Disciples Forgive (John 20:19-23)

day of pentecost

Six weeks ago, on the Sunday after Easter, we looked at this same story from the perspective that Jesus sends his disciples into the world. Discipleship is about Jesus preparing and equipping us to carry on his work in the world on his behalf by the power of his Spirit.

As we celebrate God’s gift of his Holy Spirit to his people at Pentecost, I want to look at this story again from the perspective of the work the Spirit empowers us to do.

I have had lots of conversations with Christians over the years about how the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer. One aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work that doesn’t seem to get talked about a lot, however, is the Spirit’s work of forgiveness. Yet here, at the end of his gospel, when Jesus appeared to his disciples in the evening of his resurrection, John makes a strong connection between the gift of the Holy Spirit with the forgiveness of sins.

Maybe one of the reasons we don’t talk about forgiveness a lot is because our culture doesn’t like talking about sin. We still suffer from the effects of sin, though, even if we want to try to deny its existence. So many people that I talk to describe how they feel guilty, or have regrets in life, or carry a sense of shame. The remedy for these afflictions rests in the gift Jesus gave to his disciples in this story: forgiveness.

Another reason talking about forgiveness can be difficult is that it doesn’t come naturally to us. We tend to find it hard to believe that we can be forgiven for the wrongs we have done or the guilt that we carry. We can also find it hard to forgive people who have wronged us. That is why the gift of the Holy Spirit is so important for us. The Spirit of God works in us what we can’t do for ourselves. The Spirit creates forgiving hearts within us by giving us the forgiveness Jesus won for us on the cross and the empty tomb. Then, having experienced forgiveness, we are more likely be forgiving people. That is why Jesus taught his disciples, including us, to love others like he loves us (John 13:34). To love someone means forgiving them and not keeping a record of their wrongs (see 1 Corinthians 13:5).

This isn’t a gift that is just given to pastors, priests, or whatever your name for the professional clergy might be. Just as one of the emphases of the festival of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is given to all of God’s people, so all of God’s people have the authority and the privilege to lift the burdens of guilt, shame and regret by forgiving others. We all pray ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’ in the Lord’s Prayer. The sad reality is that some people never hear words of forgiveness outside of worship, so I consider it a high priority each week to tell people who live in a harsh, judging and condemning world that they are forgiven for Christ’s sake. It is my constant prayer that the Spirit of the living Christ will use these words to breathe life into people’s hearts so they can believe they really are forgiven children of God whom he loves and with whom he is pleased (Mark 1:11 etc), and they can in turn extend God’s forgiveness to the people in their lives who need it.

Obviously, forgiveness isn’t all the Holy Spirit does in the life of a believer, but it is a vital and life-giving aspect of the Spirit’s work. As we celebrate the festival of Pentecost, it is good to remember firstly that Jesus’ disciples are forgiven people and to ask the Spirit of Christ to give us a bold faith to hang on to the forgiveness he gives to us. As Jesus’ forgiven disciples, then, we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit to extend that same forgiveness to everyone in our lives, especially those who deserve it the least but need it the most.

More to think about:

  • Why do you think some people find it hard to accept forgiveness? Why do you think some people find it hard to forgive others?
  • Do you find it easy to believe that you are a forgiven person? If you are living with guilt or shame or regret, where do you think these feelings come from?
  • Why do you think John connects Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples with the forgiveness of sins? (It might help to go back to Jesus promising the Paraclete [someone who stands beside us and speaks God’s truth to us] in John 14:16,17)
  • Who is someone that you find difficult to forgive? How might the gift of God’s Holy Spirit help you to forgive that person?
  • Who do you know that might need the gift of forgiveness? How might you be able to extend Jesus’ gift of forgiveness to them?
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Jesus in You (John 14:15-21)

HS helper 03

Last week we heard Jesus say that we see the Father when we see him, and we get to know the Father when we get to know him, because Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Jesus (vv1-14). From Jesus’ words we can think of discipleship as following him into a deeper and closer relationship with God the Father so we can participate with God in his work of redeeming, restoring and renewing the world.

But what about the Holy Spirit? As Christians who believe in and teach the Trinity, we believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one. So what is the role of the Spirit of God in this new relationship we have with the Father through the Son?

