19 So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22 And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (John 20:19-23 NASB95)
The Power of Forgiveness
Jesus, in the Gospel according to John, appears resurrected to his disciples on the third day after he had been crucified, declared dead, and buried. He appears physically, a living person in their midst. The disciples were in a room with “shut” doors—doors that had been closed and likely barred in order to prevent unwanted attention; yet Jesus appears, standing in their midst. As proof of his physical presence, Jesus shows them both the wounds in his hands and the spear wound to his side. Jesus says again, “Peace be with you.” Jesus then gives them instructions: as the Father has sent me, I send you; receive the Holy Spirit, and forgive the sins of any.
There is a side note to this act of forgiveness: if you forgive them, they are forgiven; if you “retain” them, they have been retained. The word Jesus uses for “forgive” is ἀφίημι (aphiemi), meaning “to send away, to give up a debt.” The word used for “retain” is κρατῆτε (krateyteh) means “to continue to hold, to retain, not discard or let go.”
Jesus’s instructions are powerful and possibly a bit intimidating. Jesus is sending us just like the Father sent him. What exactly does He mean? The Father sent Jesus to the world, in order to announce the coming of God’s Kingdom to the Earth. This is the gospel—the good news—that Jesus declared, and has asked us to declare. Jesus declared the good news in word and deed, and that is His desire as He sends us.
We ask ourselves, “How can we be sent like Jesus?” Jesus answers. First in His action, “he breathed on them.” Second, in His statement: “receive the Holy Spirit.” He breathed—ἐνεφύσησεν—a symbolic act practiced by the Hebrew prophets signifying the giving of the Holy Spirit. In His statement, He asks us to willingly receive the Spirit that He received upon His baptism. The Holy Spirit is the dynamic power of the Father that enabled the miraculous nature of Jesus’s life, acts, and testimony. He is this same power that Jesus bequeaths to us in order to accomplish His task.
These words are intimidating to the flesh, while at the same time powerful and hopeful. The most curious—and possibly the most difficult—of Jesus’ instructions is this: “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” Forgiveness is the exercise of God’s power in the name of Christ. Forgiveness removes the guilt and stain of sin on a person’s life. It is the most powerful act of love that one can demonstrate for another. This is not a power that should be dismissed as frivolous. This is the power of the Word and Spirit. This is the power of freedom from guilt, shame, anger, and violence. It is the freedom to love again after being crippled by a moral mistake. Forgiveness releases joy and hope into our world.
Most importantly, as much as forgiveness seems to be about the other person, it is more significantly about us. What transaction occurs in our hearts when we forgive someone—someone we may not like, someone who may have wounded us deeply, or someone who may seem to care less about being forgiven? It is easy to forgive someone we know for something that has no immediate impact on us or for something that will make us feel good about ourselves, and when we realize that this act will have no claim upon our person or our power. But what about when we have been hurt and are angry and feel betrayed? Why should we forgive? How can we forgive?
The True Power of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is about us. Forgiveness must be given if we are to relieve ourselves of the burdens of anger, hatred, loathing, pain, and self-righteousness. These burdens are cancers upon our souls. They eat away at us, stealing life from us, giving us anxiety, depression, and despair. To withhold forgiveness is to refuse the love of God for ourselves and for others.
Forgiving is also the most practical and easiest way to love others. Forgiveness does not require that an offense be perpetrated against you necessarily, although it usually is an offense that impacts us. Forgiveness isn’t just something required of us; it is a “gift” for the one receiving it. There are people who will cross our way that need a kind word and forgiveness—not for something that they have done to us, but for something that burdens their soul.
God wants us to forgive just as Christ forgave. In our emulation of Jesus, we become the liberators of others and take joy in how that liberation in turn, liberates us. Forgiveness is the most powerful exercise of God’s love that there is.
Live a life of forgiveness. It is the life of Christ in us.