Peace be with you! Your Sins are Forgiven!1
One of the more enigmatic statements made by Jesus came on the day of his resurrection from the dead. His disciples were hiding out in the upper room, behind locked doors, terrified of what might soon befall them. Jesus suddenly appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you.” He then repeated himself and said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld’” (John 20:19-23).
What are we to make of this? Is Jesus merely passing along a standard greeting? Is he saying the same thing that you and I so often say to one another as we part company: “Have a nice day”? Or is something more significant at play here? Do his words actually change anything? Yes, they do.
Jesus isn’t simply making a statement of fact. He is actually and literally and truthfully imparting peace into the lives of his disciples. He isn’t saying, “I hope you will be at peace in the days ahead,” or “The peace of God reigns in your heart,” or any such thing. He is truly giving them peace. He is taking from the peace that is in his own heart and experience and infusing it into theirs. This isn’t just a theological declaration. It is an experiential impartation, as a result of which they now have the very peace of Jesus exerting a transforming and empowering influence on how they think and speak and act.
And that same act of impartation is available to you and me today. He said to them then and he says to us today, “Here, receive the peace of God. Feel it. Live in its calming influence. Enjoy its power to bring true tranquility to your heart. Let this peace instill confidence in you in terms of your relationship with the Father, with me, and with the Holy Spirit.” We today can ask God to do the very same thing for ourselves and for others. “Peace be with you” is a way of asking God, through the Holy Spirit, to infuse into your very soul the calming presence of Jesus Christ.
In addition to his impartation of both peace and power through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus then speaks words that have baffled many.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23).
Needless to say, this doesn’t mean you and I have the power or privilege of actually causing people’s sins to be forgiven. Only God the Father, through the work of God the Son on the cross, can do that.
What Jesus means is that when we are faithful to preach the gospel and explain to people the terms on which their sins may be forgiven, we may truly declare them either to be forgiven or not. If people respond to the proclamation of the gospel with repentance and true faith in Jesus, we have the authority to declare to them: “Your sins have been forgiven you.” But if they reject the gospel and repudiate the terms by which a person may be reconciled to God, we have the authority to declare to them: “Your sins are not forgiven.”
Our words do not create forgiveness or judgment. Our words merely communicate as Christ’s representatives what he has done and the terms on which salvation and entrance into the kingdom are possible.
In summary, Jesus says, in effect, “When you tell people about what I have done, speaking my word, about my work, in the power of my Spirit, I am the one speaking through you, so that if anyone believes your word, I forgive their sins. And if any does not believe your words, I don’t forgive them.”
So, in the midst of the chaos and social unrest all around us, hear the words of Jesus and receive what he offers: “Peace be with you.”
And as you take the gospel to a lost and dying world, embrace the authority given you in Christ to declare to those who repent and believe the gospel: “Your sins are forgiven!”