August 17, 2018

Difficult Scriptures: John 20:22-23

Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”  (John 20:22-23, NLT)

Another great moment for me in Arizona was meeting Rich and Gail McNeeley. They are a wonderful couple who, along with two of their children, drove 100 miles to have breakfast with us. Ok, so it happened to be Gail’s birthday and her family was taking her shopping. Still, I like to think that at least a few of those miles were driven in anticipation of meeting with more iMonks.

Anyway, as we were sharing breakfast together, Rich said he had a suggestion for Difficult Scriptures—the above passage from the gospel of John. Rich wanted to know how it is that we are given the power to forgive or retain sins committed by others, and how this relates to the receiving of the Holy Spirit.

So now is when we turn this over to you, the faithful community that make up the iMonastery. What do you think? If this really is so, if we really do have the power to decide who is forgiven and who is not, does that humble you? How do we handle such power? And how does this relate to the receiving of the Holy Spirit?

Help us out, iMonks.


  1. The great Church Father St. John Chrysostom said:

    Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.” Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding: but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? “Whose sins you shall forgive,” he says, “they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [Matt. 10:40; John 20:21-23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven (The Priesthood 3:5).

    • Randy Thompson says:

      Thanks for the Chrysostom quotation. I respect him a lot, and value what I’ve read of his commentaries. However, I’m not sure I can go along with him here. In brief, what happens if the priest is having a really bad day when you go to confess your sin(s)??!

      I suspect there may be more to what it means to “bind” and “loose” than most Protestants are willing to admit, but I’m profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that any human being can fully know the heart of another human being, and thus determine whose repentance is real, and whose isn’t.

      • Okay, in Catholic theology, it doesn’t matter if he’s having a bad day; that doesn’t affect the power of the priestly office.

        Now, to be practical, priests are human. If he’s stressed or rushed or just in a bad mood, he may make a mess of hearing a penitent’s confession. He may be too abrupt, too harsh, or not take the confession seriously enough, and people have been turned off and even driven out of the church by such encounters.

        But it is not by any abilities or qualities of his own that the priest forgives sins; he stands in the place of Christ by virtue of his office, not as a mediator in the place of God, but as the channel through which the grace of the sacrament operates. There are conditions and rules about the whole matter.

        To quote Dante yet again, from Canto X of the “Purgatorio” when he and Virgil are entering the gate of Purgatory, the angel guarding the gate unlocks it with the gold and silver keys which represent the forgiveness of sins (the gold, the more precious) and the judgement needed when dealing with a penitent (the silver, less precious but even more necessary in a way):

        “115 Ashes or earth, when it is dug up dry,
        116 would be the very color of his vestments.
        117 Out from under them he drew two keys,
        118 one of gold, the other one of silver.
        119 He touched the door, first with the white,
        120 then the yellow, and thus my wish was satisfied.
        121 ‘Any time one of these keys should fail
        122 so that it does not turn inside the lock,’
        123 he said to us, ‘this portal does not open.
        124 ‘One is more precious, but the other one requires
        125 much skill and understanding before it will unlock,
        126 for it is this one that unties the knot.
        127 ‘From Peter do I hold them, and his instruction was
        128 to err in opening rather than in keeping locked,
        129 if but the soul fall prostrate at my feet.’ ”

        Thinking about this more broadly, outside of the sacrament of penance – yes, I think maybe we do, as laypeople, “have the power to decide who is forgiven and who is not,” if we take the words of the Lord’s Prayer seriously: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. And Peter’s question about “How many times must I forgive my brother?”

        It seems to me that this indicates an expectation (1) that we will be called upon to forgive others (2) that our forgiveness in a sense is conditional on how we forgive – the parable of the unjust servant – if we seek mercy, we must show mercy and that therefore (3) there will be situations in which we need to be forgiven, there will be situations in which we need to forgive, and that we have both the duty to do so and the right to do so, and that we must ask for the discrimination and discretion on judging such matters. Peter needed to be forgiven after he denied the Lord, yet he pronounced the condemnation of Ananias which was upheld fairly spectacularly (I don’t think you can get much more spectactular than dropping dead when caught in a lie).

        If we are sons not slaves, if our ultimate destiny is that we will judge angels, then the Church corporately as the Mystical Body of Christ and we individually share in the gifts of God – “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” but “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and He has shared that authority with us.

        Well, I haven’t thought this out much or deeply, but that’s a start in what this is saying to me.

