James Nisbet Commentary - John 20:23 - 20:23

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James Nisbet Commentary - John 20:23 - 20:23

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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:


‘Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.’


Twice in the old life before the Passion was this promise made, if not word for word, yet in the exact sense of the words; and if our idea is right, that the Risen Life amplified and solemnised the teaching of the days before, we shall find that these three pronouncements of one and the same promise involved a certain progression; that each added something to the privilege already promised, or added more to those who were to enjoy the privilege.

I. On the first occasion the Saviour of the world is on the confines of the great world beyond the gates of Judaism, which He came to save, but to which, as it seems, He could not pass over. Save that He knew no sin, He was, at Cæsarea, like Moses upon the mountains of Nebo. He draws from St. Peter the great confession, and St. Peter receives in return that promise which is the perpetual gage of battle between the limbs of the body of Christ. ‘I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Whatever it implies, it is here a personal promise to one man. Nothing, surely, is gained by denying that. The one man has for a moment secured this inestimable benefit by a hearty confession of the Godhead of His Lord. Nay, not only is nothing gained, but much is lost by forgetting that, in religion, as in all else that concerns the life of men, there must be a leader and there must be those who follow his lead. We must expect to have our Peters in the Church of today; we shall fail miserably to make headway against wickedness unless we acknowledge them. If you ask how they are to be recognised, I answer that you need only the old test. They will be men ever to the front to make the great confession, men also with a spiritual magnetism that draws the weak and wayward to them, and imparts to them some of its mysterious influences, so that the poor souls go away enriched with a bounteous sense that in Christ Jesus there is plenteous redemption, for He hath redeemed Israel from all their sins. That is the first occasion of this promise, and if it had never been repeated, we might have to confess that there is something to be said for the claims of those who call themselves the successors of Peter, and despise others.

II. Almost immediately after the three had seen His glory in the mount, the same gift of the power to bind and loose is bestowed again.—They had come to Capernaum, and, as Mark tells us, ‘He sat down and called the twelve.’ Two questions occupied their minds, and He wanted to set them right. One was, ‘Who of us is the greatest?’ Another, ‘How often must we forgive?’ The first, you remember, He settled for ever. He is greatest who is willing to be less than the least. The second was more difficult; it was a question not so much of fact as of judgment. The limits of forgiveness would have in the end to be fixed by the conscience of the injured brother. Do all you can, He seems to say; and when your all fails, let him be to you as the Gentile and the publican. ‘Verily I say unto you, what things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what things soever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Now this clearly is a promise, not to an individual, but to a class. There is no reason, from any account we have of the incident, to believe that any but the Twelve were present. Can you doubt that, as the first was a promise to a person, so this is a promise to an Order; and that, while it is true that in this Order some will indeed exhibit a greater power to aid their fellow-sinners than others, it is true also that the gift of the Holy Ghost confers a measure of that power upon them all; that the promise to Peter is here amplified into a promise that many shall have His ability to strengthen the brethren?

III. And so we pass to the third and final member of this arithmetical progression.—What a change in the circumstances! If it was much that the Transfiguration should have come between the first and the second, how much more is it that the Resurrection should intervene between the second and this! No wonder that the words seem now to be spoken to an ampler ether, in the hearing of a larger company. For now the promise is not to an Order only, much less to an individual, but to the whole Church. The Twelve, indeed, are no longer all there. One is in the outer darkness fighting hard with his doubts, and one is not, having gone to his own place. But everything we know about the followers of the Risen Lord during the forty days shows that they kept all together; that they were mostly with one accord in one place. Luke, for instance, makes it perfectly clear that the two from Emmaus, neither of them certainly a member of the Twelve, were in the little company that heard these words, nor is there any reason from John’s account to suppose that Mary Magdalene, who had come to the disciples with the greatest of all the news of the world—‘I have seen the Lord’—left them the moment the words had passed her lips; while the only mention of the eleven as being the sole audience occurs in the more than doubtful verses at the close of Mark’s Gospel. And so I believe that, if the number of the names together that evening did not come to Luke’s one hundred and twenty, there was no reason why any who loved the Lord should have been absent. To these He came and stood in the midst, and said unto them, ‘Peace be unto you.’ On all those, men and women alike, He breathed and said unto them, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.’

IV. You are in the direct apostolical succession of that promise.—Do not spurn this as some ‘new thing.’ We shall still have, please God, our Peters in the ministry whose superlative power to reprove, rebuke, exhort, their brethren will covet with a righteous jealousy. We shall still have our company of the priests whose office is morning and evening and at the Holy Communion and at the bedside of the dying to pronounce that the Heavenly Father pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe His Holy Gospel. But you, too, have your power to bind and to loose, to forgive and to retain. I assume that, being risen with Christ, you are seeking the things that are above; that from above you are receiving, in answer to your daily prayer, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and ghostly strength, of knowledge and Godly fear, promised you in your Confirmation. If you stir up that gift which is in you men will take knowledge of you; they will bring their burdened conscience to you, to see if you can lighten it. How dare you say to such, ‘Go to the nearest clergyman; it is his business to bind and loose, not mine’? No, you have received the gift by virtue of Christ’s promise. Use it to the full.

Rev. E. H. Pearce.