Once Mary Magdalene realized that Jesus had risen from the dead, she went to tell the other disciples, who, except for John, did not know that the empty tomb meant His resurrection (John 20:1–18). Yet, it does not seem that the disciples initially believed her. At the very least, they did not grasp the significance of what she said. After all, John tells us that the disciples, on the day of Christ’s resurrection, were hiding in a room with the doors locked because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities (v. 19). Humanly speaking, this is understandable. The authorities had put Jesus to death, so the disciples believed they were in danger as well. But they should have had no fear, because Jesus had conquered death. They would become courageous preachers of the cross, but it would take the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost to give them boldness (Acts 2).
Speaking of Pentecost, today’s passage tells us that before the actual pouring out of the Spirit on the disciples in Jerusalem fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, our Lord breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 22). This is sometimes called the Johannine Pentecost, and on a surface-level reading it seems to introduce a second giving of the Spirit. However, a more careful reading indicates otherwise. What we have here is an “acted parable,” a visible action of Jesus that reveals a coming event. This follows the example of several Old Testament prophecies (Jer. 19; Ezek. 4). In Greek, the word pneuma means both “spirit” and “breath,” so our Lord’s action and speech showed that He would soon pour out His Spirit on His disciples. Note that the church has seen in this action evidence that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Augustine of Hippo comments, “By breathing on them [the Son] signified that the Holy Spirit was the Spirit, not of the Father alone, but likewise His own.”
Before this acted parable, Jesus proved to the disciples that He had risen from the dead by showing them His hands and side, proving that He was indeed the One who had been pierced on the cross (John 20:20; see 19:31–37). He also commissioned the disciples to go into the world, telling them that He was sending them just as the Father had sent Him. Jesus was not of the world and came into the world to bring salvation (John 1:1–18). The disciples—and ultimately all Christians—were once of the world, are taken out of the world by God’s grace, and then are sent back into the world to proclaim the gospel of salvation, pointing people to Christ (John 17:14–21).