John 20:19-23

John 20:19-23     Jesus Appears to Disciples

19 It was early evening of the first day of the week.

By the time the Gospel was written, the first day of the week had become the accepted day for Christians to gather for the celebration of Eucharist. What was to unfold would have relevance for their understanding of Jesus’ presence with them in their eucharistic gatherings.

19 The doors where the disciples were gathered were closed
because of their fear of the Jews.

The detail assumes that the unidentified group of disciples, with the exception of Thomas, were now gathered together in community. The closed doors may simply have stated the bald fact. But they may also have symbolised the hearts of the disciples, closed and paralysed by fear of the Jews. When Jesus had been arrested, he explicitly requested that the disciples be allowed to leave. The soldiers had no problem with that, having had a warrant only for the arrest of Jesus. But, with Jesus’ subsequent condemnation on the charge of his being a political king, and, therefore, a rebel leader, they may have believed themselves, as his collaborators, to be under real threat.

It is noticeable that the author did not mention any reaction of joy on the part of the disciples, arising from Jesus’ resurrection. It would seem that they had not believed the testimony of Mary Magdalene, or of the Beloved Disciple.

Consistent with his approach throughout the narrative, the author referred, simply, to the disciples. What would follow would be relevant to all disciples, not restricted to any particular grouping among them. The author was using the literary form of narrative to explore the theological implications of the mystery of resurrection. His concern was strictly theological, not historical.


19 Jesus came and stood up in their midst.  
He said to them, "Peace be with you." 

Jesus came and stood. No further detail; but the author’s verbal economy made clear that the initiative was from Jesus’ part, unexpected, and certainly not a figment of the disciples’ imaginations. He was present, and in their midst. Through and in him, the Temple, as the residence of God, was redundant.  That he stood up in their midst may have been a veiled reference to his rising.

Jesus’ greeting, the single word, Peace be with you (“Shalom” in Hebrew) – the first, and defining, word of the Risen One – carries, perhaps, the most revealing message of the Gospel.

These men were those whom he had earlier called friends [15:15], and whom he had just referred to as brothers. Under pressure, one of them had totally and publicly disowned him.  With the exception of the Beloved Disciple, the other male disciples had all deserted him, in abject fear for their lives. Their sin, in some ways, was not essentially different from that of his betrayer or the chief priests who had plotted his death or of Pilate who had sentenced him. All were motivated, to different degrees, by the imperative to look after their own interests, even at the price of the violent death of an innocent other (an other whom they had loved, as far as the disciples were concerned).

Jesus had been humiliated, brutalised, abandoned and lynched, yet, without a single word of recrimination, his first word to those who had disowned and deserted him was Peace be with you. This was before any expression of sorrow or indication of conversion from any of them. The single word Shalom quite simply expressed the essential heart of Christ. His was a totally free, unconditioned, unshakable and limitless love. And in his love, he revealed the essential heart of his Father.  The Beloved Disciple had articulated precisely this so beautifully in the prayer to the Father he had put on the lips of Jesus at the Last Supper: I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them [17:26].

In the context, the love of the risen Jesus took the shape of unmerited forgiveness. It needed to be offered gratuitously. Sin can be genuinely owned (as distinct from disowned), and true repentance (as distinct from remorse) be empowered, only through the power of God’s unconditional mercy.

20 While saying this, he showed them his hands and his side.

Did Jesus need to be crucified, and his side pierced with a lance, for humanity to be saved? Who knows? But without his confronting and shockingly brutal death, neither the sin of the world nor the extent of his love may have ever been recognised. Only the love, expressed so totally and perfectly in his willingly accepted death, could ever enable the darkness of sin to be recognised, owned and repented.

The Wounds in Jesus’ Hands and Side

There may be other messages held within the gesture of Jesus’ showing his hands and side. 

From time into eternity. The humanity of the risen Jesus, the new Adam, was not so much re-created out of nothing, but raised to a totally new state. But it was the raised humanity of the crucified Jesus. All the life experiences of Jesus were carried with him, enlivened and restored, into his newly risen state. He still carried the marks of his suffering, because his suffering had been the expression of his limitless love, the concrete shape of his love.

For believers, resurrection will not be a totally new start but will be based on a continuity with what has been. The choices made in life shape the human personality and echo into eternity. As Jesus had repeated so often, eternal life is not something unconnected with the historical choices people make. Eternal life begins in time. Humanity carries its wounds through death into eternity, where they are transformed and become sources of eternal life and joy.

20 As they saw the Lord, the disciples were filled with joy.

Joy constantly accompanies genuine faith. The disciples’ response fulfilled Jesus’ promise to them during his final Supper: I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you [16:22]. Their joy was not simply a factor of his resurrection, but, equally importantly, of his message. The risen Jesus is the gratuitously forgiving Jesus. There is no other. The disciples had found Easter faith.

