“The very first thing Jesus did immediately after he was resurrected from among the dead and reunited with his followers was to pass on to them, as a gift from his Father (cf. Acts 2:23), that same power by which he lived, triumphed, and broke the bands of his own human limitations. On the very day of his resurrection, he came to them locked in by their fears, ‘breathed’ on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (John 20:22)” (Hawthorne, p. 235).
The point is that the mission of Jesus is not over. It merely passes into a new phase. Jesus continues the mission given him by his Father by sending forth his disciples in the same power with/by which the Father sent him forth, i.e., the power of the Holy Spirit.
The problem posed by John 20:22 - In Acts the Holy Spirit comes on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection, whereas here in John 20 the Holy Spirit appears to come on the day of the resurrection. Are John and Luke in conflict? Several observations will help resolve this problem:
· These are not contradictory accounts of the same event: in John we have a secret, restricted gathering, at evening, of the disciples only, and Jesus is personally present; but in Acts we have a public gathering, in the middle of the morning, with the entire Jerusalem congregation present, but Jesus is absent.
· John 20:22 does not describe their “regeneration” or “new birth”: (a) they were already “clean” (John 13:10); their names were already written down in heaven (Luke 10:20); Peter had openly testified that Jesus was the Christ (Mt. 16:16-17; cf. John 16:30); see also John 17:8-19 where Jesus refers to them as already belonging to the Father; (b) this impartation of the Spirit is not related to their conversion but to their commission (“I also send you”, v. 21).
· The coming of the Spirit is directly dependent on the going of the Son. See John 7:37-39 and 16:7. The sending of the HS is contingent on the ascension of the Son. Jesus is portrayed here as not yet having ascended (John 20:17). Therefore, this is not a “Johannine Pentecost”.
· “Breathing” is obviously symbolic. Pneuma may be translated “wind,” “breath,” “air,” and “spirit.” Cf. Gen. 2:7; Ezek. 37:2-4,9. This latter text suggests that “just as a lump of clay fashioned from the earth or a pile of bones bleaching in a valley were caused to spring to life by the breath of God then, so now the followers of Jesus are being given the opportunity to spring to life with a new spiritual vitality by that same breath of God” (Hawthorne, p. 236).
· The Greek text has been interpreted differently. D. A. Carson, for example, argues that it does not say “he breathed on them,” but merely that “he breathed,” or “he exhaled.” He points out that this is the only place this verb appears in the NT, but in all of its occurrences in the LXX there is an accompanying preposition (such as "into" or "in" or "upon") or some such auxiliary phrase. Thus Carson concludes that "the verb emphysao itself, when not encumbered by some auxiliary expression specifying the person or thing on whom or into whom the breath is breathed, simply means 'to breathe'" (652). It must be noted that Carson’s view is a minority one and has been challenged on several counts.
There are three possible interpretations of what Jesus did:
1) Some (including Gary Burge; see his commentary on John in the NIV Application series [Zondervan]) contend that this was a genuine and full anointing of the Spirit and must not be played off against the events of Acts 2.
2) Others argue that this constituted a preliminary imparting of the Spirit, in anticipation of the complete gift that would come at Pentecost. Calvin referred to John 20:22 as a “sprinkling” of the HS and Acts 2 as a “saturation”! Key: Luke 24:49 clearly teaches that at Pentecost the followers of Jesus would receive the fullness of divine power = the Holy Spirit. Therefore, whatever occurred in John 20:22, it was at most a taste of Pentecost, not the “full meal”; it was at most a transitional empowering of the disciples to get them from Easter to Pentecost.
Some have argued that this was not the full impartation of the Spirit by pointing to the fact that the lives of the disciples changed little as a result of it. They still lived in fear (20:26), reverted to their former employment (21:1-3), and insisted on comparing service/loyalty records in a virtual game of spiritual one-up-manship (21:20-22).
3) Others insist that there was no actual impartation of the Holy Spirit. Rather, John 20:22 is an acted parable, i.e., a symbolic promise of the coming power of the HS that is not fulfilled until the day of Pentecost.
In sum: it matters little if this was a partial enduement of power in anticipation of Pentecost or simply a symbolic act or prophetic parable pointing forward to Pentecost. The fact remains that the principal concern of the Son after his resurrection is the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church for the perpetuation of the divine mission he initiated.