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Jesus is resurrected. Jesus appears to the disciples. Jesus breathes on them and they receive the Holy Spirit. This empowerment consists in the authority to forgive and retain people’s sins, that is, to declare them forgiven if the people believe in Jesus, and to declare them unforgiven if the people don’t believe in him.

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.

ESV (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), John 20:21–23

In the other Gospels Jesus forgives sins. Here in John, so close is the union of disciples with Jesus and the Father (he and his Father dwell “in” them, and they abide “in” him) that the disciples possess Jesus’ and the Father’s authority to forgive and retain sins.

This is just the beginning when it comes to forgiveness. Read more here.

Some have compared Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit into the disciples with the Lord God’s breathing the breath of life into man at the creation (Genesis 2:7 [compare Ezekiel 37:9]), but there’s nothing about the Spirit there and nothing about life here. “Into” could be dropped from the verb John uses for “breathed,” but because of Jesus’ immediately saying to the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” it’s better here to retain “into” and supply “them.”

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Forgiveness of sins is one of the major benefits of the death of Jesus. It is the essence of the New Covenant. Proclaiming the forgiveness of sins was the prominent feature of the apostolic preaching in the Book of Acts (see scriptures below). Jesus was giving the apostles (and by extension, the church) the privilege of announcing heaven’s terms on how a person can receive forgiveness. If one believes in Jesus, then a Christian has the right to announce his forgiveness. If a person rejects Jesus’ sacrifice, then a Christian can announce that that person is not forgiven.

  • Acts 2:38 — 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • Acts 13:38 — 38 “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you,
  • Acts 26:15–18 — 15 “And I said, ‘Who are You, Master?’ And the Master said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 ‘But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; 17 rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.


Robert H. Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 458.

Edwin A. Blum, “John,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 343.