Text: John 20:19-23
Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.
So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” You all just confessed that together, and we do so as a church every week. But do you ever stop and ask what that means? “One”—I think that’s clear enough. There’s only one church. Even if it exists in multiple expressions, there is only one universal church. “Holy”—that also seems understandable enough. The church should be both separate from the influence and authority of the world, and it should be morally righteous. “Catholic”—that one is a little bit more difficult, since you might think about the Roman Catholic Church, but most of us in this room have had to explain it enough to others that we know the term “catholic” means “universal.” It is a way of including others, past and present, in the one holy church. But what about “apostolic”—do we know that that means? What do you think?
There are churches out there that use the title “Apostolic” as a sort of denominational brand name. If you were to visit them, you would probably notice a shared set of practices and beliefs. But those kinds of churches are not what the Creed is talking about. They are actually rather new in church history and do not stretch back to the 4th century when it was written. Instead, the Creed is talking about the fact that the church was created in and through the Apostles of Jesus. This includes the 11 who studied with Him directly (Judas was excluded, of course), as well as the Apostle Paul who was called later. But I think the word means even more than that. The church isn’t simply “from the Apostles,” but is itself “apostolic” in nature. To understand this, we need to understand the definition of the word “apostle.”
The Greek word “apostello” is actually a verb. It means “to send out,” but it carries the connotation of sending out “to dispatch someone for the achievement of some objective” (BDAG 3rd ed. pg 120). This is like sending out an ambassador or a spokesperson with a specific mission. The “apostles” were the first ones “sent out” by Jesus in this way, and we see that happening in our text in John 20. When we say that the church is “apostolic,” we meant that the apostles were not the only ones “sent out” to spread Jesus’ message, but in fact the whole church was. We are all, therefore, apostles, since we are all commissioned to share the gospel and tell others about Jesus and His commands. So, our big idea for this morning is this: the church is itself apostolic because it has been sent out by Jesus to speak for Him and to spread His message. This includes each of you, and it informs you of your mission in the kingdom of God.
The Commissioning of the Apostles in John 20:19-23
When Jesus appeared to the disciples, He was continuing to manifest His resurrection, but He was also doing something creative. He was creating the church. This won’t be complete until Pentecost, but we can see that it is beginning here in John 20. The fact that Jesus breaths out the Holy Spirit is a key indicator of this, as it is a sort of mini-Pentecost occurring ahead of time. But Jesus also gives the disciples a charge, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you… If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21, 23). This means that they are to go out and continue to do the sort of thing Jesus has been doing. They are to be “sent.” This is what makes them “apostolic.” And they are to be sent in a particular way, “As the Father has sent” Jesus.
This is what the Church is. It is a group of people who have been commissioned by Christ to continue His ministry. They are to either forgive or retain sins, and this means the preaching of the gospel and administering of the keys of the kingdom. You might remember a parallel passage in Matthew 16 which says much the same thing:
And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18-19)
What was said there to Peter is now said to all of the disciples, and we learn from this that it continues to apply to the church throughout all the ages. The church is the kingdom of heaven, and the ministry of the church is given gatekeeping authority. This does not mean that the kingdom is limited to the ministry of the church, but it does mean that the ministry of the church has a special relationship to the kingdom and particular duties towards it.
And notice that Jesus does not institute a pure democracy when He creates His church. Instead, He commissions a plurality of elders. This is not a singular hierarchy. There is no top bishop in charge of all the rest. But it is also not a grassroots or spontaneous movement. Jesus chooses official men to be His officers, and He gives them authority and rule. As we are taught in Ephesians 4:
He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13)
This same idea is presupposed and taught by Hebrews, “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you… Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account” (Hebrews 13:7, 17). Jesus creates His church, and He creates it with a government and ruling officials who possess true spiritual authority. They begin carrying out the commission, and then they add more and more to the church.
The Church is Sent Out as Jesus’ Minister or Spokesperson
Again, notice that important statement in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” This is what makes the church “apostolic,” and it means that the church is sent out as Jesus’ minister or spokesperson. As Paul will say in 2 Corinthians 5, “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.”
What is an ambassador? An ambassador is an official who speaks on behalf of someone else, usually on behalf of someone else with greater authority. The ambassador is not the same as the person speaking, but he nevertheless speaks for him, and that is why Paul can say it is “as though God were pleading through us.” This is what the ministry of the Word is, and that ministry has been given to the church. The church is, therefore, the ambassador for God on earth, and God speaks through the church.
Now, precisely because the church is an ambassador, an apostle, of God, it cannot say whatever it wants. It is not allowed to speak for God in the sense of saying new things or putting words into His mouth. No, we must not add to the Word of God. We must not call the word of men the word of God, and we must be careful to distinguish the difference. There are times when we must give our measured opinion about a matter, and that opinion should matter, but it is not the Word of God.
This is one reason that sola Scriptura is so important. The Bible alone is the Word of God, and for the church to be able to speak God’s Word, it must be careful to not add to it or replace it with the words of men. It must speak, teach, and preach from the Bible. The church should never contradict the Bible, and the church should never add something alongside the Bible as if it has equal standing. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it in its chapter on Christian liberty:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. (WCF 20.2)
Notice that God has left the conscience free from things “contrary to” or “beside” His Word in matters of faith and worship. Thus, there is no surer way for the church to cease being apostolic, to cease speaking on behalf of God, than to add rules and teachings to the Scripture and demand ultimate obedience. If we are to have true spiritual authority, we must be sure not to claim as divine that which is merely human. But, having taken care to keep to God’s Word, the church can and must speak for God in matters of faith and worship.