        • dkmonroe says:

          You pulled that Dante quote off the top of your head? So what happens when you do think deeply on an issue? 😀

          Or in other words, great post!

          • dk, there’s a great online resource of the Princeton Dante Project, overseen by Robert Hollander (who, with his wife Jean, did a recent translation of the entire “Divine Comedy”).

            So all I have to do is go “I know there’s something somewhere where Dante talks about anger” and that site will find the canto for me.

            God bless the internet – anyone can be a scholar nowadays!


    • I love Chrysostom, but nothing of the context of the passage suggests Jesus is limiting these words to “priests”, nor does the New Testament make a division between “priests” and “laity”.

      • The NT talks about elders, presbyters, as distinct from laity.

        • Yes, of course, different people have different roles in the church, but that is different from the view that the church is divided into two groups (clergy and laity), and that the clergy group has special powers. In the passage in question, Jesus appears to be speaking to not just the 11 disciples/apostles, but a larger group of disciples, including women (see the parallel passages).

  2. Randy Thompson says:

    John stresses over and over again that Jesus did what he saw the Father doing, and spoke what he heard the Father saying. I think that what the Lord is doing here should be understood as a prophetic action; the Lord “breathes” his Spirit (cf. Ezekiel 37) into his disciples so that they can live in relation to the Father like he did, doing what they see the Father doing, and speaking what the hear the Father saying. Forgiving, then, should be understood in the context of “seeing” and “hearing.” What’s tricky here is how to understand this passage in relation to Pentecost. I might argue that being filled with the Holy Spirit is a process for the disciples. It begins here, in John 20, with Jesus breathing his Spirit into them, and that the fullness of what happened here is experienced and revealed at Pentecost.

    OK. That’s my theory. Any better ideas?? .

  3. Well, for a Catholic, the interpretation is pretty straight forward…

  4. The Catholic Church teaches that this action by Christ inaugurated the sacrament of confession and that the power to forgive or retain sins was for the apostles and their successors (bishops and priests).

    In the passage immediately before this one, Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” In other words, the authority with which the Father commissioned Jesus was the same authority with which Jesus commissioned the apostles. He breathed divinity into the apostles, and gave them power to forgive sins, just as the Father had given Him power to forgive sins among men.

  5. I’ve met people who have been beating themselves up with the fact that they’re sinners, and are convinced that God wouldn’t forgive them. “God can’t forgive me; I’m completely unworthy.”

    My response to them? “God has forgiven you. He makes you worthy.”

    Is that the same thing as forgiving someone’s sins, John 20-style? Well, sure. Why not? The reason God forgives sins is to impart His grace; the reason I tell people they’re forgiven is because I’m trying to impart His grace.

    The Holy Spirit comes in because He’s the only reason I bother to forgive anyone: I care about (or try to care about) who He cares about. I don’t forgive sins willy-nilly. Nor would I tell people “You’re forgiven” if the Spirit told me, “Hold up there; he’s saying that because he wants sympathy, not forgiveness, and you need to shock him out of it by saying, ‘You’re absolutely right, you are unworthy.’ ” We need His guidance when we forgive; otherwise out of too much sympathy we’ll forgive the unrepentant, or in a lack of sympathy we’ll forgive no one.

    • Alice PA says:

      “We need His guidance when we forgive; otherwise out of too much sympathy we’ll forgive the unrepentant.” The Lord’s prayer says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” When I say this prayer, I am asking God to forgive me according to how I have forgiven others. If I refuse to forgive, then I will be refused forgiveness. This prayer says nothing about whether the person we are forgiving has asked for it or deserves it. I find it very, very difficult sometimes to forgive others, but I pray for the grace to do so, for the sake of my own soul as well as the souls of others.

      It also just occurred to me that if God’s forgiveness is a once and for all thing–that is, if all the sins we will ever forgive in the future are automatically forgiven when we “accept the Lord,” which is what many Protestants I know believe–then why did Jesus tell us that whenever we pray we need to ask God for forgiveness, and why did he include that his forgiveness of us is contingent upon whether we forgive others? Hmmmm….

      • Alice, you’re right: We need to forgive everyone, without qualifications. We only get forgiven by God to the degree that we forgive others; it’s Kingdom karma.

        My statement “forgive the unrepentant” is one of those instances of brevity being the soul of confusion. You know how there are certain sinners who don’t consider their actions to be sinful, and consider our forgiveness to be condescending and insulting? That’s who I meant. Of course we must forgive them either way. But telling them they’re forgiven won’t do them any good. It will counter-intuitively rile them up about our “intolerance”—even though we thought we were demonstrating tolerance by forgiving them. No, it’s not logical; but since when have we humans been logical?

