In the evening of the day of the resurrection the disciples were gathered together. They had heard the witness of Mary (v. 18) and perhaps also of the Beloved Disciple and Peter, as well as of other women mentioned in the Synoptics, though John does not mention any of these. Perhaps her witness has given them hope and expectancy or perhaps has just confused them; the only thing John mentions is their fear of the Jewish opponents. The Feast of Unleavened Bread was still in progress, but these disciples are isolated from the festivities. They have lost the feast of Israel and have not yet discovered the peace of Jesus. Their hearts were troubled before the crucifixion (14:1), and now, if anything, they are more so.
Despite the locked doors, Jesus appears in their midst and greets them with the greeting still common today in that part of the world—Peace be with you (v. 19). In his farewell discourse Jesus had given them peace and charged them not to fear (14:27), and now he will begin to lead them into that experience. This may be a common greeting, but in this context the full significance of the word peace is present. In the Old Testament peace is closely associated with the blessing of God, especially the salvation to be brought by the Messiah (cf. Ps 29:11; Is 9:6; 52:7; 55:12; Ezek 37:26; Zech 9:10; cf. Osborne 1984:166). Now indeed such peace has come, for "his `Shalom!` on Easter evening is the complement of `It is finished!` on the cross, for the peace of reconciliation and life from God is now imparted" (Beasley-Murray 1987:379).
The disciples, apparently did not receive peace from this greeting, for it is only after Jesus showed them his hands and side that they were filled with joy at the sight of him (v. 20). Jesus had said they would have joy when they saw him again (16:21-22), and now they do, once the wounds have certified it is really him. Such joy, like peace, was viewed as a mark of God's salvation, including the expected time of salvation in the future (Ps 96:11; 97:1; Is 49:13; 61:10; 66:10, 14; Joel 2:21-27; Hab 3:18; Zech 10:7). Both the peace and the joy come from the presence of Jesus himself, the very presence of God come to earth.
Jesus immediately speaks of a mission for these disciples, just as he did with Mary Magdalene. He repeats his blessing of peace. If peace prepares them to receive him, they also need it to receive his commission: As the Father has sent me, I am sending you (v. 21). Over forty times throughout the Gospel, Jesus is said to have been sent by God, and now that will become the characteristic of his disciples also. The Son has a role in the sending of the Paraclete (14:16; 15:26; 16:7), and he plays a role in the sending of the disciples. The Son, like the Father, sends. Mission is at the heart of discipleship.
Two different words are used here for sending: As the Father has sent [apostello] me, I am sending [pempo] you. It is often said that apostello denotes being sent with a commission with an emphasis on the sender whereas pempo focuses on the sending as such (Rengstorf 1964a:398-406). But this distinction is quite dubious (Köstenberger 1998b:97-106) and certainly the two words are used interchangeably in John (Barrett 1978:569). Of greater significance is the idea of comparison. The Son was sent as one completely dependent upon the Father and one with the Father, so he was the presence of God while yet remaining distinct from the Father. Such a relationship is also at the heart of the community of Jesus' disciples. This text, accordingly, has enormous implications for the nature and mission of the church. C. K. Barrett addresses this issue with great clarity:
The sending of Jesus by God meant that in the words, works, and person of Jesus men were veritably confronted not merely by a Jewish Rabbi but by God himself (1:18; 14:9; and many passages). It follows that in the apostolic mission of the church . . . the world is veritably confronted not merely by a human institution but by Jesus the Son of God (13:20; 17:18). It follows further that as Jesus in his ministry was entirely dependent upon and obedient to God the Father, who sealed and sanctified him (4:34; 5:19; 10:37; 17:4, and other passages: 6:27; 10:36), and acted in the power of the Spirit who rested upon him (1:32), so the church is the apostolic church, commissioned by Christ, only in virtue of the fact that Jesus sanctified it (17:19) and breathed the Spirit into it (v. 22), and only so far as it maintains an attitude of perfect obedience to Jesus (it is here, of course, that the parallelism between the relation of Jesus to the Father and the relation of the church to Jesus breaks down). The life and mission of the church are meaningless if they are detached from this historical and theological context. (Barrett 1978:569)
Thus, in this Gospel, which focuses so much attention on the identity of Jesus, we also have a clear revelation of the core identity of the church. Unfortunately, the church has difficulty living up to this identity, despite the giving of the Spirit, which John now recounts.
