The Sending of the Spirit, Part 4: Gospel of John (2)

(See Part 3 for the beginning of this article)

Returning now to John 20:19-23:

a. Resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples (v. 19-20), and the saying (v. 21)

The significance of the narrative portion (v. 19-20) can best be indicated by a comparison with the parallel account in Luke 24:36-40 (portions identical or close to that of John are italicized):

 

Luke 24:36-41a:

36 And at their speaking these things, he (him)self stood in their midst and said to them: “Peace to you”. 37 But startled and coming to be in fear they seemed to behold a spirit! 38 And he said to them: “(For) what are you (so) disturbed, and through what does (such) reckoning (pl.) climb up in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet—that it is I (my)self! Stroke me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones even as you behold me having.” 40 And (at his) having said thus, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And (in) their distrusting yet from joy and wondering…

John 20:19-20:

19 It being therefore late on the same day, on the first of the week, and the doors having been closed where the disciples were through fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood into the midst and said to them: “Peace to you.” 20 And (at his) having said thus, he showed them his hands and his side. Therefore the learners [i.e. disciples] were joyful (at their) having seen the Lord.

The language is close enough to indicate a common developed Gospel tradition (written or oral) here—one of several such agreements between Luke and John in the Resurrection narratives. It should be pointed out that a number of these agreements (including 24:40) are absent from the “Western” text of Luke (so-called Western “Non-Interpolations” see my earlier post on this topic); however the majority of scholars today accept the longer text. The reference to Jesus’ “side” rather than “feet” is likely an adaptation made to reflect the earlier narrative detail in John (19:34-37).

One could break down vv. 19-21 more narrowly, as a chiasm:

    • “Peace to you” (19)
      • Shows his hands and side; disciples’ joy (20)
    • “Peace to you” (21)

where the manifestation of Jesus’ wounds is bracketed by his two-fold greeting; or as a doublet:

    • “Peace to you” (19)
      • Shows his hands and side; disciples’ joy (20)
    • “Peace to you” (21)
      • Saying—sending the disciples

As for the saying in verse 21, it also seems to be part of a wider Gospel tradition. Compare the following:

 

John 20:21b:

“Even as the Father has sent (a)pe/stalke/n) me (forth), (so) also I send (pe/mpw) you”

John 17:18:

“Even as you have sent (a)pe/steila$) me into the world, (so) also I have sent (a)pe/steila) them into the world.”

John 13:20:

“Amen, Amen, I say to you: the (one) receiving (he) whom I would send (pe/mpw), receives me; and the (one) receiving me, receives the (one) having sent (pe/myanta/) me.”

Matthew 10:40:

“The (one) accepting you, accepts me; and the (one) accepting me, accepts the (one) having sent (a)postei/lanta/) me.”

John 13:20 and Matthew 10:40 are very close in form and meaning, if not actual wording. The Gospel of John has another pair of similar sayings (12:44-45), along with many other related references to Jesus being sent from God (John 4:34; 5:23-24, 30, 33, 36-38; 6:29, 38-39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28-29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:49; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:8, 18, 21, 23, 25). 17:18 and 20:21b are likewise similar in form and meaning to each other; both reflecting the intimate relationship and union between the Father, Jesus, and disciples. One might indicate this by the following pair of diagrams:

The Father sends

The Son (Christ)

Into the World

Chooses/calls disciples
To the Father

Christ shows/leads way

Out of the World

Chooses/calls disciples
The Father sends

The Son (Christ)

Into the World
Christ sends

His disciples

Into the World

For the verb a)poste/llw (from which is derived a)po/stolo$, apostle) one would  render literally “to set/place (someone away) from”, often with the sense of sending someone out to a different position (for a specific purpose)—i.e. to commission a soldier or emissary—and sometimes with the idea of consecration (setting apart). Pe/mpw in its primary sense can be translated more simply “send” (cause one to go [forth]). In these sayings of Jesus, a)poste/llw is typically used in the past (or perfect) tense, pe/mpw more commonly in the present/future; but otherwise with little apparent difference in meaning. The two verbs are combined in 20:21: “As the Father has sent (a)pe/stalke/n, perfect) me, so I send (or I am sending) (pe/mpw, present) you.”

