“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”” (John 20:19–23, ESV)
I don't know if it was that Jesus was unexpected or that He appeared different in His resurrected body, but once again we read that He appeared and was not immediately recognized. Imagine being locked behind a door for fear that you might be arrested and have done to you what they had just done to your Lord, and then your Lord comes and stands right next to you. I imagine that He just appeared in their midst, and in appearing He spoke to them saying, “Peace be with you.” Those were probably very appropriate words. First of all, they were in hiding because of the fear of persecution, and then Jesus appears seemingly out of nowhere. What they thought was secure was proven not to be so. And not only did He appear in spite of their locked doors He then spoke to them and showed them His hands and His side to prove Himself. Both are amazing and unexpected feats; things for which they had no explanation. But in speaking to them and showing Himself Jesus immediately moved to calm their initial fears by assuring them that He really was their Lord Jesus who they saw crucified and who was now alive. He was not a spirit or a vision, but their real and living Lord.
They had been told by Mary and John and Peter, and now He was standing before them Himself. It was probably an understatement by John to write that they were glad to see Him. I can only imagine how their hearts were racing at that moment, and I would love to know exactly what they were thinking. Jesus had told them so much about His death, burial, and resurrection, but from what we see written in Scripture it appears that they obviously did not get it. But at that very moment they were presented with the undeniable reality of His resurrection and the joy of knowing Him to be alive.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” So, Jesus proceeded to speak to them again. The first time He had said, “Peace be with you,” it was most likely intended to calm their fears. This next time it was to reassure them of their calling. Proving Himself to be their risen Lord who conquered death, He restated that they themselves were to go out into the world to reach the very people He came to save. Having known the peace of God they were now to go out into the world to share the good news that in Christ others might know His peace as well, and because they knew that Christ had power over sin and death they could go into even the most hostile situations with at peace knowing that God had them firmly in His hands and that not even death could snatch them away. Surely they did not recognize all of this at that moment, but as we read from their own word later in Scripture they would come to know this with full assurance in the days and years to come.
We go on to read that after He had spoken these words that He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” We know from Acts chapter 1 that the Holy Spirit would not come in the way that Jesus had not spoken of until some days later. He said in Acts 1:4 and 8, “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me;” … “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”” (Acts 1:4, 8, ESV) So, what did John mean when He said that Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”? We can most likely assume that just as Jesus was sending them into the world so was He reaffirming His pledge that they would soon be filled and equipped with the Holy Spirit, and with that He also spoke of the power of the Spirit to give forgiveness and life to those who believe to withhold it from those who don’t. No man has the power to forgive sins. That power rests solely in the Father by belief in the Son through the inner working of the Spirit. But as His ambassadors they were being sent as His agents to proclaim this incredibly good news through the power of the Spirit who would soon reside in them. Because Jesus declared if to be sold they could boldly proclaim it with full assurance that what He said He would do He indeed would do. When the disciples would tell people of salvation in Christ they could do so knowing that salvation was found in Him and Him alone. Similarly, they could speak with equal assurance and boldness that rejecting the Son was rejecting the Father and in so doing assuring that only judgment awaited. There would be no forgiveness apart from Christ.
They were being sent in His name and empowered to speak with His authority. This is truly what it means to be an ambassador, and like the disciples we also are called as ambassadors as we read in 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20–21, ESV) Paul wrote that it was as if God were making His appeal through us. Just as Paul and the apostles were set apart by Christ for this ministry, so are we called and charged to do likewise knowing that just as they were indwelt and empowered by the Spirit so are we.
As an extra, the question arises from time to time why Christians in large numbers gather to worship on Sunday instead of the Jewish Sabbath or Saturday. While there are Christians who do gather to worship on the Sabbath, the church in general has chosen Sunday as a memorial of the day on which our Lord rose from the dead, and in recognition of it also being the day that He appeared to Mary and the disciples. We will also read as we continue through the verses that follow that it was also on the following Sunday (as the Jews counted days the eighth day counting the day in which the counting started) that He appeared again to them again as they were gathered, this time with Thomas.
And then according to the instruction given through Moses the observance of Pentecost itself, the day on which the Spirit would come, was to be observed one day after seven weeks beginning the day after the Sabbath of Passover. This was to occur on the 50th day, the first day of the week, or Sunday. While there is no specific directive concerning a day upon which the church was to gather to worship, there is an establish practice based upon these and other historical biblical events. As we go on to read in Acts 2:1 on the day of Pentecost the disciples were again gathered together in one place when, “… suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit….” (Acts 2:2–4, ESV)
God’s plan is perfect. It happened just as He said, and He continues to work just as perfect today. We have nothing to fear. We are at peace with God and knowing His strong hand on us we are called to go into the world in the power of the Spirit to proclaim salvation, trusting that God’s Spirit is also in that process doing the work of drawing people unto Him.