        So we have to find another route to bring them to Jesus, and all their unrepentance will get sorted out once they’re finally listening to the Holy Spirit’s conviction.

  6. The standard Reformed interpretation is that we (the priesthood of believers) “announce” (or proclaim) the forgiveness of sins. Anyone who repents and trusts in Jesus then has their sins forgiven.

    If we fail to proclaim this Good News, sins are not forgiven.

    • …unless they later fall away, and then the idea is that they were never justified (and forgiven) to begin with, even though it looked like they were (even for many years/decades).

      When I first heard this interpretation as a Baptist (might have even read it in my NIV Bible’s study notes), I thought it really stretched the verses beyond their (alarming) plain meaning.

      • Hi Devin,
        I’m sure you know Mark 4:4-5 “And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.”

        99% percent of deconversion stories fit this exactly. “I grew up in the church and was active in ministry, then I just felt like doing something else…” (or my dog died, people were mean, etc.)

        • Hi Ned,

          I have seen that happen, but sometimes that plant seems to grow for years before withering. A long-time Christian friend of mine stunned us by announcing he was leaving the faith, having been convinced of atheism. Some people’s stories don’t fit well into this particular example in the parable. God bless!

          • Of course, and it is always shocking when it happens (the heart is desperately wicked, who can know it?) This is why we must examine ourselves, no one can examine us and know.

            It comes down to why you call yourself Christian in the first place? Is it cultural, or to try and improve your life? If so, and it doesn’t work out, why not cast it aside.

            But if you believe sin is real, and you are looking for forgiveness, then there is no where else to go (John 6:68).

  7. dude, so simple. what does Jesus say before?

    ‘ On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
    21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” ‘

    that’s two times that Jesus said ‘Peace be with you.’ count ’em. two.

    i believe that this phrase, ‘Peace be with you’, is an important context to read this passage in. what is to be drawn away, then, from within that context, is that forgiveness and peace are bound up within one another.

    what we are being told here is that we are called to spread peace through forgiveness, just as Jesus did, thereby helping to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth. there is an important order though, for we must maintain that peace is what we are about. we must maintain that we have been ransomed by God to spread peace, His peace, which we do so by forgiving. if we don’t forgive, we don’t spread peace. we don’t establish the Kingdom.

    it’s that simple.

    we have not been ransomed to be right. we have not been ransomed to be relevant. we have not been ransomed for anything other than the establishment of God’s Kingdom on this earth. and we do it through peace.

    what did Jesus say:

    “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.”

    ‘ if it were, my followers would fight. ‘ sooooo good!

    and really, is this difficult passage in John 20 any different from what John wrote in the beginning of 1John:

    ‘ This is the message we heard from Jesusc and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. 6So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth……. If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. 9But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. 10If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. ‘

    • Thank you, Jason. Well said. Forgiveness and the peace it brings is up to us, not those (all sinners) who may need forgiveness.
      It’s that simple.

  8. As a Lutheran, i have never considered the verse above to be a difficult one. It says what it says. In there Jesus gives the disciples and through them pastors, whose office has its genesis in the apostolic office, the power to forgive or retain sins. When a pastor hears confession he forgives sins.
    As for reading the hearts of others, that is not so much a mystery, as Jesus does not here command the disciples to read or discern anyone’s heart. He tells them that if they forgive the sins of anyone they are forgiven, if they retain their sins they are retained. The pastor merely needs to hear the confession. The retaining of sin has to do with church discipline and un-repentance. We as pastors merely take their word for it.
    You should bring this one to the Liturgical Gangstas though.

    • Agreed. I would love to hear Father Ernesto weigh in on this one.

    • Any Christian can give the absolution (though for the sake of good order, the pastor is preferred)

      …the authority is derived from the Word alone.

      • But if Luther was correct about the “priesthood of all believers,” would that not mean that any Christian can give the absolution — without any need for parenthetical disclaimers or titles of office?

        Not a criticism, just an honest question …

        • Yeah that’s the thing: Luther abolished the sacrament of Holy Orders and therefore the idea that there was any ontological difference between clergy and laity. He kept the sacrament of Confession a bit longer but then realized that without Holy Orders, Confession can’t be done because “who do you confess to?” Who has the authority to stand in persona Christi and give absolution in Christ’s name?

