Tuesday, May 15, 2012

John 20:19-23 - Exegetical Essay

Exegetical Essay (Sermon Notes)

John 20:19-23


We may well label John 20:19-23 as the Fourth Gospel’s Great Commission. It is a missionary text, with missionary implications. The Father has sent the Son in the world and now he is reappearing to his disciples after his resurrection, and his monologue with them at this point is of great significance.

We firstly will briefly explore the context and purpose of the passage, followed by the structure of the passage and any relevant textual variances.

The exegesis to follow then is broken into a series of different points, namely, the issue of the locked doors, the greeting of peace from Jesus, then the reference to his hands and side. We then come to the critical missional verse about Jesus sending the disciples. This is followed by the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit and then the difficult interpretation regarding the forgiveness of sins.
The contemporary relevance of the passage will also be discussed briefly, and the implications of 20:19-23 upon the Christian community today.

The Context and Purpose

Some argue the sectarian nature of the Johannine Gospel, because if comes from a ‘closed and embattled community’[1] but the synoptic gospels, like the Fourth Gospel are all internal documents written for believers and thus this in itself does not allow for such an assumption. The Gospel is a missionary document, albeit dualistic in its thinking at times (darkness/light, in the world/out of the world), and seeks to inform its readers of the incarnational and salvific mission of Christ, that we will see, in some ways, was passed on to his disciples (20:22).

Structure of Passage

In the post resurrection account of Jesus in chapter 20, we read of the events of the morning (20:1-18) and then of the evening of that first Easter Sunday (20:19-29). Along with the concluding two verses (20:30-31) we can devise the following structure of this Johannine passage[2]:
·         20:1-9 – Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter and another disciple visit the tomb
·         20:10-18 – Mary encounters the risen Christ
·         20:19-23 – Jesus visits the disciples
·         20:24-29 – Jesus visits (doubting) Thomas
·         20:30-31 – Concluding summation of the entire Gospel
Michaels says the two appearances of Jesus (19-23; 24-29) are best interpreted as one appearance in two parts.[3] The Gospels of Matthew and Mark barely mention the story (Mt 28:17, Mk 16:13) and the Lukan passage encapsulates a similar version of the story in one narrative (Lk 24:36-49).

Textual Analysis

20:20 -  hands – χειρας – Those who were crucified generally were nailed to the cross through their wrists as crucifixion through the hands would not bear the weight of the body.[4] The verse could thus read, ‘he showed them his wrists and side’, though a showing of the hands would no doubt reveal the wounds inflicted upon the wrists.
20:22 – receive [the] Holy Spirit – The author does not use the definite article in this passage, though we need not glean from that an impersonal reference of the Holy Spirit[5]. Beasley-Murray’s reasoning that 7:39 uses the same grammar, is not a strong apologetic. When considering John’s extensive delineation on the function and character of the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete[6] (παρακλητον)  in chapters 14-16, defined as ‘mediator’ and ‘comforter’, you understand that missing the definite article in 20:22 is of little significance.

The Locked Doors

20:19 says the doors were locked where the disciples were gathered because of their fear of the Jews (also 7:13, 9:22, 19:38). Some have supposed that the emphasis by John on the locked doors were to highlight the risen nature of the Christ; that because of his ability to penetrate locked doors, he is definitely the risen Christ. While Jesus’ indescribable miraculous power may be clearly evident in 20:19 as Jesus stood in the midst of them[7], it is clear from John that the reasoning behind the locked doors was for the fear of the Jews[8]. We only need to consider the arrest of Jesus (18:12), the flogging of Jesus (19:1), and the crucifixion of Jesus (19:18) to logically conclude that locking the doors for ‘fear of the Jews’ was a natural response to the situation. The philosophical attempts to rationalise the miraculous entering of a locked room is futile[9], and the Fourth Gospel does not attempt to make such an explanation.

