Our congregation’s LifeConnect Groups have all stumbled on one verse that’s giving us a challenge this week. It’s John 20.23, which was part of our Scripture focus last Sunday: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (NLT). Jesus said this to the disciples immediately after breathing on them and giving them the Holy Spirit.
It kind of sounds like it could be a power trip, doesn’t it? If Jesus has given his followers the power to forgive or not forgive anyone’s sins, that suggests that we could decide who’s in and who’s out. But I don’t think that’s where Jesus was going with it. There are a couple of levels of understanding this verse that may be encouraging to us.
First, it can be seen as an approach to personal peace. By that, I mean that when we forgive others for their sins against us, we are set free from bondage to the transgression. But when we don’t forgive, it’s another story. Somebody once said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Seems silly when it’s put that way, right? But a lot of people refuse to forgive even when the other party seeks it, and that is the poison.
But did you know you can forgive the other person even when she or he doesn’t ask for it? I’ve had to do that a few times in my life, where someone has not acknowledged wrongdoing against me, but in order to move on with life, I’ve had to forgive that person in my mind and in my spirit. Even though there may be a sense of injustice about that, it sets you free, and that’s what matters.
The other approach to John 20.23 is to be reminded that Jesus invites us to be partners in forgiveness as we proclaim the gospel to others. Jesus offers forgiveness of sin that lasts for eternity, and when we share our relationship with him, that opens a door for those people to receive forgiveness of sin.
Of course, a literal reading of the verse suggests that the disciples – and perhaps through them, we – have the power to forgive others’ sins. While I believe we are empowered to do that in terms of our sins against each other, I can’t see any biblical evidence that suggests we are empowered to offer eternal forgiveness of sin. That’s Jesus’ job, since he paid the price for our sin at Calvary.
But it’s still through our faith-sharing efforts that doors open for Jesus’ forgiveness to be received. And that’s why it’s so important for us to talk about our relationship with the Lord. As the apostle Paul tells the Corinthian church, “Because we understand our fearful responsibility to the Lord, we work hard to persuade others….So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’” (2 Corinthians 5.11, 20, NLT).
Who knows whose life you may affect by your faithfulness in speaking about God’s love?