comes to them and meets with them. He is present with them. And in so doing He preaches the gospel of peace to them. This is what the spirit of God does in the preaching of the word, the preaching of the Gospel, that the church hears every Lord’s Day. As Jesus reminds His disciples they have peace, so each week when we gather as His disciples we are reminded by Him that we have peace. Jesus showed His disciples His bodily scars. We too are shown and reminded of the blood that was shed by our Lord when we see His body and blood in the Bread and Wine. Jesus then breathes on His disciples and commissions them to go out. This too is the structure of our worship. We gather together on the first day of the week, Jesus meets with us and reminds us of the peace we have with God, He shows us how this peace was ratified in His blood, then before we depart we are commissioned to go back out as His disciples in the world.
God has given His church this weekly New Covenant liturgy, where Jesus ministers to His people, to strengthen their faith and to heal their hearts with gladness. There are many things we face each week. Maybe this week some of us have been given over to fear and anxiety over the state of the world with wars and rumors of wars. Maybe we have been fearful thinking about unknown things this week, concerning food supply, the value of our dollar, or the health and well-being of our family. There is a right and godly way to think and prepare for those things. But we all know it is very easy to be given over to sinful fear and worry. If that has been you this week, Jesus here today reminds you that you have peace with God through His blood, and that He is not angry with you. He reminds you that since you have peace with God, you also may have peace in your heart and not fear what is out there. Because while the old fallen world is self-destructing, Jesus is busy gardening and growing His new creation. We can trust that He is doing so because His word says so, but also because we ourselves have been made New Creations. Today, if you hear His voice, Jesus wants you to be glad, He wants you to have peace, and not to be afraid.
It is important that we continue to meet together and have our hearts made glad by the presence of Christ in order to overcome fear, because fear is deceptively dangerous. Calvin commenting on the disciples gathering together despite their fear of the Jews says that we ought not “to indulge fear which leads us to apostasy.” In other words, if, out of fear, we forsake gathering together, this leads to apostasy. Forsaking the assembly out of fear leads to apostasy. Why? Because in forsaking the assembly you are forsaking Christ who is here in the Assembly of His people.
There is an alarming number of people in Southwest Missouri who think that they can be Christians apart from the local church. There are many who are very conservative politically, they are very aware of the condition of world and national events, and they are concerned with being prepared for whatever hardships may be coming. And so they prepare and stock up and have the necessary physical supplies, and yet they have forsaken the local church. They think that they can simply do Church in their home just with their family and no other believers gathered together as an organized assembly. This is folly. They will not be able to survive and overcome and defeat statism or tyranny or whatever hardships it is that we may be facing in this nation on their own. They will be given over to fear. They have left behind the first and most important necessity of facing hardships in this world – the weekly liturgy of meeting with Jesus in the Assembly of the saints.
New Creation, New Covenant, and finally, New Commission.
Verse 22 and 23, “and when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness for many, it is withheld.” Jesus now breathes on His disciples and gives them their apostolic commission. There are some commentators who believe this is the moment that Jesus ordains and commissions His disciples for the apostolic ministry. Whether or not that is precisely what has happened here, nevertheless we understand Jesus bestowed upon His apostles a unique Apostolic authority. We know from the book of Acts that their ministry was accompanied with signs and wonders validating their Apostolic testimony. This comes after they receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. Calvin says that when Jesus tells them to receive the Holy Spirit here in John 20 it is essentially a token or a promise of the official outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost – basically Jesus telling them what was going to happen.
Whatever the case may be, we see that they are given a real authority in this new Commission. Verse 23 may seem a bit difficult to understand as it appears they are given the authority to forgive sins. Certainly we know that it is only God who can forgive sins in an ultimate sense. Obviously we forgive one another but that is not the ability to make someone right with God. Only God can do that. So there are basically two ways to understand verse 23. And I think both are correct. The first is to recognize that this is a real authority that was given to the church. It is basically showing that the actions of the church are very real. For example, Paul instructs the Corinthian Church in 1 Corinthians 5:7 to deliver the man over to Satan. There is a real authority in that. It is not that the church is the decider of men’s souls, it is that God has chosen to work through His church in history on Earth, in saving and judging men. When the church rules faithfully, as she is called to do, it is Christ judging and saving through His appointed means. This is true whether or not it is exactly what is meant in verse 23.
The other way to understand verse 23, which is the way I would understand it, is to say that this is simply the commission to preach the gospel, which is not unique to Apostolic authority, but a commission to all disciples of Jesus. Christ is the one who forgives sins. The commission to preach the gospel is the commission to preach the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. It is also the commission to preach that there is no forgiveness of sins outside of Jesus Christ. In this way we can confidently declare that someone’s sins are or are not forgiven based upon their coming to Jesus Christ in faith or not. This is a real authority in preaching the gospel. As Calvin says, “when Christ enjoins the apostles to forgive sins, he does not convey to them what is peculiar to himself. It belongs to him to forgive sins – he only enjoins them, in his name, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins.”
Furthermore, the best way to understand verse 23 is to look at how the disciples preached, acted, and talked in the book of Acts. The apostles consistently pointed to Christ as the source of forgiveness of sins. For example, Peter to Cornelius in Acts 10:43 says, “whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.” And Paul in Acts 13:38 said, “through this man [that is Jesus Christ] is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins.”
So as the church gathers, as we are at this moment, for the weekly Liturgy of meeting with Christ, He preaches to us this gospel of peace, and then commissions us to go out and preach as we have been preached to. So I can confidently remind you today, on the authority of Jesus Christ, that in and through his blood, you have the forgiveness of sins and peace with God. As Christ has reminded us of this gospel of peace today, He will also remind us that it has been ratified in His blood as He shows us His body and blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins in the bread and wine. And then as we eat and drink we are filled, and then commissioned to go out from here proclaiming the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ Alone. Amen.