b. Jesus’ breathing in the Spirit to the disciples, and the saying (v. 22-23)

We now come to the account of the “sending of the Spirit” proper. Let us examine the verse by word and phrase:

kai\ tou=to ei@pwn (“and having said this”)—connecting this narrative piece with the previous saying. One may regard this as either simple historical narration or as an editorial phrase joining separate bits of tradition.

e)nefu/shsen (“he blew in”)—often translated “he breathed on (them)”, but the literal rendering of the prefix e)n (“in”) is preferable. In English, “breathe in” would be misleading, for Jesus’ is not inhaling, but rather blowing in(to) the disciples. Most likely there is here an echo of the Creation account (Gen. 2:7): “and (God) blew (jpn) in his nostrils the breath (hmvn) of life.” In the LXX the Hebrew is rendered kai\ e)nefu/shsen ei)$ to\ pro/swpon au)tou= pnoh\n zwh=$ (“and He blew in into his face the breath of life”)—the same verb used here.

kai\ le/gei au)toi=$ (“and said/related to them”)—introducing an accompanying direct address of Jesus in the narrative; most likely this does not reflect a separate saying.

la/bete pneu=ma a%gion (“take/receive [the] holy Spirit”). As there is no definite article, this could be translated “receive a holy spirit”; however, there are other passages where pneu=ma is used without an article, and the (personal) Holy Spirit of God is meant (cf. Acts 2:4 for a similar instance). Pneu=ma really should be rendered literally as “breath” or “wind” (that is, “blowing”), except that in English these words are nearly always impersonal, while in Greek pneu=ma came to be used to describe personal ethereal/invisible beings and well as the ‘inner essence’ of a person. The Genesis account uses the word pnoh/, from the same derivation as pneu=ma, and with the similar meaning of “breath/wind”.

The attached saying in verse 23 is a bit more complicated:

“Of (those) whose sins you would release, they have been released to them; of (those) whose (sins) you would hold (firm), they have been held.”

Here there are several important details to note:

    1. The verbs used: a)fi/hmi here has been rendered literally “release”, conventionally translated in such contexts as “forgive”; krate/w means “use strength”, but can have the figurative sense of “exercise power, rule” or the concrete sense of “grasp, seize, hold firm”. The last rendering (“hold firm”) is probably best here, as it clearly indicates the opposite of “release”.
    2. The tense/mood used: the best reading for each verb is aorist subjunctive (active “you would/might…”) followed by perfect indicative (passive “they have been…”). However, in a number of manuscripts the second instance of a)fi/hmi is a present (a)fi/entai, “they are [being] released”) or future (a)feqh/setai “they will be released”) form rather than the perfect.
    3. The use of a&n + the subjunctive has much the force of a conditional clause (i.e., with e)an): “If you forgive/release…”; but the whole construction, with emphatic use of particle and pronoun, also yields a solemn declaration: “If/when you should forgive/release (for anyone)… then (indeed)…”
    4. The plural indefinite pronoun (tinwn) would seem to have a general open-ended application: “whosever sins you would release…”. On its face, it is not limited to a specific group or community.

What exactly is Jesus saying here? I think it is useful to compare v. 23 with a somewhat similar saying in Matthew 16:19 (and 18:18):

Matthew 16:19 (18:18 is nearly identical):

“The (thing) which you would bind upon the earth will have been bound in the heavens; and the (thing) which you would loose will have been loosed in the heavens”

The form is nearly identical with that in John, also using aorist subjunctive and perfect indicative for each verb. The relative pronoun (o%) is even more general, not being limited to sins. To “bind” and “loose” is very close in meaning to “hold” and “release”, so that something of the same sort of power or authority is being described in both passages (in Matthew and John). The reference to keys earlier in the Matt. 16:19, would seem to echo Isa. 22:22 (“key of the house of David”). Interestingly, the Sinaitic Syriac for the second half of John 20:23 reads “shut (the door) against” instead of “hold”, language similar again to Isa. 22:22.

