Christ & The Church’s Mission, Power, & Authority
Passage: John 20:19–23
Sermon from John 20:19-23 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on May 3, 2015
Today we celebrate God’s grace in sustaining Redeemer Church through ten years of ministry together. Not all of those have been easy. Some have been very difficult and trying. But the Lord has been gracious and faithful through them all. He has pruned us and deepened our love for Christ and one another. We don’t pretend that we’ve arrived;we’ve got lots more to grow in as a church. And I find it rather fitting that we come this morning to a passage about the church. Of course, our passage is first and foremost about Jesus Christ and what Jesus has done for us. We’ll see that in a minute. But it’s Jesus who then builds on his work, by commissioning his disciples with a unique mission, power, and authority. Let’s read it together in verse 19…
19On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
1. Assurance of Jesus’ Finished Work
Jesus commissions the disciples with a unique mission, power, and authority. That’s clear in verses 21-23, and we’ll get there in just a moment. But let me first point out something very crucial: before Jesus commissions his disciples into further work, he gives his disciples assurance of his finished work.
We must keep this order in mind. Especially in our Western culture of do, produce, make-it-happen—it’s so easy to forget that at the root of all Christian doing is what Jesus has done for us. Before Jesus tells his disciples what to do, he reveals to them who he is—the crucified and risen Savior. Before Jesus tells his disciples how to serve, he reveals to them how powerful he is to save. Before telling us what to do for him, Jesus tells us—more importantly—what he did for us.
Look at how he comes to them. Verse 19, “Peace be with you.” And “when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.” What is the point of proclaiming “Peace!” over the disciples and showing them the wounds of his cross—his nail-pierced hands; his side where the soldiers pierced him? When have wounds like these ever meant peace? Now, one point is to show them that it’s really him. He’s really alive. And he’s not a ghost; God raised his body from the grave. And that should calm their fears.
But another point is to assure them that he secured the peace they needed through his death and resurrection. How do we know Jesus is giving them such assurance? We know this by the way peace develops throughout the Gospel of John. You see, according to John, the world isn’t a place of peace—that is, in the Bible’s sense of peace. In the Bible, peace has less to do with the absence of war, and more to do with all things relating to one another rightly under God’s perfect rule. The world can’t give us that peace. Jesus says that much in 14:27—not as the world gives do I give peace.
And even John himself is quick to remind us that such peace isn’t present in this broken world. How could it be? This world has an evil ruler, the devil (12:31). He deceives people with lies and darkness (8:44; 13:2, 27, 30). And instead of coming to God’s light, people love the devil’s darkness instead (1:9-10; 3:19). Humanity also doesn’t relate to one another rightly (cf. 13:35; 17:21). Sin and the desire for self-glory divides people (5:44; 7:44-52; 12:42-43). And what’s really beneath all the satanic lies and the division is that there’s no peace between God and man. Sin separates us from God’s presence and perfect rule. We’re his enemies, and therefore his wrath is upon us, John 3:36 says.
There’s no peace in this situation—no peace between God and man; no peace between man and man; and no peace between man and the world. How then does peace come to us? John’s story is that peace comes from outside this world, in the person of Jesus (1:1-3, 14; 14:27). Peace comes from God sending his own Son to die on the cross and rise again from the dead, victorious over the satanic and sin-darkened world. That’s exactly how Jesus laid it out for the disciples in 16:33: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
That statement came before he gave his life on the cross; and now we see him risen from the dead, showing them his wounds, and saying, “Peace be with you.” In other words, these wounds are wounds of victory. Jesus has fought the war with the world’s greatest threat to peace—namely, sin—and he has overcome. Jesus has conquered the sin separating you from God and from one another. Jesus has also conquered the ruler of this world (12:31-32)—all through the cross. Just like Revelation 5:5-6 tells us, he carries these wounds in a resurrected body as a continual reminder that he has overcome the world. And when you have Christ, you have peace with God and peace with one another and victory over the evil world ruler.
That’s what’s behind, “Peace be with you.” This is the kind of assurance Jesus imparts to the disciples. And it brings them great joy, verse 20 says: “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” Don’t miss that: peace and gladness in Christ precede any going for Christ. See your own vision statement rising from the gospel, Redeemer Church: we exist to delight in God’s glory and to declare that glory to our neighbors and the nations. Gladness precedes going; delighting precedes declaring.
So, before Jesus commissions his disciples into further work, he gives his disciples assurance of his finished work. Through the cross and resurrection, he secured true peace for us. As I’ve heard Wes put it before, the greatest thing you can do for God, Redeemer, is receive what God has first done for you (cf. 6:28-29). He has won you peace through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
2. Commission of Disciples’ Further Work
But notice also that his peace doesn’t mean that it’s time to kick up our feet and do nothing. Peace is definitely secured, but it isn’t consummated. The cross has brought us peace with God and peace with one another and freedom from the devil’s tyranny, but there are many others for whom that is not the case. The kingdom of peace has not yet arrived in full, and Jesus wants it populated with more citizens. And so Jesus commissions the church to bring his peace into the lives of others. That commission unfolds in three parts.
