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Lesson 102: Mission: Possible (John 20:19-23)

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August 30, 2015

Years ago there was a TV show called “Mission: Impossible.” A current movie is based on that show. I haven’t seen the movie, but the TV show used to start with a supervisor telling an agent, “Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is ….” Then he described what sounded like an impossible challenge.

The Great Commission which the risen Lord Jesus gave to His followers sounds like mission impossible. We have slightly different variations of it in Matthew, the longer ending of Mark, Luke, and Acts, plus in our text. The mission is to proclaim the good news about salvation through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection to all people. While only some can go to other cultures as missionaries, every believer has a part in the overall cause. And you don’t have the option of not accepting the assignment! If you follow Jesus, then you’re on the team! You may never go to seminary or join a mission organization. But you should figure out what role the Savior wants you to play in His worldwide mission.

John 20:19-23 tells about our Lord’s appearance to the apostles and probably other disciples (Luke 24:33-49) as they met behind locked doors for fear of the Jews on the evening of the first day of His resurrection. Thomas, who was brooding over his doubts about the resurrection, was not present. The mission is summed up in John 20:21, where Jesus says, “… as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”

If you can think about those words and not feel inadequate for an impossible task, you are not thinking clearly enough! How can I possibly go out into this world just as the Father sent Jesus into this world? Jesus was God in human flesh; I am not. Jesus never sinned; I often sin. Jesus walked in unbroken, intimate fellowship with the Father; I do not. Jesus never made mistakes; I make them all the time. So with the apostle Paul, I often feel (2 Cor. 2:16), “And who is adequate for these things?”

But in our text, our Lord turns mission impossible into mission possible. Paul followed up his feelings of inadequacy with the triumphant explanation (2 Cor. 3:5), “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.” Here our Lord gives us five ways that He equips us so that mission impossible becomes mission possible:

Because the risen Savior has called and equipped us, we can confidently proclaim the gospel to all people.

1. The risen Savior has given us great peace (John 20:19, 21).

John 20:19: “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.’” Then after He showed them His hands and side, He repeated (John 20:21), “Peace be with you.”

“Peace be with you” was a common Jewish greeting wishing overall well-being on the other person. But in the context here it surely means far more than just a perfunctory greeting. These men were in hiding behind locked doors because of fear of the Jewish leaders who had just crucified their Lord. It was not far-fetched to think that they might be next. They may have been discussing how they could sneak out of Jerusalem without being arrested.

Suddenly, with no knock at the door or no one opening the door, the risen Lord Jesus stood in their midst. While His resurrection body is a physical body, it also has the ability to appear or disappear at will. You can imagine how startling it would be to have the risen Lord suddenly appear in a locked room where you were already afraid! Luke (24:37) says that they were frightened and thought that they were seeing a ghost. John (20:20) reports the outcome after Jesus showed them His hands and His side, “The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

Keep in mind that these are men who all had fled in fear for their own lives when Jesus was arrested. Peter had denied the Lord three times. They all had doubted the initial reports of Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24:11). It would certainly be understandable if Jesus had greeted them, “You unbelieving, thick-headed excuses for disciples! When are you going to get it together?” But rather than rebuking them, the Lord graciously extended and then underscored His peace to them.

Peace with God is foundational for your mission for Him. You can’t begin to serve the Lord unless you first are reconciled to Him through the peace that Christ accomplished on the cross. Before you believe in Christ, your sins alienate you from God (Rom. 8:7-8). But when you trust in Christ, you enter into a new relationship of peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Then and only then does God appoint us as ambassadors of His mission of reconciliation with this world that is hostile toward Him (2 Cor. 5:18).

Not only does Christ give us peace with God through His blood, but He also gives us the peace of God through His abiding presence with us as we seek to accomplish the gospel mission. As Jesus concluded the Great Commission (in Matt. 28:20), He gave the assurance, “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Note, “I am with you always”! As we proclaim the gospel to this hostile world, the Lord’s presence gives us “the peace of God, which surpasses understanding” (Phil. 4:7).

The peace that the Lord gives also extends to our relationships with one another. One of the main reasons missionaries come home early from the field is conflict with their fellow workers. And when churches get into internal conflicts, they sabotage their witness to the watching world. That’s why many passages in the New Testament exhort us to work for peaceful relationships. The risen Christ is the basis for resolving relational conflicts. As Paul said with reference to the deep divide between the Jews and the Gentiles (Eph. 2:14), “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall ….” Christ has given us peace with God, the peace of God, and peace with one another, so that we can carry out His mission.

2. The risen Savior has given us great proof (John 20:20).

John 20:20: “And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Our resurrection bodies will be perfect in the sense of not bearing any scars that we incurred during our lifetimes. But Jesus’ resurrection body still has the scars to remind us of the great price that He paid to save us from our sins (see Rev. 5:7).

But on that first resurrection Sunday, Jesus showed the disciples His hands and side to convince them of the truth that He was risen bodily. Luke (24:39, 41-43) adds that He invited them to touch Him and then He asked for a piece of broiled fish, which He ate as they watched. As I explained when I covered John 20:1-10, the Lord has given us convincing proof that He is risen.