If this community is to function in the way just described, then the gift of the Spirit is essential. Human beings in themselves are not capable of manifesting God's presence and doing God's will as Jesus did. Indeed, without the Spirit there is no spiritual life (3:3, 5). But Jesus now has been glorified, so the Spirit can be given (7:39; see comment on 16:7). At this point the life that has been in Jesus in his union with God is now shared with the disciples. The new state of affairs, described in the farewell discourse and hinted at already by the risen Christ (v. 17), begins to take effect among the disciples. They have been reunited with Jesus and now are given his very life by the Spirit—not only reunited with him, but beginning to be united to him. The word used for breathed on (emphysao) is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament to describe God's action when he formed the man from the dust of the ground and "breathed into his face the breath of life" and the man became a living being (Gen 2:7; cf. Wisdom of Solomon 15:11; also Ezek 37:5-10, 14). This allusion implies there is now the new beginning of life, though, as George Beasley-Murray says, "Strictly speaking, one should not view this as the beginning of the new creation but rather as the beginning of the incorporation of man into the new creation which came into being in the Christ by his incarnation, death, and resurrection, and is actualized in man by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 5:17)" (1987:381).
This imparting of the Spirit is clearly a climactic moment in the Gospel. Precisely because it is climactic one wonders how it is related to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2). On the assumption that both John and Luke are describing the one giving of the Spirit a number of scholars think the accounts reflect different theological emphases (for example, Brown 1970:1038-39; Beasley-Murray 1987:381-82). Others would embrace a view condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in A.D. 553, namely, that the imparting of the Spirit in John is symbolic of the later experience at Pentecost, "a kind of acted parable pointing forward to the full enduement still to come" (Carson 1991:655). Yet another position is that the two accounts describe two different events, though there is much variety in how the differences are understood (cf. Brown 1970:1038; Beasley-Murray 1987:381).
The evidence seems, in fact, to suggest that two different events are mentioned. The breathing of the Spirit by Jesus is certainly climactic, but the results do not fulfill the promises he made earlier in this Gospel. A week later they are not bearing witness but are back in the room with locked doors (v. 26). In the next chapter they are back fishing for fish, not for disciples. Furthermore, the conditions for the presence of the Spirit have not been completely met. The Spirit will be given after Jesus' return to the Father (14:16, 26; 16:7, 13). Jesus is in the process of returning but has not yet returned. Thus, it appears that Jesus' giving of the Spirit, like his ascending to the Father, is a complex process and not a simple, one-time event. John is filling in details not given by Luke regarding the beginning of the disciples' new life and ministry (though see the hint in Acts 1:2) just as he did regarding the outset of Jesus' ministry in his connection with John the Baptist and in the calling of the first disciples.
