Series: Easter: This Changes Everything
Preacher: Japhet De Oliveira
Reflection: Sam Millen
Live Wonder: Bec Reid
Live Adventure: Jess Lee
Live Beyond: Art Preuss
Live Purpose: Don Pate
Editor: Becky De Oliveira
Refresh: Begin with prayer. Ask for the Holy Spirit to open your heart to new understanding and for God’s character to be revealed.
Read: John 20:19-29 in The Message (MSG). Note 1–3 insights or questions.
Reflect: If you were unnerved by reading John 20:23 at first glance, you probably believe forgiveness of sins can only come directly from Christ, without mediation by certain individuals the church has ordained. The doctrine of Apostolic Succession teaches there’s spiritual authority given to the apostles by Christ (including forgiveness of sins) and it has been transmitted by the laying on of hands through the centuries. This idea of a sequential and physical human chain linking the apostles to today’s ministers has created a very clear distinction between the clergy and laity for many Christians. It’s almost like a very long relay race with the baton of spiritual authority passed on from one ordination to the next. I am thankful that Seventh-day Adventists embrace the “priesthood of all believers” (see 1 Peter 2:9). We believe all of us (not just those called to pastoral ministry) have direct access to Christ’s forgiveness and can proclaim that forgiveness to the world. How then should we interpret John 20:23?
Let’s reflect on forgiveness for a moment. I’ll use a simple economic example I learned from Tim Keller (see his version in Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God, pp. 109-110). If you came to my house and broke an expensive lamp, I could insist you cover the cost. But knowing you couldn’t afford to replace this lamp, if I went out of my way to overwhelmingly reassure you there was no need to pay me, and you accepted my kind and gracious gesture—wouldn’t you feel relieved? Even though you’re no longer indebted, the original predicament has not yet been addressed. A broken lamp still means the room is dark. The consequences didn’t vanish the moment I decided to forgive you. This is why forgiveness is costly. Forgiveness means the forgiver is willing to absorb the cost of a blunder (or malicious act).
In an online article addressing forgiveness, Bill Walker writes:
The most popular way of understanding substitution goes something like this: using a courtroom analogy, we owe God a debt or payment for our sin as punishment for it that we ourselves cannot possibly repay. Therefore, God sends Jesus to take our place and pay it for us—namely, by suffering the punishment for our sins. And it is because of this that God is able to forgive us.” Walker then quotes from an interview with the late Dallas Willard, “The problem with penal substitution, for Willard, is that it ‘presents God as someone who never [really] forgives.’ Because ‘if you get off the hook, it’s because someone paid for it,’ Willard explains—not because you were truly forgiven. It takes the gospel out of the gospel!
Walker concludes: “If someone owes me a debt, and a friend pays it instead, I may very well decide to call it even, but that does not mean I have forgiven anything.” In the previous economic illustration, if your rich uncle had reimbursed me for the broken lamp, forgiveness would have been unnecessary. If the debt was fully paid, I wouldn’t be “eating the cost.”
God did not “call it even” because His son paid for our transgressions with His innocent life (penal substitution). There is a world of difference between “penal substitution” (God punishing Jesus instead of us) and “substitution” without the adjective. God (in Jesus) absorbed the tremendous cost (the crushing consequences) of sin on the cross because He had already forgiven us. The cross demonstrated God’s forgiveness.
The question remains, however: Do we actually want God’s forgiveness? Once we hear the Good News, our sins can only be “retained” if we insist on retaining them. That’s how I view John 20:23—the Holy Spirit empowers Christ’s disciples to proclaim His forgiveness to the world, necessitating a response. Accepting or rejecting this Gospel is what determines whether our sins are “forgiven” or “retained.” The Holy Spirit is even active in places never reached by missionaries, because God doesn’t want anyone to be left out (see 2 Peter 3:9).
Recalibrate: William Barclay writes, “This sentence (Verse 23) does not mean that the power to forgive sins was ever entrusted to any individual or group; it means that the power to proclaim that forgiveness was so entrusted, along with the power to warn that forgiveness is not open to the impenitent.” How can we “proclaim” and “warn” in our context?
