I finished Lee Harmon’s John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened. In this post, I’ll write about John 20:23, then I will provide my overall assessment of Lee’s book.
John 20:23 states (in the King James Version): “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.”
This verse has long disturbed me, the same way that Matthew 16:19 has troubled me. (Matthew 16:19 says in the KJV: “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”) The reason is that I have a hard time with the notion that God would condition God’s acceptance or rejection of me on what fallible human beings think. I have seen or heard of church leaders abusing their power and scaring their congregants with the threat that God will reject them if they disobey the church authorities. And I draw comfort from the notion that God sides with what’s right and that God loves me, even if there are other human beings (even church authorities) who might not.
Is there a better way to understand John 20:23? As I look at Protestant commentaries, such as those of John Gill and John MacArthur, I see the idea that the church has the authority to declare that people are forgiven or unforgiven in the sense that God has given it stewardship over the Gospel, upon which forgiveness is conditioned: if a person repents and receives the Gospel, then the church will declare that person forgiven; if the person rejects the Gospel, then the church will declare him or her unforgiven. According to this view, as I understand it, the church has authority in terms of forgiveness because it possesses the means of forgiveness (the Gospel), and yet whether or not a person is forgiven does not depend on the whims of church leaders, but rather on acceptance of the Gospel that the church preaches.
Lee has a similar view, at least somewhat. Lee talks about John 20:23 on pages 342-343. According to Lee, Jesus in John 20:23 is encouraging the disciples to go out and preach forgiveness, which is the way that people will become free. Otherwise, people are lost and in sin. But my impression is that Lee differs somewhat from how many evangelicals would understand this: that we need to preach the Gospel because otherwise people will not hear and will go to hell because they did not have a chance to receive God’s forgiveness, and thus are in a state of unforgiveness. According to Lee, God has already forgiven everyone, but we’re the ones who keep dragging others’ sin up in our refusal to forgive and let things go. By atoning for our sin, Jesus has given us the opportunity to “see beyond it.” In this Jubilee, we should be setting people free rather than holding grudges. God has forgiven everyone, but that does not free people if we do not let them know that they are forgiven or forgive them ourselves.
Both the views of Protestant interpreters and Lee’s view are thought-provoking, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is truth in what they say. Still, when I read the verse, it seems to say that God’s forgiveness (not just our cognizance of God’s forgiveness) is somehow conditioned on whether or not the disciples exercise forgiveness (not just preach the Gospel). I don’t think that Jesus was giving the disciples a loaded pistol or knowingly sanctioning the abuse of power. But, somehow, the church seems to have authority when it comes to people’s forgiveness.
Now, for my overall assessment of Lee’s book. Again, I’d like to thank him for sending me a copy. I have enjoyed reading it, and I have found it thought-provoking, intellectually stimulating, and spiritually inspiring. In terms of its positives, I appreciated its picture of Christians struggling to recover their faith after the failure of their apocalyptic expectations, Lee’s discussion of early Christians’ diversity and their complex interaction with the Hebrew Bible, and Lee’s wide-ranging knowledge of biblical scholarship, which he manifests in the book. In terms of its negatives, there were times when I wished that Lee provided more footnotes to document what he was saying, especially when he was talking about how John’s Gospel reflects pagan religions in areas (which, as he knows, has been debated within scholarship). Moreover, it seemed to me that Lee contradicted himself in areas: he presents Paul as believing in a realized resurrection, but later he says that Paul expected for the resurrection to be future; he says that John’s Gospel knew of II Thessalonians 2:13 (which is about the son of perdition, the man of sin) and applies the “son of perdition” label to Judas, but Lee later contends that II Thessalonians 2:13 was a reaction against John applying the label to Judas (pages 268, 350); and I’m still not clear about whether or not Lee thinks that John believed in an afterlife. Contradiction is understandable, for there are plenty of arguments that can make sense or manifest a degree of plausibility, even though they contradict each other; I struggled with this when I did my comprehensive exam in Hebrew Bible! But I think that a book should be consistent. Overall, I’d say that Lee’s book was consistent, in terms of its big picture: that John was replacing a futurist eschatology with a realized eschatology. But it was mostly on side-issues that there appeared to be inconsistencies.
I blogged a lot through this book, but there were plenty of topics that I did not get to (i.e., John was from a priestly family). My blog posts hopefully gave you a taste, and you are now tempted to buy Lee’s book and read it for yourself!