“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. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:21-23 NIV)
Christmas was always an exciting time for me as a kid. It wasn’t that we received everything we wanted, but it was an exciting time of surprises and joy. While we were far from wealthy, my Dad did have a good job and we were comfortably a lower middle-class family. The anticipation of waiting for Christmas morning always made Christmas Eve the longest night of the year.
To be honest, as a grandfather I enjoy Christmas as much or more than I did as a child. I love being able to surprise my children and grandchildren with gifts that make them happy. There’s nothing quite like having your granddaughter hug you tightly and say, “Thank you. I love you so much!” Of course, it’s even better when you get those hugs and comments throughout the year and a gift isn’t even involved. But, not every gift I’ve given gets that response. Do yours? I’ve had a few of those disappointed looks and mumbled “thanks” when my choice of gift fell flat. Have you ever wondered how God feels when we ignore one of the greatest gifts He provided through Jesus’ redemption, the Holy Spirit.
The gift of the Spirit was so important to the mission and plan of God that Jesus stated, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7 ESV) It is to our ADVANTAGE that Jesus go away so that the Spirit may come? That almost seems absurd. In fact, I suspect many Christians would question and maybe even doubt Jesus, a bit, on that statement. How could it possibly be advantageous for Jesus to leave and the Holy Spirit come? Surely it must be better to have Jesus physical presence than the Spirit’s invisible presence. Right? Wrong!
Last week we talked about our mission, as God’s “super heroes”, to save our planet from destruction. Just for a second, imagine Spider Man without his “spidey” sense, spider-like abilities and strength. He’d just be teenage, pimple faced Peter Parker, right. What if Bruce Banner (alter ego of the Hulk – in case you haven’t figured that out by now) was nothing more than a smart, scrawny, geeky scientist? Would he be of much value to the Avengers? Maybe some, but certainly not as much as the Hulk would be. If you don’t think the Great Commission is a daunting task and requires some significant help to accomplish then, obviously, you’re not thinking clearly. The idea of trying to make a spiritual difference in a world of 6.5 billion people with varying beliefs and worldviews is just overwhelming, even for those of us in ministry.
Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t give us a mission and then leave us without the necessary resources. He didn’t tell the disciples to go get another degree or hire a team of advertising specialists. No, He told the disciples that His peace would rest on them and then He breathed on them and said, “receive the Holy Spirit.” Now, don’t misunderstand my point. I’m NOT saying you shouldn’t have proper training or utilize modern ministry tools (like this blog site or effective advertising), but those are tools and not a substitute for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. While education and resources are useful tools in ministry, The Holy Spirit is the only true source of wisdom and power for the believer.
But there’s more to this presence and power of God idea than you might initially think. While I would never downplay or try to minimize the power of God, in any way, the real truth regarding God’s power can never be separated from His presence. It is possible that Jesus could have simply given the disciples the power necessary to fulfill their mission and that’s often all we are really seek. Power. Just the raw, incredible power of God. But God’s power without His presence is certainly dangerous and, generally speaking, very damaging. Let me elaborate…
I mentioned above the character from Marvel’s comic books and movies called The Incredible Hulk. In the Marvel stories the Hulk is the result of Dr. Bruce Banner’s experiments on himself which resulted in the alter ego, the Hulk. Dr. Banner is intelligent, reserved, physically weak and even timid. The Hulk is none of those things. The Hulk doesn’t think, he reacts. He’s certainly not reserved, timid or physically weak. To quote him, “Hulk smash!” He’s destruction in a physical form. To be honest, I think the Hulk is exactly what we would be if we had been given God’s power WITHOUT His presence. In fact, understanding that will help us in discovering the incredible truth in this passage.
God never gives sinful man His power or authority without His presence. I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” To give man, even redeemed man, God’s limitless power without God’s presence to guide and guard its use would be catastrophic. To be honest, we see examples of this throughout church history and also in the modern church. Men and women who have abused the authority and power God in ways that not only deny God’s intentions but also resulted in destroyed lives. They abused the authority of the church while ignoring and even desecrating God’s name and purpose. They “smashed” the lives of those they were sent to save all in God’s name without God’s permission.
