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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

John 20

The Resurrection of Jesus and Breathing of the Holy Spirit (John 20:0 ).

Jesus Is The Son Of God.

Finally in chapter 20 Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and explains that He has not yet ascended to His Father (John 20:17 a), and tells her to inform His ‘brothers’ that, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God’ (John 20:17 b). It is clear that the ascension is to be seen as significant (Peter will state that as a result He would be made both Lord and Christ’ - Acts 2:36). Note that Jesus does not say ‘our Father’ or ‘our God’. He distinguishes His own relationship with the Father from theirs. This distinction is real, for the distinction between ‘My Father’ and ‘your Father’ is constantly maintained by Jesus, and is especially brought out in Matthew’s Gospel, where the latter phrase dominates the early chapters, with the former taking over in the later chapters as Jesus’ self-revelation increases. Furthermore ‘My God’ indicates that God was Jesus’ God in a different way than He was the God of the disciples and of all other men. Inherent in Jesus’ incarnation was that He would pray to God as a true man. He could hardly have been a true human being had He not done so. But when He did so it was uniquely as the Son talking to the Father. It was a unique relationship. In the case of the disciples they prayed as adopted children talking to their Father, and they could pray ‘our Father’, something Jesus could never pray.

The chapter continues in an act reminiscent of Genesis 2:7. Just as God had there breathed into man so that he became a living being, now Jesus breathes into His disciples so that they receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). ‘In Him was life, and the life was the light of men’ (John 1:4). For this inbreathing of the Spirit is not only to be symbolic of the ‘eternal life’ that they have received from God, and of the new creation, but also brings them power and illumination (Luke 24:45). It is to be seen as a fulfilling of His promises concerning the Spirit of truth in chapters 14-16. These men are to be the foundation of the new creation. What follows at Pentecost will be an enduement of power (Acts 1:8).

These parallel acts, the one in Genesis 2:7 commencing man’s existence as a spiritual being in God’s creation , and the other commencing the bringing about of God’s new creation which will result in eternal life for all true believers, bring out what has already been stated in John 1:1-13, that Jesus is both the God of creation (John 1:3) and the Source of life (John 1:4 a), and the God of revelation (John 1:4-11) and new creation (John 1:12-13). He is the Son of God (John 20:31).

The chapter, and the main part of the Gospel, now end with Thomas’ declaration concerning Jesus, ‘my Lord and my God’ (John 20:28), thus ending on the same note with which the Gospel began, ‘in the beginning was the Word --- and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). The truth has begun to come home to those Who follow Him.

Combined in this chapter are two world shaking events, the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit. They represent all to which the Gospel has been pointing. Usually a man’s life story ends with His death but here the death of Jesus was but the introduction to a new beginning. Through His death life had come to the world.

Verse 1

‘Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene comes early, while it was yet dark, to the tomb and sees the stone taken away from the tomb.’

‘The first day of the week’ could be any time after sunset on Saturday evening, but here it is early Sunday morning just prior to sunrise. The use of the term ‘the first day of the week’, along with the mention that it was ‘yet dark’, may be intended to indicate the approach of a new beginning. Whilst it was still dark for the disciples and the women as they grieved for Jesus, shortly light would dawn, and then all would be revealed.

Mary has been sent ahead with ‘the other Mary’ (Matthew 28:1) by the women who were preparing spices and ointments for Jesus’ burial (Luke 23:55 to Luke 24:1). They would wish to check out the situation in the garden and their greatest concern would be as to how they could roll the stone from the entrance so as to minister to Jesus’ body (Mark 16:3). So the Marys came while it was still dark (Matthew 28:1). But to their amazement they found that the large stone had been moved. Not sure what this meant one Mary went back to report to the women while Mary Magdalene raced to let Peter and John know.

John mentions only Mary Magdalene because it was she who came to Peter and himself breathless with the news, and he was involved in the sequel. He is concentrating on Mary’s escapade. Thus his account is only about Mary.

‘The stone taken away.’ The stone had in fact been removed by an earthquake connected with an angelic visitation (Matthew 28:2). It was not necessary for the resurrection of Jesus that the stone should be taken away (see John 20:26), but it was necessary so that the emptiness of the tomb could be seen.

Verses 1-10

Mary Magdalene Finds The Tomb Has Been Opened And Calls On Peter And John (John 20:1-10 ).

Verse 2

‘She therefore runs and comes to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and says to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him”.’

‘She therefore runs.’ She did not know what to make of the rolled away stone and assumed that it must mean that someone had taken away His body. She knew that Temple guards had been stationed at the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66) and therefore did not suspect grave robbers. It could thus only be the authorities who had moved Him. So, in distress, she races to consult with the leading disciples. Unless they could find His body they could not anoint Him. They, of course, knew nothing of the activities of Joseph and Nicodemus. They probably knew where the tomb was because they had kept watch from a distance when His body was removed from the cross.

