John 20:19-31: Forgiving and Retaining

What is the Word of God?  Like the Trinity, consisting of Father, Son, and Spirit, the Word is three, yet also one.  Though not an exact comparison, the Word first stems from the One, who became flesh and tabernacled among us (John 1:14).  So, this Word is first the incarnate Jesus.

From Christ, the written and preached Word derive their being.  For all Scripture testifies of Jesus, as He taught (John 5:39).  Though, most of all, Jesus wants you to hear His Word.  For faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17), and we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).  The Gospel we receive when we’re in Church is the proclaimed Word, piercing into our eardrums to carry us into everlasting life.

The human Word, born in Bethlehem, the spoken Word, and the printed Word go together.  The Word-Become-Flesh claims to utter words, which bring to someone else His forgiveness.  From before the time Christ trudged up Calvary to endure execution, He says and does as much, forgiving others.  Think about all the misdeeds of people He forgave before He died and defeated the darkness of death.

Earlier, before He walked the stony path of death, Jesus promises to give His keys to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom.”  Why, and what are these Christ-given keys?  “Whatever you bind on earth will we bound in heaven, and what you release on earth will be released in heaven” Jesus reveals (Matthew 16:19).  So, they open and close heaven.  After dying and rising, Jesus does this—and more.  For He presents these spiritual keys, not only to the Apostle Peter but all His Apostles.

Now, Easter evening approaches, and a resurrected Jesus appears to His frightened disciples.  After rising from the tomb, He distributes His absolving power.  Only after He arises in the victory over death, can His Church deliver the Father’s not-guilty verdict to others, made real by Jesus.

The Lord breathes on His wavering disciples with the heaven-sent Spirit, turning them into pastors.  For He is placing them in the Office of the Ministry.  How so?  “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Now, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you retain them, they are retained.”

This sanction for the pardoning and retaining of sins is the power of the keys.  For when your wrongs are wiped clean, washed away, heaven’s door is open; not so if your sinful rebellion remains with you.  The glories of heaven are now closed and locked.  Forgiven, you go to heaven.  With your sins retained, you don’t.

The key to unlock or close off heaven is beyond any force belonging to any government or army.  Now, governments can use the might of the sword to force people to obey.  Still, the cutting blade cannot create faith or give people the capacity to do what they are powerless to do.  The sword’s power, governmental authority, can kill, but such destructive coercion is unable to grant eternal life.

Not so for these almighty keys, which Jesus handed down to His New-Covenant pastors.  The Redeemer’s forgiveness brings His divine life to others.  From death into life, Jesus rescues and delivers, transforming you from a dying creature to one laden with eternity’s riches.  A death-filled future changes into the blessing of resplendent glory, everlasting.

The risen Christ authorized this for His first pastors.  Now, a singular pastor without a flock is not a Church, nor is the flock without her shepherd.  So, the exercise of these keys belongs to their use in our Lord’s Church, not in the secular realm.

This tomb-crushing Lord commissions pastors, who preach repentance for sin’s forgiveness, who also baptize, absolve, and administer His blessed Supper.  Through these, a shepherd feeds his flock with God’s holy Word.

So, when the pastor preaches the sermon, confronts the impenitent with the Law, and absolves those contrite in heart, he is serving in two ways.  First, He is doing what Jesus gives Him to do.  Second, he is ministering to Jesus’ flock, bringing life, forgiveness, and salvation.

The Lord exhales on His Apostles, furnishing them with the right to forgive but also to retain sins if needed.  For He breathes into them the power-packed Spirit, infusing them with this sin-forgiving and sin-retaining task from the Father.

Under Christ’s authority, pastors serve in their office as pastor, which only comes with the office.  For this reason, Paul directed Pastor Timothy “not to be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22).  In other words, ordaining a man to be a pastor in Christ’s Church.  The office is more than the man, for pastors arrive and go, live and die, but the Pastoral Office remains.

To cast away or to keep someone’s sins, pastors act as Jesus’ representatives.  Through His Church, He calls pastors, giving them their duties.  So, when pastors tell unrepentant sinners their sins are still stuck on them, the Word informs they are living in the rebellion of unrepentance.

