You are reading through the gospels of John and you come across a curious passage in John 20 where it says that Jesus breathed on them (his disciples). Ever wonder what it means? Ever wonder also how this relates with how most Christians understand Acts 2 as the pouring out of God’s Spirit?
To understand what it meant When Jesus breathed on them, we have to break open our rigid understandings of the mechanics of how God’s Spirit moves. This passage is simply an extension of the continual work of God’s Spirit throughout the Bible. He is preparing over and over again his disciples for the work of mission.
I want to dig into this further and help you understand what it means when it says that Jesus breathed on them.
Are there 2 Pentecosts?
The challenge with this passage is that it is seems to stand in a bit of conflict with how the Bible understands the pouring out of God’s presence.
Typical to most people’s understanding of the Holy Spirit, most people understand the pouring out of God’s presence as a post-resurrection, post-ascension promise made by Jesus in Luke:
See Luke 24:49:
"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
Jesus seemed to foreshadow an event where the Spirit would be poured out when the disciples are in the city and after he has resurrected.
This seems to line up well with what happens in Acts 2 when the disciples are gathered in the city after Jesus has been resurrected:
"When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting." Acts 2:1-2
The description in Acts shows that the disciples were gathered in the City. And the Lukean writer even signifies the importance of the Acts 2 pouring by naming it “day of Pentecost”, almost saying this is it.
Now let’s back track a little and look at the John 20 passage in question.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:21-23
The challenge of this passage is that when Jesus breathed on them, it is happening prior to his ascension and therefore prior to Pentecost.
Fans and readers of Acts 2 will undoubtedly wonder a few things:
What is the relationship between Pentecost and John 20?
Are there 2 Pentecost’s?
Why did they receive the Holy Spirit here?
In what ways in their receiving the Holy Spirit here is different than Acts 2?
How people have tried to reconcile these questions
Different people have tried to reconcile the problem in different ways. Most people try to dismiss it. The Critical Commentary and Explanatory on the Whole Bible quickly dismisses it:
“he breathed on them—a symbolical conveyance to them of the Spirit.“
The Apologetics seems adamant they didn’t receive the Holy Spirit here
Verse by ministry continues this non-literal take on the passage by saying “In all probability, Jesus was giving His disciples a symbolic and memorable introduction to the Spirit, Who was to come upon them later.”
Compared to how these and other people have tried to reconcile the understanding, I have a different take on the subject matter. And understanding it starts with understanding 2 clues.
2 Clues to Understanding
The Book of John is Atypical
The first clue that we have to understand why Jesus breathed on them is that the book of John is atypical.
Of the gospels, it was written the latest, perhaps 20-30 years later. Additionally, most scholars agree with the source John used in his gospels were probably different than the ones used in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
For this reason, you’ll see a lot of common stories, almost verbatim, within Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but not in John. Any synoptic comparison between the four gospels will reveal that John has a lot of unique material.
In addition, the structure and timeframe of John is also atypical.
From a geographical time perspective, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have Jesus having one final journey towards Jerusalem to face his suffering. The turning point is often Peter’s confession of Jesus being the Christ.
But in John, Jesus seems to go back and forth into Jerusalem several times, dare I say, anachronistically. You will know that Jesus’ driving of the temple, which occurs very late in the other gospels, occurs very early in the book of John.
What does this mean?
It means we just have to understand that John as a book seems to operate by its own rules.
It doesn’t mean it contradicts the other gospels, but we just have to hold that in tension and remember that John isn’t writing history as we 21st century citizens understand history. He writes, as we famously know, with the primary intention so that “we would believe” (John 20:31).
First clue: Understand John is different, so break your linear expectations
The Spirit Does Many Things Prior to Acts 2
One of the breaking points in how to understand this passage is expanding our understanding our role and the work of the Holy Spirit in the entire scope of the Holy Spirit.
Part of the hard part of understanding the relationship between Jesus breathing on them and Acts 2 is that we think that the Holy Spirit wasn’t active prior to Acts 2.
However, nothing could be further from the truth.
We know that it was the Spirit of God that was hovering over the water during creation. We see the Spirit of God rushing upon Samson as he acted as judge over Israel. We see the spirit of God moving in King David as he played the harp and lyre. We see the Spirit of God breathing over dry bones in Ezekiel. Yes, he is even responsible for spiritual drunkenness.