The plural ‘we’ confirms that Mary had not been alone in her discovery. There had been at least two, and they had found the tomb empty and did not know what to make of it. They could only conclude that the explanation was that the body has been removed by His enemies. She was probably distraught, but not too distraught to return later to the tomb (John 20:11).

‘The Lord.’ An indication of great respect. Even though He was dead she still saw Him as her Lord, despite the fact that she had no hope of ever seeing Him again. In their grief the last desire of the women was to see Him rightly treated in His burial.

Verses 3-5

‘Peter therefore went forth, and the other disciple, and they went towards the tomb, and they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came first to the tomb, and stooping and looking in he sees the linen cloths lying, yet he did not go in.’

Mary’s news shook Peter and John and they immediately set out for the tomb to find out what had happened. They ran, and the running was the running of deeply perturbed men. What could this possibly mean? They were simply anxious to get there as quickly as possible. The writer vividly remembers the race to the tomb, and how he outran Peter, and yet on coming to the tomb and looking in, how he had been too awed to enter the tomb. Or it may be that he was too conscious that it would incur ritual defilement during the Passover (something instilled from birth in a family with high religious connections) if he entered the tomb. He remembers, however, how he caught a glimpse of the linen cloths which should have been on Jesus’ body. This is the vivid memory of an eyewitness who remembered every detail.

Verses 6-9

‘Simon Peter also therefore comes, following him, and went into the tomb, and he sees the linen cloths lying there, and the napkin that was on his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple also therefore went into the tomb, he who had come first to the tomb, and he saw and believed, for as yet they knew not the Scripture that he would arise from the dead.’

It was typical of Peter that he rushed into the tomb without thought. Not for him the hesitancy of the other, but he had not had the same strict upbringing. Then the other followed him in. And they saw the grave cloths lying just where they had been when the body was there, with the napkin where the head had been, rolled as though it were still round the head.

‘He saw and believed’. In one moment of illumination John realised the significance of what he was seeing. The fact that the cloths were still there was evidence against the body having been removed, for why would any people responsible have removed the cloths from the body on removing it? And had they done so, why would they have arranged them so carefully? Even the chief priests and their minions would have reverenced those, and grave robbers would have wanted them for their value. Besides had they stripped them off they would have cast them to one side not laid them out neatly.

‘For as yet they knew not the Scripture that he would arise from the dead.’ Up to this point they had not accepted in their hearts the Scripture testimony to the resurrection of the Coming One. They had not ‘known’, the Scripture that Jesus would rise from the dead (see for example Psalms 16:10-11; Psalms 110:1-4; Psalms 118:22-24; Isaiah 53:11-12 and compare 1 Corinthians 15:4; Mark 8:31; Mark 9:31; Mark 10:34), but now he ‘knew’ and believed. It is quite probable that the writer saw the tradition of Jesus as Scripture, as well as the Old Testament.

Verse 10

‘So the disciples went away again to their own.’

The two then went back to the other disciples and spoke of what had happened. ‘To their own’ is a neutral phrase which could mean to their own lodgings or tent (compare Luke 24:12) where the other disciples would be.

Verses 11-12

‘But Mary was standing outside at the tomb weeping, so as she wept she stooped and looked into the tomb, and she sees two angels in white, sitting one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had lain.’

Mary must have followed the other two, returning back more slowly. She could not keep up with the intense running of the men, especially as she had already had the journey the other way in order to tell them. She would thus arrive back after the two had left. They, of course, had left her standing, not thinking of whether she would follow.

Still distraught, tears were pouring from her eyes. It was the custom in those days to let grief have its full sway and she may well have been weeping loudly and vigorously as the verb suggests. Deeply distressed she bent to look into the tomb. And then she froze in amazement. For there she saw two figures in white sitting where the body had been lying.

The angels may have been seated as being temporary protectors of the place where Jesus had lain, just as the Cherubim had been protectors of the Ark. Or more likely (they had not been there when John and Peter arrived) they may have wished to draw attention to the exact spot where Jesus’ body had been (none of His followers would otherwise have known at which spot His body had been placed). They may also have been present as an indication to all who saw that Jesus had been escorted by angels into God’s presence. This would be in accordance with Luke 16:22 which seemingly reflects Jewish tradition.

Verses 11-18

Jesus’ Appearance To Mary (John 20:11-18 ).

Verses 13-14

‘And they say to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She says to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had thus said she turned herself round and sees Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.’