The church’s mission defined
First, we see the church’s mission defined. Jesus says in verse 21, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Our mission is comparable to that of the Father sending the Son. It’s certainly not the same. Jesus’ mission is utterly unique. He forever existed as God and became a man (1:1-3, 14). That’s not something we can replicate. But it is something our mission should point others to. How does that happen?
Well, when you read through John’s Gospel, it happens like this: we seek the Sender’s glory by selflessly entering and joyfully gathering. That’s our mission. We seek Jesus’ glory in the same way that Jesus came seeking his Father’s glory (1:14; 7:18; 11:40; 12:28; 15:8; 17:1). How does Jesus pray just before his cross in 12:27-28, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Jesus came seeking his Father’s glory in all things. We imitate him in this.
And how is it that Jesus glorifies his Father? He glorifies him by selflessly entering our world (1:14; 4:34; 5:19; 12:24; 13:1-20). His entry was selfless. He reigned with God in heaven, and yet humbled himself to enter our broken and corrupt world. He became like us, only without sin. He laid aside his rights to be seen as glorious, and entered to serve even to the point of death (1:9-11; cf. Phil 2:5-11). Jesus glorified God by selflessly entering our world, even when it cost him everything.
But he didn’t stop there. He also laid down his life to gather people to God, right (4:36; 10:16; 11:52; 12:32; 17:20-21)? He enters the life of a Samaritan woman caught in adultery, serves her with the truth, and then gathered many people from her village for God’s sake. He’s the Good Shepherd laying down his life—why?—to gather the sheep. Or, he’s the Son of Man being lifted up on a cross—why?—to draw all people to himself. So, Jesus glorifies God by selflessly entering and joyfully gathering.
Likewise, we seek Jesus’ glory by selflessly entering people’s lives. Family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, fellow students, acquaintances, no matter who it is, what they’ve been through, how they talk, where they live, what color of skin—we lay down our preferences; we die to our comforts; we crucify our prejudices; we plan our evenings; we listen to the waitress or the man three carrels over, in order to enter people’s lives and point them to the truth of Jesus Christ, to give them the gospel.
And then not stopping there—because Jesus didn’t stop there—we also joyfully gather them into Christ’s fold, that is, assuming God eventually brings them to repentance. We can’t enter people’s lives, preach to them, watch them repent, and then walk away. We joyfully gather them into the fold of the church. It’s in the church where Jesus exercises his care for the flock, his authority over the flock. He gives people leaders and teachers (Eph 4:6-12). He gifts each person to build up the whole, and the whole to build up the each person, so that not one goes lost (1 Cor 12; Heb 3:13; Jas 5:20).
We enter and we gather for the glory of God. And it’s a joyful experience, isn’t it? Jesus says so himself in 4:34: “Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.” Our mission is to seek Christ the sender’s glory by selflessly entering and joyfully gathering people to God. “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
Redeemer, consider yourselves a “sent” community. We’re not a stagnant people, but a sent people. Let that inform how you interact with others during the week, how you view your job situation, how you use your money. Jesus has sent you to bring the Father glory through entering and gathering. That gives huge and eternal significance to every conversation you will have this week.
The church’s power promised
Second, we see the church’s power promised. What great encouragement we have here. Jesus not only builds our mission on his finished work; he also gives us everything we need to do that mission by the power of the Holy Spirit. Verse 22: “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Now, Christians have understood this in a number of ways, especially when we read it alongside the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. We know that God’s word never contradicts itself, and so we have to consider how the pieces fit together—the giving of the Spirit here and there. So, some have said that this is simply John’s Pentecost; this is his version of the Spirit’s coming. Others have said that it’s more like a mini-outpouring of the Spirit here with a mega-outpouring later at Pentecost. But what both of these interpretations have in common is this: they are saying the disciples receive the Holy Spirit immediately as Jesus breathes on them.
I’m not convinced that we should read it that way. First off, Thomas, who is also one of the Eleven, isn’t there yet; he doesn’t come until eight days later (20:26). Are we to say that he simply missed out on Jesus giving the Spirit, if it’s happening through Jesus breathing on them? Also, as we read the rest of John’s Gospel, we don’t find the disciples boldly preaching the gospel in the face of persecution, like we do after Pentecost. We find them fishing again (21:3). But most importantly, in 7:38, the giving of the Spirit is dependent on Jesus being glorified, and that includes his return to the Father (7:33; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7)—something that hasn’t happened just yet (20:17; cf. Acts 1:9).
