"If you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
John 20 from the daily reading in the One Year Bible
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” 3 So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. 4 The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; 5 and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. 6 And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. 9 For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. 10 So the disciples went away again to their own homes.
11 But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13 And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her.
19 So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22 And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
26 After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” 28 Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
30 Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 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.
Jesus makes an interesting statement in today’s text. He says: “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” I looked at a number of commentaries to try to get a better understanding of what Jesus was really saying, what the meaning of His statement might be for us. The commentaries didn’t really give the clarity I was looking for. They spoke instead about only God having the authority to forgive sins. Just prior to this statement the text says: 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.” Seeking the peace of Christ, I sought also the wisdom from the Holy Spirit, rather than the wisdom of men in order to better understand Jesus statement: “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” Here is what He revealed to me.
It may be true that only God can forgive sin. The reason for that is that as the psalmist says in Psalm 51:4, Against You, You only, I have sinned And done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge. People may be hurt or offended by sin, whether ours or of others, but sin itself is against God, so it is God who can and must forgive sin. Here’s the thing though about sin and forgiveness from God: Romans 5:8 says: God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We looked recently at the words of Jesus on the cross, His act of intercession for us, His dying for our sin and for the sins of the world. On the cross, Jesus said: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Then He said: “It is finished.” (John 19:30) So, while it is true that only God can forgive sin, it is also true that He already has. It is finished in the cross. All sin is forgiven. In that light, with that understanding, the fact that God has already forgiven sin through the finished work of the cross, we can now see and understand our own role in forgiving sin.
Jesus spoke often about forgiving others. In the prayer He taught us to pray, in Matthew 6:12, it says: forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. It is also translated: forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us. In Matthew 7:1-2 Jesus says: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” In both forgiveness and judgment, God has the same standard for us that we have for and toward others. In Matthew 18:22 when Jesus was asked how many times we should forgive others He replied: "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Far beyond our own ability or capacity to forgive, we should forgive. If God has already forgiven their sin against Him, how can we hold it against them concerning our own hurt or offense? In truth our unforgiveness only brings judgment and unforgivness to ourselves.
Through this understanding, we can then also better understand the second portion of Jesus statement: “If you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” The question then is, by whom have the sins been retained? If God has forgiven sin through the finished work of the cross, yet we hold sin against others, we become those who retain the sin. Forgiveness becomes a much easier matter for us once we have this understanding. It does not matter whether or not we think someone deserves to be forgiven. Surely we did not deserve that Christ would die for our sins, did we? When we understand that our forgiveness is linked to our ability and our willingness to forgive, we see forgiveness as beneficial to ourselves. We forgive, both because we have been forgiven and so that we may be forgiven. After all, the sin is really against God and if He has already forgiven sin, how can we hold it against them?
We must though be careful to understand and distinguish between the forgiving of all sin which Jesus did on the cross, and the acceptance or tolerance of any sin, which neither God nor Jesus does. God says: Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20) He says: Be holy because I, Yahweh your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2) Jesus says: “I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.” (Matthew 7:23) He says: “Ttruly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:18-20) To the one who has sinned, Jesus says: “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” (John 8:11) In Matthew 28:18-20, to us He says: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
“Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” Amen