A Study of John 20:23

Preached at Grove Chapel, Camberwell, July, 1901, by Thomas Bradbury.


“Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.”
(John 20:23)


We have had read in our ears an interesting chapter of a very interesting Gospel. A Gospel overflowing with spiritual instructions, and the chapter before us abounds with spiritual and instructive incidents. Each incident carries its own lesson — a lesson of grace to such as mourn their fancied gracelessness. I speak advisedly in the faith and fear of God, for the proud professor and religious worldling know nothing of mourning because of this.
Why? Because they are destitute of spiritual knowledge and feeling, and are strangers to the God of all grace. But the living child of God would have grace bringing salvation to him every day of his life, and, I may say, every hour of the day. From the very ground of my heart I love that sentence of Paul’s in Titus 2:11, “The grace of God, that bringeth salvation.” The Holy Ghost in all-wisdom moved the heart and pen of the apostle to write that admirable sentence. It speaks not of salvation to be sought; but a salvation brought in the gospel of grace, by the Spirit of grace, right home to the hearts of elect vessels of mercy.

These are taught the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and the exceeding preciousness of that salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.
Many interesting incidents with which this chapter abounds we shall not dwell upon, but begin with the important words of our texts — “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.”

Let us turn to the nineteenth verse – “Then the same day at evening.” The evening of the first day of the week… When the Jewish sabbath was past and gone for ever. When the women and the disciples found the sepulchre empty. But Mary Magdalene discovered to her amazement, two bright messengers of love and peace. However bright and glorious these might appear they yielded no true satisfaction to Mary’s heart.

And if this place were full of angels now, and we could see them, as the prophet’s servant, when his eyes were opened, saw “the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” (2nd Kings 6:17), and no Christ were enjoyed in the testimony, what would the angels be to poor vile sinners such as we know ourselves to be?

What can the angels do for us who are poor dependents upon God’s sovereign bounty, which can only be ours in sweet experimental enjoyment through the once broken heart, bleeding wounds and all-prevalent intercession of our precious Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?

On the evening of this auspicious day the disciples were assembled within closed doors for fear of the Jews. It is well here to notice the prudence of the disciples, and contemplate them in the light of Solomon’s repeated proverb, “A prudent man forseeth the evil, and hideth himself” (Proverbs 22:3; Proverbs 27:12). A man whose heart is moved and exercised with the prudence of God is a man worth knowing. Turn with me to Ephesians 1:8, “Wherein” — in the riches of His grace — “He hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence.” A prudent God is one of the most marvellous discoveries He is pleased to make of Himself to the heart of the redeemed and regenerate sinner. He does this from the pages of His most holy Word by the indwelling and witness of His Blessed Spirit, and the soul blessed with His prudence, and that mourns its own sin and folly, delights in the clothing God has provided “in the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (2nd Peter 1:1) , and hideth himself in the Refuge provided by the Father for all the election of grace, in the riven side of our Adorable Surety.

No doubt, at the time alluded to here, gloomy apprehensions possessed the minds of the disciples. The Shepherd had been smitten, and, probably, they would remember the unbending words of inspiration — “The sheep shall be scattered” (Zechariah 13:7). The scattered state might be a small affair in their estimation, but the fate of their Master might be their’s also. Hence their prudence and caution. But how blessed it is for us to contemplate the fact, that though the Shepherd be smitten, the sheep shall be cared for. In the same prophecy announcing the smiting of the Shepherd and the scattering of the sheep, God assures us, “I will turn My hand upon the little ones.” His hand of gracious purpose must be fulfilled in each of them. His hand of spiritual guidance must be experienced by every one of them.. His hand of covenant provision must be enjoyed by each and all. His hand of blessing must be turned upon the lambs and the sheep, according to the Master’s charge to Peter, “Feed My lambs — Feed My sheep” (John 21:15-17). The lambs were not to be fed and the sheep neglected.

The sheep were not to be attended to at the expense of the lambs. Oh no. But lambs to be folded and fed, and sheep to be encouraged and comforted.
Precaution had closed the doors, and, no doubt, had bolted them. But with all this Jesus could not be left outside. He must put in an appearance. Where the redeemed are gathered the Redeemer must come. Where the members meet, the Head cannot be absent. Whatever be the trials and perplexing circumstances exercising His loved ones. He will be-near to succour them in temptation, solace them in sorrow, sympathise with them in suffering, defend them in danger, and deliver them from every distress.