In John 14, Jesus continues by promising that he will ask the Father who will give us the Paraclete (v16). This word means someone who stands beside us to speak for us and to speak to us, which is why it can be translated as Advocate, Helper, Comforter, Encourager or Counsellor. This is the Spirit of Truth (v17) which, Jesus promises, is with us and will be, or is already, in us (depending on how we read the verb).

We need to pause at this point because of our post-modern culture’s difficulty with the word ‘truth.’ Our society has a tendency to want to make all ‘truth’ relative so that there is no one, absolute truth. Instead, post-modernism argues, we live with many truths, yours being different than mine, with the end result that there is no one ‘truth’ we can rely on.

I understand and agree that we need to respect and value what people hold as ‘truth’ for themselves. However, we then need to ask, what is the ‘Truth’ that Jesus talks about, and is it possible for us to find a ‘Truth’ in him that we can trust enough to build a life on?

Earlier in chapter 14, Jesus said that he is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (v6). One way we can think of the ‘Spirit of Truth’ that Jesus promises to give us as not an idea, a concept, or even a doctrinal theology to be discussed, debated or even defended. Instead, if Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, it is possible to think of the ‘Truth’ as a person – Jesus himself. This would mean that the Spirit of Truth that he promises us is his own Spirit, which will be with us and even in us!

This is what Jesus seems to mean when he says, ‘When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you’ (v20 NLT). The role of the Spirit of Truth that Jesus is talking about here is to bring us into the relationship that exists between the Father and the Son by living in us so as we live in him, he lives in us, and together we are one with God in perfect relationship.

There are times in life when this can be hard to believe. Especially when life is difficult or challenging, when we suffer from physical or mental illness, grief or loss of any kind, we can start to wonder where God is and why he is letting us go through pain or emptiness. This is where we need the Spirit to lead us deeper into the Truth. We can find in Christ that, even in the darkest times of life, we are one with the Father through Jesus by the power of the Spirit, and nothing can separate us from his love for us as his children whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased (Romans 8:38,39; Matthew 3:17 etc). We can understand the work of the Paraclete, then, as speaking words of grace and truth to us when we need them the most, and leading us into a deeper relationship with the Truth of God who is made a human being in the person of Jesus, so that, as people who are in the Father through the Son, we can live the life Jesus came to give us (14:19; 10:10).

As disciples of Jesus, following Jesus can mean living each and every day in this Truth, no matter what our circumstances might be, no matter whether we feel it or not. Living in the Spirit of Truth can mean that whether life is good or bad, whether we are cruising or battling, even if we struggle to get out of bed in the morning or to put one foot in front of the other, the Spirit of the living Christ gives us the ability to trust that God is with us, for us and in us. As the Spirit of Truth lives in us we share in the life of Jesus, and nothing, not even death, can overcome it.

Obviously there is a lot more we could say about the work of the Spirit of Truth in the lives of God’s people. There is good teaching on the Holy Spirit, and there are some ideas about the Spirit’s work that I struggle with based on what the Bible teaches. In a lot of ways, however, our understanding of the Holy Spirit needs to be founded on what Jesus says to us in this passage. The gift of the Paraclete is to bring us into God’s Truth – that we are one with the Father through the Son by the power of the Spirit. In this new relationship, we can find a God who loves us, that we can love in return, and we can live in ways that bring life to ourselves and to as we follow Jesus’ commands in faith, hope and love.

More to think about:

  • How do you picture the Holy Spirit? What do you think of the picture of the Spirit as Paraclete – someone who stands beside us to speak for us and to us? What do you like about it? What is difficult for you?
  • How do you understand the idea of ‘truth’? Do you believe there are absolute truths (always true, no matter what)? What might they be? Are some truths relative (different for different people at different times)? How do you work out what truths are absolute and which are relative?
  • Some years ago I came across the idea that the Spirit of Truth Jesus talks about is his Spirit because Jesus is God’s Truth. What do you think of this idea: that Truth from a biblical point of view is more about a person with whom we can have a relationship than an idea to be discussed and debated?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to believe that you are one with God the Father through Jesus the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit? What makes it a challenge? What helps you to believe it?
  • How might you live tomorrow differently if you were to go into it believing that you are one with God through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit? How might that faith shape what you do & say to others?