“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”” (John 20:23, ESV)
Strange words from Christ, these. Did he suddenly and against all expectation, turn his followers into people with the power to grant or withhold forgiveness? This verse has troubled many commentators of the Bible and perhaps rightly so, because it is a difficult verse.
A couple of observations to start with:
- This comment has a very close connection with Jesus’ comment in Matt 16.19:“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”” (Matthew 16:19, ESV).
Gerald Borchert comments: “Now the concept of forgiveness and retention of sins is not unrelated to the binding and loosing texts of Matt 16:19; 18:18, which must be understood in the context of rabbinic legal thought as the obligation to communicate correctly the requirements of the law so that those who are obedient to God’s will would be accepted, and those who are disobedient would be judged. The obligation on the part of the rabbis was very weighty because the people’s well-being was clearly at stake. But to carry the point further, the terms are patently legal terms that also relate to a judge’s task of discerning legitimacy or illegitimacy of given patterns of behavior.”
- No apostle [nor anyone else for that matter] ever claimed to have the literal power to forgive or retain sins, so it is quite obvious that they understood this to mean something else. JFB commentary: “In any literal and authoritative sense this power was never exercised by one of the apostles, and plainly was never understood by themselves as possessed by them or conveyed to them.”
What then, did Jesus mean? I think G. Campbell Morgan captures the sense the best:
“To whom have I the right to say, ‘Thy sins are forgiven’? To any man, to any woman, to any youth, or maiden, who, conscious of sin, repents towards God, and believes on the Lord Jesus Christ … And when, for some reason of supposed intellectual pride, more often of moral delinquency, the soul has persisted in sin, saying, No, I can not give this up; then I have had to say to that soul, Your sins are not forgiven; they are retained, they remain with you.” [Quoted in Holman New Testament Commentary]