Here Jesus comes with His old message of peace and love. “Then came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.” That was not enough. He seemed as though he could not do too much for them. “And when He had so said He showed unto them His hands and His side.” Those hands which had wrought and laboured for them, and that side which had throbbed ofttimes with weariness and pain for them. Let the wounds, blood and obedience of Christ be revealed by the power of the Holy Ghost, then the joy of our heart will abound. The sculptor’s chisel—the painter’s brush, can never produce this; but let the Blessed Spirit—the Glorifier of the Father’s Christ—only receive of Christ’s and show them unto us, then the same takes place which is recorded in this precious portion — “Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord.” Faith’s view of its Author makes the heart glad. A sight of Christ in His sufferings and sovereignty—in His humiliation and exaltation—in His mediation and intercession–is the life and joy of our spirits.

“Then said Jesus to them again.” I love that word “again.” There are volumes contained in it. In the old pilgrim’s psalm we read, “Thou, Which hast showed me great and sore troubles, shalt quicken me AGAIN, and shalt bring me up AGAIN from the depths of the earth” (Psalm 71:20).

Have earth’s depths swallowed us up? You may rest assured that He who descended to their deepest recesses will bring us up again and again.

Does my soul cleave to the dust? He will quicken me again according to His word.

Did the people resort to Him again in the days of His flesh?

“As He was wont, He taught them AGAIN” (Mark 10:1).

Did the disciples sorrow at the thought of Christ’s departure from them?

He said for their comfort, “I will see you AGAIN, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you” (John 16:22). The mind at times is occupied with earth and exercised with sin, and oblivious to the beauties, excellencies and glories of a precious Lord Jesus, and to the blessings which He holds in undisturbed security for all that the Father gave to Him, all who are called into fellowship with Him in His sufferings, and whom He brings into communion with Himself—with the Father—with the Blessed Spirit, and with the living members of His spiritual body. To these He says, “Peace be unto you: as My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you.” These words you will find in the mouth of every Jesuitical perverter of God’s word — every popish, priestly presumer. These would have you believe that these words were spoken by the Lord Jesus to the apostles alone, and that by them power was given to transmit authority to a sacerdotal race whose sole right it is to dispense grace in rites and ceremonies, and to administer sacraments, which prove derogatory to the preaching of the Gospel of the grace of God. “As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you.” The Father sent Christ to be crucified.

Are these imposters prepared for that?

We know very well they are not. They know nothing of suffering and of threatening not. They are ignorant of spiritual crucifixion with Christ. They are strangers to spiritual mortification. Their religion is wholly worldly, sensual, Santanic. These are wholly taken up with the exhibition of themselves before the masses of the people, and with giving histrionic representations of the sorrows and sufferings of Christ in Gethsemane and on Calvary. Such things my soul hates, as repugnant to God’s truth-and the spirituality of divine worship. There may be those present who agree not with me. To such I would recommend the teaching of Jesus, Stephen and Paul. Turn to John 4:23-24. “The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him. God is a spirit : and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”

Listen to Stephen, “Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool: what house will ye build Me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of My rest? Hath not My hand made all these things? Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do. ye” (Acts 7:48-51).

Listen to Paul, “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that. He is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands ; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, seeing He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things . . . Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device” (Acts 17:24-29).

Sacramental symbols and ceremonial representations are not means of grace, from the hands of popish priests, anglican apes, or dissenting dreamers. My spirit abhors them, knowing that they have no place in the spiritual kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