21 So he said to them again, "Peace be with you...

The risen Jesus’ second word to the disciples was simply a confirmation of his first, Shalom, Peace be with you. The repetition served to underline the stark insistence of the first, in case it were overlooked in the upsurge of joy. The risen Jesus is the innocent victim who forgives. 


21 As the Father sent me, so I am sending you out.” 

Jesus had been sent by God to reveal the face of God in human terms, and to do God’s work. That work was to love the world and, through that love, to save it: God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send his only son into the world to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through him [3:16-17]. The mission of disciples would be to reveal to the world the face of God – the loving and saving God revealed in Jesus. Like Jesus, they would do this purely by their own stance of practical love, whatever the price. Jesus constantly insisted that disciples love one another as he had loved them [13:34].

22 After he said this, he breathed into them,
and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit... 

The Spirit is essentially the love of God active in the world. In his last discourse with them, Jesus had promised he would send them his Spirit [14:15-17]. As he accomplished his mission at the moment of his death, Jesus had handed over his Spirit [19:30]. Now, he did so formally to the gathered disciples. (Breath and Spirit translate the one Greek word.) The narrative is not recounting a second gift of the Spirit. The incident is the author’s unfolding in narrative form of the mystery of resurrection and the place of disciples in that mystery.

Jesus’ gesture of breathing into his disciples suggested an up-close encounter or embrace. As such, it was an expression of wonderful intimacy.

23 … Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven.  
Those whom you keep hold of are held.

The form of speech is an expression of classical Hebrew parallelism, where the second line simply reasserts, in different words, the same message as the first.  Use of the passive voice is understood to refer to the action of God: "God forgives the sins of those persons whose sins you forgive; God keeps hold of those persons whom you keep hold of." Grammatically, it is not clear to whom the initiative belongs. Has God already forgiven the sins of those to whom disciples are then commissioned to bring the message of forgiveness? And is God already keeping tender hold of those whom disciples then come to cherish in their midst? Or are God's forgiveness and embrace consequent on the prior forgiveness and embrace tendered by disciples? Certainly, the narrative has shown God, directly or through Jesus, consistently taking the initiative in wanting to save the world and to forgive the world's sin.

The second line of the doublet is usually translated differently.  But the translation used here is grammatically correct, and refers easily to those initiated into the community of believers after their sins are forgiven [in the rite of baptism]. Jesus' statement echoes what he had said earlier when referring to himself as the Good Shepherd: I give them eternal life, and to eternity they will not perish, nor will anyone snatch them from my hand.  What the Father has given me is greater than all else.  And no one can snatch anything from my Father's hand [10:28-29]. 

The usual translation refers to sins being forgiven and also being retained [the word sin, in fact, is not repeated in the original text]. Yet, even when translated thus, given the context of Jesus' unconditional love, even for the unworthy disciples, Jesus was not necessarily distinguishing forgiving and retaining as separate and contrary responses to sin, but affirming a fullness of power over the mystery of sin.

At the same time, the very fact of the disciples’ preaching forgiveness and calling into community (in words, but, more particularly, in practical love), would be received by some and rejected by others. Those who listen and respond allow their hearts to be softened by the touch of Jesus’ Spirit. 

Ezekiel had written of God's intention, six centuries earlier:

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; 
and I will remove from your body the heart of stone
and give you a heart of flesh. 
I will put my spirit within you,
and make you follow my statutes 
and be careful to observe my ordinances [Ezekiel 36:26-27].

Hearts of stone become hearts of flesh; and sinners find themselves freed from the constricting and dehumanizing power of sin. Those who choose to ignore the offer of forgiveness remain in the meaningless, isolating self-centredness and alienation of sin and hopelessness. 

Not surprisingly, the directive simply served to tease out the detail of Jesus’ previous sending them out on the same mission on which he had been sent by the Father. He had been sent to reveal God’s love and to save the world from its sin. The mission of disciples is to reveal God’s love and to save the world.

Jesus had saved the world from its sin by revealing that sin to the world. He had done this, firstly, by letting sin be seen for what it was – by showing to the world the violence behind every sin, a violence ready to sacrifice others for the sake of self-interest. It had killed him, despite his clear innocence. He had freely and willingly accepted the price of loving in a sin-dominated world. But of itself, such confrontation would not have led the world to see and to own its sin. For that, the very act of confronting the world with its sin needed to be accompanied by the certainty of forgiveness. Sin can be neither seen nor owned as such, other than against the background of God’s unconditioned, relentless love.

Forgiving Sin

Disciples will overcome the world’s sin in the same way that Jesus did: by loving the world and being ready to pay the price of such love. Such consistent, saving love, however, is beyond the power of any human person. Only to the extent that disciples allow themselves to be empowered by God can they even begin to succeed. They are empowered by God to the extent that they allow the creative love and forgiveness of God to penetrate and transform their own lives. To co-operate with Jesus in the salvation of the world, every disciple needs, firstly, to hear Jesus’ unreserved greeting of “Peace be with you” echoing deep within the recesses of the human soul, and to accept the Spirit that he breathes into them..

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