This includes the authoritative pronouncement of the forgiveness of sins and the authoritative announcement of the retaining of sins. This sounds a little frightening at first, but it is what Jesus Himself said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). This is done through the ministry of the word and sacrament, and it is enforced negatively through church discipline and excommunication. This duty is given to the whole church, but the whole church carries it out through its appropriate organs, namely its elected officers and means of good order, whether courts, denominations, or elder boards. This is not mechanical or absolute. Churches can and do make mistakes in this life. But, nevertheless, Jesus’ is teaching is still authoritative. We must take it seriously, and we must assume that it is the rule and not the exception.
Be the Apostolic Church and Believe in the Apostolic Church
Now we come to a point of application. I have two points for you this morning. You should be the apostolic church of Jesus, and you should believe in the apostolic church of Jesus. While the being is always founded on the believing, these should actually be simultaneous actions. You should be the church because you believe in it, but you should always express you belief in it by faithfully being it.
Be the apostolic church. This means that you have to “go,” just as Christ has sent you. Go out and preach the gospel. Evangelize those around you. Tell them about the forgiveness of sins found in Jesus, and preach the gospel with divine authority. While it is true that the church has officers, any Christian can preach the gospel. They may not do so in an official capacity in the assembly, but they can and should tell others about the gospel, explain it from the Scriptures, and truly and boldly call men to faith and repentance. This is your duty. It’s what Christ wants from you. Share the gospel, and share it with authority. Share it like it’s the Word of God—because it is.
And then believe in the apostolic church. What I mean by this is believe that the church is sent out by Christ as Christ to the world. Listen to its voice. Receive its voice as the voice of God in Christ. Obey it. Take it seriously, with holy fear and trembling. This is not my opinion. To be quite honest, this goes against my personality and disposition. I hate invoking credentials or pulling rank. I’d rather people come to me and ask my opinion and then accept it because it strikes them as good. But that’s not what Jesus says about the church. It should certainly seek to persuade men, but it must do so by speaking with divine authority. It must “go out” as Christ has been sent by God, and it must preach the forgiveness of sins, and it must preach the judgment of God when its voice is rejected. It must do so as the Word of God.
This means that we should all listen to and take the church seriously. Don’t try to relativize or neutralize the teaching of the church, and this begins with your church. It’s very easy to submit to the invisible church. We all love the power and authority of the invisible church. It’s great. It can be anything we want, because we make sure to keep it as only an idea. It’s the visible church, particularly the congregation to which we belong that’s more difficult. And why is that? It’s because that’s the place where we actually interact with the church. We talk to the church, and the church talks back. That’s the place where the church actually corrects us and convicts of sin. That’s the church were disagreements arise, and where we actually have to submit. The local congregation is where the rubber meets the road. It’s where our faith is truly put to the test and we get to express and demonstrate what we truly believe. And if we fear God and want to show our service to Him, then we must love and honor His Church. As John Calvin said, “certainly he who refuses to be a son of the Church in vain desires to have God as his Father; for it is only through the instrumentality of the Church that we are ‘born of God,’ (1 John 3:9,) and brought up through the various stages of childhood and youth, till we arrive at manhood” (Commentary on Galatians 4:26).
You can leave local churches. We’ve probably all done so in our lives. There are many legitimate reasons, and good churches should make peaceable departure a possibility. But you should never disrespect or disregard your local church’s authority in the process. You should receive its teaching as if from Jesus Himself, and you be willing to make changes to yourself in light of your church’s influence and authority.
This is of course a very counter-cultural message. It’s even counter-cultural among Christians. People simply don’t believe these things about the church any more, and so they don’t live according. Why not? Well, the answer is always sin. We don’t like to have to submit to rules or authority over us, and we certainly don’t like to be told no. We want to do what we want, and that’s always our heart problem. We need to examine our hearts and see if we have become too comfortable with our sin nature. Have we given it to it?
But more than simply sin, we have been consistently taught and catechized, by schools, media, literature, advertising, and even politics, that our individual autonomy is the most important thing. We should fight for our own individual liberty over and against all things, and if anyone is limiting that, then they are necessarily doing something wrong. Unfortunately, even many of our churches have bought into this, as they are content to take a “hands off” approach to their members. This is the philosophy of America, but it’s not the philosophy of the Bible. The Bible says that we are supposed to “submit to one another in the fear of God” (Eph. 5:21). Submission is only really submission—it only really matters—when we disagree with the person we are asked to submit to. If we don’t disagree, then we aren’t submitting. We are just doing what we want to do. No, it’s only when we must submit to something that we do not like that it’s true submission. And the Bible calls us to do this constantly, starting with the voice of the church.
Now none of this will be of any good if the church tries to be “like Jesus” without actually being like Jesus. We must be apostolic as He was, and this means we must speak what He spoke, we must speak it like He spoke it, and we must demonstrate it like He demonstrated it. This begins with self-sacrificial love. We must put ourselves on the line for others and for the sake of the gospel. We must put the needs of others ahead of our own. We must put the good of the whole church ahead of our reputation or personal desires. We must sacrifice ourselves on the Cross of Christ.
Only be being like Christ can we ever be like Christ, and we can only have a Christ-like church if we become a Christ-like church, starting now with each of us. Let us ask God for His grace as we seek to be faithful to His calling. May He teach us, guide us, and direct us after His ways.
Let us pray.