Friday, June 2, 2017

John 20:16-23 Regeneration of the Disciples

KEY TEXT: John 20:21-23 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 anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld."

KEY THOT: Some Bible scholars hold to the theological narrative of a one-time non-repeatable descent of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Such scholars have difficulty explaining this post-Resurrection but pre-Pentecost "receiving" of the Holy Spirit by the disciples. It does not fit their theological narrative. So they explain this incident as pre-figuring Pentecost or as a partial reception of the Spirit to await the fullness at Pentecost. But if we read the context carefully without imposing our theological presuppositions, the text will speak and explain for itself--that something did happen to the disciples here.

Firstly, we note that the disciples were filled with fear before Jesus' appearing to them. They were fearful because they did not have the Spirit in them, despite being followers (disciples) of Christ: Jesus stood up and cried out, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'"  Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified" (John 7:37-39). So the words of Jesus in John 7:39 suggest that the disciples did not yet have the Spirit in them, though the Spirit was with them on account of Jesus as the One anointed by the Spirit: "You know him (the Holy Spirit), for he dwells with you and will be in you" (John 14:17). The fact of their fear confirms they did not have the Spirit in them: "for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control" (2 Timothy 1:7).

Secondly, Jesus' act of breathing on them the Spirit is reminiscent of Genesis 2:7, "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." The breath of God infused into Adam's lifeless body imparted life to his body, so that he became a living soul (being), with mind, emotion and will. In the same way, Jesus' breathing upon the disciples suggests a similar regeneration, not of the souls of the disciples but of their spirits (which were not regenerated). So it is at this point that the disciples experienced regeneration or rebirth: Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:5-6).

Thirdly, we see a transformation of the disciples spiritual status. They received a new spiritual authority to forgive sins: "If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld" (v.23). With the Spirit of Christ now in them, they could now minister as Christ, forgiving sins just as He did. The tense in Jesus' word does not suggest it was figurative nor prophetic--it affirms an immediate change of their spiritual authority as a result of receiving regeneration by His Spirit. 

So what are we to make of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost? It can only be explained in terms of receiving of the spiritual power for the disciples who were already regenerated with God's spiritual life. As Jesus describes it in Acts 1:8, the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2:4 is for power: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses." In Luke 24:49, Jesus explains Pentecost in similar words: "And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24:49). 

And this power from on high was manifested in Acts 2:4 first as the speaking of tongues. The rest of Acts simply recounts the ministry of the apostles as they operated in the rest of the gifts of the Spirit, viz., word of knowledge and wisdom, healing, discerning of spirits, prophecy, tongues etc. The operation of these gifts produced "wonders and signs" (Acts 2:42) in the early church. This supernatural ministry of the early church is similar to Jesus' own ministry after the Spirit came upon him at his baptism. Unlike regeneration (Jesus was regenerated at his birth), this "anointing" of the Spirit was a clothing of power for ministry. It is reserved for God's children: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:13). This gift of the Spirit from our heavenly Father is for his children, not unbelievers. It is a gift for those already regenerated, not the unregenerated. 

May God grant His children to serve and minister in the power of His Spirit. 

Abba-Father, thank You that You have not only regenerated us by Your Spirit, You have also promised to cloth us with power to do your work. May You fill us again with Your power to minister to the lost who are in need of healing and deliverance. Amen.

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