I am not Pentecostal. When we were in college Bethany and I went with some friends to a large Pentecostal church in Louisville to hear a well-known speaker. Everything about this service was bad. The theology was bad. The man preached that the mayflower compact was the new covenant, and that the USA was the people of God. The practice was bad. People would break into unintelligible language without any attempt at interpretation. It was all emotion with little-to-no gospel. I am not Pentecostal. I don't mean to paint with a broad brush. There are certainly more academically serious and biblically faithful Pentecostals, but they do share common theological convictions that I do not. If I were to self-identify my Christianity, I’d use words like orthodox, protestant, and reformed. I would not say I’m Pentecostal.
The problem with that though, is that in rightly distancing ourselves from the brand of “Pentecostalism,” we’ve abandoned the feast of Pentecost. We discussed two weeks ago how in an effort to not be RCC or Pentecostal, low-church Protestants like CCC have neglected the Ascension and Pentecost. We haven’t done so with Christmas, or Easter, but we certainly have with Pentecost. Today is Pentecost Sunday. This is the beginning of the season of ordinary time in the church calendar, which will take us all the way to Advent. The church calendar is divided in a Trinitarian way, which helps us to be mindful of our God all year.
The season of Advent and Christmas is a celebration of the Father sending his Son. The seasons of Lent and Eastertide remember the death and resurrection of the Son. And now Pentecost and ordinary time celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and the ordinary means of grace that God uses to save and sanctify his people. This morning we look at John 20.19-23, which has historically be called the Johannine Pentecost, and we celebrate the coming of God’s Holy Spirit!
Verse 19 begins, on the evening of that day, the first day of the week. I love the way John wrote that. If we were to read all of chapter 20, we would know that this is the third day, the day that Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead. This is that day; the day on which all of history hangs. It was not only the first day of that week, that week in the early 1st century. It was the first day of the rest of eternity. It was the first day of the New Covenant. John wants you to know that Pentecost in specific, and literally everything else in creation, is connected to the resurrection of Christ Jesus. The death of Jesus as the righteous Lamb of God in the place of sinners, and his resurrection from the dead as God’s vindication for his sacrifice is the very meaning of life.
I would be remised if I didn’t pause at this point and freely offer you the gospel. The word gospel means, “good news.” It’s the good news that God is the holy creator and we’re rebels who have sinned and fallen short of his glory. It’s the good news that the Son of God became a man and lived sinless righteousness in our place. He died as our substitute of the cross, bearing the wrath of his Father. He resurrected on the third day, the first born from the dead. It’s the good news that if you repent of your sin and trust in him, you will live forever. I implore you to take Christ, even now, for if you don’t then Pentecost is not for you.
John goes on to say the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them. John doesn’t tell us that Jesus walked through the wall. He does say that the doors were locked and that Jesus came and stood around them. So whether he walked through the wall, or miraculously opened the lock, the point is that Jesus could not be thwarted. He had an appointment with the disciples and even if they could keep the Jews out, they couldn’t keep Jesus out.
As we look at the end of verse 19 we see the first benefit of Pentecost: and [Jesus] said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Pentecost means peace. Twice in these 5 verses does Jesus say, “Peace be with you.” The gospel of Jesus brings peace. It brings peace between God and man. Romans 5.1 says, therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The war that existed between God and us rebels has ceased for those who are in Christ. We who were the enemies of God are now his friends. We dine with him at the Eucharist. Because Jesus took our wrath, we Christians live in a state of peace with God. If you’re not a believer, make peace with God today; take Christ by faith.
Jesus also pronounces peace to them because Pentecost creates peace between people. We read from Acts 2 earlier when the Spirit comes on the day of Pentecost, people of different ethnicities fellowship with each other because of the Holy Spirit. Read Ephesians 2-3, which says that there is no more division between Jew and Gentile because of the Holy Spirit. Romans 12.18 says, if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Pentecost means peace between people.
This peace also creates our purpose. Look at the rest of Jesus’ statement in verse 21. He says, “as the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” This is John’s version of the Great Commission. Jesus says that with the Spirit comes not only peace but purpose. Our purpose is to bring the good news. Notice that the gospel is both the standard and the substance of our purpose. It’s the standard, we are being sent in the same way that Jesus was sent. The gospel itself is our pattern. For God loved the world in this way that he sent his one-and-only Son. The paradigm for our purpose is the gospel of Jesus.
But it’s also the substance of our purpose. We are sent so that we can tell others that Jesus was sent to save sinners. As we go, we are telling the world that Jesus went. Notice also that the Holy Spirit does the same thing. He is sent by the Father and the Son to send the church to tell the world that the Father sent the Son to die and resurrect for sinners. Pentecost gives us gospel-centered purpose.
And then in verse 22 John gives us his picture of Pentecost. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. What we read earlier in Jesus is performing Acts 2 in this drama. John 20 and Acts 2 are the same pericope, just from different angles. John’s emphasis is the new creation. You see Jesus is recapitulating what YHWH did with Adam in Genesis 2.7. Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. The word “breathed” in John 20.22 is ἐνεφύσησεν; it’s an aorist active indicative 3rd person singular verb. This is the same exact verb and tense that is used in the LXX Genesis 2.7.
John is saying that as YHWH breathed into Adam at the first creation, so now Jesus does with the church in the New Creation at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is the breath of life for the new Israel. Just as Adam was give the cultural mandate, so now the church is given the great commission. Not only are we to be fruitful and multiply physically, but we are also to do so spiritually. Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Teaching them everything that I’ve commanded you. Pentecost is about the New Creation. Jesus is the firstborn from the dead. He’s the first of many brothers. The church is the preview of New Creation on display to the world.
But Jesus is also letting them know that he is doing the work. This commission is great. It cannot be accomplished by our own means. We need the breath of Christ to fill our spiritual lungs. We need the Holy Spirit of God to lead us, teach us, correct us, and empower us. Pentecost isn’t just some crazy event that happened to give the church a good start. Pentecost is about the kingdom of Christ and God’s new world.
Which leads to this final strange statement by Jesus. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld. This is what St. Matthew called the keys to the kingdom, and it has the potential to be misunderstood or poorly interpreted. Jesus is not saying that the church has the authority to dispense forgiveness. Forgiveness of sins is not at the whim of popes, cardinals, bishops, pastors, elders, deacons, or a congregation. As the Pharisees rightly point out in Mark’s Gospel, only God can forgive sins.
So what does it mean? The words “forgiven” and “withheld” are both perfect passive verbs in Greek, which means that the forgiveness or the withholding happened in the past and continue to be true. Remember also that their mission and authority pattern Jesus; the church is sent as Jesus was sent. That means the church offers forgiveness exclusively in the gospel of Jesus Christ. If someone accepts that then there is genuine forgiveness. If they reject that, then the gospel rejects them. The church is merely acknowledging what the gospel does. If someone is forgiven in Christ, we affirm that to them. If someone denies Christ, we warn there’s no forgiveness. We are not permitted to offer forgiveness through anything other than Christ. We are not permitted to deny genuine forgiveness in Christ. Pentecost means pardon.
Jesus breathes into CCC in a fresh way on this Pentecost Sunday through the Word and sacrament – receive the Holy Spirit. If you haven’t repented and believed the gospel, receive the Holy Spirit. Believer, be reminded of the peace, purpose, and pardon that you have through the gospel of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the God who reminds you of that. Receive the Holy Spirit. CCC, we may not be Pentecostal, but we love and celebrate Pentecost!