19. When it was late (ουσης ουν οψιας). The word οψιας is used as a substantive =evening. This may mean either from three to six o clock, or from six o clock to the beginning of night. It was used in both senses. Here it is used in the latter sense (see Thayer-Grimm s Lexicon). A more literal translation would be, When therefore it was evening on that day, the first of the week. It need not have been very late, even though the two disciples who had been that day at Emmaus, had tarried there till towards evening and the day was far spent (Luke xxiv. 29). The day was said to turn towards evening as soon as the sun had begun to decline after midday. When the Levite in Judges (xix. 9) was about to set out from Bethlehem, his father-in-law, wishing to detain him, said, The day is declining, and draweth toward evening. Yet the sun did not set till the Levite, passing by Jerusalem, had arrived at Gabaa a distance from Bethlehem of three hours journey.
The doors were shut. Hence our Lord must have passed through them in virtue of the spiritual qualities of His glorified body. St. John calls attention to this phenomenon both here and in v.
20. the disciples, “the eleven, and those that were with them” (Luke xxiv. 33). Thomas alone of the Apostles was absent (v. 24). By the phrases “the Eleven,” “the Twelve,” is not meant the exact number specified, but the Apostolic community. They bear the name of the Twelve, although Judas has left them.
20. He shewed them, A glorified body does not cease to be a true human body, although it may supematurally be able to rise superior to the ordinary conditions of matter. The shewing is described more definitely by St. Luke (xxiv. 39): “Handle and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as you see me to have.” Our Lord s sudden appearance in their midst led the disciples to think it was the apparition of a spirit.
were glad: see on xvi. 22.
21. As the Father hath sent me, Christ had been sent with power and authority by the Father, and now He empowers the Apostles to carry on His work after Him. These words were addressed to the Eleven, not to those that were with them (see Matt, xxviii. 16-20).
I also send you. The present tense here used is what is called the constant present, and it denotes an action of indefinite duration. Cf. I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world (Matt, xxviii. 20). The office thus committed to the Apostles was therefore to be continued through those to whom the Apostles should afterwards entrust it.
22. He breathed on them. The verb here used (ἐμφυσάω) is employed in Genesis (ii. 7) to describe the effective in-breathing of God by which man received a life-principle, raising him above all other living creatures on earth. What inward life-principle is now given to the Apostles is immediately explained.
Receive ye the Holy Ghost, The full and perfect communication of the Holy Ghost, with all its accompanying visible wonders, was re served till the day of Pentecost (see on vii. 39) ; but here our Lord, by an expressive outward rite, inwardly bestows upon the Apostles the power of the Holy Spirit for a definite specific purpose. That specific purpose is plainly declared.
23. Whose sins you shall forgive. In this verse the verbs “are forgiven”, “are retained,” should be, according to the better attested reading, in the perfect tense. Literally, then, the verse runs thus: If you forgive any one”s sins, they have been ( = they are ipso facto) forgiven to them: if you retain any one”s, they have been (=are ipso facto) retained. This wonderful power of forgiving and retaining sin was an element in our Lord s own mission upon earth. Hence, when the Pharisees had judged our Lord guilty of blasphemy, because He had said to the palsied man, Thy sins are forgiven thee, and when they had thought within themselves, Who can forgive sins, but God only? our Lord worked a miracle to convince them that the son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins (Mark ii. 1-12; Matt. ix. 2-8). And now our Lord, having appointed the Apostles to continue the mission given Him by the Father (v. 21), expressly declares that He communicates to them, as part of that mission, the power of forgiving and of retaining (i.e. of refusing to forgive) sins. This power, of course, is not an arbitrary power; but just as the Jewish priests judged between leper and leper, and decided who might be admitted to social life, and who was still to be excluded, so the Christian priest judges whom he must absolve, and to whom he must refuse absolution. But as this judgment is not an arbitrary judgment, it requires previous confession as its just and solid basis.