What did Jesus mean in John 20:23 when he said, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained”?

According to other Gospel accounts, the Jews recognized that only God could forgive sins. For instance,

“The scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, ‘Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?’” (Luke 5:21, NASB)

what did John 20:23 passage mean to Jesus' followers?

  • @Jeff: see if, perhaps, Matt. 16:19; 18:18 might answer your question. – Pat Ferguson Aug 23 '13 at 18:41
  • See here for an explanation of the grammar, which the accepted answer did not address. – Jas 3.1 Jul 1 '14 at 22:07

The Greek behind your question is “τινων (of whomsoever) αφητε (you may remit) τας (the) αμαρτιας (sins) αφιενται (they are remitted) αυτοις (to them) αν τινων (whoesoever) κρατητε (you may retain) κεκρατηνται (they have been retained)”.

This verse is often understood as equivalent to that found in other places such as Matthew 16:19: “ο (whatever) εαν δησης (you may bind) επι (on) της (the) γης (earth) εσται (shall be) δεδεμενον (bound) εν (in) τοις (the) ουρανοις (heavens) και (and) ο (whatever) εαν λυσης (you may loose) επι (on) της (the) γης (earth) εσται (shall be) λελυμενον (loosed) εν (in) τοις (the) ουρανοις (heavens).”

So really you are asking does the state of being remitted/loosed (αφιενται/ λελυμενον) or retained/bound (κεκρατηνται/δεδεμενον) representing binding and loosing of individual sins, or of entire persons. Also, is the scope just on earth or forever. To answer this question we need to first understand that Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jewish people. Although the use of the words bind and loose (retain, or remit) in relation to the authority of Rabbis might be confusing to us, to the crowd that Jesus spoke the language could not be more natural.

According to Alfred Edersheim a Jewish historian:

no other terms were in more constant use in Rabbinic Canon-Law than those of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing.’ The words are the literal translation of the Hebrew equivalents Asar (אָסַר), which means ‘to bind,’ in the sense of prohibiting, and Hittir (הִתִּיר, from נָתַר) which means ‘to loose,’ in the sense of permitting (Edersheim, A. (1896). The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,Vol. 2, p. 85).

However there might be a slight distinction between retained and bound (κεκρατηνται and δεδεμενον) because in that although binding and loosing related only to ‘things’ (i.e. rules that are binding or not) retaining and remitting goes a little beyond that and seems to relate to a further function of the religious authorities actual judicial power.

By the first of these they ‘bound’ or ‘loosed’ acts or things; by the second they ‘remitted’ or ‘retained,’ declared a person free from, or liable to punishment, to compensation, or to sacrifice. These two powers—the legislative and judicial—which belonged to the Rabbinic office, Christ now transferred, and that not in their pretension, but in their reality, to His Apostles ((Edersheim, A. (1896). The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,Vol. 2, p. 85)

This distinction between bind/loose and retain/remit that Edersheim highlights does make sense as ‘retain’ in the Greek carries the idea of ‘having power over someone’ and to remit is ‘to send off or let go’. Thus retain/remit seems to extend beyond beyond the authority over actions to that over persons. Note the word forgiveness used here is by context related to the releasing or binding to the punishment of a law that is in itself declaring condemnation or forgiveness, alluding to the Rabbinical claimed powers at the time, rather then any claimed powers of the Christian church afterwards. In fact the Rabbis never once claimed the power ‘to forgive’ in the sense of gospel forgiveness. Although the same Greek word used here can be used to mean gospel forgiveness, in the context of binding and loosing this is in reference to remitting or retaining a person liable to a law. In fact nothing could be more offensive to the rabbinical culture at the time then to go around offering free forgiveness without any external obedience and deference to the 'binding' rules laid piled up by the Rabbis, especially to sinners and publicans, let alone Gentiles! This is why the Rabbis were very terribly angry with Christ when they accused him of blasphemy for declaring someone 'forgiven' and angrily said ‘only God can forgive sins’ which he countered by claiming to be God. (Mark 2:10–11)