Let me clarify this a bit. I don’t believe it is possible to abuse God’s actual power that is given through the Holy Spirit but it is possible to abuse the authority that our role or position has afforded us among men. God would never permit His power to be used in a manner inconsistent with or in opposition to His will (see Acts 8:18-24). However, not every display of power or authority that purports to be of God is actually of God.
Throughout the history of the church there have been atrocious acts by many who claimed to be acting at God’s direction, through His authority or power or in His name. But to simply claim it does not make it factual. There are many today who also make such claims but are obviously liars. In fact, I’ve recently seen a Facebook post by a prominent televangelist who claims God “told him” to ask his supporters for a new airplane for his ministry. Wait. What!? Seriously, I believe it has been a long time since this guy had an actual “word from God.” Everything he does (this televangelist and, by the way, the guy in the example of Acts 8 that I cited above) is about himself and not about God’s purposes and plan and that’s an important detail.
If one of our super hero characters were to use his/her super powers for personal benefit or gain then we should be uncomfortable and begin to question their personal integrity. In fact, isn’t that precisely how we would define a villain in our super hero stories? Aren’t they the ones who use their powers for selfish and personal gain. That’s precisely how I would define someone who uses his or her spiritual influence or authority for selfish or personal gain, a spiritual villain, and I think that’s what our text is teaching us.
When Jesus breathes on the disciples and declares, “receive the Holy Spirit,” He does so before granting any authority upon them. In other words, the presence and authority of the Spirit in the lives of the disciples precedes and governs the power and authority they received. They were to be governed and controlled by His Spirit BEFORE they were to exercise any spiritual oversight or authority over the church and that same process must flow down into our churches. Modern church leadership must be submissive to the authority of the Spirit of God and never attempt to use their influence, authority or oversight for personal benefit or gain.
Ok, so we’ve established that our power and authority should be governed and submissive to the absolute authority of the Holy Spirit or we would be spiritual villains. But, how do we experience the power of God in our lives and ministry? That comes through God’s presence in us and our commitment to His mission. Every believer has the immediate presence of God’s Spirit within us at the moment of our conversion or new birth…
“You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” (Romans 8:9 ESV)
“And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22 ESV)
The question is not whether we have the power of God but whether we are submitting to the authority of the Spirit? If God’s Spirit resides in us, and it absolutely does if we’re believers, then God’s power also resides in us. So, the real issue comes down to submission to God’s purpose and plan. If we are willing to pursue God’s purpose and plan of redemption and reconciliation (see 2 Cor. 5:11-21) and we seek His guidance and act in accordance with His commands and revealed will then we can expect to see His power in our ministry.
So, let me conclude by dealing with the “elephant” in this passage. Jesus stated that the disciples were being given the authority to remit sins or to not remit sins. Some see this verse as supportive of the Catholic Church’s view of grace being granted through the sacraments. I believe that’s a misunderstanding of the verse and breaks the cardinal rule of interpreting difficult or obscure scripture with scripture that is clear and obvious. Scripture is emphatic that only God has the authority to forgive or remit sin. But, the Church has been given the responsibility, authority and power to proclaim the message of reconciliation…
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20 ESV)
The real issue appears to be whether the church has lost sight of her true purpose, the ministry and message of reconciliation. In many ways, we’ve lapsed into an era of self-focused or internal church-member ministry and not the ministry and message of reconciliation. I recognize that we have a desperate need to disciple our members and help them with real-life issues but that must never be divorced from the gospel. We can, and must, disciple our members through the gospel ministry of reconciliation. When that begins to happen and they experience the powerful presence of God in them and working through them it will spur their personal spiritual growth.
So, it isn’t really whether we have the authority to forgive or not forgive sins but whether we submit to the Spirit’s guidance into the ministry of reconciliation and the forgiveness of sin. That’s where and when the true super-powers of God will be displayed on and in the heroes of the faith and where the villains of the faith will become obvious (see Matt. 7:15). So, next time someone asks you what your super power is tell them, “To show you the way to forgiveness, eternal life and God’s love. Ready to go?”
“And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49 ESV)