I love to sit with Him in the heavenlies, and there to enjoy those spiritual blessings with which I, and all the election of grace were blessed in Him before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3-4). I love to enjoy the gracious power that was. “wrought in Christ, when the Father raised Him from the dead, and set Him on His own right hand in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:19-20). But the beauty and blessedness of Christ’s resurrection and ascension developed in Spirit-wrought experience is sweetly expressed in Ephesians 2:4-7, “But God, Who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins; hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.” On this ground we have nothing to do with ecclesiastical acrobats, conjurors, necromancers, posture- masters. These can display themselves in their graceless genuflexions by man’s tuition, aye, and by Satan’s also. But to the point – —“As my Father hath sent Me, even so send I you.” Yesterday a little lad read for me the first fourteen verses of the Gospel by John. I like little folk to read to me. My mind continued the reading to the end of verse 18, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only Begotten Son, Which is in the bosom of the Father, He bath declared Him,” The Father sent His Son to declare His will, to preach His Word, to finish His work. The delight of the Son was the doing of the will of His Father. In this His heart thrilled with a delight unknown to all beside. His delight was to open up the love of the Father’s heart to those in whom He delighted before the world began (Proverbs 8:31); the blessedness of the Father’s house to His brethren redeemed by His blood—and the preciousness of His Father’s Gospel to sinners saved in Him with an everlasting salvation.

Look at that blessed declaration — “the only begotten Son Which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared. Him.” Here we have the Son revealed, revealing the Father, and the charge given by Christ to His apostles was simply the same. But Christ gave His charge not to the apostles exclusively. By referring to Luke 24:33, you will see that the apostles were not alone when this charge was given. “And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, AND THEM THAT WERE WITH THEM.” Here were the representatives of the whole church of Christ throughout all time. Not a portion of these separated from the rest to receive special powers and superior authority; but, “the eleven, and them that were with them.” And these to learn continually the needful lesson, “One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren” (Matthew 23:8.) With the knowledge of this we exclude altogether the unscriptural title “the clergy” as designating the ministers of the Gospel. That use of the term I hate. Its scriptural application is to the whole church of God. It refers to God’s lot — God’s portion — God’s inheritance — God’s heritage — God’s possession. Ministers are charged not to be lords over the possessions, heritage, church, or clergy of God, and of Christ. (1st Peter 5:3). The flock of God, composed of lambs and sheep, must be fed with food convenient for them, and attended to carefully. The poor, sighing sinner, burdened with a sense of his sinfulness, is as dear to the Master as the most eloquent expounder of His Gospel.

Eloquence and experience give no license to the exercise of lordly authority.
No, the blessed truth revealed here is the spiritual oneness existing in the All-wise Head and those members of His mystical body whom He sends forth as the heralds of salvation. He was a Preacher and Teacher. So are they, and nothing more, only as He is pleased to reveal Himself in their preaching and teaching. “He went through every city and village, preaching and showing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1). At your leisure go through the Gospel by John.

Do you see anything of Jesus administering rites and sacraments?

You do not. But you find all that is opposed to anything of the kind. You find Jesus Christ in His ministry alone with individuals revealing His glory, and opening up the riches of His grace. He probed the conscience and searched the heart, to pour in the wine of His love and the oil of His everlasting consolation. Jesus was sent as the Preacher to God’s poor, He was sent by the Father to declare the Father’s mind and will. You see this in His closing words to the Father in John 17:26, “And I have declared unto them Thy Name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith Thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” The same love that the Father has to Christ He
has to the Church and people of Christ. There are no two ways of loving with the Father. There is no difference or distinction in the Father’s love to the Head and to members of His mystical body.

Now listen, “And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” As Christ was commissioned and qualified for His ministry from above, so those whom He sent forth to declare the Father’s Name were likewise commissioned and qualified.

When He received His commission from the opened heavens, the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove and lighted upon Him — resting upon Him — remaining upon Him.

Why did the Holy Ghost thus rest upon Him?

Mark well God’s answer to that question. “As for Me, this is My covenant with them, saith the LORD; My Spirit that is upon Thee, and My words which I have put in Thy mouth, shall not depart out of Thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of Thy seed, nor out of the mouth of Thy seed’s seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever” (Isaiah 59:21). The Holy Ghost upon Christ is for all the members of His mystical body. Jesus was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. It did Him no harm and was all for our good. It is most blessed to know that however sad and sorrowful we may be, as the children of the Father , and the brethren of the Man of sorrows , — whatever the temptations, trials and tribulations assailing us – as sure as we are led by the Holy Ghost, real harm cannot befall us.