Peace Be With You

The Old Testament Scriptures highlight a greeting of peace regularly (Exod 4:18, 2 Kings 5:19, Ps 122:8). One reference in particular is the prophet Isaiah when he refers to a promised Messiah (Isa 52:7), as one who announces peace (in which Jesus did twice in 20:19, 21), and as one who brings good news and announces salvation. In 20:19-21, the author of John illustrates to his readers that the promised Messiah has risen from the grave, has visited his disciples and has made an eschatological promise of bestowing peace upon them (see also 14:27; 16:33)[10]. John’s reiteration of the peace proclamation of Jesus (20:19, 21), accentuates the idea for Jewish readers, that Jesus is the embodiment of the prophetic message of peace and salvation read from the Old Testament (e.g.  Isa 52:7).
The repetition of the giving of peace, some say, is an editorial addition by the writer of the Fourth Gospel[11], and if this be the case, no doubt the writer is intending to accentuate the point that Jesus did in fact come to bring peace and not condemnation and judgment (similar 3:17, 14:27, 15:9).

His Hands and Side

It was important for the writer of the Fourth Gospel to explain that the Christophany of the risen Christ was of the same Christ who lived and ministered with the disciples[12], thus the mentioning of Jesus showing the disciples his hand and sides. 20:20 is thus a counterargument to the theological beginnings of Docetism and rather a building block for developing a theology of the humanity of Jesus united with the divinity of Christ.
The disciples were full of joy when they saw the Lord. The witness of the hands that revealed the wounds of the nails driven through the wrists, and the witness of the side that was pierced only days earlier by a soldier (19:34), along with the very idea that the Jesus whom was crucified now stands in the midst of them, alive, would have been a very surreal and joyous occasion. 

The Sending Out

According to Kostenberger two modes of movement exist within the disciple’s mission according to John’s Gospel, and they are of ‘following’ and ‘being sent’.[13] The proclamation from Jesus to the disciples that they are sent, was hardly overly surprising rhetoric as he had mentioned similar ideas at other times (explicit in 4:38, 17:18; implicit in 13:16, 20). The Father had sent Jesus into mission (4:34, 5:30, 5:36, 6:29, 7:16, to name a few references), and now the Father and the Son were sending the disciples out to fulfil the Father’s mission in the world.
There are two different words used for sending in 20:21 (ἀποστέλλω and πεμπω). Schneiders believes in a ‘significant distinction’[14] between the two words. The first is used of the Father sending the Son and concentrates on the mission to be accomplished and the authority imparted to whom was sent and the second is used of Jesus sending the disciples which focuses more on the relation of the sent to the sender.[15] The latter sending challenges the disciples to embrace the teachings and ministry of Jesus, and while does not offer a blueprint of ‘how to do’ ministry, but rather encourages the disciples to embrace the risen Christ, and the subsequent empowerment for ministry (the breathing of the Holy Spirit upon them in 20:22).

The Holy Spirit

When Jesus breathed (ἐμφυσάω) on the disciples, in what way did this affect the disciples? Should we compare it with the Lukan-Acts report of the day of Pentecost (Acts 2)? Many compare the breathing of the Holy Spirit in this instance to be less related to the Lukan passage, but rather related to Old Testament examples of Gen 2:7 when God breathed ‘life’ into man, and Ezek 37:9-10, when Ezekiel prophesied to Israel of God breathing into the dry bones, that they may live[16]. It seems then, that the breathing of the Holy Spirit from Jesus to the disciples (20:22) is less about gifts and charismatic empowerment for engagement in mission[17], but rather an impartation of the life giving presence of God that inaugurates the disciples’ mission. [18]

Forgiveness of Sins

Catholic and Protestant theology have differed greatly over the interpretation of 20:23 for many years. The interpretation and explanation of κρατέω (retain) is an issue, and NRSV translates 20:23b as, ‘if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ Schneiders argues for ‘Anyone whom you hold fast is held fast’, as ‘retain’ is grammatically and theologically highly problematic.[19]  To hold fast to people’s sins, is not about some holy, priestly privilege of completing the work assigned to Christ, but rather to hold people accountable for their actions. 

