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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Baptism with the Holy Spirit

Don Stewart :: What Happened in the Upper Room When Jesus Told His Disciples to Receive the Holy Spirit?

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What Happened in the Upper Room When Jesus Told His Disciples to Receive the Holy Spirit? (John 20:21, 22)

Baptism with the Holy Spirit – Question 25

We know that the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples some fifty days after His resurrection. This took place on the Day of Pentecost. Scripture makes this clear when it records the following.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:1-4 TNIV).

If this is the case, then how do we explain this particular episode that took place the day of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead?

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” (John 20:21,22 ESV).

Jesus told them to receive the Holy Spirit. We assume that they did receive the Spirit at that time. If so, then what occurred at Pentecost? Did they receive the Spirit of God again?

This Cannot Mean Power from on High

These words of Jesus, as recorded in John’s gospel, cannot mean that the disciples received power from on high at that time. Indeed, Jesus specifically commanded them to wait in Jerusalem until the Day of Pentecost had come.

And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, “which,” He said, “you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4, 5 NKJV).

If this was not the fullness of the Holy Spirit, they received on the day of His resurrection, then what was it? Does this indicate that there is a gap of time between receiving the Holy Spirit and experiencing His fullness? What was this “receiving of the Spirit” all about?

What Happened to Them?

We must note that this is a difficult question. There are a number of views regarding this episode that attempt to provide a satisfactory answer. They include the following.

Option 1: The Disciples Were Regenerated at This Time

Some feel the disciples were saved or regenerated at this time. The baptism with the Holy Spirit, which occurred on the Day of Pentecost, is viewed as a second work of the Spirit. This episode provides a pattern for all believers.

First, a person receives the Holy Spirit at conversion and then later they are baptized with the power of the Holy Spirit. This position assumes that the disciples had earlier failed to ask for the Holy Spirit as Jesus had commanded them. We read His words as follows.

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13 NRSV).

Thus, their reception of the Spirit of God at that particular time was due to their lack of asking for Him. Consequently, this episode represent the Holy Spirit entering their lives for the first time.

However, the New Testament seems to say that the disciples were regenerated long before this time. Indeed, when Jesus sent them out to minister for Him, He said their names were already recorded in heaven.

Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20 NRSV).

This would have meant that they would have already received the Holy Spirit. In fact, it is hard to imagine how they could have performed the signs and wonders which they did perform without the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus also said that these disciples of His did not belong to this present world system. John records Jesus praying the following to God the Father.

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world (John 17:14 ESV)

In addition, the context of Jesus’ appearance to them is not their regeneration, but rather Jesus sending them out to proclaim the His message of forgiveness of sins to the lost world.

Option 2: This Was John’s Description of Pentecost

Another possible way of understanding this passage is that it was John’s description of what actually happened on the Day of Pentecost. In other words, John recorded the same event as we find in the first chapter of Acts.

The problem with holding this position is that Pentecost occurred some fifty days after this event. Furthermore, Pentecost occurred after Jesus ascended into heaven, not before. Therefore this cannot be an explanation of the events on Pentecost. Another explanation is needed.

Option 3: This Was a Symbolic Representation

There is also the view that this episode is symbolic what would occur fifty days later on the Day of Pentecost. This would have been a foretaste to the disciples as to what would occur in their lives in a short period of time.

Furthermore, it would have reminded them of God’s original creative act of Adam recorded in Genesis. We read the following.

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being (Genesis 2:7 NKJV).

As God breathed into Adam and gave Him physical life, God the Son breathed into His disciples and gave them spiritual life. Indeed, Jesus is later described as a life-giving Spirit by the Apostle Paul.

Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45 NRSV).

This symbolic representation of the coming of the Spirit would also have reminded them of the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

The problem with this view is that nothing in the context suggests it. Indeed, the context clearly seems to teach that they received something. Neither does this view explain Jesus sending our His disciples with the message of forgiveness of sin.

Option 4: It Was a Temporary Giving of the Holy Spirit

A fourth viewpoint is to understand this as a temporary giving of the Spirit. The disciples were given this temporary infusion to last until the Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came upon the believer permanently.

This experience, therefore, was unique to Jesus’ disciples and their particular historical situation and does not serve as a pattern for the lives of present-day believers.

Option 5: Jesus Gave His Disciples the Holy Spirit So They Could Proclaim Forgiveness

This position sees Jesus giving the Holy Spirit to the disciples in a unique way that would allow them to proclaim forgiveness. The thrust of the passage is that they would now go out and preach His message of forgiveness of sins. To be able to do so, they needed a special anointing of the Holy Spirit. Consequently this passage has nothing to do with Pentecost or any second work of the Spirit.

Although they had already received the gift of the Holy Spirit, they now receive Him again for a greater purpose.