That historical fact should be at the center of our witness for Christ. While it’s true that Christ can help people with their personal problems and struggles, that’s not the message of the gospel. The gospel is that Christ died for our sins and was raised again according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3-4). In other words, don’t believe in Jesus in the hope that He will solve all your problems. Believe in Jesus because you’re a sinner and He is the only Savior and He is risen from the dead and is coming again to judge the living and the dead (1 Thess. 1:5-10)! We can proclaim the gospel with confidence because we have great proof of His resurrection.

3. The risen Savior has given us a great purpose (John 20:21).

John 20:21: “So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’” This applies Jesus’ prayer in John 17:18 to the disciples, “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” John’s Gospel frequently emphasizes the theme of Jesus being sent by the Father. He was sent to do the Father’s will (John 4:34; 6:38-39); to speak the Father’s words (John 3:34; 12:49); and to perform the Father’s works (John 4:34; 5:36). He was sent to bring salvation to the world (John 3:17). In John 18:37, Jesus told Pilate, “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth.” In Luke 19:10, Jesus said, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.” The apostle Paul put it (1 Tim. 1:15), “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.”

Jesus taught us to pray (Matt. 6:10), “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” He came to establish the Father’s kingdom by bringing people under His lordship to do His will. By sending us in the same way that He was sent, His purpose becomes our purpose. We should live in obedience to Christ and teach others to do the same (Matt. 28:19-20).

But so often the church collectively and we as individuals lose sight of our purpose. We get distracted with other things. A few years ago, I read about Sohan Singh, a grocery store owner in England, who banned customers from his store. He said that he had to take such drastic action because of people’s bad manners. First he banned smoking, then crude language, baby strollers, pets, and finally the customers themselves. Shoppers had to look through the window to spot items they want, then ring a small bell to be served through a small hatch in the door. “I have lost business, but I cannot say how much,” Singh said. “I am a man of principles, and I stand by my decision.” That’s pretty silly for a storekeeper to ban customers in order to stand by his principles!

But what about a church that bans sinners or makes them feel unwelcome because they contaminate the church? What about church members who cut off all contact with lost people? We’ve had families pull their kids out of Sunday school or the church youth group because (gasp!) worldly kids have attended those activities. The families were afraid that their kids might pick up bad language or be enticed to join the sinful activities of the worldly kids.

I’ve told you before the story of Gib Martin, a pastor who was led to Christ when he was a 27-year-old atheist by a man named Charlie. Charlie had been an alcoholic carpenter for many years before he met Christ. After he got saved, he had a burden for the men who were just like he had been. So every day after work, he would stop at the bar where Gib also went after work. Charlie would drink coffee and share his life with those who would listen. Eventually, that’s how Gib came to faith in Christ.

But the sad part of the story is that none of the local churches would allow Charlie to associate with them because he went to the bar every day. Even though he wasn’t getting drunk—he wasn’t even having a beer—they didn’t like what he was doing. Even the church where Charlie directed Gib to go after his conversion wouldn’t allow Charlie to join (from A Theology of Personal Ministry, by Lawrence Richards and Gib Martin [Zondervan], pp 44-45).

But if our Savior was known as a friend of sinners, and He said (Luke 5:32), “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance,” shouldn’t we be hanging out with sinners to befriend them and tell them about the Savior? If Jesus’ purpose was to seek and save the lost, shouldn’t that be our purpose? To tell people the good news about eternal life is the greatest purpose that anyone can have, because that was our Savior’s purpose.

So the risen Savior has given us great peace, great proof of His resurrection, and a great purpose, which was His purpose.

4. The risen Savior has given us great power (John 20:22).

John 20:22: “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” To attempt to serve the Lord in any capacity, but especially in proclaiming the gospel to the lost, without relying on the power of the Holy Spirit would be futile. As Zechariah 4:6 reminds us, ‘“Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.”

But scholars wrestle with the exact meaning of verse 22 in light of the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. As I understand it, it could mean one of two things or possibly both. Some (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 648-655) argue that this was a symbolic action on Jesus’ part that anticipated the imminent outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. They argue that if the disciples actually received the Spirit when Jesus breathed on them here, the results are disappointing. They did not begin preaching the gospel with power until after the Day of Pentecost. In fact, they went back to fishing (John 21). So they see this as a symbolic provision of the Spirit that is still yet to come.

Others would agree that this is obviously a symbolic gesture on Jesus’ part. His breathing on the disciples reflects God’s breathing life into Adam so that he became a living being (Gen. 2:7). Also, it pictures Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, where God told him to prophesy to the breath (the word also means “spirit”) so that the corpses would come to life.

