I Am Having Trouble Understanding John 20:20-23: Did Jesus Give the Apostles and the Church the Power to Forgive Sin?


John 20:23 is the specific verse in question:

“‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

This statement by Jesus firmly establishes the fact that the Church of God is to be administered, but only in the context of God’s laws. Note in verse 21, Jesus states, “‘…As the Father has sent Me, I also send you’” (compare John 17:18). Of Himself, Jesus emphatically stated that His role was to fulfill the Father’s Will:

“‘I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me’” (John 5:30; compare John 5:19; 6:38; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10).

Likewise, the Church is to act in accordance with the Will of God. Jesus said that only he “‘who does the will of My Father in heaven’” would enter God’s Kingdom (Matthew 7:21). Paul emphasized that Christians must live “doing the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6:6). He prayed that the brethren might “be filled with the knowledge of His (God’s) will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Colossians 1:9). Both Peter (1 Peter 4:2) and John (1 John 2:17) taught that we must do the Will of God.

The fact that Jesus Christ and the apostles did the Will of God is borne out in the written record of the New Testament. What the apostles did provides a clear answer for how they fulfilled the words of Jesus as recorded in John 20:23.

On the Day of Pentecost, note the message that was presented:

“Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38).

What Peter said was in accordance with God’s Will—it was what Jesus had commissioned (Acts 1:8; Luke 24:46-49). What is critically important to understand is that Peter and the rest of the apostles were given authority to baptize in the name of Jesus Christ and to lay hands on those baptized for the receiving of God’s Holy Spirit. They did not forgive those repenting of sins, but they were guided by God to see in people fruits worthy of repentance and those who did not have them—such as with Simon (Acts 8:18-24). John the Baptist was guided by God as well (Matthew 3:8). But they did not give the Holy Spirit, for this was done by God (Acts 5:32).

In addressing those before him on the Day of Pentecost, Peter said of Jesus that He was “‘…a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs WHICH GOD DID THROUGH HIM in your midst’” (Acts 2:22). Here, again, it should be abundantly clear that the ultimate authority is God!

Peter understood this and testified of God’s power and the role of Jesus Christ when a lame man was healed:

“Then Peter said, ‘Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength…  Now as the lame man who was healed held on to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the porch which is called Solomon’s, greatly amazed. So when Peter saw it, he responded to the people: ‘Men of Israel, why do you marvel at this? Or why look so intently at us, as though by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go. But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses. And His name, through faith in His name, has made this man strong, whom you see and know. Yes, the faith which comes through Him has given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all’” (Acts 3:6-7, 11-16).

When Ananias and Sapphira lied to Peter, they died (Acts 5:1-11). To Ananias, Peter said, “‘…You have not lied to men but to God’” (verse 4); to Sapphira, Peter said, “‘How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things” (verses 9-11).

Peter dealt with the sin of lying and there were consequences; however, it was not he who caused the death of Ananias or Sapphira—it was God. This is a very serious example and reminder to the Church of God concerning our conduct as Christians (compare 1 Peter 4:17).

In the two letters to the Corinthians, Paul addressed a grievous sin being committed and knowingly condoned by others:

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles–that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:1-2).

Paul directed that this person be expelled from the Church, and it was to be done by the authority of Christ. That meant the sin was to be judged based on God’s Law:

“In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5).

Because Paul decisively confronted sin by disfellowshipping the man, the sinning individual repented! In this poignant example, Paul “retained” the man’s sins through applying the Law of God. When there was repentance, the man was “forgiven”:

“This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him. For to this end I also wrote, that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:6-10).

Whatever action the Church takes in administration is to be done through Jesus Christ (compare Colossians 3:17, 23). That means decisions are to be based on God’s laws and judgments. Note what Jesus promised to His Church:

“‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven’” (Matthew 16:19; also, 18:18; New American Standard Bible).

In a previous Q&A on binding and loosing, which also addressed Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18:18; and John 20:23, we said this:

“In Matthew 18:15-17, Christ had just explained the proper procedure regarding an unrepentant brother or sister. If he or she does not hear ‘the church,’ that is, the ministry, ‘let him be unto THEE as an heathen man and a publican.’ It is the church, through its ministry, which will make the decision to disassociate from such a person. Such a decision involves, of course, a judgment whether or not the person is repentant and whether or not the sins of the person are forgiven. And so, we read in John 20:22-23 (Authorized Version): ‘And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive YE the Holy [Spirit]: Whose soever sins YE remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins YE retain, they are retained.’ …

“Regarding John 20:23, the Ryrie Study Bible states: ‘Since only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7), the disciples and the Church are here given the authority to declare what God does when a man either accepts or rejects His Son.’ We might also add that Christ had announced to them that they would soon receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives us wisdom and discernment, and enables especially the ministry, when used correctly, to ascertain whether a person is repentant or not.”

As previous examples have shown, the Church of God is administered by applying what God has commanded—to judge between righteousness and unrighteousness. The objective for doing this is expressly stated:

“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).

What, then, is sin? Quoting from the Authorized Version:

“Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4).

The law that is broken in committing sin is God’s Law! Furthermore, Paul states that “…the law is spiritual” (Romans 7:14). Breaking God’s spiritual Law invokes a spiritual penalty—death (Romans 6:23)—which God, alone–executes. Everyone has broken God’s Law—everyone is guilty of sin (Romans 3:23; 5:12). Only Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has lived without sinning (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5).

God uses His Church to lead people to repentance of sins. Now, though, and unlike the priestly administration in ancient Israel, because of the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, upon true repentance, God will forgive a person’s sins.

It is vital to understand that God expects His Church and His ministry to follow His example of love. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians the second time, he cautioned them “not to be too severe” (2 Corinthians 2:5) in their punishment. The apostle James shows that we must be merciful with one another:

“Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-29).

Lead Writer: Dave Harris

©2024 Church of the Eternal God