While it is true that the context is Jesus sending out His disciples with the message of forgiveness, it is not necessary to assume that this happened at that moment. It is possible that He was speaking of what they were about to do. Indeed, they were specifically told to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them with the power to witness to Jesus Christ and preach forgiveness of sins.

In addition, this view would mean that the disciples received the Holy Spirit for a third time on the Day of Pentecost.

Option 6: It Was a Prophecy of the Coming of the Holy Spirit

Others take this statement of Jesus as a prophecy. When He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” He was promising the disciples the Holy Spirit what they would received on the Day of Pentecost – not at that particular moment. Indeed, there is no indication that the disciples received the Holy Spirit at that moment. The fulfillment did not happen until the Day of Pentecost.

There Is Evidence from the Context That This Is Correct

We find that there is evidence from the context that this is the correct interpretation. In the verse immediately preceding, Jesus told His disciples that He was sending them out.

So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (John 20:21 NKJV).

However, we know that this was not fulfilled at that moment. Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for power on high before they went out and preached the gospel. Luke records Him saying the following.

And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49 NRSV).

Therefore, the statement that Jesus is sending them out is a prophecy – it was not fulfilled at that moment.

In the same manner, we have the statement, “receive the Holy Spirit.” This, too, was not fulfilled at that very moment. Its fulfillment took place on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down in a unique way and empowered the disciples.

Some Argue That Jesus Was Said to Have Breathed Out Not Breathed on Them

There is also the issue of what the Scripture actually says with respect to Jesus’ breathing on His disciples. Although many translations read that He “breathed on them” the phrase “on them” is not in the original. It is argued by some that what the expression means is that Jesus breathed out, like with a great sigh, and then promised them the Holy Spirit. Thus, it is not necessary to assume that He breathed on them and gave them anything at this time. Therefore, according to this argument, this passage cannot be used to insist the disciples received the Holy Spirit at time.

However, in the Greek language, direct objects are not often stated in the sentence but rather are merely implied. If this is the case here, which most Bible translations assume, then the phrase “on them” should be part of the text.

In summary, we can say that this is a difficult passage. Consequently, nobody should build any particular doctrine about the work of the Holy Spirit around this passage.

Summary – Question 25
What Happened in the Upper Room When Jesus Told His Disciples to Receive the Holy Spirit? (John 20:22)

When the disciples were in the Upper Room on Easter Sunday, Jesus breathed out on them and told them to receive the Holy Spirit. The episode recorded in John 20 has a number of different interpretations. They include the following.

When Jesus breathed out and said to His disciples to receive the Holy Spirit He could not be referring to the baptizing work of the Spirit because that would not take place until the Day of Pentecost. Consequently, some other explanation must be in view.

Some see it as the initial reception of the Holy Spirit by Jesus’ disciples. In other words it was their conversion. The Day of Pentecost was the time where they would receive something more; the power of the Holy Spirit otherwise called the “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” However the disciples were believers long before this time. The New Testament assumes they would have received the Holy Spirit early in Jesus’ ministry. So another explanation must be found.

Some believe this was John’s description of what happened on the Day of Pentecost. However, the events of Pentecost happened after Jesus’ ascension, not before it. Consequently, this view does not fit the facts.

Others see this as merely symbolical of the Holy Spirit they were about to receive. Yet there is nothing whatsoever in this passage which would have us believe that what took place was symbolic. Indeed, they were to receive something.

Another view regards this as a temporary indwelling of the Holy Spirit until the Day of Pentecost. Then the permanent indwelling of the Spirit would take place. This temporary indwelling was to get them through the fifty days between Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost.

Some see it as another reception of the Holy Spirit. In this case, Jesus gave them the power to forgive sins at that moment. The problem with this view assumes the Holy Spirit can be received in a number of different ways. The Bible does not teach this.

There is also the view that this was merely prophetic of what these disciples would receive. It is argued that nothing actually happened to them at this time with respect to the reception of the Holy Spirit. This seems to be the best view. Indeed, we know that there is another statement of Jesus in the context, which we know was not fulfilled at that time. He told them He was sending them out. That did not happen until Pentecost. Consequently the statement about receiving the Holy Spirit would also be a prophecy of the events on the Day of Pentecost.

Some argue that the Scripture does not necessarily say that Jesus “breathed on them” but rather that He merely ‘breathed out.” Therefore, we cannot insist that the disciples received any empowering from the Holy Spirit at that moment.

However, this idea is not held by many people. It is a weak argument because the Greek language often does not state the direct object in the sentence because it is clearly understood from the context. This seems to be the case here. It seems obvious that He breathed out “on them.”

In sum, there are a number of possible answers to the meaning of this episode. Whatever view one eventually embraces it should be held with humility. Indeed, there is seemingly no clear answer to this question.

Does the Book of Acts Provide Any Pattern for Believers to Receive the Holy Spirit? ← Prior Section
Is There a Difference between the Holy Spirit Being "in" a Person and Being "upon" a Person? Next Section →
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