The Great Commission in John’s gospel is worded in an interesting way. In carefully reading this letter over the past year, my brothers and I stumbled upon it and had a bit of struggle reading it as written.
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 ESV)
It breaks down in simplistic terms as:
For some in our circles #3 (v23) was far too “catholic,” controlling, or authoritative on our part as the ones carrying out the work.
A Pastoral point of view
To step back from the problems of the statement for a moment, imagine yourself in a state of grief over a sin. You understand that God has forgiven you but you are in that place where you cannot forgive yourself. Now imagine a trusted friend and mentor coming to you and praying for you, discussing with you, and finally declaring to you firmly, “your sins are forgiven.” This human touch could be like a glass of cold water on a hot summer day!
Consider James’ words around healing found in James 5:13-16. Specifically v16 “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Have we, in protestant circles, allowed the pendulum to swing too far away from the catholic confessional?
Think about the foot washing of John 13. Jesus is stooping at the dirty feet of Peter and Peter in effect says “Never!” After a comedic yet instructive interaction Jesus goes on to declare our role to “wash one another’s feet.” (v14) Then he makes the powerful statement “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (v17) Jesus offers blessing to us when we live in a community of washing one another’s feet. It is dirty work. It is the work of a servant. And, it is intimate, caring, and results in blessing! Certainly we have a long way to go in living this out.
Later in this chapter 13 we hear Jesus’ command:
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13 ESV)
My point here is that this authority to forgive sins is one of nurture, care, and intimacy. It is an expression of love and a community that practices it well would likely emit such a loving aura that bystanders would be drawn in. It is not at all ever intended by Jesus to be with an attitude of “lording it over others.” (Matt 20:25, 1 Peter 5:3)
Dealing with the problem - getting technical
The problem comes up when we consider going before a mean and unknowing authority to tell them of our tresspasses and to have them drop the gavel and proclaim, “You are not forgiven!” The cruel judge sentences us to a month of back lashes and to recite some holy prayer and then return for reassessment. We have so separated it from the context that Jesus proclaimed it, that there is no similarity whatsoever. We have certainly heard stories, witnessed, or have even participated in the harsh treatment of a tormented soul and our hearts are repulsed at the thought. Our American individualism is in full force against the idea in any form.
When I first read this text I found it troubling. As I dug into the Greek I found that these verbs were only used in this way in John in this singular verse. Furthermore, the English word “forgive” is found in John only in this verse in most English translations! I found this fascinating and troubling. Isn’t the gospel all about forgiveness? Well, yes and no. The gospel is about forgiveness but John is focused on the word “believe” which is used something like 99x with one particular Greek word. In John the theological idea of our sins being forgiven is experienced through belief! But, John speaks in the positive. He speaks of having life, he speaks of not dying in our sins, he only speaks of forgiveness of sins in this one verse.
Yes, John does mention it here, and most importantly as part of the commissioning of the disciples. It is a critically important sentence. John uses the word (G863 aphiēmi about 14x) but only in this instance with the idea of forgiveness of sins (G266 hamartia). When I see a writer use a word only one time it causes questions. It would seem that this was not common vocabulary for John. Is it an editorial addition by a later author? There is no indication of this in the resources I have used. More likely, it is a reference that John is making to a source document that many theologians claim the gospel writers used. John does use it twice in this same way in 1 John 1:9 and 2:12. In the case of his use in the epistle it is about God forgiving sin and not about man forgiving sin as we find it here in this gospel.
The other gospel writers, however, use this vocabulary a bit more. Matthew is a great example and can be very helpful to review.
Matt 6 ESV
9 Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Matt 18 ESV
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Certainly the gospel speaks powerfully to the topic of forgiveness. In fact our forgiveness is tightly bound to our ability to forgive others. The way to understand it is that when we have fallen before the Lord in despair over our own sins and have received forgiveness. Then we will readily offer it to others. Belief is the doorway to forgiveness. Our role in the mission of God is to proclaim the gospel, to proclaim forgiveness. Our role is also to authenticate or confirm faith in others. The church offers baptism to its members as an outward sign of an inward reality. One does not baptize themselves but instead comes to a mature believer (or church leader). They confess their faith in Jesus and the leader then responds with the words, “By your confession, you are a child of God. Welcome to the family. Come and be baptized.” They, in effect, absolve the new follower of their sins. But likewise, if a person comes to that leader and says, “I do not believe your gospel, I do not accept your Jesus.” Then the leader’s proper response is, “Then you are still in your sins.”
Moreso, in John’s gospel, a picture is painted of a loving community. It is an attractive community that draws others into it. It is a community of people who are free because they know they are loved by God and man. They are safe to share with a few of their closest friends and mentors some of their darkest sins. They are free from the attack of the enemy because they know and feel that they are forgiven! Indeed, we are given authority. Authority that forgives and gives life!
ESV Study Bible
The Gospel Transformation Study Bible
Blue Letter Bible (Web site)
NICONT Commentary “The Gospel of John” by J. Ramsey Michaels