Sunday, February 15, 2015


If someone asked you what's in the Gospels what would you tell him? Here are some things that would be on most people's list: the miracles, Jesus' teachings, and certainly His death and resurrection. You'll find all those things in each of the Gospels. But there is something else that you'll also find in each of them: Jesus giving His Church a mission. You've all heard sermons on the Great Commission about making disciples. It's at the end of Matthew. Jesus does the same sort of thing in Mark's Gospel except there He talks about proclaiming the Gospel to all creation. You'll find the same mission in Luke where Jesus commands that repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed to all the nations. Each one is a different perspective on the same mission.

Did you know that John follows the same pattern? He also has Jesus giving His Church a mission. And that's what we're going to look at this morning. Listen as I read it (John 20.19-23).

Let's start off with a little honesty. This sounds odd. In fact, it sounds wrong.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.

Really? That's the mission of the Church? It must be. Jesus said it. It's one perspective on the mission that He has given to His Church. But what is it? What are we supposed to be doing?

As part of the preaching of the Gospel, the Church is to declare that a person's sins are forgiven - or that they are not. Or to say that differently, the Church is to declare who is and isn't a Christian. I'm guessing that none of us grew up in churches that thought or acted in this way. It just sounds wrong. Well, here's the question. If this isn't about Jesus giving His Church authority to declare who is and isn't a Christian, what is it about? What's the mission here, if not this?

True confession time. I want you to know that I tried hard not to preach on this aspect of this text. I was going to try to preach on Jesus saying 'Peace be with you' or maybe about the importance of receiving the Spirit. Anything but this. But it became clear to me that the Spirit wants me to talk to you about this. And one reason He does is because it actually is practical. It makes a difference in how you live.

I remember this time I was at a week-long conference for Christians about counselling. There were several hundred there. One evening the speaker asked the people to raise their hand if they had doubts about their assurance, doubts about being sure they are Christians. Most of the hands went up. Now understand, these were motivated Christians who invested time and money for this week of teaching. Most of them struggled with being sure that they were true disciples of Jesus.

That was a long time ago. Folk today don't think about assurance as much. Today, the tendency is just to assume that everything is fine. But there are still those who have lingering doubts at the edges that they try to ignore. How good it would be if these strugglers heard someone say with authority - authority from Jesus - 'Your sins are forgiven. Things between you and the Father are really good. Relax and enjoy that.' What a comfort that would be. That's one reason why Jesus gave this mission to His Church.

This mission also applies to those who just presume that everything is fine. What if it isn't? How terrible to have expectations of heaven only to hear Jesus say, 'Depart from Me. I never knew you.' There are times when the Church needs to say to these people, 'Your sins are not forgiven. Things are not good between you and the Father. Don't relax', and to say that so that there might be true repentance and faith.

So, you see, this is important. Understanding and applying this aspect of the mission can give great comfort and a sense of safety, or a warning that there should be neither comfort nor a sense of safety.

Now, how does this work? How can a Church make such declarations? Consider the perspective on this mission that Matthew recorded. Jesus, there, tells His Church to make disciples. That involves calling people to come to Jesus to follow Him and then, after baptizing those who do come, teaching them how to obey all of Jesus' commands. Now, this is where John's account of the Church's mission comes into play. When someone responds to this calling with faith and begins a life of discipleship the Church declares to him, 'Your sins are forgiven. It's all good between you and the Father'. The Church makes this declaration on the evidence of faith in Jesus which shows as obedience to His commands. The person is living like a disciple of Jesus. And as long as he gives that evidence, the Church continues to tell him, 'Your sins are forgiven. It's all good between you and the Father'. And the Church does this, in part, to encourage him to continue the hard work of following Jesus.

Understand what is built-in to this. Being a disciple is not a matter of once upon a time making a profession. Being a disciple is about continually following Jesus. It's about obeying – how did He put it? - 'all that I have commanded you'. Now, it's just a fact that no one does that all the time. That's just a different way of saying that we still sin. But Jesus anticipated that. That's why He also said,

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.

