What is the correct interpretation of John 20:23?


John 20:23

ESV - 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.

Clarify Share Report Asked July 01 2013 Mini Anonymous (via GotQuestions)

For follow-up discussion and general commentary on the topic. Comments are sorted chronologically.

Mini Joe Roberson

Mr. Houdmann, although I appreciate all the insights you provided and agree with ALL you said I do not see that you answered the question. Your position was that God the Father (and obviously Jesus as His son as He is God) have the power to forgive sin. But this verse SEEMS to delegate that authority to the disciples which would conflict with our idea that only GOD/JESUS can forgive sin. Can you provide more explanation with THAT in mind and not just God's authority to forgive sin? THANKS!!!

November 29 2015 Report

Mini Tim Darden

I often wondered about the reference to forgive 7 times 70, or 490 times. I do not think we get a "pass" when, or if, we ever get to number 491. Neither do I believe it was a ceiling set so high that I would never have the opportunity to get to 491. I believe it could be a reference to the seventy weeks (of years) found in Daniel 9:24 regarding the end of times, The point is that God will judge all at the end of time, and I am never to withhold forgiveness, not ever.

June 07 2018 Report

Mini Michael Davis

In seeking to understand any scripture I look at what the context is, the intent of the writer, and ask what the Church Fathers had to say about the scripture. After all, these were the men who were taught by the ones who wrote the New Testament. I also look at what the Church teaches about a given Scripture as Peter tells us that no Scripture is of private interpretation.

Let’s look at the context. Jesus is speaking to the Apostles. He is not speaking to anyone else, as this is a closed session He is having with the Disciples specifically. Note that although He had met with many others since His Resurrection He did not make this statement to any of them. He only made the statement to the Disciples specifically. But why would Jesus give the Apostles authority to forgive or withhold forgiveness?

Let’s now look at the Church Fathers to find the answer. When I refer to the Church Fathers I tend to speak generally, because the evidence of what they had to say on various matters is so abundant that there is not enough space to possibly quote them fairly. I encourage you to research what the Fathers had to say on this particular issue. What I can say is that they repeatedly spoke of the incarnation of Jesus, and that since His incarnation God has bound Himself to humanity in such a way that He acts through humans to accomplish His will. Therefore, on this matter of what Jesus was saying and doing in this passage is that He was giving His authority to the Apostles to either forgive people’s sins or withhold forgiveness. We are the body of Christ and it is through the leaders of that body that He has given this authority. Therefore, the Fathers teach that with this passage and also where Jesus on another occasion gives the Church the authority to loose or bind, we must obtain forgiveness of sins through the apostles. This does not in anyway take away form Jesus and His sacrifice. So, how do you obtain this forgiveness and does it take away from Jesus by obtaining it through the authority of the Apostles?

Let us now look at what the Church teaches. Since Scripture is not of private interpretation the Church has settled clearly for the last 2,000 what Jesus is doing here. He is giving His authority to the Apostles to forgive sins before He returns to heaven. As humans we are both spiritual and physical beings. So, God has given us His spiritual presence, but also His physical presence in the Apostles. As for the question I asked above, the Church settled long ago from it’s beginning that in order to obtain forgiveness of sins one must do so through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (often known as Confession). After all, how can the Apostles know whether or not to forgive sins if they don’t know what the sins are and what the attitude of our heart is toward our sin? In this passage Christ is giving us this Sacrament as an ongoing gift. Keep in mind that we sin daily and therefore need to confess our sins regularly. But we have a problem. The Apostles died long ago, and it is impossible for the Apostles to hear everyone’s sins. So, from the beginning (there is overwhelming documented evidence of this) the Church gave it’s authority to the local bishops to carry this out, and the bishops, not being able to hear everyone’s confession, gave the authority to the priests in each church. Again, the evidence is there that the authority of the Apostles has been historically carried through the Popes and Bishops. That is how the Church interprets this passage and how She carries out this call from Christ.

But doesn’t this take away from Christ? No! If it does then Christ would not have given the Apostles His authority to forgive sins. When a priest is carrying out this duty he is acting ‘persona Christi’- ‘in the person of Christ’. Jesus returned to heaven, so He gave us physical leaders to act in His ‘person’ to carry out His work after He returned to Heaven.

I know that this is wordy, but I am trying to get a big concept in a few words.

December 07 2018 Report

My picture Jack Gutknecht

On the condition that the unsaved will trust in Jesus Christ, we can definitively proclaim to them that their transgressions have been pardoned, however, we are not the ones who give absolution. My answer is based on the Greek text.

July 02 2020 Report

Mini Shirley H

1 John 1:8,9 "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in US. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all righteousness."

Proverbs 28:13, "He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy."

When Jesus died on the cross, the veil was torn from top to bottom! We have direct access to the throne of God. AMEN!

April 18 2021 Report

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