After the resurrection in John's gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples and in John 20:22 he breathes on them and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit." What is happening here? Is Jesus giving them the Holy Spirit by breathing on them?

Edit: Maybe this goes a ways towards answering the question, but one of the reasons I'm questioning what's happening here is that connecting John 7:39, John 17:5, and John 20:17 (and others) it seems like in John that the Spirit's coming is connected with Jesus' ascending to the Father.

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    When Pentecost occurred, believers were united with Jesus Christ--that is, they were baptized into his eternal life. When the disciples received the Holy Spirit in John 20:22, they were not baptized into the Body of Christ, but filled with the Holy Spirit in the same way that John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit. There are other examples of such "enduement" in the Old Testament (e.g., Samson, Elijah, Saul, David, Solomon, etc), upon whom the Spirit came. Pentecost was the turning point when these disciples and others were ontologically baptized into the eternal life of Jesus Christ.
    – Joseph
    Commented Jan 19, 2013 at 2:31
  • Maybe the question you should be asking is, "Is Jesus breathing holy breath on them and telling them to receive it"? What I'm saying is, isn't it clear from the context that the PNEUMA is "breath"?
    – Ruminator
    Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 0:47
  • When Jesus died on the cross, his mission was completed, meaning that God would breath his Holy Spirit on everybody who put to death their carnal urges. Commented Feb 24, 2020 at 12:14
  • Based on Jn 20:17; Lk 24:33-49, I'm certain, humbly, that Jesus Christ must have 'secretly' ascended to His Father the day of His resurrection, after stopping to see Mary. And then 'returned.' As He describes in Jn 14:2-3, 12, 16-21, 23, 26, 28-29; 15:26-27; 16:5-10, 13-23; 17:13, 21-24. I am going away and I am coming to you. And now I've told you before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe. A little while and you no longer behold Me, and again a little while and you will see Me
    – Walter S
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 22:45

9 Answers 9


Short Answer: There is strong evidence from Scripture that they actually received the Spirit at Pentecost, and that what we see in John 20:22 was Jesus giving them a visual illustration and command in preparation for that event.

The Controversy

For reference, here is the statement in question:

He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit." -John 20:22

The question is, why did Jesus say this? There are two main views:

  • A) Jesus said, "Receive the Holy Spirit" because He was actually imparting the Holy Spirit at this time, and wanted them to understand what was happening. The "breathing" was to illustrate the giving of Spiritual life, and would be familiar imagery from their knowledge of Genesis 2:7.

  • B) Jesus blew on them to illustrate1 to His disciples that He and the Spirit were one, and that the Spirit would come forth from Him. He then commanded them in advance to "Receive the Holy Spirit" because it was almost time for Him to go to the Father and for the Spirit to come, and He wouldn't be with them to explain it when it happened.

1: Note that the Greek word for Spirit (πνεῦμα) is the same Greek word for wind, and for breath.

The Debate

The A group would say to the B group:

  • Jesus said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." Clearly that means they received the Holy Spirit.

  • The Spirit was to be given after Jesus was glorified, and He was glorified through His crucifiction and resurrection

The B group would say to the A group:

Obviously it is not clear from this passage alone when the Holy Spirit was given. We need to interpret the unclear passages of Scripture in light of what we know from the more clear passages of Scripture.

The Context of Scripture

The event in Acts 2 is referred to in Scripture as the promise of the Father, the baptism in the Spirit, the Holy Spirit coming upon them, receiving the power to be His witnesses, and being filled with the Holy Spirit.

1) Jesus told His disciples:

I am going to Him who sent Me ... it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. -John 16:5-7

This passage indicates (A) that Jesus had to go to the Father in order for the Spirit to come, and (B) that Jesus would "send" the Spirit after He went. Jesus went to the Father in Acts 1:9-11.

  • The A group might argue that Jesus could have gone to the Father between His crucifiction and John 20, but John 20:17 seems to say otherwise.

  • I suppose the A group could try to explain the passage by arguing that the Spirit came according to the Father's foreknowledge that Jesus would go to the Father, but that would throw a wrench in the entire discussion by invalidating the Biblical chronology altogether!

The most obvious solution is that Jesus went to the Father in Acts 1, and the Spirit was sent in Acts 2.

2) John 15:26-27 indicates that the coming of the Spirit would result in them being witnesses. This happened at Pentecost. (See Acts 1:4 and Acts 1:8.)

3) John 16:7-11 indicates that the coming of the Spirit would result in the conviction of the world. This happened at Pentecost. (See Acts 1:4 and Acts 2:14-41.)

See here for a long list of further evidence in support of this interpretation.