Contemporary Application

What a captivating thought that the glorified Christ offers peace to his disciples, and as disciples two millennium later in our fast-paced, technologically-driven, commercialised society that same deep sense of shalom is offered to us.
As Christopher Wright explains, Jesus’ identity and mission is highlighted right from the start of the Fourth Gospel and then repeated at different intervals[20] and then climaxes with the verses of 17:1-26. The impending mission of the disciples is implicitly mentioned in 17:18, and finally made explicit to the disciples in 20:21, that Jesus has sent the disciples (that includes us today) into the world[21].

We as disciples today are thus an apostolic people, that is, a sent people, who through the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit aim to live out our role within the mission of God. While Jesus words in 20:21 do not offer explicit ministry methodology[22], when integrated into the teachings of Christ, we understand that we are sent to proclaim and embrace the life, death, resurrection and glorification of Christ and all that that encompasses for us and the individuals, cultures and institutions in our world.


Imagine the joy evident for the disciples as they stood next to the risen Christ. Consider for a moment the reaction to the words, ‘Peace be with you’ and the confronting witness of the hands and side of the once crucified and now glorified saviour. Then Jesus in exemplary fashion says to the disciples that he has been sent by the Father and thus is sending out the disciples. With all that Christ has taught (18:20) and all the moments of new ministry experiences (healings, miraculous feedings, walking on water, etc), coupled with the breathing of the Holy Spirit upon them (20:22), the disciples have a new hope that Jesus Christ has called them to live out his exciting mission in the world.

Copyright - Pete Brookshaw, April 2012. (Exegetical Essay/Sermon Notes/Preaching Notes) written by Pete Brookshaw.

This essay is part of Pete's Bible Commentary. Click here for more.

[1] Donald Senior & Carroll Stuhlmueller. (1989). The Biblical Foundations for Mission. New York: Orbis Books, (p. 288). Also Mortimer Arias, et. al. (2006). The Great Commission. Nashville: Abingdon Press, (p. 78).
[2] Adapted from Beasley-Murray (1999). Word Biblical Commentary: John. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers (p. 370).
[3] J. Ramsey Michaels. (2010). The Gospel of John: The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, (p. 1005).
[4] Beasley-Murray, G. R., (p. 366).
[5] Beasley-Murray, G. R., (p. 380).
[6] Senior D. & Stuhlmueller, C., (p. 286cf.).
[7] D. A. Carson (1991). The Gospel According to John. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, (p. 646).
[8] See Borchert, Gerald L. (2002). The New American Commentary. John 12-21, Vol 25B. U.S.A: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
[9] Gerald L. Borchert., (p.304).
[10] D. Moody Smith. (1999). Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John. Tennessee: Abingdon Press, (p. 379).
[11] Gerald L. Borchert, (p. 306).
[12] Gerald L. Borchert, (p. 305).
[13] Andreas J. Kostenberger (1998). The Missions of Jesus & the Disciples. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, (p. 176). The exegetical passage of 20:19-23 is unrelated to the concept of ‘following’ and as such will not be covered here. For more information on this concept see John 1:37-43, 8:12, chapter 10, 12:24-26, 13:36-38, 21:15-23.
[14] Sandra M. Schneiders (2006). The Raising of the New Temple: John 20:19-23 and Johannine Ecclesiology. U.K.: Cambridge University Press, (p. 350).
[15] Sandra M. Schneiders, (p. 350).
[16] Sandra M. Schneiders, (p. 351).
[17] Contra Donald Senior & Carroll Stuhlmueller, (p. 286).
[18] Tobias Hagerland (2009). The Power of Prophecy: A Septuagintal Echo in John 20:19-23. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, (p. 95).
[19] Sandra M. Schneiders, (p. 353).
[20] Christopher Wright (2006). The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, (p. 125).
[21] Christopher Wright, (p. 125-126).
[22] John Stott has said, the character of Jesus’ command to his disciples in the Fourth Gospel is incarnational rather than verbal. Cited in Stanley H. Skreslet, (2006). Picturing Christian Witness. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, (p. 156). Also cited in Mortimer Arias & Alan Johnson, (1992). The Great Commission: Biblical Models for Evangelism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, (p. 79). 

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