Interpretations vary both as to the nature and extent of the “power” granted by Jesus (a sampling of some of the more common):

    • The power over sin (given to all disciples) simply refers to the power to proclaim the forgiveness offered in the Gospel.
    • The reference is to the sacramental authority either in the sense of admitting persons to baptism and/or the sacrament of penance. Here the power would be limited to church officials and leaders (i.e. the apostles)
    • To the priestly power of absolution (limited to the apostles, and by extension, to priests).
    • A unique power granted to (the apostles) in the early Christian community—as representatives of Christ, they possess the same authority to address sin as he did in his earthly ministry. As such, it would only marginally relate (if at all) to future Christians.
    • Authority granted to all believers (i.e. all the disciples) to address sin, both in the world and, in particular, the Christian community.

I believe that a sound interpretation yields a combination of the last two positions listed above. I would combine them as follows:

    1. The early disciples—Peter (Matt. 16:19), the Twelve, and all others addressed in John 20:23—in fact held a unique commission from Jesus, including a leading position of authority in the early churches. This authority involved power to address and handle sins.
    2. However, this same power is possessed by all believers, to judge from parallel Johannine passages (see especially 1 John 5:16-17) and elsewhere in the New Testament (see James 5:13-19). Mutual confession of sin and correction seems to be involved, at least within the community of believers, as well as prayer against sickness, etc. How this relates to addressing sin in the World is less clear—but consider in this context the power of prayer described in James 5:15ff.

Part of the difficulty here lies in the tendency to consider “sin” in its cosmic dimension, in terms of salvation history, particularly as presented in the famous Pauline passages in Romans (esp. chapters 3 & 5) and elsewhere. But there are other aspects of “sin” and evil—the ability of human beings, both in a positive sense, especially through prayer and proclamation of the Word of God, or in a negative sense, to “hold” or “release” sin, need not contradict the belief that ultimate “release” (forgiveness) and salvation come from God.

3. Concluding Comparison of John 20:19-23 and Acts

In conclusion, I shall return to the comparative question addressed above. Several points related to the list of solutions presented there:

  • A simple, straightforward chronological harmonization of the two passages is neither advisable nor entirely appropriate. There is no indication that John or Luke-Acts is familiar with each other’s account. The only point of possible contact would seem to be the shared narrative tradition at Luke 24:36, 40 and John 20:19-20, and even that is not absolutely certain on text-critical grounds. Futhermore, in the “appendix” (ch. 21) of John there is no mention of a subsequent sending of the Spirit (nor future Ascension); Luke-Acts makes no mention of the disciples having received the Spirit prior to Acts 2. As tempting as the desire to harmonize might be, one should exercise caution.
  • The great narratives of the four Gospels (and Acts) are more than collections and arrangements of historical tradition: they are powerful creative works. Their distinctions should not be limited to preserving different traditions. Luke, in the Gospel, and Acts have presented a story of the Spirit coming upon the disciples, using the language and description of Old Testament theophany (“power from on high”). John has crafted his own story, using the images and symbols from earlier in the Gospel (especially chs. 13-17) and centered on the motif of “sending”. Luke has chosen the tradition of the Spirit’s manifestation at Pentecost, John has enhanced the tradition of the resurrection appearance.
  • For those inclined to harmonize, I would suggest a different approach:
    In Luke 24:49 we read: “and [see!] I send (a)poste/llw) you the e)paggeli/a of my Father upon you; but you, sit in the city until the (moment) in which you should be set in power (from) out of the height.”
    a)poste/llw is in the present tense (“I send” or “I am sending” [forth]), but, in light of Acts 2 (and the end of the verse here), typically understood in a future sense (“I [am about to] send”). But what if one were to read the present literally in light of John 20:22: i.e., “See, (here now) I am sending you the Spirit [i.e., promise/announcement, e)paggeli/a] of [i.e. from] my Father…” at which point one can fill in (or at least reference) the breathing of the Spirit from John.
    An interpretative rendering to be sure, but is this not approximately when the account of John 21:22 would have taken place in the Lukan scene?

Finally, I might boldly suggest that our connection to the Spirit need not be understood in a particular moment or event of “sending”. Perhaps, indeed, no single narrative is sufficient to describe its wonder and mystery—does it come to us from out of heaven, or from the breath of Jesus’ own lips?—as fire, wind, water, breath, dove, and many other images: they are nearly as inexhaustible as God’s Word itself.

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