          • Well, given some pre-Dark Ages traditions (I’m thinking of a bit from Thomas Cahill’s biography of Patrick in How the Irish Saved Civilization), and if the verse above is taken literally in light of Protestant teaching about the priesthood of all believers … then is it possible that ANY believer has the authority to at least forgive in Jesus’ name?

            If so, this certainly gives new dimension to the idea of grace, and the “ministry of reconciliation” … I’m going to have to think about this one …

        • Yep. Any Christian is able to forgive sins.

          When I referred to “good order”, I was talking about within the church itself. Good order would not be maintained if everyone started to get up and announce the absolution at different times throughout the worship service.

          We leave that to the pastor, who speaks in Christ’s stead.. If the pastor is unavailable, a lay person will do just fine.

  9. I assume I can forgive someone without actually having to pronounce that forgiveness to them verbally. In some cases, say when someone nearly kills me on the road and drives away oblivious, I’d have no choice practically speaking. Therefore I have the power, maybe even the obligation to give that forgiveness, regardless of whether or not the other person is repentant, contrite or even aware.

    There’s the hard part of this scripture to me: I don’t want it on my conscious to begrudge forgiveness to someone else (and I can be a pretty crotchety old SOB) especially when Christ has been so forgiving of my failures.

  10. is this ‘receiving’ the Holy Spirit a special unction only limited to the those cowering in fear behind locked doors when Jesus made His grand entrance?

    where there any women in that room?

    on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit in much more dramatic fashion did descend upon those gathered in the upper room where women were present actually imply only they were to be empowered to fulfill the Great Commission?

    are the Pentecostal denominations correct then in assuming there is, or are, other Holy Spirit baptisms (plural) needed or available to do the more special things of God?

    did Peter actually put this special function or set a precedent with the deaths of Ananias & Sapphira? no chance given for them to repent?

    other than the mention of confessing our sins to each other in James 5, is there any other passage from the Epistles that actually addresses forgiving of sins or even how to go about it?

    does anyone reading this post+comments actually know of any incident in the Roman Catholic Church where a person’s sins were not forgiven? i do know God has said that if we do not forgive others, then our sins will not be forgiven. what did Jesus imply in those statements? no mention of a priest, bishop, apostle, evangelist, elder or other ecclesiastical functionary involved. Jesus simply said the Father will not forgive us our sins if we do not forgive others. are there degrees or limits established by the Holy Spirit that were intended to prevent some saints/believers from doing things others only can do within the Church? is there a specific category of sin that can only be absolved by a special clerical position/function/ritual?

    did Jesus empower the disciples/Apostles to be able to discern a sincere confession of sin vs. insincere? such as Peter’s rebuke of Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8)?

    since i had my upper right wisdom tooth extracted earlier today, the meds are kicking in & my brain is getting fuzzy. not sure if i am making much sense here or conveying accurately what i am trying to address. i will simply let it be at this point. i am going to bed…

    • Recently a woman confessed to a priest that she had falsely accused a man of rape. That man was convicted and put behind bars (and was still in jail). The priest told her that to be forgiven she had to show her repentance by turning herself into the police and admitting her false accusation.

      Fortunately, she chose to do so, and the man was released from jail, exonerated, and she went to jail.

      If a person goes to confession but acts unrepentant or intends to remain in the state of objective sin, the priest withholds forgiveness until that person demonstrates true repentance.

      Now, could someone lie and trick the priest? Sure, and unless that priest has the gift of reading souls (see John Vianney or Padre Pio), the priest might not be able to call them out on it, but God is not fooled.

    • Okay, you can blame us Irish for a lot of the development of the sacrament of penance.

      The early Church tradition was for public confession of sins and public penitence, and those were both pretty rigorous: barring from the Eucharist, what I think would be called “disfellowshipping” in a Protestant context, imposition of fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimages, even corporal mortifications. Then there was the grappling with problems as mentioned by other posters above in the thread – what do you do about people who seem to be good believers but who fall away? Are they completely condemned, were they never saved in the first place, or do they get a second chance? If you commit sins after baptism, can you ever be forgiven?

      The whole Donatist heresy grew out of this – the case of what do you do about those in the late persecution who, under threat, renounced Christianity and fell into line with the Imperial edicts, then later on wanted to return to the Church. Were they to be shunned forever, or were there extenuating circumstances? And the Donatists arose out of those who said, firstly, no we will never have fellowship with these; then it became we will never have fellowship with those who say they can be re-admitted, even if the re-admitters themselves never wavered; and the rest took off from there.

