Strange Scripture: Jesus breathes on the disciples

If you’ve never come across a strange passage of Scripture you need to read more. Consider Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to his disciples in John 20:19-23. Assuming you’ve reckoned with the strangeness of God becoming a man & then being raised back to life after his execution (Acts 17:18, 20), you could still be forgiven for finding this exchange curious:

And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (Jn 20:22)

The question for most Christians on this point doesn’t concern hygiene but theology. Namely, is this the point & time at which the Holy Spirit (HS) was given to the Church or did the HS come later on Pentecost (Acts 2)?*

Here are some reasons why we might interpret John 20 as a symbolic act that anticipated the HS’s arrival in Acts 2:

1) Jesus previously said that the HS would come after He returned to the Father (Jn 16:7), but Jesus is obviously still with his disciples.

2) Jesus has previously used a symbolic act to speak of an imminent event as if it were already happening (Jn 13:7-8; see also 12:23, 31; 17:4).

3) John 20 is decidedly anti-climactic compared to Acts 2. If the disciples received the HS in John 20, it appears to have made no tangible difference. They’re still fearful, slow to understand, etc.

4) Peter marks the HS falling on the disciples in Acts 2 “the beginning” (Acts 11:15). He can’t be alluding to the event in Jn 20 because the proof of the HS falling on Cornelius (and his house) was speaking in tongues which happened in Acts 2.

*one’s answer to this question is related to broader questions about the Church’s birth, the HS’s ministry to the Church, the possibility of a “second blessing” of the Spirit, etc.


The author wishes to thank the slumbering congregant who provided the impetus for this post.


Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Lead pastor at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian, theological Luddite, and long-suffering Atlanta Falcons fan. A student of one book.

3 thoughts on “Strange Scripture: Jesus breathes on the disciples”

  1. Perhaps if the teaching in this person’s Sunday School class was as articulate and interesting as this post, there would be no cause for the hypersomnia.


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