Mary did not realise that the men in white were angels. So while the angels were seeking to deal with the source of her distress, she was too overwrought to listen to them. Her mind was filled with the question of what had happened to her beloved Master, and she turned away having automatically answered their question. The two men were irrelevant to her. She did not even ask herself what they were doing there. She was too distraught. This complete lack by Mary of awareness of the presence of angels is another evidence of the authenticity of the account.

So she turned away, not really heeding their words, and saw another man standing there. It was Jesus, but she did not realise it.

It is important to note that this was the opposite of hallucination. In hallucination you believe what you see, however amazing. But Mary was too practically minded to hallucinate. She was actually seeing amazing things and did not realise they were amazing, but interpreted them in earthly, down-to-earth terms. She saw these figures as just men (Mark 16:5) who were there because they presumably had a job to do.

She also only dimly saw the man outside. The day was still just beginning and the light was not good, and Mary’s eyes were flooded with tears. She saw but a vague figure standing before her. After all the last thing that she was expecting to see was Jesus fully clothed presumably looking hale and hearty. He would have looked very different from when she last saw Him, a broken bleeding figure on the cross. Indeed His appearance seems to have made Him partially unrecognisable. Resurrection had clearly changed His appearance somewhat as we would expect (Luke 24:16). All this helps to explain why she did not recognise Him.

Verse 15

‘Jesus says to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” She, supposing him to be the garden attendant says to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him off your hands.”

When the dimly discerned man asked her what was wrong, and why she was crying, she could only ask in tears what they had done with Jesus’ body. Her only concern was that it be treated with reverence. These words lay bare the heart of Mary. She did not stop to consider the difficulties. She longed only to ensure that the body of her crucified Master was given proper burial. Let this attendant but tell her what they had done with the body and she would take it off their hands.

She would not be surprised to find people in the garden at that hour who had not been there previously. Dawn was breaking and workers could expect to be up and going about their business now that the Sabbath was over.

Verse 16

‘Jesus says to her, “Mary”. She turns herself and says to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni”, which is to say “Master.”

Then Jesus broke into her distress. ‘Jesus says to her, “Mary”.’ The well remembered voice brought her up with a jolt. That she had to ‘turn herself’ indicates that she had not been looking at Him properly. Now the name and the voice pierced her veil of tears. Surely, she must have thought, it could not be? No one can be unmoved by the drama of this moment. Suddenly her eyes were opened and she saw Him as He was. We cannot even begin to grasp what that revelation meant to her at that point in time. Her whole being must have been filled with wonder and gratitude and to such an extent that, crying ‘Master’, she flung her arms around Him and would not let Him go.

Verse 17

‘Jesus says to her, “Do not retain me, for I am not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I ascend to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God’.”

‘Do not retain me.’ It would appear that Mary must have been clinging to Him as though she would never let Him go, and so He gently removed her hands to let her know that there was a new beginning. These kindly words were intended to make clear to her that the old relationship no longer held. He was not to be seen as a man restored to life to live again on this earth. Rather He was about to ascend to His Father. Thus she must not cling to Him and retain Him. She must let Him go to become both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). From now on she must worship Him in Spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).

‘For I am not yet ascended to My Father.’ It is vain for us to attempt to understand exactly what these words involved, but they clearly refer to the body. His spirit would already have been with God. The point is simply to indicate the intermediate state in which He was to be found. His bodily resurrection and ascension were not as yet complete.

‘Go to my brothers.’ Essentially this indicates His disciples but eventually all believers who do the will of God (Mark 3:35). The term brother is a new one in their relationship with Him. They have moved from servant to friend (John 15:15) to brother (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:11).

‘I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’. This is probably not speaking of the later ascension after the resurrection appearances but an immediate ascension as He took His throne as the Son of Man, receiving all dominion and power and authority (Matthew 28:18; Daniel 7:13-14), and receiving the Holy Spirit Whom He would now pass on to His disciples. He had now been glorified and the Spirit could now be poured forth (John 7:38-39 compare John 16:7). We must beware of straitjacketing the cross and its aftermath. The purpose of what we call the Ascension was to indicate the last of the series of resurrection appearances not to say that He had not previously entered Heaven.

Note how He does not speak of ‘our Father’ or ‘our God’. His relationship to the Father is to be seen as distinctive from ours and unique, thus it is ‘my Father’ and ‘your Father’ and ‘my God’ and ‘your God’. As the Son He spoke of ‘My Father’, whereas we would speak of ‘our Father’; as glorified representative Man He spoke of ‘My God’, we would speak of ‘our God’. But in both cases His relationship with the Father was distinctive from ours. There is nothing surprising about His referring to ‘my God’. In His manhood He had regularly worshipped God, otherwise He would not have been truly human. This was simply an extension of the practise. It said nothing to diminish His divine status.

