I have a question based on John 20:22, “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them ‘receive the Holy Spirit’.” But the Holy Spirit was not given until the day of Pentecost, so how could the Lord speak these words without the event taking place immediately? (Mr. Barraclough)
Answer given by pastor Christian Salcianu, 9 August 2023, Watford
Your observation is fully valid, but the question itself needs more clarity so that we don’t start assuming. What do I mean? Let me ask several inconvenient questions: Who told us that Jesus’ words did not get fulfilled immediately? Who says that only what happened at the Pentecost was ‘the real thing’? Are we open to an understanding of phases/stages in a process? Is there room for more, after Pentecost?
Hoping that you take the above as an invitation to further exploration, allow me to answer detailing a bit (yet in brief) on the concept of ‘receiving the Holy Spirit’.
The Holy Spirit was a real presence in Jesus’ life, even from birth (see Luke 1:35 and Matthew 1:20). The Spirit manifested at the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:16), then led Him into the desert (Matthew 4:1 or Luke 4:1, ‘full of the Holy Spirit’) and accompanied Him in all His ministry (Luke 4:13, ‘in the power of the Spirit’).
In all of Jesus’ preaching and teaching, the Spirit was not only a promise, but a real presence, that could be felt right there, right then. Allow me to remind only a few examples. Review the story of Nicodemus (John 3) and see how the Holy Spirit could move one in unknown (unchartered) manners. Remember John the Baptist announcing that Jesus will come and baptise them with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11). Pay attention to the greatest sin, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:24-32).
Let’s look at some promises. A key text such as John 14:16, 17 indeed surely shows a future encounter with a tremendous impact: ‘And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.’ There was this clear promise and prophecy: ‘I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ (Luke 24:49) And it got its fulfilment at the Pentecost, 50 days from Jesus’ resurrection.
Having this big picture in mind, then allow me to reformulate your question as follows:
If the Spirit was certainly given at the Pentecost, how do we explain Jesus’ words in John 20:22? Was the Spirit given then as well?
The short answer is Yes.
When Jesus says something, whether words of healing and deliverance, of forgiveness or of authority over anything, even calling a dead man to life, they take effect immediately. Where we have a difficulty is when we don’t see similar events having similar effects. Think of consistency in Jesus’ ministry — values, principles etc., and yet a situational approach — adjusted to the contexts, part of a bigger picture etc.
Just to give you three examples, hoping it’s not shocking, but rather encouraging you to explore more:
– Jesus heals all people with immediate effect, and yet in Mark 8:22-26 you will find a blind man healed in two stages;
– Jesus did wonders everywhere he went, yet in His own town He could not do much due to their lack of faith (Luke 6:5-6);
– Jesus levelled all His enemies to the ground with the words ‘I am’ (John 18:6) and yet, some moments later, the same words (verse 8) did not have the same effect, instead Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested.
My point? Reality is more complex than what words can convey.
Back in the Upper Room. Coming back to our situation, I wouldn’t doubt for a second the fact that Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to the apostles on that instance.
In fact, it was part of an entire process of making them believe in resurrection: appearing to the apostles and women and the men on the road to Emmaus, eating with them, talking and explaining things, proving and asking them to probe Him, in the end giving them the Holy Spirit in order to have the right understanding.
Don’t forget, in the verse above your quote Jesus talks about the commission of His disciples, ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’ (v. 21). And in the verse coming after, Jesus informs about their authority as God’s messengers to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, ‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’ (v. 23).
It all makes the case for a complex process, in which the receiving of the Holy Spirit is a must and yet a part of the larger reality to be comprehended.
What about the Pentecost. The giving of the Holy Spirit days later, as reported in the book of Acts, was intended for a much larger circle, in fact ten times larger, 120 people. The pool of recipients was a more diverse and representative audience, including men and women, former apostles and Mary, Jesus’ mother and His brothers along with many others. All these believers proclaimed Jesus to even more people, as some 15 nations were represented in Jerusalem at that time, and it all ended with a baptism of 3,000 people. Just for a follow up study, the Holy Spirit came again later (a) to people in Samaria, or (b) to all gathered in the house of Cornelius, and (c) you can find the same reality whenever Pauls reminded of such instances in his epistles (for example Galatians 3:2).
I would then encourage you to continue studying and ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit. You will manifest the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5) and the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12).