What is meant by the words above recorded in John 20:22? Did the apostles “receive the Holy Spirit” when Jesus was speaking to them on earth, or did that happen after Jesus returned to Heaven, on the day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts chapter two?
The context of John 20:22 should first be considered. On the day Christ was resurrected, the first day of the week, He appeared to His disciples and said:
…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: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained (Jn. 20:21-23).
This is John’s account of the Great Commission. Each inspired Gospel account gives information that complements the other accounts. One Gospel writer may have recorded certain miracles or parables taught by Jesus, while another did not, and sometimes the same events and teachings are found in multiple accounts. John gives us words and events regarding the Great Commission that the other writers did not, and nothing written contradicts the other inspired writers. The following is a comparison of the various Great Commission accounts along with Acts 1 and 2:
The early church was being sent into all the world, but the New Testament Scriptures had not been written yet, and the disciples did not know all the different languages of the world. Therefore, they would need the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit to reveal the Truth, to preach the Gospel in other languages (tongues), and to miraculously confirm that the Words they were speaking had come from God (Mk. 16:20; Jn. 3:2; 16:13; Acts 2:22; Heb. 2:1-4).
As far as the timeframe of the “Holy Ghost being given” to aid the apostles and the early church, the Bible makes it clear that the Holy Ghost would not be given until after Jesus was glorified in Heaven: “But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified” (Jn. 7:39; cf. Mk. 16:17). When Jesus was on earth, He said the Comforter had not yet come, and that the Comforter would not come until Jesus returned to Heaven: “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me” (Jn. 15:26). “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (Jn. 16:7; cf. 14:26; Acts 1:4-8; 2:1-4, 16-21; Eph. 4:8). Jesus told the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the power promised by the Father, and that was fulfilled on Pentecost Day after Jesus returned to Heaven (Lk. 24:49; Acts 1:4, 5, 8; 2:1-4, 16-21, 33).
With the timeframe established regarding the Holy Ghost being given, we conclude that Jesus’ apostles did not receive the Holy Spirit when Jesus was on earth giving them the Great Commission (Jn. 20:22). What, then, is happening in that text, when Jesus breathed on them and told them to receive the Holy Spirit? Jesus breathing on them was symbolizing what would happen to them in the near future—He was going to send the Spirit (from the Greek word pneuma, meaning “breath”) at the appropriate time. All Scripture is “God-breathed” (theopneustos, 2 Tim. 3:16), and the Word (Jesus, Jn. 1:1) would send the Holy Spirit (pneuma) for the main purpose of spreading and confirming the Word of God (Mk. 16:20; Jn. 16:7, 8; 17:8; Heb. 2:1-4).
Jesus breathing on them was prophetic symbolism not unlike a multitude of Old Testament shadows prefiguring future events. It was an outward action symbolic of a future event. The shadow was not “the real thing” (“the very image” – Heb. 10:1) but led one to the real thing, just as the shadow on the ground of a man will lead one to the real thing. Jesus breathing on them was not “the real thing” in them actually receiving the Spirit at that point, but was pointing towards Pentecost, when remission of sins (20:23) would begin to be preached in other languages by the power of the Spirit (Acts 2).
As far as outward, physical actions that were prophetic, God once instructed Ezekiel to make a model of Jerusalem with tile, an iron pan, and other elements, portraying a siege of the city as “a sign” to Judah of what was coming (Ezek. 4). When God instructed Abram to go offer his only begotten son on the mountain of Moriah, that was an outward action (or sign) symbolizing that the Lamb of God would be sacrificed in that same area some 2,000 years later (Gen. 22; Mt. 20:18). It is no coincidence that God had also instructed Solomon to build the temple in Moriah, where untold numbers of lambs would be slain, where Abram had gone to sacrifice, and where Christ would later be sacrificed (2 Chr. 3:1). Think also of Jeremiah and the potter’s clay (Jer. 18), Joash shooting arrows to symbolize how many victories would be won (2 Kin. 13), the prophetic furniture of the tabernacle (Heb. 8-10), etc. The Bible is full of this type of external symbolism, and Christ breathing on them was “a sign” of what was coming later when He would send the Holy Spirit to them (Jn. 16:7; Acts 2:1-4).
Note also that the word “receive” can refer to a present or future action. This is true in English, but also the original Greek word in John 20:22 does not indicate the time of reception. Following is an example of the word “receive” indicating a future event: “I am going to mail you a gift. Receive the gift and use it as you wish.” The word “receive” in that statement does not imply that the person presently had the gift. They would have to wait for the gift to arrive later before they could receive it. The same is true for what Jesus was saying. Wait in the city of Jerusalem until you receive the power from on high, the power of the Holy Ghost (Lk. 24:49; Acts 1:8; 2:1-4).
Although we do not “receive the Holy Ghost” like they did back then with miraculous power, we have something the miracle workers did not. We have the amazing result of the Holy Spirit’s work—the completed New Testament Scriptures, from the mind of God Himself (1 Cor. 2:9-16). We have all the Truth—not revealed in parts, but all in one place at one time. The Word is now readily available in the form of the complete Holy Scriptures, which are able “to make [us] wise unto salvation” and fully equipped for every good work (1 Cor. 13:8-12; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 2 Pet. 1:3).