Question: "What is the correct interpretation of John 20:23?"
Answer: In John 20:23, Jesus tells His disciples, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." The very core of the gospel message is the truth that the way someone has their sins forgiven is by having faith in Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior. In Acts 10:43-44, when Peter was sharing the gospel, he said, “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” First John 5:1-5 tells us only he who believes in Jesus will overcome the world. Luke 5:20 says, “When Jesus saw their faith, He said ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’” Colossians 2:13-14 says Jesus forgave all our sins. All these passages confirm that Jesus is the one who forgives sin, and He forgives all of our sins. If we have had genuine faith in Him, someone else cannot later decide we are not forgiven one sin or another. So, what exactly did Jesus mean in John 20:23?
Only God can forgive sins, and Christ, being God, has the power to do so as well, but He never communicated any such power to His disciples, nor did they ever assume any such power to themselves. The key to understanding the meaning of John 20:23 lies in the previous two verses: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” He sent them, as He is sending us, to bring the good news of the way to salvation and heaven to the whole world. Jesus was leaving the earth physically but promised God would be with them in the person of the Holy Spirit living in them. As they proclaimed the gospel, they could honestly tell people who believed in that message that their sins were forgiven, and they could honestly tell people that did not believe in the message that their sins were not forgiven and that they stand condemned in God’s eyes. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).
Believers today have the very same mission given to us! We are obligated to share the gospel message, the way to heaven, to others in the world, and we go about that mission with the Holy Spirit living inside us, guiding us as we share His truth. We are obligated to tell people the only way to be forgiven is through faith. Jesus said in John 8:24, “If you do not believe that I am (God), you will indeed die in your sins.” This is the very core of the gospel message and the very heart of what we are to explain to the world. It was Jesus’ last command to His followers before He physically left the earth—carry forward the message of hope and save as many as will believe in Him.
Jesus preached a crucial message about forgiving our brothers, as God forgave us. We stand in grace, and He expects us to keep our hearts pure toward others, not holding grudges or harboring a spirit of unforgiveness, especially after He gave us such undeserved love and forgiveness at such a high personal cost to Himself! Jesus said those who have been forgiven much, love much (Luke 7:47). He expects us to forgive others 70 times 7 times (Matthew 18:22). We are also told that if we are praying but hold something against anyone, we are to forgive that person so our relationship with God is right and righteous! Colossians 3:13 says, “Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” We know we are His if we love our brothers and don’t hate them or have unforgiveness in our hearts (1 John 2:3-6; 3:14-19; 4:16-21). Forgiveness is a key to showing we indeed have eternal life inside us, according to these passages. If we say we love God but hate our brother, we are liars and no truth is in us. So, our forgiveness of others is a major indicator of true fellowship with God. God looks at the heart and actions, not mere words. Jesus stated while on earth, “These people come near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” So, it’s important we have a living, genuine faith: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers” (1 John 3:14).