Here we see Jesus breathing upon those who were near and dear to His heart. The apostles “and them that were with them” were not left destitute of the Person, grace and guidance of His Blessed Spirit. “Receive ye the Holy Ghost,” said Jesus. Why said He this? I will tell you. Because without the Holy Ghost all profession of following Christ is hypocrisy — all professing to-serve God is legality — all profession of religious worship is presumption. Religion without the Holy Ghost is filth
and rottenness in the estimation of a God of purity. Without the Holy Ghost upon us and in us, moving our hearts in prayer, and opening our lips in praise, all is mere formality and is hateful to God. Preachers are worthless except they preach the gospel with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven (1st Peter 1:12). And hearers cannot receive one word to profit but by the Holy Ghost. But Christ, “Who is faithful to Him that appointed Him,” will not leave His own breathless—Spiritless—lifeless. Upon His own sent servants He breathed, and still breathes, the Breath of eternal life. He makes them the temples of the Holy Ghost, and entrusts them with His words which are spirit and life, to speak to those to whomsoever He pleases to send them . These words are high as heaven itself for glory and grandeur. They are deep as ocean’s depths, and deeper too with hidden meaning and mysterious import. One can imagine that the ears of the representatives of Christ’s church militant then upon earth would tingle, and their hearts move with strange delight as they heard these inspiring words from the lips of Incarnate Wisdom.

“Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them.” Many stray here and wander from the way of truth. These words of spiritual and heavenly meaning are perverted, and thus become the birthplace of blasphemous fables, vain notions, and poisonous errors. The figment of the princedom of Peter is ever associated with Antichrist. A worthy prince he looks when seen in the discovering light of eternal truth. If there were a shady character among the apostles, Judas excepted, surely that character was Peter. Turn with me to Matthew 16:18-23, Jesus said to him, “That thou art. Peter” — a stone — a living stone — “and upon this Rock.” — Which rock? The Lord Himself. Not Peter. Moses says, “The Rock — perfect is His work, for all His ways are judgment; a God of truth, and without iniquity; just and right is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4). Of the papists, we can truly say, “For their rock is not as our Rock, our enemies themselves being judges” (Deuteronomy 32:31), while we can ‘Sing with the Psalmist, “The LORD liveth: and blessed be my Rock; and let the God of my salvation be exalted” (Psalm 18:46). Mark well David’s repeated declaration, “He only is my Rock and my Salvation” (Psalm 62:2; Psalm 62:6). No Rock but Christ is a foundation for His church to be built upon. Listen again, “And I say also unto Thee, that thou art Peter;”—a stone—“and upon this Rock”—the Christ of God confessed by Peter—“I will build My Church: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Is it not strange that the papist should be blind to Peter’s ignorance and folly, and to our Lord’s declaration of his fallibility in His withering rebuke, “Get thee behind Me, Satan ; thou. art an offence unto Me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” Notice the fallibility of Peter in the Master’s word of counsel to him in Luke 22:31-32, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan bath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat : but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art restored, strengthen thy brethren.” Here we see that Christ, as the Head of the Church, employs not unfallen angels or infallible popes, but redeemed, fallen and restored sinners — sinners saved eternally, who sin, to be saved again and again experimentally and intelligently—to preach His, Gospel, and who delight to “tell to sinners round what a dear Saviour THEY HAVE FOUND.”

Concerning Peter, as we trace his history in the records of eternal truth , we find him hasty, vacillating and erring at alinost every step. Paul “withstood- him to the face because he was to be blamed” (Galatians 2:11). Yet we find one pleasing trait in his character—he was an honest and honourably married man. See Matthew 8:14. Here I use great plainness of speech. When I come across a bachelor priest of the Romish confederacy, or one of their apes ‘in the. Establishment, who serves not the propose of his being, I do not think I am looking upon an honest or honourable man. Consult Hebrews 13:4, “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whore mongers and adulterers God will judge.” Paul was an honest man and declared it. Peter was an honourable man and took, and kept to himself a wife. This reminds me of godly Enoch. Oh! do not I like to contemplate his character. He looks’ like a good`, God-fearing Englishman. “And Enoch walked with God . . . and begat sons and daughters” (Genesis 5:22). Mark well Paul’s words in Titus 1:15, “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled.” May the Lord give unto us constantly and increasingly, a right judgment in all things.