So what are we to make of Jesus breathing and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Note: “on them” not in the Greek, but only “He breathed and said…”)? I think it’s best to view it as another acted out parable that symbolically points forward to the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. We’ve seen Jesus doing things like this before. The miracle at Cana looks forward to the new wine of the kingdom (2:1-11). Raising Lazarus looks forward to the resurrection of Jesus and all believers (11:1-40). Washing the disciples feet looks forward to the cleansing of sin found through the cross (13:1-18). So also here Jesus breathes and says “Receive the Holy Spirit,” in anticipation of what he will give them at Pentecost, namely, the Spirit.
What’s the significance of breathing, then? Well, there are two places in the Old Testament that help us understand what’s going on. One is Genesis 2:7. God forms man from the dust of the ground and breathes into him the breath of life. And it’s God’s breath/spirit that animates the man—he becomes a living being. God gives life to the lifeless.
Well, the prophets then pick up this same language in terms of a new creation, especially Ezekiel. And Ezekiel applies it to the nation of Israel that sits dead in sin and separated from God in exile. The nation is so dead that it’s like a valley of dry bones. And so God comes to Ezekiel and says, speak the word of the Lord over these dry bones; and he does.
And the Bible says, there was “a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.” And Ezekiel says, “I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them.” Then God says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live” (Ezek 37:8-9).
And Ezekiel did, and it says, “the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army” (Ezek 37:10)—the idea being that in the same way God gave life to Adam, he was giving life to a new people, a new creation. The breath is then identified in Ezekiel 37:14 as God’s Spirit: “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.” Guess what happens next when the Spirit makes them alive? They gather from the nations under one Davidic Shepherd-king. And guess what God does through that Shepherd-king? He cleanses them from sin and establishes an everlasting covenant of peace. And here is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, having died for their sins, saying “Peace be with you” and “Receive the Holy Spirit.” He’s promising to create a new people.
And what happens at Pentecost? The Spirit comes and animates God’s new people. They stream in from the nations under Jesus’ rule and give birth to the church. That’s you and me, if you believe in Jesus. The Spirit comes and gives life to the lifeless. He empowers us, so that we fulfill the mission entrusted to us. We’re not in this alone, Redeemer. Jesus didn’t send us in our strength, but in the Spirit’s strength. And the Spirit indwells every Christian, such that not a single disciple can say he can’t be a competent minister of grace.
Let that encourage you this morning, church. Let that encourage you in the midst of all the inadequacies you see in your life and in this church. Let that encourage you as we look ahead with faith in Christ, to seek and plan what God wants to do through us in this city and beyond. Even when all you can see are inadequacies, the Spirit is able to make us all competent ministers; and it’s sheer pride to say he can’t. He created the world; he helped a speech-impaired Moses lead God’s people through the wilderness; he empowered a ruddy little shepherd boy, David, to lead the nation of Israel; he raised Jesus Christ from the dead; and he already did the much greater miracle of bringing you from death to life. I think he’s got you covered. He’s got all of us covered. Receive the Holy Spirit as God gives him. Live in dependence on his grace. Pray for more of the Spirit to fill us, and give us everything we need for the mission.
The church’s authority established
Third, and last, we see the church’s authority established. Verse 23, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Now, we should clarify a few things up front. To begin, only God can forgive sins. That’s made explicit all over the Bible, and it’s also implied here by the passive voice: “they are forgiven…it is withheld.” Forgiveness is ultimately in the hands of God.
We should also remember that God forgives sins based on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ alone. We’re told in 1:29, Jesus is the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Or 8:24 tells us that unless you believe in Jesus, you will die in your sins. But if you believe in Jesus, God will forgive you and you won’t perish.
But one more thing we should remember is this: Jesus’ disciples stand as his representatives on earth. Jesus is in process of ascending to heaven; but he’s leaving his disciples on earth as his authoritative representatives. Even before this point, Jesus has already told them, “whoever receives the one I send receives me”—13:20. Insofar as the disciples follow Jesus and uphold his word, they represent Jesus’ authority on earth. You reject Jesus’ disciples, you reject Jesus—not because of anything inherent to the disciples but because of the authority that’s bound up with the gospel message he entrusts to them.
So, only God forgives; he does it through Jesus’ sacrifice; and Jesus’ disciples represent Jesus’ authority on earth. What we’re finding here are all three of those realties coming together, just spelled out in terms of extending and withholding forgiveness. In other words, the disciples’ extending and withholding forgiveness on earth, becomes a visible picture of what stands true in heaven.
The idea is declaring on earth what heaven itself is already saying: you do or you do not have forgiveness based on your response to the message entrusted to Jesus’ disciples. There’s no middle ground. Forgiveness and judgment are simultaneously announced in the gospel; and the door of forgiveness is open only to those who believe. Jesus has given us no authority to say that someone is forgiven unless that someone repents and believes the gospel.