Verse 18

‘Mary Magdalene comes and tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”, and how he had said these things to her.’

Mary then went to the disciple and faithfully reported what she had experienced to all the disciples. Note how in this chapter Jesus is constantly referred to as ‘the Lord’. There was a distinct change in attitude towards Him. Mary had learned her lesson from His words. But though she spoke so fervently and was so excited they did not believe her (Mark 16:11).

We do not know exactly how this ties in with the appearance of the other women at the tomb. No one was trying to piece the incidents together. On the whole they were summarised and telescoped together (Matthew 28:5-6; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-9). All had been in the original party of women who had planned to visit the tomb and had sent the two Marys on ahead. All came to the tomb at one time or another and heard what the angels had to say, and returned to tell the disciples. It was the message that was important not the detail.

And in all cases the message was disbelieved. The disciples were in no state to accept the testimony of a bunch of women. Everyone knew what women were with their vivid imaginations and unreliable ideas. They even probably thought that Peter and John had got it wrong, although they at least did not claim to have seen Jesus at the tomb. But it was different when Peter himself claimed to have seen Jesus (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5). Light was gradually dawning.

Verses 19-20

‘When therefore it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were for fear of the Judaisers, Jesus came and stood among them and says to them, “Peace to you”. And when He had said this He showed them His hand and His side. The disciples therefore were glad when they saw the Lord.’

All of the eleven disciples apart from Thomas would appear to have been present at this time. They were gathered in a locked room no doubt discussing the strange things that they had been hearing about, and it is clear that there were others with them when they were joined by the two from Emmaus (Luke 24:33).

‘For fear of the Judaisers.’ This was a wise precaution not due to a lack of faith. At this stage they did not know whether they would be hunted down. It has never been spiritual to court danger unnecessarily. Everything points to the reliability of the accounts. The women’s experiences, the locked door, none of this would have been invented. It all put the disciples in a bad light. No one who wanted to convince the world would have had women seeing Jesus first, unless that was the way it happened.

‘Jesus came.’ Jesus now revealed Himself alive to His disciples. He showed them His hands and His side to confirm through the nail prints and the wound in the side that it was He the crucified One Who was now risen. The nature of His resurrection body must ever remain a mystery to us. He could somehow enter rooms that were locked (here and John 20:26) and appear and disappear at will. Yet His essential marks and characteristics were there and He could be touched and felt. On the other hand He was now surely seen as clothed with clothes that could only be heavenly, as was His body.

We would be unwise to argue from all this that our resurrection bodies will be similar. Jesus’ resurrection was totally unique. It guarantees the resurrection of His own but not the form that that resurrection will take. Indeed if our resurrection bodies are to be anything like our own present ones there would surely have to be a renewing and an unageing in many. All we know is that we will have a ‘spiritual body’ (1 Corinthians 15:44).

“Peace to you.” A standard greeting (Genesis 43:23; Judges 6:23; 1 Samuel 25:6; Daniel 4:1; Daniel 6:25), but what meaning it attains here. Peace from God (Romans 1:7 and often in introductions; John 15:13) and peace with God (Romans 5:1) and the peace of God (Philippians 4:7) is theirs. Its repetition in the next verse demonstrates that it is more than just a greeting.

‘Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord.’ An understatement because no statement could be enough. ‘Ecstatic’ may be a better word but is insufficient. They were filled with overflowing and indescribable joy and ecstasy. John, however, abbreviates this first appearance. For more detail see also Luke 24:36-43.

Verses 19-23

Jesus Appears To All The Apostles Apart From Thomas (John 20:19-23 ).

Verse 21

‘Jesus therefore said to them again, “Peace be to you. As the Father has sent me even so I send you.”

To whom was Jesus speaking? As mentioned above others than the eleven were present, including the women. But John makes clear that the commission here is to ‘the disciples’ and in the context of chapter 13 onwards that is the eleven. The others join in it in a general sense, but the specific actions are for ‘the disciples’ (compare John 17:18; John 17:20). This is confirmed by the words with reference to Thomas as ‘one of the twelve’ (John 20:24).

They had endured great sorrow and despair. Now He reminded them what it had all been about. They must now take over His task of being the light of the world. He was sending them just as the Father had sent Him. From now on they would be His representatives, His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). They were ‘the foundation of the twelve Apostles’ (Revelation 21:14 compare Ephesians 2:20 where the foundation is widened to include ‘prophets’, but those may have been the Old Testament prophets)

Verse 22

‘And when He had said this He breathed on them, and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.

