Then Jesus said to them again, “Peace be to you. As my Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven, and if you retain the sins of anyone, they are retained.” John 20:21-23
On the evening of that first Easter Day, Jesus appeared to His disciples where they were gathered together behind closed doors for fear of the Jews and showed them His hands and His side to prove to them that He truly was Jesus and that He really had risen from the dead (John 20:19-20).
Two times Jesus said to them: “Peace be to you.” Since Christ had died on the cross for their sins and was risen again in victory, they had peace with God – the peace of having all sins pardoned and forgiven through faith in the shed blood of Jesus (cf. Eph. 2:11ff.; 1 John 2:1-2).
The Bible says: “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we also have access by faith into this grace in which we stand and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1-2).
Not only did Jesus bless His disciples with the peace of sins forgiven, He breathed on them, gave them His Holy Spirit and commissioned them to forgive the sins of penitent sinners and to retain (not forgive) the sins of impenitent sinners as long as they do not repent (John 20:21-23).
We speak of this as The Office of the Keys because it opens the gates of heaven to those who are sorry for their sins and look in faith to Christ and His atoning sacrifice on the cross for pardon and forgiveness, and it closes the gates of heaven to those who are not sorry for their sins and do not trust in Christ Jesus and His cross (cf. John 3:14-18).
Indeed, it takes the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit to use and apply these keys to others rightly, but this is what Christ our Savior would have us do as His disciples!
Some would object and say, “How can we, as believers in Christ, forgive and retain sins? Only God can do that!” This power is given to Christ’s Church precisely because of Christ’s death on the cross for the sins of all mankind and His glorious resurrection on the third day. Since Christ has paid for all sin and is risen in victory, we can announce and proclaim God’s pardon and peace to penitent sinners. And since Christ is the only way of salvation, we must also warn those who continue in sin and unbelief of the coming judgment of God and point out that apart from repentance and faith in Christ Jesus, they stand condemned to the eternal torments of hell.
As Jesus says, “He who believes in him is not condemned, but he who does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God” (John 3:18).
Dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we thank and praise You for Your death on the cross for our sins and Your glorious resurrection and ascension. Grant us Your Holy Spirit that we may always trust in You and find peace in the pardon You have won for us, and help us to rightly apply Your Word to others that they too might receive the comfort and peace of knowing their sins are forgiven and that they too might have life everlasting through faith in Your name. Amen.
[Scripture is quoted from the Revised Common Version of the Bible.]