  • This answer assumes a Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit that didn't develop until decades after the gospel was written. It reposes the question as a theological debate and then seeks a theological 'solution' that corresponds with a particular systematics. This is not exegesis as I understand it, nor as the author himself describes it here: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/5325/6884
    – Schuh
    Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 22:33
  • Paul fully elaborates on the experience of Christ the Spirit before this Gospel was written. Also, the Messiah was born of the Spirit and spoke of the Spirit of Reality clearly right before His execution, as John the witness records six decades afterwards. In any case, the Spirit was given and received both in Jn 20 as well as in Ac 2. Neither is a pointless 'illustration'; in Ac 1, 40 days after Jn 20, Jesus explained the baptism they were to receive; Jesus 'was there' in Ac 2, 'He and the Spirit were one,' reminding them what He said (Jn 14:26); and the Spirit has two aspects: life and power
    – Walter S
    Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 5:15

Genesis reference

The W. Hall Harris commentary on the issues says this:

The use of the verb ejnefuvshsen to describe the action of Jesus here recalls Gen 2:7 in the LXX, where “the LORD God formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” This time, however, it is Jesus who is breathing the breath/Spirit of eternal life, life from above, into his disciples.

The idea presented in this commentary is not that it's the Holy Spirit, but rather the breath or spirit of eternal life. Just like God breathed life into man in Genesis 2:7, so Jesus breathed eternal life into man there in John 20:22.

Ezekiel allusion

The Harris commentary goes further, saying that it also evokes the imagery of Ezekiel 37:1-14 and the valley of dry bones. In particular, it seems to evoke this passage:

Ezekiel 37:9-10
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army

Eternal Life

It's very clear here that Jesus was giving the Holy Spirit:

John 20:22 (NIV)
And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

It seems most likely that this breathing was Jesus giving them eternal life in the form of the Holy Spirit. This can be seen in the Genesis parallel as well as the allusion to Ezekiel.

This is further supported by the reference that made earlier in John:

John 7:38-39 (NIV)Emphasis added
38 "Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them." 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

However, at this point in John 20, Jesus had been crucified (ie glorified (John 12:23)).

So, the Holy spirit was clearly being given here.

Reconciliation with Pentecost

We can see in Acts 2 the Holy Spirit giving power to speak in tongues at the day of Pentecost. Many presume that this when the Holy Spirit was given to humans.

The Harris commentary argues that the eternal life of the Holy Spirit was given in John 20 and the power of the Holy Spirit was given in Acts 2.

I personally think that John 20 is clear that the Holy Spirit was given at that point. While the manifestation of power was not given until Acts 2, that does not exclude the idea that the Holy Spirit had already been given.


John 20:22 was the point, post-resurrection (ie post-glorification), when the disicples received the Holy Spirit. This is the point at which they received eternal life through the Holy Spirit. And Acts 2 was the first manifestation of the power of the Holy Spirit.

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    Richard, I like your answer. But doesn't it seem inconsistent for Jesus to say "Receive the HOLY Spirit" when he meant "receive eternal life"? Do you still stand by this answer?
    – C. Kelly
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 2:22
  • If you understand the receiving of the Holy Spirit to coincide with the baptizing into the Spirit that occurs at salvation, then this makes sense.
    – Jason Wall
    Commented Feb 13, 2022 at 12:52

As far as I have understood, this is a parallell to the Genesis creation narrative, where God gives Adam life by breathing into his nostrils the breath of life (Gen 2,7). I guess this should be read in the light of the promise in e.g. Ezekiel 11,19 and a response to the prayer in Ps. 51,12.

I don't think this verse should be seen separate from the next, which concerns the power to bind and to loose, and thus is connected with Jesus' word to Peter. I believe that "what happens here" is something different from what happens et pentecost, where everybody receives this spirit: this is something exclusive for Jesus' inner circle, the apostles.

  • Welcome to BibleHermeneutics.SE!
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 19:18
  • :-) Thanks, man! It's been so many years since I exercised in this ballpark, so to speak.
    – norwebian
    Commented Oct 20, 2011 at 12:45

Jesus is not giving the disciples "the Spirit" because "spirit" is a bogus concept. "Spirit" is just a synonym for "breath". He is giving them holy breath. Ever since Genesis 2:7 the idea of God filling people with his own breath has permeated the scriptures. Paul calls this "the principle of the breath of life":

Rom 8:2 For the law of the Spirit [breath] of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and of death.

This principle, that the breath gives life is explicitly stated by Jesus:

John 6:63 [cleaned up] The breath gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are breath and life.

Notice that Jesus relates his words to "the breath of life" in contrast to the "bread of life". First he says that he is the bread of life that he gives and it gives life to the world:

Joh 6:51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

He speaks about "eating" his flesh, but then he clarifies to say that his flesh is a gospel message and not a meal and that eating it involves faith in the message of his death and resurrection, not literal physical eating:

John 6:63 [cleaned up] The breath gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are breath and life.