Jesus now in a very real act of power endues the Apostles with the Holy Spirit. It is a travesty to suggest that this incident was merely symbolic. John mentions no other and sees this as the moment of enduing. In his eyes it explained all that lay in the future. We note the close connection between breathing and the reception of the Holy Spirit. The receiving of the Holy Spirit is the reception of God-given life. But here the emphasis is on the fact that they receive this from Jesus.

Note On The Receiving Of The Holy Spirit.

There are no grounds for doubting that this was a genuine enduing with the Spirit before Pentecost. John mentions no other, and only Luke in fact mentions Pentecost (Acts 2:0). In Matthew what empowers is the presence of Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20). Pentecost was more an outward manifestation to the world of the fact that the great outpouring of the Spirit had come, although it was certainly a further enduing with power for future ministry (Acts 1:8). We would not take away any of Pentecost’s importance. But Matthew speaks of Jesus as giving them His authority and being personally with them always (Matthew 28:19-20), and assumes that is enough, while the Marcan ending describes it in terms of Him commissioning them (Mark 16:15-20) followed by evidences of the power that He was giving them. Neither assume a knowledge of Acts or mention Pentecost and Mark was certainly written before Acts was known of. The stress is on the reception of power from Jesus.

Here the gift was made personally to His disciples, and in some ways was an even greater gift than Pentecost for it ‘opened their minds to understand the Scriptures’. It guaranteed them as the source of full truth (John 16:13). At Pentecost the gift was to the wider church and was more about empowerment for the future ministry (Acts 1:8). But here it was His very life-giving, empowering breath which entered them and they ‘received the Holy Spirit’ in the fullest sense of the word as described in John 7:39. They were by this endued with special wisdom in fulfilment of the promises of chapters 14-16 ( compare in Luke 24:45, ‘then opened He their mind that they might understand the Scriptures’, which confirms an earlier enduing to Pentecost). From now on they were different men and spent much time in the Temple blessing God (Luke 24:53). Indeed a separate experience was later clearly necessary, for none but the disciples experienced this uniquely special blessing.

Are we to see this as indicating that they have not previously experienced the power of the Holy Spirit? Of course not. They had cast out evil spirits in the name of Jesus, and Jesus Himself had said that these were cast out by the Spirit of God (Matthew 12:28). This working of the Spirit was one evidence of God’s Kingly Rule now present on earth. They had also previously been promised that God would give the Holy Spirit to those who asked Him (Luke 11:13), something clearly available at that time. They thus knew that His powerful working was then available to them. When Jesus sent out His Apostles to preach during His lifetime He had assured them that if they were brought up for questioning ‘the Spirit of His Father’ would be their enabling when they made their reply (Matthew 10:20). Jesus’ words to Nicodemus made clear that all who were His true followers had already been born anew of the Spirit of God (John 3:1-6). And so we could go on. So what Jesus was bestowing on them here was the Holy Spirit for a special purpose, for the fulfilling of their unique role as Apostles..

The action of Jesus in breathing on them could hardly fail to bring to mind the way that God breathed into man the breath of life (Genesis 2:7) (also brought out by the use of pnoe (‘breath’) at Pentecost). That was the moment when man entered into possession of the old creation, this was the moment when the foundational new men entered into possession of the new creation. Jesus was in effect saying “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).

It was not the moment of their new birth. That had from the first been as necessary for them as for Nicodemus (John 3:6). Nor was it their first experience of the Spirit’s power, for they had cast out evil spirits and healed with ‘power’ given to them by Jesus (Matthew 10:1 with John 12:28), preaching on His authority (Luke 9:1-2), and had had available for them the Spirit’s help (Luke 12:11-12; Matthew 10:20 - we have no reason to doubt that this applied to problems they faced in their ministry at that time). Rather it was the special empowering of the foundation members of the new people of God, their special empowering for the task to which they were now set aside, and the special and unique illuminating of the Apostles.

End of note.

“Receive the Holy Spirit.” Nothing could be plainer. At this moment they ‘received’ the promised Holy Spirit. Compare John 7:37-39. There in John 7:39 they had been told that they would soon ‘receive’ the Holy Spirit, He Who would flow through them like rivers of living water. Here, using the same word ‘receive’ was now the fulfilment of that promise, the reception of that wonderful blessing of the outpoured Holy Spirit. Others would have to wait until Pentecost (Luke 24:4-9 probably has the wider group of disciples in mind), but this was the firstfruits and the disciples received Him there and then directly from the risen Jesus. He proceeded from the Son. But they too would receive further enduings as they needed them, and have a major role at Pentecost.

Verse 23

“Of whoever you forgive the sins they have been and are forgiven, and of whoever you retain them they have been and are retained.”