      Come forward a few centuries into the 6th-8th centuries when Irish saints were evangelising throughout Europe; they brought with them a tradition of private confession and also one of much stricter penance (if you compare the monastic Rules of St. Benedict and St. Columbanus, you’ll see the difference). This led to the creation of penitential manuals, where the degree and kinds of penance for various sins were listed and the kinds of questions a confessor should ask of a penitent.

      The development of the doctrine proceeded throughout the centuries, so that it wasn’t until the 11th century or so that compulsory confession at least once a year was made a rule. Wikipedia and other online sites have helpful potted histories.

      Now, as regards the sacrament itself – what is necessary for a valid confession?

      First, someone with authority to hear the confession, judge the case, and grant absolution by the “power of the keys”. Secondly, the penitent – the person making confession – has to have (1) sincere contrition for sin (2) desire to make satisfaction (3) a firm intention not to sin again. You have to make a full and honest confession (if you genuinely forget a sin, or the number of times you committed a particular sin, that’s fine, but you can’t fudge it with ‘Sometimes I get angry’ if you’re losing your temper and having screaming fits of rage at home and work every day, or you can’t think to yourself ‘it’s too embarrassing to confess X, so I’ll just keep it in my mind and not tell it’). Plus, if you’re not really sorry for your sins, or you don’t intend to make the effort not to commit them again, you’re not absolved, even if the priest pronounces the formula of absolution.

      So the notion that some Protestants had that confession means Catholics can go out and sin, confess, buy absolution for anything up to murder, and leave the confessional and commit the same sin again with no qualms is incorrect. 🙂

      Contrition, absolution, and satisfaction (penance) – those are the elements. Satisfaction means that, for instance, if you’ve stolen money from your employer or spread malicious rumours about someone, you have to make restitution: pay back that money, tell the people you gossiped to that it was all lies. If you can’t (your employer is dead, you’re not in touch with that group anymore), you have to do an equivalent insofar as it lies in your power: maybe donate to charity. Usually, however, it’s a few short prayers (yes, the famous “Say three Hail Marys and now make an Act of Contrition”).

      Are there any sins that can’t be forgiven? Broadly, no. There are what are called “reserved sins”, which are sins of such gravity that they have to be confessed to a bishop, but that’s only because (1) bishops possess the fullness of the priesthood and (2) these were sins like perjury or murder or the like. That distinction has pretty much been done away with now, and any priest has the authority to absolve any sin.

      Let me just repeat something here to emphasise it: confession is not magic. Absolution, as I have said, is dependent on your state of mind. You may fool the priest, but you can’t fool God. So if you’re not genuinely contrite for sin, going to confession, having the absolution pronounced, and performing the penance does not shrive you of the sin.

    • Especially since the Catholic Church has never stated that ANY human being is IN Hell…..not Hitler, not Pol Pot, not Vlad the Impaler.

      Our final outcome at the moment of transition from this life to the next is beyond the scope of any human or human institution to predict . Our soul’s state at the instant of death (or possibly even for a bit afterwards? My thoughts, not CHurch teaching) is totally know to God alone.

  11. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

    I think the theological issue is a question of to whom this passage is speaking.

    Of course, in the specific context of the passage, Jesus is giving that authority to the Apostles. That said, in terms of current application, there seems to be three options:
    (1) Only the Apostles (i.e. the Twelve) get that authority. It is thus not applicable anymore.
    (2) This Apostolic authority is transferred to their successors in church leadership. Whether through direct Episcopal succession, or a less direct form, this is part of Apostolic Succession.
    (3) This authority applies to the whole Church. That is, all Christians are given this authority, either corporately or individually.

    Option 1 seems least reasonable to me. It doesn’t fit with John’s style, nor does it make sense that it would be included.

    The individual aspect of Option 3 seems to be problematic to me, especially in light of the implications of other passages, such as Matthew 18 (individual Christians are not given the authority to excommunicate, but “the Church” is).

    The corporate aspect of Option 3 would have to be broken down into how one defines “Church.” If “Church refers to a local congregation, what happens when you have congregations refusing to forgive each other’s sins (talk to some of my Baptist brethren for stories on that). If it refers to the Church Universal, that cannot be decided by a corporate vote, which leads us back to Option 2.