The idea of words being "breath" is not a difficult one because breath is the medium of words. In fact, the original Paul did not believe that someone could be impacted by the gospel if it weren't spoken by one filled with the breath of God:

2Co 3:3 And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit [breath] of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 2Co 3:4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 2Co 3:5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 2Co 3:6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit [breath]. For the letter kills, but the Spirit [breath] gives life.

Rom 10:14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?

Eze 37:5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. Eze 37:6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD." ... Eze 37:8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Eze 37:9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live." Eze 37:10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

Later, in 2 Tim a letter purporting to be from Paul suggests that written text also can be life-giving because it is "breathed by God":

ESV 2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

The disobedient breathe completely different air:

Eph 2:2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air of the breath that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—

Contrast this solid intertextuality with the idea of "breathing Spirit". Simply put, one does not breathe "spirit" because "spirit" (as defined by those who embrace Substance Dualism) is immaterial. It has no physicality, no physical properties and thus is an abstraction.

So one can part company from the dualists and embrace the scriptural principle or reject the scriptural princple and embrace dualism but these two are at odds with each other. Only by the knowledge that what Jesus breathed is breath can one make any real sense of the passage.

The exception to this rule is that one can understand "spirit" to be a synonym for "breath". In the original languages, and all relevant languages prior to the KJV when they coined the word "spirit" from the Latin word for "breath", "spiritus", there was only one word. Personally I think the ideal would to only have the word "spirit" and lose the word "breath" because the ancients believed that the breath was a divine force, not just gases. It was conceived to be a type of "intelligent organ" with mystical properties. When it entered the clay statue of Yehovah (Adam) it animated it and made it intelligent.

So Jesus was giving "the breath of life" and if we properly regard "spirit" as a synonym for "breath" then yes, he was giving "the spirit" but not the "spirit of the world":

1Co 2:10 these things God has revealed to us through the breath. For the breath searches everything, even the depths of God. 1Co 2:11 For who knows a person's thoughts except the breath of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the breath of God. 1Co 2:12 Now we have received not the breath of the world, but the breath that is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.

Once you shed Substance Dualism and see that "the principle of the breath of life" begins in Genesis and runs through Revelation then the scriptures open up. Talk of "spirit" just muddies the waters and makes every verse a meaningless enigma.

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    This answer is contentious but full of thoughtful material. It's my understanding that 'substance dualism' didn't enter Christian thinking until well after the gospel writers, so a proper exegesis of this text must grapple with the earlier understanding of pneuma as physical breathe, not an abstracted divine personage. 'Holy Spirit' is thus no longer a good translation of this text. Excellent!
    – Schuh
    Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 22:47

John 20:22 and Acts 2:1-4 are in tension, so that New Testament commentators seek to harmonise the two accounts within the framework of their faith. The following three examples are different ways of harmonising the two accounts:

  • Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary says this was a symbolical conveyance to them of the Spirit, so they did not actually receive anything tangible.
  • Matthew Poole says they before this had received the Spirit as a Spirit of sanctification, and had received a power to work miracles, but Jesus here assures them of the presence of the Holy Spirit with them, in their more ordinary ministry, in instructing and governing the church. For Poole, this was again an exterior sign or symbol.
  • Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges resolves the issue by saying there was a Paschal as distinct from a Pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit, the one preparatory to the other. We are not told in what way a Paschal Holy Spirit differs from a Pentecostal Holy Spirit.

J. Carl L. Laney (John- Moody Gospel Commentary) says those who take John 20:22 as a promise of the Spirit's coming fail to appreciate the full significance of the symbolic gesture associated with Jesus' words. He breated on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." He did not say, "You will receive the Holy Spirit." In Laney's view (and that of Plumer), this plainly implies that something was bestowed there and then, very likely a provisional provision for the disciples during the fifty days until Pentecost. We are not told why a provisional provision would be necessary, and it could be a difficulty for Trinitarianism if Jesus was unable to bestow a full provision of the Holy Spirit.

Craig S. Keener (Acts: An Exegetical Commentary : Volume 1) says some scholars think that Luke and John view the same event but with different theological emphases. This leads Keener to ask whether Luke had invented his version of Pentecost or whether John altered the setting so as to include the Pentecost before his Gospel finishes.

An alternative position is that John and Acts simply come from two different traditions and each was written without knowledge of the other. They were not different tellings of the same event, simply because the narratives and imagery are so different.


Yes, because:

"And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.

Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.

And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost" John 20:22

First, notice Yeshua breathed on his "disciples". This means Matthias also received the spirit set-apart this day (Acts 1:21 confirms this). Thomas didn't need to be there to receive the spirit. He saw Yeshua later, and there is no reason why Yeshua couldn't have breathed on him as well. However, we know that Thomas did receive it, because:

"And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Acts 2:1-4

This passage says that all twelve Apostles were "filled" with the spirit set-apart. Nothing in Acts says that the Apostles "received" it on this day. Being "filled" with the spirit is common in Acts:

"Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said unto them, Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel" Acts 4:8

And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness." Acts 4:31

"And the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Ghost." Acts 13:52

So the disciples did receive the spirit when Yeshua breathed on them, and Thomas received it as well. As a bonus, I believe Matthias and all the disciples received it. It gave them the authority to forgive sins, and it gave them the power to speak other languages in Acts 2.