Few words have been more misrepresented than these. These words reveal that forgiveness of sin is the essential purpose of what Christ has accomplished, that He has come in order that men’s sins may be forgiven. That is why He has given His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). The task of the Apostles was to be to mediate that forgiveness to men. But they are spoken to the Apostles and there are no grounds of applying them specifically to those who followed them

Again this is in its primary sense a unique gift to the Apostles. In these days at the beginning a special discernment was necessary to preserve the infant church. The idea here was that the disciples would be able to ‘see through’ men in a unique way. This gift comes out for example in Acts 5:1-6 where Peter discerned the thoughts of Ananias and Sapphira. In some ways it was a terrible gift, the right to be able to discern whether men have been forgiven and thus to be able to include and exclude people from flock of God. Thus, just as Jesus had been able to, they too would be able to discern whether men were genuine or not and whether they had been truly forgiven.

It was not a gift generally given to the church. The Apostles were promised that they would be able to discern the reality of men’s response to Christ, and pronounce accordingly. The church has rashly appropriated this statement to itself, but there is no indication that, (in the same way as with the promises of special ability to remember and interpret the words of Jesus and the Old Testament - John 14:25; John 16:13), it applied outside the Apostles. To them and to them alone was given the ability to provide the full revelation of God, and to them, and to them alone, was given the fullness of discernment that would protect the infant church. They alone were given the authority to interpret men’s responses, and pronounce accordingly, so that even Paul submitted his teaching to their examination (Galatians 2:2) and his claim to have his teaching recognised was on the basis that he had become an Apostle.

An examination of the life of Jesus will bring out the significance of what they were being empowered to do here. He declares people’s sins forgiven on two occasions.

In Luke 7:36-50 we have the story of the ‘sinful’ woman who came to Jesus and washed His feet with her tears and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Jesus told the doubting Simon the Pharisee that her sins, which were many, “are forgiven her for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little”. But the latter phrase tells us that the forgiveness is seen as preceding the loving. She had already been forgiven. Thus Jesus could now tell her that her sins “are forgiven” because she has demonstrated that she already has an awareness of forgiveness through the offering of her love. Jesus was declaring a forgiveness that had already taken place.

Through listening to His words earlier the woman must have become conscious of sin and cried to God for forgiveness, and her actions were now those of a woman aware of forgiveness, filled with love and gratitude. His words were a confirmation to her that her experience was genuine. His declaration “your sins are forgiven you” (literally ‘have been and therefore are forgiven’) means “I declare that God has already forgiven you”. He was not dispensing forgiveness. He used the passive tense, which was a characteristic of His ministry when He was speaking of an action of God without mentioning Him (compare Matthew 5:3-9, where the question ‘by whom’ can only be answered ‘by God’). He was emphasising that God had already forgiven her

A second example is found in Luke 5:18-24. A man was lowered through to the feet of Jesus because he was paralysed. Jesus said to him, “Man, your sins are forgiven you” (perfect passive tense - ‘have been and therefore are forgiven’). We may ask, why did Jesus say this to a man who had been brought for healing? And the answer is surely because He could see the man’s inner thoughts, and the cry of his heart. This was no arbitrary declaration. Rather He could discern the man’s deepest need, a solution that the man was crying out for. He knew this and assured him that God had forgiven him. This led on to the statement that the Son of Man had authority on earth ‘to forgive sins’ (John 20:24).

This incident again links the forgiving of sins with sins having been forgiven by God. Jesus had not said “I forgive you”, but basically “God has forgiven you”, again using the indirect passive tense, and He did it because He had discerned what had already taken place in their hearts.

Both these incidents demonstrate that Jesus was able to discern men’s inner thoughts, and that it was on that basis that He was able to declare God’s forgiveness. This was also the gift He was giving to His apostles, the ability to discern men’s thoughts and declare God’s forgiveness or otherwise. This is illustrated in Acts 5:1-10; Acts 8:21-24, both cases where Peter showed that he had special awareness. In the latter case, however, Peter made clear that any forgiveness must be between Simon and God (v. 22). Even he did not see himself as having some great authority to deal with sin apart from that.

These examples illustrate the tenses in John 20:23. ‘Of whoever you forgive the sins they have been and are forgiven.’ Here also the forgiveness by God was to precede the declaration of forgiveness.

An examination of the history of the early church in Acts will demonstrate that this was not something that was used lightly. How differently Acts would have been written if the Apostles had held the views often later read in to this verse. As it is we find only the rare references mentioned above. No one saw themselves as having some great authority to forgive sins.

