In the text on Sunday, we saw John 20:22, And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” We didn’t have time to deal with it, so I wanted to address it here. Some of us us may have thought, “what’s the big deal?” Well, the issue is that it appears that Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to the disciples there, while in Acts 1:8, Jesus says to the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” The obvious fulfillment of Acts 1:8 comes one chapter later when the Spirit comes like a mighty rushing wind on the day of Pentecost, all were filled with the Spirit, and began to speak in tongues. So, did the disciples receive the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on them or on the day of Pentecost? More importantly, do we have a genuine bible contradiction here?
My position is that there is good reason to hold that Jesus makes a symbolic gesture in John 20:22, pointing to the ultimate outpouring of the Spirit that would come at Pentecost.
In spite of the English translations, the best way to understand the text is simply, he breathed and said to them… There is no explicit prepositional phrase indicating that Jesus breathed on the disciples. Most lexicons hold that the word itself means to breathe on, however these lexicons are based upon New Testament usage, and John 20:22 is the only use of this word in the New Testament. Usage outside of the New Testament supports the idea that the word simply means to exhale. There is no reason to believe that Jesus was breathing on or into the disciples. D.A. Carson writes, “Unless one adopts a literalistic and mechanical view of the action, understanding the Holy Spirit to be nothing less than Jesus’ expelled air, one is forced to say that the ‘breathing’ was symbolic…”1
That this was a symbolic act makes sense given what we see in the rest of John’s Gospel. There is no noticeable difference in the behavior of the disciples after Jesus breathes and says these words. The disciples still meet behind locked doors (20:26), indicating they are still afraid of the Jews, a far cry from the boldness we see in Acts 2. When Thomas finally believes, it is not because of the promised witness of the Spirit (15:26-27), but because Jesus has allowed him to touch His hands and side (20:27-28). In John 21, it appears the disciples are tending back toward their old ways of life - Peter, John, and others go fishing. Later in ch21, there is still a twinge of the old “who’s the best disciple” thing going on (21:20-22). In other words, the disciples do not act like Holy Spirit-empowered people until Pentecost.
First century believers would have instantly recognized the symbolism, given that they were aware of what happened at Pentecost - a might rushing wind. Ancient Near Eastern languages almost uniformly use the same word for breath and wind. They likely would have understood Jesus to be saying, “I’m not only giving you my mission, but the power for my mission,” referring to the coming outpouring at Pentecost.
One might wonder why Jesus make a symbolic gesture like this? Well, Jesus does many things in the Gospels that the disciples don’t understand. But it makes sense if we look at the greater context. After the resurrection, Jesus affirmed all the things He told them before the cross. “I’m giving you a mission, and I’m giving you everything you need to accomplish the mission.” He told them about the Spirit before, and this was a unique way to say that that promise was still standing.
1D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 652.