Please explain these verses (John 20:21-23), especially, “Jesus breathed on him and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
This question raises an issue not often seen by students of John’s gospel. In this passage Jesus seems to give his apostles the outpouring of the Holy Spirit earlier than is generally thought. Did he in fact do so?
All recognize that Matthew, Mark and Luke each has a record of the great commission even though they differ in exact language (Matthew 28:18-19; Mark 16:-15-18; Luke 24:47049). John 20:21-23 is John’s account of the great commission. In John’s account, others were present, but when the records are compared it is clear that Jesus was talking to the ten apostles (Judas was dead and Thomas was absent). This is confirmed by John 17:18 where Jesus uses similar language in his prayer to his Father in which the word that he uses for “sent” is apostello. Verses 22-23 contain the promise of the Spirit, the same as he had made in John 14:16, 26, who would enable them to perform their assigned task of preaching the gospel message of forgiveness.
The question that arises is when did the apostles receive the Spirit promised in John’s account. John’s records. However, based on Luke’s record (24:49) in which Jesus said, “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.” That event occurred in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost following Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:1-4).
How, then, do we account for John’s language. It could be that John’s record speaks of the Spirit’s reception as if it had occurred because its occurrence was based on the promise of God and God’s promises do not fail. Other commentators suggest that John’s record does not purport to be chronological. Either accounts for John’s language and harmonizes it with the records of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
You Must Hear the Gospel
You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)
You Must Believe
You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)
You Must Repent
You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)
You Must Confess
You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)
You Must Be Baptized
Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!
You Must Be Faithful Unto Death
Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)