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 ESV)
It might not be obvious at first, but John 20:21-23 gives us unique insight into the mission of God, his purpose in sending Jesus, and the commission of the His followers.
The passage has seemed like a mystery to me for many years, wondering if somehow I was lacking something and need some mystical breathing done on me for ministry. In reality that is certainly not at play here. Here Jesus is pointing the disciples to the fact that one of the most famous passages and prophecies of the Old Testament is being fulfilled before their very eyes; The prophecy concerning the valley of the dry bones from Ezekiel 37.
It is there in Ezekiel 37 that we hear the corresponding language that we see Jesus displaying here with his disciples as he breathes on them. As Ezekiel looks out over the valley of dry bones that represent that spiritually dead state of God’s people the question that lingers is “Can these bones live?” God answers the question himself and says “5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
In the context of the prophecy God is not simply calling individuals to Himself but calling them together to assemble a people for Himself. As Jesus breathes on his disciples he stands before them as one who has been raised from the dead by the Spirit and the Lord. He sends them in that same power to speak the word of God and see God assemble for Himself a people for His name.
So in this commissioning passage in John we see that God’s mission has been to call a people to Himself from among the spiritually dead. He sent Jesus to die the death for sin and raised him from the dead to call a people to Himself. And now Jesus is sending his disciples in the same way to call a people out sin and into forgiveness by the word of God so that they will be a people for His name.
The Great Commission pictured here is not completed by individuals responding to the gospel. It is not less than that, but the commission is completed as they are united together in Christ as picture of God’s glory in local churches. As the disciples responded to this commission we see them do something unexpected if they were just concerned about individual evangelism. They formed believers into churches with basic structures that supported growth, obedience, and the fulfillment of the mission.
The implications are that church planting is the end goal of all of the other instructions that the disciples are commissioned to carry out. All along the way there are odediences required that do not look like church planting, but in the end they are brought together for the purpose of seeing churches display the gospel to the world.
Catch up on the ‘Unpacking Church Planting’ Series: