John 20:22-23 reads (NLT): "Then he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven. If you refuse to forgive them, they are unforgiven.'' What's the reason for Jesus' breathing on them? Does this relate to Matthew 16:19? Was this promise for the apostles alone or for all believers? Jesus had the power on earth to forgive sins—did the apostles have that same power? How does Jesus' sacrifice fit with this Scripture? —Thomas Brower (Tucson)
I take John 20:22 to be a dramatic action indicating the apostles were at that time (or possibly at a later time) to receive the Spirit. It seems to tie in with Matthew 16. In the case of the apostles, who were right with God before Pentecost (John 15 says they were already clean by the word Jesus had spoken), they received special abilities and privileges which do not pertain to all believers. (See Luke 9:2, John 14:26, 16:13, Acts 2:42, 2:43, Ephesians 2:20, etc.)
Note: In Matt 16:19 the verb "they are bound / loosed" is in the perfect, just as in John 20:23. This fits nicely with the apostolic declaration of forgiveness of sins in Christ.
Apparently the apostles never remitted sins on earth as Jesus did in Mark 2. Jesus helped people to get right with the Lord under the old covenant; from Pentecost on, the apostles helped people to be saved through the new covenant, entailing repentance and baptism. We never see apostles forgiving sins—but we do see them proclaiming forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18).