(Once the church can physically heal all who come to it, or even if one man in it could do so, as Jesus and the Apostles could, they may claim to have taken the first step towards claiming this power. But they cannot. They may have the silver and gold, but they do not have the power granted to Peter and the other Apostles. Nor can they make any claim to special spiritual discernment like Peter demonstrated in Acts 5:0, for it would too easily be proved false. We must remember that it was Jesus Himself Who said that His power to declare the forgiveness of sins was demonstrated by His power to make men physically whole. The closeness to God that could accomplish the one enabled the other. When we have the one to the full extent we can claim the other).

So these words of John 20:23 are a promise that their new reception of the Holy Spirit, which had been to the Apostles alone, had given them the unique discernment to fathom men’s hearts and discern the genuineness of their repentance. On this basis they would be able to declare that men had been and therefore were forgiven. Or alternatively that they were not forgiven as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-6). And this declaration would be made when they saw through their unique discernment that God had already forgiven them. Acts suggests that it was a gift that they felt unable to use except in rare circumstances.

It should be recognised that this gift was vital to a new-born church when a false profession by an imposing person could have caused so much harm. There is no indication that it was ever passed on, nor later on would be needed. By then the church had grown sufficiently so that it was able to cope with false confessions. It is true that a gift of ‘discernment of spirits’ was given as a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:10; 1 Corinthians 14:29), something very necessary to discern true prophecy from false when there was no New Testament to go by, but it was not the same as here.

As always God’s people generally would experience partially what the Apostles had in full. Some miracles would be known among them, they would be able to declare God’s general forgiveness on those who believed, they would have discernment enabling them to understand the Scriptures, but only in part. They did not have the full-orbed gifts granted to the Apostles.

So having received the Spirit of truth and discernment the apostles were now ready to go into the future with power and confidence.

Detached Note.

We can compare two further places where Jesus spoke in similar terms to His disciples. The first is in Matthew 16:18. Here, once Peter had had the discernment to declare Him to be the Christ, Jesus told him, ‘You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. I will give to you the keys of the kingship of Heaven and whatever you will bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you will loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven.’

There was clearly here a pun on the name of Peter, but of seventy nine early church ‘fathers’ who commented on these words forty four stated that the ‘petra’ was the words of Peter, eighteen said that it was Peter himself, and seventeen that it was Christ. The first mentioned were clearly correct, for the whole emphasis of the passage is not on Peter (only Matthew mentions him) but on the statement, ‘You are the Christ’ (emphasised in all three Synoptic Gospels).

Jesus, speaking directly to Peter, contrasts ‘Peter’ with ‘this rock’. ‘This’ basically excludes reference to Peter. It contrasts him with the rock. The meaning is clear. As the rock-man Peter has made the rock-like declaration on which the faith of the church will be built. But the rock (petra) was the statement ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’, as the majority of the early fathers recognised. Nor was there any hint here or anywhere in the passage that there was something here, apart from the truth about Christ, that would be passed on to anyone else.

‘I will build my church’. The word for ‘church’ was used constantly in the Septuagint of the ‘congregation’ of Israel. Jesus was thus here referring to the ‘new Israel’ who would come together in response to His Messiahship, founded on the rock-like statement ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’, against whom all the powers of Hell would not prevail.

‘I will give to you the keys of the Kingly Rule of Heaven’. Keys are for opening things up (see Isaiah 22:22). It was in fact Peter who first opened up the new Gospel of the reign of Christ to the Jews (Acts 2:0) and to the Gentiles (Acts 10:0). He was to be an opener up of the truth, just as his words ‘You are the Christ’ demonstrated his discernment of truth.

This tied in with the special promises of Jesus in John 14-16, given to all the Apostles, that they would receive the Spirit of truth Who would enable them to have a full and right understanding of that truth so as to open it up to others. But it was Jesus alone Who had the keys to death and the grave (Revelation 1:18).

‘Whatever you will bind on earth will be bound in Heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven.’ The power of binding and loosing was one which was originally applied to the Rabbis. They were being described (by men) as having the power to so declare the meaning of God’s law that they could impose restrictions (bind) or make relaxations (loose) in their practical application. It was a power now given by Christ to all the Apostles (Matthew 18:18) where it more specifically applied to guiding the behaviour of God’s people in response to the word of God. Thus Peter and the rest of the Apostles were to have a discernment and understanding of the truth which would lay the foundation of His new people. It would come with the special and unique gifts promised in John 14-16, but was demonstrated in embryo in Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. It is the same gift of discernment which is spoken of in John 20:23.

(End of Note).

Verses 24-25

‘But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe”.’

Thomas had missed out on that first appearance of Jesus and when he arrived back and was told about it he was understandably sceptical. They ‘went on telling him’ (imperfect tense) how they had seen the nail prints and the wound in His side (John 20:20) and he had retorted in exaggerated fashion that unless he could actually prove it, by himself touching them, he would not believe. Awkward people sometimes take up awkward stances, and the more people try to persuade them the more they react.