The same authority plays out in Matthew’s Gospel, but in terms of church discipline. John’s focus here is how Jesus’ authority plays out in evangelism. But Matthew shows us how Jesus’ authority plays out in church discipline. For example, we see it in Matthew 18:15-20. If somebody in the church refuses to repent from their sinful offenses—after being patiently confronted and publicly rebuked—Jesus says that we must treat them as a “Gentile and tax collector.” It’s a way of saying they are to be put out of the local church—treated as an unbeliever that has no forgiveness unless they turn again to Christ. And then Jesus closes in Matthew 18:17 with words very similar to John 20:23: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Again, a representative authority, where our actions on earth serve as a visible theater to what is true in heaven. Now, I should also make very clear a difference between the authority of these disciples in particular and our authority as a local church. The authority of these disciples and our authority aren’t equivalent. One stands on the other. Our authority as a local church represents that of Jesus himself insofar as we abide by his disciples’ words preserved in Scripture. The further we stray from their words in Scripture, the less authority we have to say anything on God’s behalf. But where we stick to the teaching of Jesus and his disciples, we can speak and act with heaven’s authority.
So, whether it’s in evangelism or church discipline, Jesus’ disciples and Jesus’ church have authority to extend and withhold forgiveness, based on people’s reception or rejection of Jesus in the gospel. That teaching totally flies in the face of the default individualism characterizing a large portion of our Western culture. Particularly, it defies the assumption that no one but ourselves can speak with authority regarding our relationship with God. Some Christians have so breathed in that air of self-autonomy, that they avoid Jesus’ authority by standing clear of the local church. Those who do, blur the lines of God’s visible kingdom that gathers now in local churches. Jesus has chosen to exercise his authority through the local church, as the local church carries the gospel into the world. If you are someone who remains indifferent to the local church, then you remain indifferent to Christ—and I would urge to find a local church in which you can actually be held as an accountable representative.
Others of you are part of a local church, but the same individualism is hurting you. You’ve testified to your faith in Christ. The church has affirmed your salvation through baptism and membership. But over time, you’ve wrestled with doubts about your salvation and even find it hard to listen when other Christians testify to the fruit of the Spirit they see in your life. You continue serving, but because of your individualism, it’s very easy for you to ignore your brothers and sisters and instead listen to your own doubts, become self-absorbed, and reject the gift of the church’s affirmation.
Now, to be clear, if you’re manufacturing a false image of yourself and hiding sins from others in the church, then you’re really not opening yourself to the church’s true affirmation. You’re deceiving yourself and others; and it’s time for you to walk in the light. But for those of you who are being honest with where you’re at, and desire to love Christ, listen to your brothers and sisters’ affirmation of the forgiveness you have in Christ. Don’t underestimate the grace of God in the corporate affirmation of the local church. And also don’t treat your role flippantly when we bring new people into the local church. We represent Jesus when announcing the forgiveness of sins.
Moreover, we also announce forgiveness to all people without distinction. We go to a lost world, hold out the cross of Christ, and say, “This forgiveness is for you, if you will believe! All you have to do is receive it, and God will forgive your sins! Jesus’ blood can cleanse you and wash away your guilty stains!” It’s an incredible privilege to take the King’s message into the world, and fling the door of forgiveness wide open for all who believe.
It’s also an incredible privilege to bring the same message of forgiveness to one another! We sin. We sin against God. We sin against each other. We say all kinds of stupid things and think all kinds of perverted thoughts. And when we don’t pretend like we don’t have sin but confess our sins to each other, John tells us that we can speak forgiveness over each other. How does he put it elsewhere? “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin…If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9).
That’s really good news to preach over each other, all the time. There’s something very good to say about our brothers and sisters from more liturgical traditions. They usually have a corporate confession of sin followed by the assurance of pardon. The minister will get up and say something like, “I your faith is in Jesus Christ, then I can assure you, based on the sure promise of the word, that your sins are forgiven.” Such words are backed by the authority of Jesus himself in the word of God, and we need to hear them often.
Today, in the Lord’s Supper, we even get a tangible reminder of the forgiveness we’ve received in Christ. Dale, you get to come and speak forgiveness over brothers and sisters this morning. The blood of Jesus and the authority of God’s word stands behind you as you give us the bread and the cup. So, come and lead us in the Supper, and then we’ll share in another love feast at the park.
More in The Gospel According to John
May 24, 2015Eyewitness Testimony to the Greatness of Jesus
May 17, 2015Loving Jesus & Feeding His People at All Costs
May 10, 2015Believing the Apostle's Testimony When Not Seeing Jesus