The Spirit of God has been active long before we arrive at Acts 2. When we understand that, we begin to break the rigidity of the Acts 2 as something that is demonstrably unique.
Yes it is unique, but the Spirit has been moving freely in varied instances throughout the Bible. Whether he is moving in John 20 or Acts 2, to me, makes no difference because the Spirit of God can do whatever he wants!
What does the passage mean?
Armed with these two clues, let’s now look at why Jesus breathed on them. First, in context to what John meant and then in context to what it means in the New Testament
What it means in context to John
It is important to first understand this passage exclusively from the gospel writer John and not our wider understanding of the New Testament. Remember that when the authors of the Bible penned their writings, even though the Bible as a whole is connected, they are wholly unaware of what other people are writing.
What I mean is that John is writing for John’s audience. He isn’t thinking about Luke-Acts and how his writing is fitting in context to that. As far as John is concerned, he is writing to his audience wanting to communicate who Jesus is so that he would believe.
WIth that being said, it makes sense to me that he would thus include a comprehensive account of Jesus’ ministry where Jesus would not only raise up 12 disciples, but empower them for ministry as promised by the Holy Spirit.
Remember that prior to John 20 was John 16 where Jesus would promise the Holy Spirit:
“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. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: “
It seems fitting that as a reader, we arrive later at John 20 where we go “ah hah!” and see that Jesus breathed on them.
Marrianne Meye Thompson, Johhannine scholar has this to say this about the missional aspect of the passage:
“Those who understand the present passage to be about Jesus’ equipping of the disciples for mission generally dismiss the view that Jesus’ “breathing the Spirit” into the disciples signifies their “new creation.” But mission and identity are inseparable.
In John, not only is there a parallel between the mission of Jesus and his disciples, but there also are parallels between who and what Jesus is and who and what the disciples are: both the disciples’ mission and their identity are derivative of and dependent on Jesus’ mission and identity.
As the Son sent by the Father, Jesus sends those who are his brothers and sisters, the children of God; as the one who has the Spirit, he confers the Spirit on others; as the Holy One of God, who is consecrated by his Holy Father, he consecrates his disciples. “
In the context of John, this is his moment where Jesus is fulfilling the promise that his disciples would receive the Spirit, and subsequently be empowered for ministry.
Taking John alone, this understanding holds no tension with anything within John. John the writer is merely fulfilling a promise Jesus would give.
What it means in context of the New Testament.
Now as expand our understanding beyond just John, now comes the final question – how do we solve the tension of “two Pentecost’s” when Jesus breathed on them in John 20?
The answer is this:
When Jesus breathed on them, he is simply continuing the work of the Holy Spirit to equip his disciples for the work of ministry. There is something unique about John 20 and something unique about Acts 2.
What we have to remember when we break apart our rigid understanding is that the Holy Spirit can fill believers more than once. In fact, we see the apostles getting filled by the Holy Spirit over and over again in the book of Acts even after Acts 2.
Understanding this, we can get a sense that God just really enjoys touching and filling people with his presence.
What’s unique about John 20 and Acts 2 then?
What’s unique is simply the people and events involved.
I still think Acts 2 signifies a general wide-spread ushering availability of the Holy Spirit to the entire church. Note that in John 20, only Jesus’ closest disciples were there to receive it. However in Acts 2 (and this is what makes it unique), 120 believers were there.
120 people were considered the larger church who had just witnessed the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Pentecost in Acts 2 is unique in the sense that it is a moment for the church at large. While John 20 does not exclude believers from participation, Acts 2 is generally more invitational as Luke the author is priming readers to want the filling of the Holy Spirit as well.
My joy and the aim of this site is to help readers go deeper in their Christian faith.
Don’t stop at just understanding why Jesus breathed on them in John 20, begin living a life yourself of a Holy Spirit filled life.
If you’re keen on growing your relationship with the Holy Spirit, I highly recommend Bill Johnson’s works. Particularly, his book The Way of Life is a particularly great resource.
I hope you enjoyed this article. What are your thoughts about why Jesus breathed on them? Let me know in the comments below!