Priestly presumption claims the right from these words to remit or to retain human guilt, and profanely declares that its acts ‘upon earth are confirmed in heaven. The spirit of Antichrist is detected here. The father of lies is religiously at work. God’s throne of grace is usurped by ministerial lordlings and His throne of judgment is seized by perjured hirelings. Let such mark’ well His words in Psalm 1:21, “Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself; but I will reprove thee.” The ‘devil’s darling, Antichrist , “opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped:; so that he, as God, sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2nd Thessalonians 2:4). This awful arrogance is seen in nothing so glaring as in a vile worm of the dunghill daring to forgive sin, when the confession of all taught of the Spirit is, “To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against Him” (Daniel 9:9).

Did the eleven “and them that were with them,” when they heard these precious words, conceive anything so base and vile, as the right of sinful mortals to absolve even repentant sinners from their offences against God? Not at all. When Simon Magus sinned so vilely Peter presumed not to forgive him, but directed him to that One from Whom alone forgiveness can be enjoyed (Acts 8:22). Peter did not assume the right to absolve or remit on the ground of Simon’s confession, but said, “Pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.”

Do you notice that?

“And pray God.” That was as much as to say, Do not look to me for forgiveness , God in Christ alone can do that. If papists and puseyites are right, then Peter and Paul were awfully wrong. When all men forsook Paul at his first answer before Nero, and his sensitive heart felt it keenly, do you think that he was anxious to absolve them? Not at all. With “the simplicity that is in Christ,” he, in the sweetness of that simplicity, said, “I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge” (2nd Timothy 4:16). Upon God his mind was fixed for forgiveness. To God he would direct the mind of others for the enjoyment of the same.

The remission of sins by the church is simply declarative. It is in the ministering of Christ’s message to those to whom the messengers of grace are sent. It is in carrying the glad tidings of salvation by sovereign love, redeeming blood and resurrection power. It is not secured by the unscriptural custom of confessing sin to man. Yet I would have you notice three cases in Holy Scripture where man confessed to man—and tell me—would you like to be found in their company? First, Pharaoh. Second, Saul. Third, Judas. See Exodus 10:16-17, “Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron in haste; and he said, I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you. Now, therefore, forgive, I. pray thee, my sin only this once, and entreat the LORD your God, that He may take away from me this death only.” Pharaoh received his answer, in the depths of the Red Sea. Turn to 1st Samuel 15:24-25, “And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. Now, therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD.” Saul met with his answer at the point of his own sword. Read Matthew 27:3-4, “Then Judas, which had betrayed Him, when he saw that He was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, I have sinned, in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said. What is that to us? See thou to that.” Judas sought relief from his confessed guilt at the end of a rope. Pharaoh, Saul and Judas met with disappointment and black despair.

Sin-burdened sinners find no relief—no remission— but in the Gospel of Christ. “Preach the Gospel to every creature,” is Christ’s command, and every creature included in that commission shall be blessed with the knowledge and enjoyment of God’s forgiving love. The longer I live, the more I am convinced , that this expression “every creature” means the whole election of grace to whom sal- vation is brought by the Gospel (see Colossians 1:23; Revelation 5:13). Oh, what a mercy it is for us to know that the re- mission of our sins, the justification of our persons, and our spiritual education, are in better hands than those of priestly presumers. Christ revealed in the Gospel to the heart is the assurance from God of the full, free and everlasting forgiveness of all sin. But while the Gospel pro-claims life, pardon and peace to some, it pronounces death, condemnation and despair upon others. See John 3:36; “He that BELIEVETH on the Son hath everlasting life” — this believing is continuous, – current, unfailing. It never fails—never succumbs—whatever strain may be brought to bear upon it from heaven, earth, or hell. “And he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him:” Mark the exact wording. The wrath ot God does not come upon him, but abides where it had already been. Turn to 2nd Corinthians 2:15, “For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: to the one we are the savour of death unto death : and to the other savour of life unto life.” Death—sins retained. Life—sins remitted. “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by Him, all that believe are justified from all thingi, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). All through Christ. All by Christ. Amen. “THIS HONOUR HAVE ALL HIS SAINTS” (Psalm 149:9).

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