We all fail, at various points, to be faithful disciples. But we are all helped when a brother or sister comes to us to point that out so that we can acknowledge that sin and repent of it. And when that happens, everything is good. But Jesus knows that there will be those who will not listen and thus will not repent. Jesus tells us to follow a process, motivated by love, to help the sinning person to admit his sin and repent of it so that, once again, everything is good between him and the Father. Sadly, there are those who still will not listen. So, Jesus says this,

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

There will be those who, even after much loving counsel by the Church, will still refuse to repent. Jesus says that in those situations the Church is to declare that person 'a Gentile and a tax collector'. Remember that Jesus' audience was a group of Jewish men. Being labelled 'a Gentile' meant that such a person was excluded from the people of God. And by being called a 'tax collector' for the Romans this person was being labelled as someone who has turned away from Jesus to work for Satan, enemy of Jesus and the people of God.

The Church is to declare that such a person is not a Christian. After all, how could he be a faithful disciple if he refuses to obey all that Jesus commanded?

So, you see, it is for the encouragement of faithful disciples and for the warning of professing Christians not living like faithful disciples that Jesus said,

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.

I think that you can sense the enormity of what I am talking about. Who would dare to make such declarations? How could anyone or any group do so? That's why Jesus also says,

Receive the Holy Spirit.

For the Church to be able to obey Jesus and pursue this mission we need what only the Spirit can give. To pursue this mission well we need love to deal with difficult people who are refusing to repent. We need patience to go again and again to plead with them to repent. We need wisdom, the ability to understand what's really going on in a situation. And we need courage, the bold confidence, if it comes to it, to declare someone not a Christian and to do that in hope, in the hope that at some point that person would take that declaration seriously, come to his senses and turn to Jesus as a real disciple. So, it is only with the ability that the Spirit gives that we can pursue this mission.

Let me mention one way that this is immediately practical. All of this makes a difference in how I address you, how I preach to you. Last week in the sermon about the resurrection I said this to you.

So, the relationship that you now have with the Father is like the relationship that Jesus has with the Father. Just as the Father declared His love for Jesus, He declares His love for you. Death is being reversed.

There are many pastors who would never say those words in a sermon. They would change it to something like this.

So, if you are a true believer, the relationship that you now have with the Father is like the relationship that Jesus has with the Father. Just as the Father declared His love for Jesus, He declares His love for every real Christian. Death is being reversed.

Sounds different, no? The second way is not only weak, it is also damaging. It encourages doubt. How many Christians hear a sermon filled with that sort of tentative language and come away thinking, 'Am I a true believer? Maybe not. Does the Father actually love me in the way He loves Jesus? I don't know. There was that awful sin just yesterday. Maybe I'm a phony. I can't believe those words. I can't take them to heart. I'm not sure they apply to me.' How many honest to goodness Christians struggle with this.

And words about the love of God that should so encourage and build up faith fail to do that in the lives of saints who need it most. How helpful to be told - with no qualifiers - that the Father loves you, yes you! And He loves you just as He loves Jesus.

But understand why pastors preach that other way. They tell themselves, 'How can I know who is a Christian and who isn't. It just might be that none of these people are Christians. How do I know? I don't what to give any false hope to someone who isn't a real Christian.' And so, in the interest of being honest and faithful to the truth, he says it that second way: 'So, if you are a true believer ...'

I don't preach that way. Here's why. It's because the Church has declared that your sins are forgiven. It's all good between you and the Father. So, I speak to you as Christians. This lies at the heart of the notion of membership. The Church makes that declaration whenever someone becomes a member. And it does that with authority, the authority that Jesus gave to His Church in John 20. And I dare say preaching in this way helps you to deal with doubts and to develop confidence as a Christian.

There are still lots of questions. But this is a good start. So, as you look at what Jesus says in John 20 about the mission of the Church understand that this is also part of the Gospel. Believe it and enjoy the difference it makes in your life as a disciple.