The preacher speaks, not creates, this reality.  Here’s why.  So someone realizes his eternal state of being, which is brought about by his unrepentance.  Though few want to accept this harsh reality, Jesus calls His ministers to this thankless task.  Why?  All to beckon someone back into His holy flock.

The forgiveness sent from heaven works the same way.  For when you live as repentant people, forgiveness is yours before your pastor announces Christ’s forgiveness.  Still, the Word does its doing, bringing the pardon Christ supplies to His people, once more.

In His scars and wounds, Jesus uncovers the source of His mandate, which He passes down to His selected Apostles.  Gaze on Jesus’ hands and feet!  Behold His wounded side!  What Thomas demanded, Jesus showed to him.  So, Jesus confirms in His sacrificial wounds, the authority to acquit someone of his sins.  For the declared Word of absolution is but the delivery of what your Redeemer did for you on the cross.

In His body, Jesus displays His defeat of death, which carried the sin of everyone on Golgotha’s cross.  The Lord’s conquering of the grave is the foundation of His absolution.  Crucified and risen, Jesus now approves His appointed pastors to keep another’s sins unforgiven but, most of all, to absolve them, something achieved by His blood.

The Church, where the life-giving Gospel echoes, where Christ offers His Sacraments through those whom He places to do these tasks.  The flesh-born Word comes to us through the Word, proclaimed and received, as He agrees to do.  Now, this must take place in a physical location because you are physical, a flesh-and-blood being.

Now, many say you don’t need to go to Church to be a Christian.  How foolish!  For Scripture doesn’t teach this.  No, this rationalization comes from the sinful nature.

The reason God appoints preachers to preach is for people to welcome His saving Son in the preached Word.  So, we need this spoken, verbal Word from Jesus.  My sheep listen to my voice Jesus says (John 10:27).

To help us understand this, John writes, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples besides those recorded in this book.  These are written, however, so you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son, and through believing, receive life in His name” (John 20:30-31).

So, John wrote what He did for you to trust in Jesus as the promised Messiah and find the life for all eternity.  Now, he wrote this Gospel for others to receive during Church.  Still, you can read his words, and you can also pay heed to a sermon, which teaches what is in his Gospel.

Perhaps, you might delight in a devotion drawn from his letter—but you can’t live without the truths included in the sacred text.  The truth within Scripture is necessary for all Christians.  For the truth-revealing Spirit inspired the writers to bring us Christ through their words.

So, no one may tear the verbalized Word apart from the written Word.  The two go together.  Likewise, preachers aren’t allowed to say God said something unless the inscribed Word contains such a truth.  The Church’s teaching must always be a Bible teaching.  Otherwise, we split the Word asunder.

Yes, we need the Word preachers preach.  So also with the Scriptures, written for our instruction.  For the Divine Spirit caused the Church of Christ to collect them into what we call the Bible.  The enfleshed Word comes to us in this Word, preached into our ears, and in the Word put down on parchment by the Prophets and Apostles.

Consider why Scripture commands us to assemble as Christ’s people.  First, we gather in our Savior’s Church, taking in the expounded Word in sound waves, which emboldens us to press on in the Faith (Hebrews 10:25).  The Word is conveyed to you, removing your individualized interpretation.

For when you read Scripture, you often come to the conclusion you like, which might not match what the Holy-Spirit-inspired author meant.  So, Christ intends His Word to approach you from outside of yourself.  In this manner, He applies His Word, Himself, to you in ways you may not choose otherwise.

The central truth of the inspired Scriptures is God rescuing us fallen creatures and filling us with never-ending life because of Jesus.  Only the heavenly Father’s Son bore the penalty for all your failures on the tree of death.  No one else rose from the dead and appeared to His disciples.

The Savior, who conquered both death and grave, spoke words of peace to them, showing them His wounds by which He took away all sin.  Like the Father sent Him, Jesus sends, “apostles,” His chosen disciples, breathing on them the Spirit from above for their pastoral duties.

Next, He authorized pastors, charging them to pardon the wrongdoings of the repentant while retaining the iniquities of those who refuse to repent.  So, they speak what their Lord tells them to so you can rely on the human-born Word for your salvation.  For by believing, you inherit the life He gives you.  This Life, delivered to you each week, is why you come to Church.  Amen.