I believe Catholics will argue from this that priests share Christ’s sacerdotal office actually administering forgiveness to Catholic church members (in some indirect way that does not rob Christ of his dignity) and Protestants will tend to interpret this authority as simply declaring the truth of the matter through an infallible gospel and also having power to excommunicate and settle doctrinal matters where people are consequentially involved. However, regardless of the theological application, the answer seems to be that Jesus was declaring that his Apostles had an authority of settling doctrinal and church matters with authority from heaven. There authority was infallibly provided for from heaven, which was therefore absolutely binding on earth. That the consequences of accepting or rejecting this newly founded gospel, that they dispensed to the community, rendered both a persons individual beliefs and actions right or wrong and consequentially there entire persons condemned or not, as the ultimate consequence. To answer the question then, the reference of the power that Christ gave to his church seems to cover 'both' individual laws and 'the who' (the persons themselves) that are liable to punishment or forgiveness under these new gospel rules. The scope can be looked at in minute detail as rules of excommunication and inclusion within the church under the Apostolic ministry or as wide as the keys of heaven opened up to the world by the church at large in publishing the gospel. In other words the authority is applicable in this life and in eternity to come for it is the very gospel itself that is holding the authority while church members are just conduits for its truth to reach the whole earth. There is nothing in the text itself that seems to limits this authority except the implicit understanding that only as it is consistent with Christ himself and his words does it retain the authority described.

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  • Thank you Mike for your thought-provoking answer. This is good food for study. – Jeff W. Aug 25 '13 at 3:33
  • @Mike 1/2: (We) Catholics go to confession and see a priest in doing so. However, when they do, they’re confessing their sins not just with a priest present but with Jesus present too. There are several steps the person will go through in the the process. He’ll prepare for his confession with his own examination of conscience. Then he’ll go and give his confession to the priest and Jesus in the confessional room/booth. Then the priest and he briefly talk before the person says the Act of Contrition prayer. Finally, the priest assigns him his penance (e.g. a few prayers to... – John Martin Apr 16 '19 at 1:07
  • ...2/2: say, etc.). Note: Why do Catholics confess to priests ("another human") instead of just God? You know the priest has taken a vow to never share anything he hears with anyone else. Still, just knowing that you’ll have a priest present next time to hear you confess makes you think twice before committing the sin again. [Personally, I believe readings such as James 5:14-20 suggest I confess to another human with God present]. – John Martin Apr 16 '19 at 1:24

The first part is not difficult, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven" when you consider the difference between forgiving someone who sins against you verses someone who sins against God. Stephen forgave the sin of those stoning him to death, for example, which is not blasphemy. Yet Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic, which would have been blasphemy as he was not personally sinned against.

The more difficult second part reads "if any you retain, they are retained." I suggest this is better understood as

if you restrain any person (from sin), they will be restrained.

The retain verb (Strongs 2902) is also understood as 'restrain' as in Rev 7:1. The general idea is one of restraint.

The verse simply cannot, in my opinion, bear the heavy weight of excommunication theology. The context is of Jesus sending out his disciples, such as he did previously in Matt 10, Luke 10, Mark 6. It is clear the disciples regularly called people to retrain from sin (Acts 2:38 "Repent!") but not as clear that they regularly excommunicated people (if ever).

Weymouth's translation is a little closer.

If you remit the sins of any persons, they remain remitted to them. If you bind fast the sins of any, they remain bound.

I do agree that Matt 16:19 is a parallel verse, and note that those things/persons that are bound, are bound in heaven! Sin is restrained in heaven.

Weymouth again:

I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of the Heavens; and whatever you bind on earth shall remain bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall remain loosed in Heaven

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For a complete treatment of the background of the subject I recommend this article in the Jewish Encyclopedia (one of my favorite resources for a great many subjects):


I recommend considering the comments as well.

The heart of the background of the passages is the authority that was enjoyed by the Pharisees not only in parsing the Torah into "you must do this but you don't have to do that" but "binding days" and other forms of control over Jewish life, with Jesus appearing to say that his disciples should submit to their edicts, despite the hypocrisy of their edicts:

Mat 23:1 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Mat 23:2 Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: Mat 23:3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. Mat 23:4 For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

This power is then assigned to the apostles. The Catholic power-grab was to pronounce a segue from the apostles to the Popes saying that the Bishop of Rome would inherit the authority from the apostles by some undocumented "handing off" of the keys of the kingdom by some alleged overlap between the apostle Peter and their own power structure.

In Matthew 5 Jesus says that he did not come to parse the Torah into "you must do this but you don't have to do that" and instead came to restore the integrity (unity) of the Torah:

Mat 5:17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish ["parse"] the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish ["parse"] them but to fulfill them ["restore their integrity"]. Mat 5:18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Mat 5:19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Mat 5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Mat 5:21 "[For example,] You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' Mat 5:22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire.

So while Jesus seems to allow Pharisaic (and also Scribal(?)) authority (saying that they "sit in Moses' seat") and should be obeyed, grants the apostles the same authority he does not practice or condone "loosing" any of the commands of scripture.

I'm undecided but perhaps the following is an example of apostolic "binding":

1Co 5:4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 1Co 5:5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

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