In John 20:22, we read that Christ, after His resurrection, but before His ascension to heaven and the subsequent Day of Pentecost, breathed upon the disciples and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Some erroneously teach that on that occasion, Christ gave His disciples the Holy Spirit (compare Nelson Study Bible and the Ryrie Study Bible, comments to John 20). Others understand correctly that Christ did not give the Holy Spirit to His disciples at that time. The New Bible Commentary: Revised explains:
“The breathing upon them of the Spirit is understandable since the Greek ‘pneuma’ means both breath and spirit. This would appear to be in anticipation of Pentecost, although some specific assurance of the conveyance of the gift is clearly given here.”
The Bible makes it very clear that Christ’s early apostles and disciples received the Holy Spirit AFTER Christ’s ascension–on the Day of Pentecost, in 31 AD, as recorded in Acts 2. We read in Acts 2:1-4 that they were in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12; 2:5) and that they were filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. In Acts 2:16-18, Peter, in quoting from the writings of the prophet Joel, emphasizes that the Holy Spirit was poured on them on the Day of Pentecost. He also explains in verse 33: “Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He [Jesus Christ] poured out this what you NOW see and hear.” They saw and heard a rushing wind, divided tongues as of fire, and the speaking with other tongues or languages.
After Christ’s resurrection, but before His ascension, Christ told His apostles and disciples: “Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem UNTIL you are endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). In Acts 1:4-5, 8, the risen Christ reiterated His promise: “And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, ‘which,’ He said, ‘you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you SHALL BE baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now… you SHALL receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem…'”
We read in Acts 1:9: “Now when He had spoken these things [promising them the receipt of the Holy Spirit IN THE FUTURE], while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.” When Christ was taken up to heaven, His apostles and disciples had not yet received the Holy Spirit; but they were commanded to wait in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4) for the receipt of the Holy Spirit “not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). And as we saw, it was in Jerusalem, on the Day of Pentecost, when they received the Holy Spirit.
While still in the flesh, Christ had promised His disciples on several occasions that the Holy Spirit would be given to them in the future (compare John 14:17, 26; 16:13). That actual event, and the fulfillment of that promise, occurred when the New Testament Church came into existence–on the Day of Pentecost–not before then.
How, then, are we to understand John 20:22? We read, beginning in verse 21: “So Jesus [when He was resurrected, but before He had ascended to heaven, and before the Day of Pentecost] said to them again, ‘Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ (Verse 22) And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” Verse 23 continues to quote Christ’s words: ”If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'”
Since the Holy Spirit was not given before the Day of Pentecost, Christ’s statement and action in John 20 was a reassurance that they would receive the Holy Spirit not long from then. Christ breathed upon them, showing them that it would be HE who would pour out, directly, the Holy Spirit on them, after He would receive it from the Father. And since the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of power and of discernment, they would receive the strength and ability to witness for Christ and preach the gospel, as well as recognize whether someone has repented and therefore has received forgiveness from God, or whether God did not forgive the person, due to a lack of repentance. Christ told His apostles that they would be able, because of the Holy Spirit within them, to discern God’s Will in the matter of forgiveness, and to communicate and implement God’s Will accordingly.
John 20:22 does not teach that Christ gave the Holy Spirit to His disciples at the time when He breathed on them. Rather, it was a reassurance to them that they would receive the Holy Spirit later–on the Day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2.
Lead Writer: Norbert Link