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."
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.
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.
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
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
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!