The incident is the more emphatic because John has not previously dwelt on the unbelief of the disciples in response to the resurrection although the other Gospels had made quite clear that news of Jesus resurrection was constantly responded to by doubt and unbelief (Luke 24:11; Luke 24:37; Luke 24:41; Mark 16:14), as indeed we would expect.

Verses 24-29

Jesus Appears To The Disciples Including Thomas (John 20:24-29 ).

Thomas had been absent at Jesus’ first appearance to the Apostles, but he too was now to see the risen Lord.

Verses 26-28

‘And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas was with them. Jesus comes, the doors being shut, and stood among them and said, “Peace to you.” Then he says to Thomas, “Reach out here with your finger and see my hands, and reach out your hand and put it into my side and do not be doubtful but believing.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God.”

Eight days passed by with the disciples still excitedly discussing what had happened and Thomas still convinced that they had been having hallucinations. Then Jesus appeared again to them.

‘The doors being shut.’ This probably indicates that they were locked. The only reason for this repeated mention is that John wants us to appreciate that Jesus suddenly appeared in a locked room. He does not dwell on the fact but he had noted it. The appearance was miraculous.

Jesus clearly knew what Thomas had been saying and responded graciously, although with a hint of reproof. There is no suggestion that Thomas finally demanded to do what he had previously said. Instead he declared, “My Lord and my God.”

This was the first open declaration of Jesus as God. It is the final step in the understanding that Jesus as ‘the holy One of God’ (John 6:69) was indeed ‘God, the holy One’. That it is put on Thomas’s previously doubting lips is demonstration of its genuineness. An inventor would have put it on the lips of Peter or John.

It is interesting that John brings out different moments of discernment, Peter in John 6:69; himself in John 20:8; and here Thomas. Sometimes one, sometimes another, reveal these moments of understanding and revelation when they have ‘outpaced’ the others. Here the once-doubting Thomas leads the way.

Verse 29

‘Jesus says to him, “Because you have seen, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Response in faith to the word of God is here seen as the supreme achievement. Many believe for many reasons, but full response to God in response to His word is seen as the ultimate in blessedness.

John began his Gospel by declaring that ‘the Word was God’, so that ‘we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten son of the Father’ (John 1:1; John 1:14). Here he ends it (initially) with Thomas’ declaration “My Lord and my God”, the supreme declaration of faith that would in future determine who was a true believer (Romans 10:9).

John 20:29 is then addressed to the readers calling on them to show that supreme faith which, without seeing, accepts the fullness of the truth of Christ’s deity.

Final Summary.

The call to faith. John calls his readers to share the same faith as Thomas in the fact that Jesus is ‘my Lord and my God’ on the basis of what he has written.

Verses 30-31

‘Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.’

It would appear clear that initially this was the end of the Gospel. The next chapter may therefore have been a postscript. It may, of course, have been written immediately after, as postscripts often are, or it may have been added later, but it seems certain from these verses that it was an afterthought, for John 20:30-31 are clearly saying, ‘I have presented you with the facts and you must now consider your response’.

‘Many other signs.’ He knows that they can learn of them from elsewhere, things that demonstrated the uniqueness of What and Who Jesus is. The emphasis on ‘signs’, which is especially John’s word for miraculous happenings (John 2:11; John 2:23; John 3:2; John 4:54; John 6:14; John 9:16; John 11:47; John 12:18), is not on ‘proof’ but on ‘revelation’. They are signs precisely because they reveal the fullness of the glory of Christ. They reveal among other things that what He brings is new wine not old tradition, that He is the bread of life, that He is the light of the world, and that He is the resurrection and the life. Indeed that He is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6).

‘In the presence of His disciples’. They were eyewitnesses to what had happened. They spoke what they knew and saw (see 1 John 1:1).

‘These are written that you may believe -’. The present tense of ‘believe’, used in the majority of ancient manuscripts, stresses the continual nature of this belief. ‘That you may believe and go on believing’. John’s purpose in writing was to arouse saving faith in his readers, and to confirm and strengthen the faith of those who already believed. Through believing in the revelation of Jesus Christ the Son of God men can find eternal life. Some manuscripts have the aorist (to believe once for all). It is easy to see how later, when believing was seen as ‘the way in’, this change would occur.

‘These are written that you may believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.’ Here John states the purpose of his Gospel. It was that Jesus might be revealed as both Messiah and Son of God. And as we have seen this idea has been prominent in every chapter. And the end result was to be that by believing in Him many would receive life ‘in His Name’.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on John 20". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.