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Author: Ron Graham


The Apostles’ Power to Forgive
—John 20:19-23

In John 20:19-23 the risen Christ says to his apostles, 'If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained'. In what way was Jesus making the apostles responsible for the forgiveness of people’s sins?

John 20:21-23

21 Again Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so also I am sending you.” 22When He had said this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone his sins, they are* forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is* withheld.”” (John 20:21-23 BSB).

Matthew 18:18

18 “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been* bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been* loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18 NASB)

* New American Standard Bible uses "has been" to indicate Greek tense

1The apostles could not make heaven subiect to men.

One simple statement shows the order in which authority is handed on “As the Father has sent Me, so also I am sending you.” (John 20:21).

Authority is handed down from Father to Son, and from the Son (through the Holy Spirit) to the apostles. It does not flow in the opposite direction, from the apostles upward.

The church is subject to Christ (Ephesians 1:19-23 cf 5:24). Heaven therefore cannot be bound by an apostle.

*Note:— 'Has been' NASB. In Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23 the New American Standard Bible expresses action taking place in heaven as preceding the action of the apostles on earth. This is consistent with the authority and action being directed from heaven to earth, not the reverse.

2 The apostles could not say more than the Holy Spirit.

John 20:23 must be understood in the light of the preceding verse: "When He had said this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20:22).

Jesus prepared the apostles to receive the Holy Spirit. This Spirit of Truth would be their guide and teacher (John 16:12-15). They had no authority to make pronouncements other than those which the Spirit declared.

The apostles received this power on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4-8, Acts 2:1-4 Luke 24:44-49)

This was the power to preach the gospel which effects the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47 Romans 1:16 1 Corinthians 1:18).

There is nothing in the New Testament about any other power or responsibility given to the apostles with regard to forgiveness of sins.

3 The apostles could not be priests like Aaron

The priests of old, such as the house of Aaron, were ordained to offer sacrifices for sins. These sacrifices were only a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. They allowed people to be forgiven pending the death of Christ (Hebrews 9:11-15).

But today, the only Christian priesthood mentioned in the Bible is the priesthood of all believers under Christ the High Priest (1 Peter 2:4-10; Revelation 1:4-6).

Apostles and other ministers were appointed in the church. However their function was to teach the gospel and thereby edify, encourage, help, and guide (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1Corinthians 12:27-28; 1 Peter 4:10-11).

There is no mention of the apostles or anyone else on earth offering a sacrifice or functioning as granters of forgiveness. It was their preaching, not their position, power, or personal presence, that enabled sin on earth to be forgiven in heaven.


The Apostles power to forgive lay in their preaching of the gospel which they did by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit who showed them the truth. This truth came from the Father through Jesus and is the power of God for salvation to everyone who heeds it.

The apostles were not priests who forgave sins on their own initiative. They received the Holy Spirit who breathed into them the revelation of the gospel. When people believed and obeyed that covenant from God, then the apostles could say, "Your sins are forgiven", knowing Christ had already forgiven them by his blood.

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