He Breathed on Them…

Originally posted October 17th, 2010. Having finished moving over the content from Podbean to the new web host, it’s time to begin moving over the much older content from Blogger. Whereas with the podcast feed I wanted to recreate it with the original publish dates and everything, I’ve decided I’ll just periodically reach into the Blogger archive and post something I think was valuable enough to republish here. Enjoy this first one!

Pentecostals and some proponents of baptismal regeneration believe baptism in the Holy Spirit is something different from, above and beyond, the saving, indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In an attempt to demonstrate this, they’ll often argue that the Apostles received the Holy Spirit well before Pentecost. Thus, they insist, the baptism in the Holy Spirit which they experienced at Pentecost must be something different from, something more than, the receiving of the Holy Spirit which they already experienced. This is, in fact, not the case, as the Word of God demonstrates.


There really is only one verse which even remotely seems to support their case, and even then only on the surface:

And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)

Jesus breathed on the disciples and spoke these words to them well before Pentecost, before Jesus ever ascended to the Father. Clearly they received the Holy Spirit, right?

Quite simply, no, that’s not right. First, notice that the text nowhere says they received the Holy Spirit. At most, Jesus tells them to, and even then the text only appears to depict Jesus doing so. But a comparison between this passage and the same events recorded by another gospel author sheds light on the debate. Here is the passage in its wider context:

1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb…12 and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying… 18 Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her. 19 So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22 And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:1,12,18-22)

Note carefully what events John is recording. Mary finds the tomb empty; two angels are seen in the tomb; and Mary comes telling the disciples that she saw the risen Lord. That same day, while gathered together behind closed doors, Jesus appears to them, lets them touch His wounds, and then tells them He’s sending them. It’s at that point that John records Jesus as telling them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”


Keep all the above in mind as we look at the words of Luke:

1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared…4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing…10 Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles…36 While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. 38 And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet…46 and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 “You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:1,4,10,36-40,46-49)

It is evident that John and Luke are recording the same events. (I’ve left some details out, in part because I don’t want to turn this into a discussion of gospel harmonization; those of us debating this agree on the inerrancy of Scripture, so let’s keep this on point.) Mary finds the tomb empty, is spoken to by two angels, tells the disciples what she saw, Jesus appears to them behind close doors and lets them touch His hands and feet. But it’s at this point that Luke records Jesus’ words differently. Whereas John records Jesus as saying to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Luke records Him as saying, “I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

You see, when we put aside our doctrinal biases and simply let Scripture interpret Scripture, we discover that no, the Apostles did not receive the Holy Spirit at this point in time. They were told they would receive Him later.


Indeed, what is “the promise of My Father?”

“But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:39)

“16 I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever…26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (John 14:16,26)

“When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me.”(John 15:26)

“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.”(John 16:7)

What was the promise from the Father? “The Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive.” When would the Holy Spirit be received? It could not be prior to Jesus’ death, for He “was not yet glorified.” Jesus had, in fact, been glorified by the time John records His words behind closed doors to the disciples. However, His glorification wasn’t all that was required for them to receive the promised Holy Spirit.

Jesus said, “if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.” No, the promised Holy Spirit would not be received until Jesus left the disciples. As He said, “if I go, I will send Him to you,” and “I will send [the Helper] to you from the Father.” It wasn’t until Jesus ascended to the Father that the Holy Spirit would be received.


We’ve seen that John and Luke record the same events in their gospels, but each records Jesus’ words somewhat differently. But it’s not just in his gospel that Luke records Jesus’ promise:

4 Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now…8 but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:4-5,8)

You see, those who insist that baptism in the Holy Spirit is something different from the saving, indwelling of the Holy Spirit, point to John’s record of Jesus’ words–which don’t tell us the disciples received the Holy Spirit anyway–but must ignore Luke’s record thereof, both in his gospel and in the book of Acts. In both those places, Luke makes it clear that what Jesus had done was promise the disciples the Holy Spirit; He did not give Him to them. Indeed, He could not have, for as we’ve seen, He had not yet ascended to the Father.