    But, isn’t Option 2 giving too much power to individual men? Perhaps, but it seems that that’s what’s happening anyway. Look at the chain of logic in the passage’s context. Verse 21: “Then Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.'” There’s authority transfer going on here. Father–>Jesus–>the Twelve. This isn’t before the whole of his followers; this is just the Apostles. Why do the Apostles get this authority? Because they are representing Jesus (who in turn represents the Father) before the Church.

    While I definitely uphold the general priesthood of all believers, I don’t see the New Testament upholding universal Apostolic authority for all Christians. And that Apostolic authority comes in the uniquely New Testament form of servant-leadership. It’s also a delegated authority. Those in the Apostolic office have no authority of their own; they only have Our Lord’s authority delegated. Thus they are only acting in that authority when they are duly carrying out Our Lord’s work and mission.

    That’s my take, anyway.

  12. Rich McNeeley says:

    Thank you Jeff for meeting with us in Scottsdale, it was well worth the drive. We enjoyed meeting you, Vic and Dave. By the way Gail did have a very happy birthday.
    On the subject at hand, I am much better at asking questions than I am at answering them. I will, however try to express my feelings on this subject.
    I understand how easy it is for Catholics to explain this scripture, however, I am from a Baptist tradition. We attempt to explain away scriptures like these. The common explanation is that Jesus was empowering the disciples to preach the Gospel. I don’t hold to that position and for that I may be branded a heretic.
    I believe Jesus meant what He said. We accept Jesus teaching in other areas, i.e. the Great Commision, but not this. Are we afraid of the responsibility that comes with the power to forgive? Don’t we see that Jesus surrounded Himself with the worst society has to offer and yet did not condemn but forgave? Why would we not want to be able to offer forgiveness to the world? Is it because we would rather retain the sins of others? All of us want to see Osama bin Laden punished. We want to see evil purged from our society. And yet, Jesus calls us to forgive.
    Imagine what the world could be like if this power were active today. What kind of people would we be if we asked God to forgive the sins of our non christian friends, neighbors even enemies? Could the world be changed? Could we be changed?

  13. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer….” Forgive our sins as we forgive others…”

  14. Amy L Scott says:

    OK, I am seeing this from a little different perspective. I am certainly not a theologian, but I have definitely struggled with the issue of forgiveness. When I was younger my father sexually abused me and I struggled for a time with the very idea of forgiving him. But I was the one bound by the unforgiveness . (My father was bound as well, but from a variety of things, one of which was his unwillingness to admit to anything) It was when I released my pain, anger and unforgivenss to God that the Holy Spirit was free to work in my life and forgive through me. I have forgiven my father, but he is still bound by his inability to admit to any wrongdoing and to receive that forgiveness. But I have been set free. I don’t know if this has anything to do with those verses, but I just thought I’d throw this into the mix.

  15. Would perhaps this relate to Paul’s discussion of the ministry of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5, especially the example he uses for that ministry of Jesus “not holding their sins against them”? Could that passage be a key to understanding Jesus’ statements in John 20. (Just tossing that out there.)

    • I think it could be related. I would point out that Paul’s discourse leading up to 2 Cor. 5 (in that chapter and previous ones) was intended to demonstrate his credible claim to being an Apostle, and therefore imbued with the authority to forgive in Christ’s name.

  16. Radagast says:

    I think that there are two different issues going on here. There are those who sin against me personally that I have the power to forgive. And this forgiving action is for me as well so that I might get closure and not walk around with a hardened heart there by violating the theme of the last seven commandments that focus on loving others as we ourselves would be loved.

    Then there are sins commited by others that do not have anything to do with me. If someone does great harm to another aside from me do I have the power to forgive the offending person in the offended persons stead?
    Here I believe a priest, acting as a vehicle for Jesus Christ has a role to play.

  17. I think this is a scripture that hints at theosis. (Thanks to someone here for giving me a name for this line of thought). I copied this from a site on that topic; “Theosis, (also called divinization, deification, or transforming union) was one of the most important of early Christian doctrines, but it has become such a well-kept secret, that is nearly unknown to most contemporary laymen. It means participating in, and partaking of, God’s Divinity. It is likely to sound so alien to our ears that we might quickly dismiss it as some heresy, rather than realize this is the heart of the Christian calling. ” I think Jesus is telling us to do nothing less than what He himself did. Walk by the Spirit. The difficult question then becomes, ‘Is God not forgiving some people and should we not be forgiving those same people? That’s a sticky wicket.

    • Sorry for replying to myself here but it occured to me that it is not an admonition to withold forgiveness as much as a warning that if we withold it, it will not be brought into fruition.!?