John's account describes a preliminary stage of preparation for ministry. "The mission is inaugurated, but not actually begun. . . . The actual beginning of the mission lies outside the scope of the Fourth Gospel. There remains, therefore, room for the Pentecostal outpouring, after which the disciples take up the mission in public in the power of the Spirit descending from Father and Son in heaven" (Hoskyns 1940b:653). Such preparation is clearly the point in Jesus' bringing the disciples to faith in himself and in the commissioning. But in what sense is the presence of the Spirit preparatory? A clue may be found in one of the strangest aspects of these first encounters: Thomas was not present when the Spirit was given (v. 24), yet he is the one who confesses Jesus as Lord and God, a confession which is the work of the Spirit. This suggests that the breathing of the Spirit was not simply directed at the individuals present, as if one had to be hit by the molecules coming from Jesus' mouth or nose in order to receive the Spirit. Rather, the Spirit is now unleashed into the world in a new way and begins to bring about new life where he finds faith. The disciples enter into a new phase in their life with God, but it is not yet the time of their active witness, as it will be from Pentecost on. Thus, it would seem John is describing the conception of the church, and Luke (in Acts), the birth.Jesus then speaks further of his commission to them: If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven (v. 23). This is a surprising way to put the commission, since it is never said that anyone is "forgiven" in this Gospel. While the reality of forgiveness is depicted (e.g., see comments on 5:14 and 8:11), this is the only occasion where it is stated explicitly. The ultimate sin for which one needs forgiveness is the rejection of Jesus (9:41; 15:22-24; 16:9). The disciples are to bear witness to Jesus (15:26-27), not just by representing Jesus but by actually being the presence of Jesus through the Spirit. In this way they will be the agents of the Spirit's confrontation of the world (16:8-11), which is a continuation of Jesus' own confrontation. "The apostles were commissioned to carry on Christ's work, and not to begin a new one" (Westcott 1908:2:350). Through the disciples' witness to Jesus by word and by the life and love of the community, the world will be forced to choose for or against Jesus, just as they were during Jesus' own ministry. Those who repent and believe in Jesus can be assured of forgiveness, and those who refuse to repent can be assured that their sins are not forgiven. Such is the consequence of rejecting the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world. This is how judgment takes place as people come in contact with the light (see comments on 3:19-21; 9:39-41; 12:44-50).
The ancient church understood this forgiveness and nonforgiveness as referring to admission to baptism (cf. Brown 1970:1042). Since baptism is associated with the forgiveness of sins (for example, Acts 2:38) this is certainly an important way in which this commission has been fulfilled, though it does not exhaust the commission. The text has also been applied to the matter of discipline within the community. Accordingly, the text has served to ground the sacrament of penance (cf. Brown 1970:1041). Such discipline was indeed necessary. The issue of cleansing and forgiveness among the disciples is of concern in the Gospel (13:3-11; 21:15-17; cf. Hoskyns 1940b:650). John's later reference to the sin unto death and the sin not unto death (1 Jn 5:16) seems to deal with matters that preclude membership in the community (cf. Whitacre 1982:136-40). The value and validity of the forms that developed over the centuries to embody such discipline is a separate matter, but such discipline in itself would be another way in which this commission has been fulfilled. This would be true whether or not the group gathered at this point is limited to the eleven (minus Thomas), though if this commission is given to the disciples in general, then presumably the exercise of discipline in the community was not limited to the leadership, as represented by the Twelve (cf. Mt 16:19; 18:15-17). John's first letter is an interesting study in the combination of a strong authority figure (John) and shared responsibility, as illustrated by 1 John 5:16 itself.
Both of these matters—entering into the community and maintaining the health of the community and its members—are a significant part of the missionary part of this commission. For the life of the community itself is a major aspect of the witness to the world (17:21, 23). It is through the disciples' unity with God and with one another that the world will be confronted with the truth about the Father and the Son. Such unity in God cannot include error and evil, for they are not of God, hence the need for discipline for the sake of the mission itself.
This encounter between Jesus and his band of disciples comes in the midst of a series of stories concerning individuals and speaks of the community Jesus has created. Both the imparting of the Spirit and the commission given reveal that the foundation of the church, its conception and its commissioning, was a concern to Jesus. "The foundation of the church is shown to be the actual words, actions, death and resurrection of Jesus who came in the flesh. And it is from him that the Spirit proceeds" (Hoskyns and Davey 1947:165). In Luke, Jesus' involvement is evident in his gathering the disciples together and charging them to wait for power from on high (Lk 24:48; Acts 1:4-5). In John we see Jesus' own giving of the Spirit. "What the Lord will do invisibly from heaven He here does visibly on earth" (Hoskyns 1940b:653).