Is Jesus giving the Spirit in John 20:22?

John 20:22 (NASB)

" And when He had said this, He breathed on them and *said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit."

No, It was only a symbolic gesture that they will soon receive holy spirit.

Whilst the apostles were locked in a room, on the day that he was resurrected, Jesus appeared to them,John wrote: 21“Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22 And when He had said this, He breathed on them and *said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”John 20:21-23( NASB)

From verses 19 to 24 we observe that the disciples mentioned are his faithful apostles and by blowing on them and saying, “Receive Holy Spirit, " symbolically gave them notice that soon they would receive holy spirit, in harmony with this, verse 7: 39 reads: "But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified."

The actual event occurred on the day of the Pentecost ,fifty days later , Jesus poured out holy spirit on about 120 disciples and they were inspired. Acts 2:2-4 (NASB) reads:

2" And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire [a]distributing themselves, and [b]they [c]rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them [e]utterance."

Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, he spoke of his followers who would receive holy spirit, beginning at Pentecost 33 C.E., saying that out from their innermost parts "rivers of living water will flow." John wrote:

After being exalted to the right hand of God, Jesus, "received from the Father the promise of the holy spirit".(Acts 2:33) Although Jesus was anointed by his Father and in turn he anointed his faithful followers with holy spirit, it is God who invites each person.

Acts 2:33 (NASB)

33 "Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear."


The Patristic consensus was that on this occasion Jesus did, in fact, impart the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, but that this was a partial gift. For example, Theophylact comments:

And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost. The breath of the Lord bestowed the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, and thus He demonstrated that He is Himself God, since He has power to give the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, when He gave the Holy Spirit to the Apostles by breathing on them, He revealed that the Spirit proceeds from Him, for the breath of the Lord is the Spirit that proceeds from Him. This was a partial gift of the Holy Spirit, which they received in order that they might be capable of understanding the divine doctrines that would be revealed to them. But the fullness of the Holy Spirit they received on the day of Pentecost, when they were clothed with power from on high (PG 124:1180-1181).

Theophylact is summarizing how Church Fathers before him understood this verse. For example, Cyril of Alexandria comments on the partial nature of the gift of the Holy Spirit in John 20:22 in his commentary on the book of Acts, where he writes, "The Lord gave the Holy Spirit to the disciples in a partial way at first, but the fullness of the Spirit they received on the day of Pentecost" (Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Book III, Ch.3). John Chrysostom's understanding is similar (Homily LXXXVII on the Gospel of John). Augustine also discusses the partial gift of the Holy Spirit in relation to Pentecost, noting that the gift of tongues and other signs at that time were a more complete manifestation of the Spirit's power (Tractate 99 on the Gospel of John).



The Ezekiel allusion is good. After he spoke to the bones they came to life but "there was no breath in them" v.8. even though he said he would put breath in them. This tells us that the breath he put in them was expended in giving life to the flesh.

So he commanded the wind, after which they had breath.

Receiving the Holy Spirit was a two-step process. 1 They were brought to life when Jesus breathed upon them (by the Spirit of Christ)[2] and then they received the breathe at Pentecost.

Jesus expended his breath (life) upon the cross to give us life. The gift of the Holy Spirit came after.

Just as in the Trinity, there are three Spirits which are one(The Spirit of God, The Spirit of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit). They may be referred to interchangeably in the same manner as the Trinity when referring to God, or distinctively when speaking of one of the persons of the Trinity.



My answer on how the bread and the word are related supports the two-stage receiving of the Spirit. Just as man does not live by bread (the cross) alone, we live by every word. The cross is where the Spirit of Christ makes us born again, so that we may see the kingdom of heaven. His spirit is expended in giving us life. The Holy Spirit is given so that we may walk in that new life.


Php 1:19 For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ,

  • Hmm... The Spirit of the Holy Spirit seems like an odd concept. Do you have any reference for that? I don't remember any Bible text that phrases it like that... Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 19:54
  • "The Spirit of the Holy Spirit " where do you get that?
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 20:03
  • I'm confused by what you mean by "three Spirits". Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 22:23
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    I don't know how to make it clearer. I enumerated them:The Spirit of God, The Spirit of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. You can find all three used in the NT. They are just another expression of the Trinity.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 22:33
  • I suppose that considering them redundant terms is not a bad thing, since they are all one God. But it loses some of the depth of meaning when we blur distinctions that are made between Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 22:41

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