But beyond the merely symbolic gesture pointing ahead to Pentecost, Jesus’ action here would also seem to be a temporary imparting of the Holy Spirit to strengthen the disciples during the 40 days of Jesus’ time with them so that they could understand and remember His teaching, which some later recorded in the New Testament. It also served to revive the disciples after their failure. In Acts 1:14, we find the disciples gathered together with one mind, devoting themselves to prayer, and eagerly waiting for the promised Holy Spirit to come. That unity and fervent prayer may be attributed to this temporary imparting of the Holy Spirit.

Just before Jesus ascended, He directly linked the power of the coming Spirit to the disciples’ future witness (Acts 1:8): “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” The Bible never commands us to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, because that is a one-time action that takes place at the moment of salvation (1 Cor. 12:13). But it does command us to be continually filled with the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit (Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:16). Since the Spirit of God must open blind eyes and impart new life to sinners when they hear the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4-6; John 6:63), we must especially rely on the Spirit when we talk to people about the Lord.

The risen Savior has equipped us for proclaiming the gospel by giving us great peace, great proof, a great purpose, and great power through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Finally…

5. The risen Savior has given us a great proclamation (John 20:23).

(I mean, a great message, but message doesn’t alliterate with all the other “p’s”!) John 20:23: “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” The gospel that we proclaim is not so much about Jesus helping people with their personal problems but rather about God forgiving their sin through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. G. Campbell Morgan (The Gospel According to John Revell], p. 321) wrote, “The ultimate reason of the mission of the Church in the world, is to deal with sin.” Romans 3:23 declares, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Jesus didn’t die to save us from personal failure or shortcomings, but from the just wrath of God against our rebellion and sin.

But the Roman Catholic Church uses John 20:23 to support some false teaching, which I must address. They interpret it to mean that ordained priests have the authority to forgive or retain the sins of people contingent on private confession and penance. They base this on their doctrine of apostolic succession through Peter and the popes, on their distinction between clergy and laity, and on their view that penance is necessary for forgiveness. But there are many reasons to reject their view.

First, there is no biblical warrant for apostolic succession. The apostles had authority to found the church (Eph. 2:20), but once the church was founded, that authority ceased. Also, the New Testament is clear that there is no distinction between ordained clergy and laity. While there is warrant for ordaining men to ministry, this does not make them mediators between believers and God. Jesus is the only mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). All believers are priests before God, with equal access to His throne of grace (1 Pet. 2:9; Heb. 4:14-16).

Second, only God can forgive sins, which He does the instant a person repents and believes in the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 5:21; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 16:31; 26:18). To add penance as necessary for forgiveness is to add human works to the finished work of Christ.

Third, there is no example in the Bible of the apostles forgiving or retaining the sins of anyone. For example, when Peter proclaimed the gospel to Cornelius and the others gathered in his house, he did not say, “I forgive your sins in Jesus’ name.” Rather, he said (Acts 10:43), “Of Him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” Paul never instructed Timothy or Titus to perform this function, which is a glaring omission if this is the way that God’s people obtain forgiveness of their sins.

Finally, in the Bible, proclaiming something may be viewed as the same thing as doing it. God tells Jeremiah (1:10), “See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Jeremiah didn’t actually do those things, but rather he proclaimed these things in the name of the Lord. Peter didn’t actually forgive the people in Cornelius’ house. Rather, he proclaimed forgiveness to them if they would believe in Jesus.

So the meaning and application for us is that we have the authority to proclaim to those who repent and believe in Christ, “Your sins have been forgiven you.” Or, if a person hardens his heart and refuses to believe, we must solemnly proclaim, “You are still in your sins” (see Acts 8:20-23).


Years ago, I heard Pastor Ron Blanc tell how he visited a 14-year-old boy who was in a catatonic state in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. The boy was lying on his bed as stiff as a board. Nothing had helped. The nurse, thinking Ron to be a doctor, said, “I think the boy is suffering from too much religion.” (Ron let her get both feet in her mouth and then told her that he was the boy’s pastor.) He went in and began to talk and the boy finally began to open up. He was under a pile of guilt.

Ron shared the forgiveness Christ offers. Before he could invite the boy to pray, the boy began to pray on his own. Ron bowed his head. The boy asked Jesus to come into his life and forgive his sins. When he finished praying, Ron looked up to find the boy sitting on the edge of the bed, freely swinging his legs. Ron asked, “What’s this?” The boy exclaimed, “I’m free, man! Jesus has forgiven me!” They walked out to a little patio area to chat some more. Ron got great delight in watching the surprised expressions on the doctors’ and nurses’ faces as they saw the boy moving around.

That’s our mission: To proclaim forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all who will believe. That mission is possible because the risen Savior has equipped us for it by giving us great peace, great proof, a great purpose, great power, and a great proclamation.

Application Questions

  1. Why is peace with God through Christ’s blood the essential foundation for bearing witness? (Hint: Are guilty people effective witnesses?)
  2. Discuss: Is it wrong to focus on how Christ can help people with their problems rather than on sin, righteousness, and judgment?
  3. How can people who are busy with their jobs, their families, and all the other responsibilities in life stay focused on keeping Christ’s purpose as their purpose?
  4. What is your main hindrance in being an effective witness for Christ?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship

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