Respond: Instead of trying to “get even” by inflicting an equivalent amount of pain on those who have hurt you (and thus becoming like them), ask God to help you forgive by absorbing the cost of their wrongs and thereby ending the cycle of retaliation.
Research: Read William Barclay’s The New Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of John, Volume 2 (WJK, 2001), pp. 317-320.
Remember: “Then Jesus told him, ‘You believe because you see me. Those who believe without seeing me will be truly happy’” (John 20:29, ICB).
Sam Millen is the pastor at Anacortes Adventist Fellowship in Washington State. He his wife Angie is a schoolteacher on Orcas Island and their three children are really awesome!
Sit down with your little one and play this song. Listen to the words carefully and encourage your little one to make up actions. It is a stunning song sung by a little girl and it is full of powerful declarations that we can sing with our children: “God, you are my father. Jesus Christ, my friend. Holy Spirit would help me on my way.” This is a song that is on repeat in our car!
How many words can you say in one minute? Have a try—tell mom or dad a story and ask them to count how many words you say in one minute. How did you do? Twenty words, maybe even 50 words? The average person can say between 100 and 130 words a minute. That’s huge. Time yourself for 30 seconds and see how many negative/unkind words you can think of. Then time yourself again and see how many nice/positive words you know. Which list was longer? Can you think of a time someone has said something unkind to you? I bet it didn’t feel very nice. While it’s great to think about WWJD, we also need to think WWJS—What Would Jesus Say? Our words can have a big impact on others. It’s important that our words are kind and loving and reflect Jesus.
Let’s look at this text a little more deeply. We know that Simon was a member of the council that condemned Jesus to the cross. We know that he was not in favor of the council’s decision regarding Jesus’ execution. It is most likely that Simon, along with Nicodemus, witnessed firsthand every deed that was done to Jesus, and every word that was spoken to Jesus. He most likely saw Jesus carry His cross, saw His hands, feet, and side being pierced by Roman soldiers, yet he did not leave the scene. Simon most likely heard the dialogue between Jesus and the two thieves on the cross, the dialogue between Jesus and His mother, and ultimately, between Jesus and God when Jesus surrendered His life and stopped breathing. However, Luke only reveals that Simon “was waiting for the kingdom of God” after all of these things had taken place, after Jesus was killed.
Let’s get real: Do you find yourself becoming discouraged or confused as to what the Kingdom of God looks like or what it should be? How would you describe the Kingdom of God? Would you have had the courage to witness everything Simon saw and not be disheartened?
Some Christians tend to be very reserved in their worship. Other Christians are really into it. Those of us who tend to be reserved often seem to read right past a remarkable insight from John 20:22—Jesus blew on His disciples. He drew very close to each of them, He re-enacted the sixth day of creation where He kissed a mud ball to life. As I said, many of us don’t even remember that verse (and we really hardly know what to do with the next one!) What a sweet, poignant, amazing moment. The disciples were stunned at seeing Him alive, they were scared for their lives in fear that they might be taken out and executed too. And Jesus shows up! He smiles, He moves among them. I wonder if He laughed and said, “You knuckleheads, I love you!” And with that He gave them the gift of life through the Holy Spirit . . . again. Kind of makes you want to sing the old hymn, “Breathe on Me Breath of God,” doesn’t it?
Bec Reid is a real estate agent within her family business. She lives in Sydney, Australia, and is a part of the Wahroonga Adventist Church community.
Jess Lee is an education consultant for the New South Wales Adventist education system. She lives in Sydney, Australia, and attends Kellyville Church.
Art Preuss pastors in Massachusetts at the Springfield, Florence, and Warren Adventist churches and serves in the U. S. Air Force Reserve as a chaplain.
Don Pate is “retired” in Tennessee after decades of teaching and pastoring but is still active in speaking and creating for the Kingdom.