Then Jesus said to them again, Peace to you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you [as My representatives]. And when He said this, He breathed on them and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone they are forgiven [because of their faith]; if you retain the sins of anyone, they are retained [and remain unforgiven because of their unbelief].
This is an interesting passage, whereby the risen Jesus is appearing to the Apostles, who are hiding out in an undisclosed room in Jerusalem, fearing retribution from the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman government because of their association with the crucified Christ. Although they had spent nearly three years with Him, and Jesus had tried to prepare them for this time, you can imagine their confusion, dashed hopes, and fear of what the future might mean for them.
But in these verses, Jesus appears to them to calm them, bring them peace, and remind them of their mission to co-labor with Him on behalf of the Kingdom of God. He then breathed the Holy Spirit on them, and gave them a very important and precious gift: the authority to forgive sins.
I know that is a foreign idea to us 21st Century Christians, and it certainly is not taught in the Church as a matter of our authority. And I can hear the naysayers now ... Where do you get the idea that we have the authority to forgive sins? Isn't God the only One who can forgive us our sins? That second question sounds exactly like the Pharisees in Mark, Chapter 2, who, upon hearing Jesus tell the paralytic that his sins were forgiven, asked, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” I am sure there are some within the Body of Christ who would assign the same doubt to my statement that we can forgive sins. But let me see if I can explain my understanding of these verses in John...
It is very important that we have a clear understanding when it comes to the dynamics of the relationship between the Father, the Son, and us. Over and over, Jesus declares in the Bible. I only do what the Father tells Me ... I only do what pleases the Father ... I only do what I see the Father doing ... I only say what I hear the Father saying ... If you've seen Me, you've seen the Father. Therefore, Jesus is an exact representation of the Father. And here, in John 20, He is telling the apostles, Now, you're MY representatives; meaning by extension, they are representing the Father, too, just as Jesus did. Furthermore, Jesus tells the Apostles that all authority on Heaven and earth has been given to Him and their Commission is now to teach all the nations what He has taught and commanded them to do -- i.e., we now represent Jesus!
But there is another aspect of our relationship with Christ and how we represent Him. In 1 Peter 2:9, the Bible calls us a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that we may proclaim the excellencies [the wonderful deeds and power] of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Remember, God instituted the priesthood in the Old Testament as the means by which His chosen people could be forgiven their sins. The priests served a particularly important function in the sacrificial system that brought the sins of the Israelites before God to be forgiven. But in the New Testament, Jesus became our High Priest and the ultimate, once-for-all sacrifice, so that system is no longer needed. However, as it is revealed in 1 Peter 2 and Revelation 5, we are to still serve God as priests of His Kingdom, bringing people "out of darkness and into His marvelous Light (Jesus)".
That is what I believe Jesus is telling us here in John 20... He is our High Priest, and as His representatives here on earth, we serve the Father's Kingdom as His priests. So how does that work, and what are our duties as priests? Have you ever known someone who has given their life to Christ, and declared Him their Savior, yet cannot seem to receive His forgiveness of their sins, even after they have confessed and repented? Even though their salvation is certain, there is some area of their life that satan still holds in bondage, and they are mired in self-condemnation?
Even though the Bible tells us that Jesus has forgotten their sins, as far as the east is from the west, they still feel He is distant and they don't feel forgiven. I believe John 20:23 declares our position as the royal priesthood and Jesus is giving us permission to declare to that tortured Christian that if they have faith, their sins are forgiven. On the other hand, we must take our holy priesthood very seriously (as the representative of Christ), and when it is clear that a sinful lifestyle has not been confessed or repented for, and Jesus has been rejected, then we have no authority or duty to forgive anyone's sin. Very simply, for me, John 20:21-23 is Jesus defining a priestly duty, and since we are called to be a royal priesthood of God's Kingdom on earth, it is part of our allegiance to our High Priest.
But, here's the thing ... the powerless Church, today, is all too eager to call themselves priests of the Kingdom, but only in the sense of a noun, and not as a verb -- meaning there is an obligation to act out our identities as priests, (and representatives of our High Priest) and to be willing to take the sins of a fellow Christian and wash them in the blood of Jesus, pronouncing those sins forgiven. If that sounds anti-Biblical, think on this.... Are we not in Christ, and Christ in us? Did He not take all sin upon Himself, and by His Blood we are forgiven and healed? If Christ is in us, we can take those sins and present them to Him, being confident of His mercy and grace upon all who believe in Him.
Personally, in our deliverance ministry, my husband and I have often reminded someone being oppressed by spirits of unworthiness, inadequacy, self-condemnation, shame, or guilt that their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior, and their confession of their sins allows us, as His representative, to speak Jesus's forgiveness into their life. In that, we serve both our God and our fellow man. That's why God sent Jesus, and that's why He sends us.