…they are forgiven them…

Week 16, Day 3


John 20. 22-23

“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 retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

This interesting and puzzling saying of Jesus is set in the middle of the larger story we are reading this week—the meeting, a week after the resurrection, between Jesus and (doubting) Thomas. The full text is below and you would do well to read that through a couple of times before proceeding.

It’s that last phrase in the quote above that I have always found unsettling: “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”. Something about that sends chills down my spine.

After gifting the disciples with the Holy Spirit (“he breathed on them and said…”) and opening a channel from the cross (“Father forgive them…”) for an amazing forgiveness that they were to offer to everyone they met, Jesus then seems to create a way to insure that sin would continue and some sin (and sinners) would never be forgiven. Why would he do that?

Jesus was sent to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1.29). He freely forgave his torturers—those who did not ask for nor deserve forgiveness. Did he then authorize his disciples to hold the sin of some people over their heads—to “retain” it? Does that sound to you like the Jesus who commanded these same disciples to “love each other as I have loved you” (John 15.12) and taught them to forgive others as they had been forgiven? (Matthew 6.12).

Do you see the puzzle here?

This is another example of why we should never read the Bible all by ourselves; why we should keep the company of people who have learned things we will never learn on our own. In this case, specifically, this means being in touch with people who can read the Bible in the language in which it was originally written and are familiar with the problems that arise whenever one language is translated into another. (Keep in mind, by the way, that the gospels themselves are translations of what Jesus said. Jesus spoke Aramaic. The gospels were written in Greek. So our English Bible is actually a translation of a translation, which further compounds the problem of understanding what the words mean.)

It turns out though that we are very fortunate to have been given this seemingly unending series of puzzles. Reading the Bible is hard; and, in fact, it should be. If our understanding of Scripture comes to us too quickly and easily we usually will have reason to slow down and ask ourselves a few questions.

This difficulty prevents us from taking God too lightly. It is quite impossible, these puzzles teach us, to put the Divine in a box; to confine the Creator to a space where God can be understood and controlled. Leaning on your own understanding, as the proverb says, is not the best course to follow (Proverbs 3.5)

Spend some time with this puzzle. Can you imagine another way to read what is happening in this story? One useful principle of Bible interpretation is that you can often read an obscure, difficult passage through the lens of a related passage that is clearer and more forthright. This is tricky, but try understanding v. 23 in the light of who Jesus is (“the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”). Is it possible that the “retaining of sins” (whatever that might mean) is not what is intended here?

In the next post I’ll offer an alternative reading of this verse that I find persuasive because it is much more in tune with the clearer images of Jesus offered in other places in the gospels. Until then, don’t fret. Let your imagination run with the Spirit and see where you end up.

Prayer: Puzzling God, keep us from easy answers and glib understandings. Open our eyes to the wonder of your kindness and our hearts to the mystery of your grace and let us wander some years in that space. Amen.

John 20. 19-29

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and sai