In the context of the Gospel of John, what happened when Jesus breathed on the ten Apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” John 20:22, ESV? And, why does it matter?
On the evening of the same day that God raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus appeared to ten of His Apostles who were huddled together behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. When they recognized Jesus they rejoiced. Then Jesus said to them,
“`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,’” John 20:21-22, ESV.
Some commentators are not sure what to do with this text. For example,
- The footnote in the Reformation Study Bible reads, “This occasion is a foreshadowing of the fullness of the Sprit to be bestowed on the church at Pentecost.”[i] In other words, nothing happened. Rather, the Apostles merely observed Jesus acting dramatically.
- Hoskyns and Morris describe Jesus’ words and actions as a preparatory event for Pentecost.[ii]
- According to Vincent, this was a symbolic act pattered after some of the symbolic actions of the Old Testament prophets.[iii]
- In the footnotes of Crossways’ Study Bible we read, “When Jesus breathed on them and said, `Receive the Holy Spirit,’ it is best understood as a foretaste of what would happen when the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost.”[iv]
- Wayne Grudem agrees. Here, “probably an acted out prophecy of what would happen to them at Pentecost. … Therefore His words are looking forward to what would happen at Pentecost.”[v]
Are the above esteemed authorities correct? In the context of John’s Gospel, what happened – if anything – when Jesus breathed on the Apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”?
Jesus Breathed On Them
- God’s breath gave lifeless Adam physical life and spiritual life.
- In John 20:22, Jesus’ breath imparted spiritual life to the Apostles. We agree with Hummel who noted that “an impartation actually took place.”[vi]
Receive The Holy Spirit
- “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” John 1:12, ESV.
- “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.’ … Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified,” John 7:37,39, ESV.
- “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me,” John 13:20, ESV.
In John 20:22, the verb “receive” is an imperative: it is a command. In every other situation, when Jesus issued a command, something happened. Why should we expect anything less here? This perspective is consistent with John’s primary purpose:
“Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name,” John 20:30-31, NAS.
- To receive Jesus is to open the door of our hearts and welcome Him in.
- Result: Born again. Adopted into Jesus’ family.
- Opposite: To reject; to resist; to shut Him out.
- In a similar vein, to receive the Holy Spirit is to welcome Him in.
- Result: The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in all who receive Him.
- Opposite: To reject; to resist; to shut Him out.
The point that John is making in John 20:22 is that the Apostles were converted on the day that Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ At that moment they were born again. As Dennis Bennett observed, “The Holy Spirit came to live in them, bringing their spirits to life – they were born again of the Spirit.”[vii] This was their spiritual birthday.
Significance For Us
Notice the 50-day time lapse between the disciples conversion (John 20:22, when they received the Holy Spirit), and empowerment (Pentecost, Acts 2:1-4, when they were baptized with the Holy Spirit and thereby empowered for more effective witness and service.) From Jesus’ perspective, receiving the Holy Spirit (conversion, John 20:22) was essential but the disciples needed more in order to accomplish their humanly impossible assignment of taking the gospel to the world (Acts 1:8). They needed to be empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).
Hence, in due time Jesus sent the Holy Spirit upon them to equip them to witness and serve with greater effectiveness.
I recognize that the original disciple’s position in history was unique in that they bridged the old and new ages. Nevertheless, Jesus could have caused conversion and empowerment to occur on the same day as He did for Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48). But He didn’t. Why not? Could it be that He was establishing a pattern for us to follow???
The implications for us are plain:
- Conversion is essential
- Empowerment is essential
- A time gap may occur between our conversion and empowerment
1. Have you received the Holy Spirit? Have you been born again?
- If yes, good.
- If no, invite Him into your life today. Receive Him.
2. Have you been empowered by the Holy Spirit to fulfill Jesus’ mandate in Acts 1:8 to witness to ends of the earth?
- If yes, good.
- If no, in faith ask Jesus to send the Holy Spirit upon you equipping you for more effective witness and service.
John’s promise to you is this: “He who sent me [John] to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit,’” Jn. 1:33, ESV.
- Pentecost’s empowerment is for people who are tired of luke-warm living.
- The ‘dance of cooperation’ with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit begins in earnest when we are baptized with the Holy Spirit.
- We can shut Him down.
- Or, we can step out onto the dance floor and thrive!
- Receive the Holy Spirit ‘within” for new life.
- Receive the Holy Spirit ‘upon’ for greater power for witness and serve.
[i] RSB, 1553
[iii] Vincent Word Studies
[iv] Crossway’s Study Bible, 2070.
[v] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 769
[vi] Hummel, Fire in the Fireplace, 240-241
[vii] Bennett, The Holy Spirit and You, 26
Sproul, R.C., General Editor. (2005). Reformation Study Bible, ESV. Orlando, FL: Ligonier Ministries.
Bennett, D. a. (1971). The Holy Spirit and You. North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers.
English Standard Version Study Bible. (2008). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Grudem, W. (1994). Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Hummel, C. E. (Second Edition 1979). Fire in the Fireplace. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Rienecker, Fritz; and Rogers, Jr., Cleon. (1980). Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library: Zondervan.
Vincent, M. R. (n.d.). Vincent’s Word Studies. http://www.studylight.org/com/vnt/.
© 2013 Philip J. Noordmans