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Jesus Breathed on Them

Listen to Me Read this Article (Plus Some Extra Bits)

Don’t worry. This isn’t a post about coronavirus. Although, the title does seem fitting.

The title is actually a paraphrase of a passage from John 20 that gives Bible students a lot of trouble:

And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

John 20:22

The trouble arises when one compares this passage to Acts 1-2. The question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the disciples (except for Thomas) received the Spirit here or on Pentecost?

So, there are two things we can do with this passage (and there are more, of course): (1) give the “surface level” answer and (2) give a deeper answer that fits within the themes of John’s gospel account.

Surface Level

To get the surface level meaning, let’s read a verse before and after this passage from John 20.

So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”

John 20:21–23

The surface level meaning of the text is Jesus transferring authority to His disciples. They would be sent just as He had been sent. They would receive the Spirit just as Jesus had (Luke 4:18). And they would forgive sins like Jesus did.

Concerning this last point, notice this interaction between Jesus and the people when he forgave the sins of the man who was let down through the roof:

Seeing their faith, He said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” The scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” But Jesus, aware of their reasonings, answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins have been forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? “But, so 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, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home.”

Luke 5:20–24

Receiving the Spirit, then, was about receiving the authority to carry out God’s will on earth. As to whether or not they received the Spirit in John 20, here are a few considerations: Thomas wasn’t with them, they looked to the Day of Pentecost as the time when they received the Spirit (Acts 11), and Jesus told them to dwell in Jerusalem until His promise concerning the pouring out of the Spirit would be fulfilled.

Deeper Meaning

The first section was meant to make you say, “Well, that makes sense.” This section is to make you go, “Ohhhhh. Now THAT makes sense.” I hope it has that effect.

To understand why John wrote this account down, we have to think about one of the major themes of his book: the new creation.

John started his book with a call back to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning…” John also lists seven signs that Jesus performed with the seventh one being the resurrection of Lazarus. The number seven is used intentionally to bring the people back to the seven days of Genesis 1. As I’m sure you can find with a quick Google search, there are lots of sets of seven in John like there are in his other book Revelation. Then, in John 20, Jesus is resurrected in a garden. To make his point even more obvious, John points out that He was mistaken for a gardener. This isn’t a mistake. John is showing that Jesus is the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). And His death to the world below and resurrection into the world above marks a turning point in history.

So, when Jesus meets His disciples on the day of His resurrection and breathes on them, He is acting out the scene in Genesis 2. It is theater!

Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

Genesis 2:7

What resurrected Jesus? Paul says it was the Spirit (Romans 1:4). What resurrects those in Christ? Again, it is the Spirit (Romans 8:11). When Jesus breathes on them, what is He doing? He is sharing the resurrecting Spirit with them.

But before that point really hits like it should, a quick word on breath and Spirit.

First, the Greek word used for “breathed” in John 20 is the same one used for “blew” in the Greek version of the Old Testament that was most likely the first century church’s version that they had access to. So, the connection is obvious.

Second, the word for Spirit in the Old Testament is translated wind, Spirit, and breath (2 Samuel 22:16).

Jesus isn’t just being random here. He is making intentional callbacks to Genesis 2, and He is drawing from common themes of Spirit, wind, and breath like He did with Nicodemus.

The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.

John 3:8

If the point isn’t clear enough already, here it is again:

When Jesus breathes on the disciples, He is giving them authority, but, more importantly than that, He is inducting them into the New Creation.

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3 thoughts on “Jesus Breathed on Them”

  1. Thanks! This analysis is an excellent example of looking at the whole of Scripture, not just an isolated text. Your response should be read more than once. In the first response, you are introduced to several options that only acquaints one to the overall text. In the second reading, one is now able to make more sense of the passage in question with greater comprehension.

    Keep up the good work in your exegetical studies. You make us think!!!!

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