In John 20:19-23, Jesus appears to His disciples after His resurrection and commissions the disciples to continue the work of Christ by giving them the Holy Spirit. John 20:21-22 says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” After this, Jesus tells His disciples in John 20:23, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Is Jesus saying that the Apostles have the “direct authority” to forgive another person’s sins?
After the resurrection and during the 40 days before Christ’s Ascension, Jesus was preparing the men who would serve as his Apostles. Scholars assert that the New Testament office of an apostle is the Jewish office of Shaliach. The word literally means “sent one”. A Shaliach was an agent and steward called to carry out the legal, financial, or personal affairs of his master. To be a Shaliac, you were required to have two things: power and authority. In John 20:19-23, we see Jesus granting His disciples both power through the Holy Spirit and authority to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. The question is, what is the nature of this authority Jesus gave to forgive sins?
Firstly, we must understand that the Bible teaches that only God has the authority to forgive sins. In Mark 2:5, we read of the paralytic man, who was lowered to Jesus through a hole that his friends made in the roof, and Jesus, seeing the man’s faith, says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Some scribes heard this and responded in Mark 2:7, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus does not challenge this assertion, but rather, he goes on to prove His deity and his right to forgive sins by responding in Mark 2:8-11, saying, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins“—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.“
If we are to look through the New Testament, we do not see any instances where an Apostle has the direct authority to forgive sins. Instead, we only see the gospel declaration where Christ has the power to forgive sins. For example, when Peter declares the gospel to Cornelius and his friends, he says in Acts 10:43, “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Likewise, Acts 13:32;38-39 says, “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, (v32)”; “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (v38-39)”
So the authority that Jesus gives His disciples is the authority and power to declare and pronounce authoritatively through the gospel message whose sins are forgiven and whose sins are not forgiven. Again, just as the Jewish high priest pronounced who was clean and who was unclean in cases of leprosy, so did the Apostles by declaring the gospel pronounced who is pardoned and who is not. John Calvin observes and says, “When Christ enjoins the Apostles to forgive sins, He does not convey to them what is peculiar to Himself. It belongs to Him to forgive sins. This honor, so far as it belongs peculiarly to Himself, He does not surrender to the Apostles. He only enjoins them, in His name, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, that through their agency He may reconcile men to God.”
In conclusion, John 20:23 is fundamentally where the declaration of forgiving sins is made through preaching the gospel. The Apostles’ authority is not sacramental but simply a declaration of the gospel truth. Anyone who believes in Christ receives forgiveness of sins, but anyone who does not put their faith in Christ remains in their condemnation and under the righteous judgment of God.