In case there is still any doubt, note that in each of these three passages the context of Jesus’ words is the same: His sending the Apostles. John records Jesus saying, “as the Father has sent Me, I also send you,” immediately before breathing upon them. In his gospel, Luke records Jesus saying, “Thus it is written…that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things…but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” And in Acts he records Jesus as saying, “you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”

In every record of Jesus’ words to the disciples that day, the context is His sending them out to proclaim the gospel, beginning of Jerusalem. He did not tell them to receive the Holy Spirit at that moment; He told them they would receive the Holy Spirit when it was time to begin their mission. Indeed, neither the gospels nor the book of Acts records the Apostles proclaiming the gospel after Jesus’ words to them and before Pentecost. They knew they hadn’t yet received the Holy Spirit, but that they would, and when they did, their mission would begin.


I said toward the beginning of this article that “There really is only one verse which even remotely seems to support their case,” and what I meant was actually only one part of one verse, namely Jesus’ words, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” However, there are two additional weak points often made to defend a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words. Despite being evidence of nothing, these points are worth addressing so that it cannot be argued that anything was left out.

First, it is often pointed out that Jesus didn’t merely say to the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit”–which, as we’ve seen, was actually a promise of the future-coming Spirit, not a command that they receive the Holy Spirit right then and there. No, He did more than that: He breathed on them. Here’s one way this has been used as evidence that the disciples received the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on them:

The Hebrew word behind spirit is ruach, and it means “air in motion.” It is the same word for “breath.” It also means “life.” By resemblance to breath and air in motion, it means “spirit.”…When you get into the Greek behind that, the Greek word is pneuma, which again means “a current of air,” “breath,” or a “breeze, ” and again by analogy, “a spirit.” So both the Hebrew and the Greek word are talking about breath. It’s talking about wind…The same thing happens when we are born of the Spirit. When we are re-born, it is from the breath of God. In the Gospel of John, where He is giving to His disciples the Holy Spirit, just as God breathed on Adam and gave him the breath of life, Jesus breathed on His disciples in John chapter 20.

It is true that the word for “spirit” in both the Hebrew and the Greek carry the meaning of “breath” or “wind.” However, must the fact that Jesus “breathed” on the disciples mean that He gave them the Holy Spirit? Of course not, for Jesus no doubt breathed upon countless people in the course of His life and ministry. Indeed, just speaking at someone in close proximity would according to this reasoning bestow the Holy Spirit, since speaking is done by breathing out. So the fact that Jesus breathed upon them cannot be argued as evidence He gave them the Holy Spirit.

It is noteworthy that the gospel author recorded this peculiar, intentional action on the part of Jesus. And I doubt anybody argues that receiving the Holy Spirit is not at least what was signified by Jesus’ action. However, nothing in the text demands that it be more than a sign of what they were promised they would later receive at Pentecost. Remember, Luke’s gospel and his record of the acts of the Apostles show us that Jesus did not command that they receive the Holy Spirit, but that He promised they would receive Him at Pentecost. The act of breathing upon them may have been nothing more than a sign of that promise. As John Gill writes, “but this breathing on them, and the words that attended it, were a symbol, pledge, and confirmation, of what they were to receive on the day of Pentecost.”

Second, I believe I have heard it argued that what Jesus continues to say to the disciples in John 20 after breathing on them is evidence that they had, in fact, received the Holy Spirit. In verse 23 He says to them, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” It would seem Jesus here gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins, which some might argue proves they received the Holy Spirit.

This claim could not even be characterized as weak; it is beyond weak, it is nothing. It’s a non-argument. First, I am certain that one cannot find a connection between the authority to forgive sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Authority simply doesn’t imply power. Second, and more importantly, the text doesn’t demand that they were given this authority at that moment. I challenge my readers to find any example of the disciples preaching the gospel and forgiveness of sins after this event but before the day of Pentecost. It just isn’t there.

The point is, just as Jesus’ words were not a command that the disciples receive the Holy Spirit but a promise that they would receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and just as His breathing on them was not a giving of the Holy Spirit but a symbol of that promise, so, too, is the authority Jesus gives them not given until Pentecost, if that authority requires the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The context simply is not what was happening at that moment, but what would happen at Pentecost, when the Apostles would be given that which was required to powerfully proclaim the gospel to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.


When Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit fall upon Cornelius’ household before being baptized in water, he said (in Acts 10:47), “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” Peter identified what happened to Cornelius’ household as that which had happened to him and the other Apostles at Pentecost. The Apostles did not receive the Holy Spirit before Pentecost when Jesus breathed upon them; they were merely promised Him, and at Pentecost, they received Him.

The New Testament knows nothing of multiple senses in which one receives the Holy Spirit.


Check out this article for more exegetical and scholarly support.

10 thoughts on “He Breathed on Them…

  1. The above dialogue does prove that the thief on the cross was saved without the benefit of receiving the Holy Spirit. So wether or not he was
    baptized is now irrelevant to any discussion on water baptism or you would
    have to argue someone could be saved without receiving the Holy Spirit as

    Also, this changes any dialogue on the phrase “born of water and spirit” in John 3:5. If it was not possible to receive the Holy Spirit until after Jesus
    was glorified, why would he tell Nicodemus he must be begotten from
    above if he were not able to do so until Pentecost.

  2. Question….since when we repent and ask Jesus into our hearts, how would you explain that today, so many Christians are not walking with the Power of the Holy Ghost? It is like they are just going through the motions. What I
    have, myself, have experienced and have understood from the scripture is that, He had to have told 120 people that because that was how many were in the Upper Room….men and women. However, right after He breathed on them….He told them (from another translation), Not to start telling anyone but to go and wait until they were endued with POWER from on High. What I see today, which I believe is very irresponsible is, people give their heart to the Lord and then they are put to work in the church. We need to disciple them in “Waiting in the Upper Room” until THEY be endued with the POWER…..VIA OF PRAYER AND STUDYING THE SCRIPTURES AND BE THERE TO HELP THEM. That is, I believe, why so many people get Burned Out, Disillusioned. We, the Body of Christ, are not disciplining them. We leave people at the Altar. he does tell us to go and we do but, then, we fail to disciple. What bothers me, is Women are to Be Quiet……where are all the men? Can God use women to disciple when no men are coming forward?

  3. “before He rose from the grave, before He was buried, before He was crucified.” This is inaccurate. Verse 22 is Jesus talking to his disciples after he has been resurrected.

  4. Wow, I’m amazed I made so obvious a mistake. Thanks for pointing this out! Of course, it doesn’t affect the point of the article, but still…

  5. I don’t agree with your line of thinking. It isn’t logical. IE: you’re drawing inferences from assumptions, saying that x cannot be true because y isn’t true, etc. In John 20:22, the Greek word for “breathed” is ’emphysao’ and it is only used once in the entire NT and it’s the same word used in Genesis 2:7 where YHWH breathed life into Adam. So I don’t think it’s intelligent to assume that Christ “just” breathed or that his breath was symbolic. IMO, they absolutely received the holy breath at this time. This is not the majority opinion and I’m ok with that. He tells them three times -peace- and that’s another clue.

  6. God showed me this. In Genesis God breathed the breath of life into Adam and he became a living being. When we receive salvation that’s when we start living. The disciples received salvation when Jesus breathed on them and you do receive the Spirit at salvation but the baptism in the Holy Ghost is a different occasion I could explain why but Id be here typing forever. So then when the received the baptism in the Holy Ghost was on Pentecost.

  7. Good points but what about the rest of the book of Acts? The centurion and the apostles themselves The Holy Spirit came seperate from surrender its not automatic when one believes. Look at the people of Samaria they believed and the Peter and John walked 35-50 miles to lay hands for the Baptism of the Spirit. Later when Paul goes to Ephesus he lays on believers then it happens again. Believing and surrendering is born again and baptism is different. A presence and power!

  8. Also Jesus said His Words are Spirit and Life in my opinion John 20 was the born again experience or moment of belief that Jesus is aliive

  9. Hey thanks for the article. You stated that “there is only one verse which even remotely seems to support their case.” This simply isn’t true and you deceive your readers, especially new Christians who might just take your word for it. Please do not try to strengthen your case by providing misleading information. There are 2 occasions in Acts (Chapter 8 and 19) where the Holy Spirit is clearly given or received by he laying on of hands. But I assume you know this already. Is it not even remotely seeming to support the other side when a verse clearly says that the Apostles came to lay hands on the believers so that they could receive the Holy Spirit ( Acts 8:15, 16)?

  10. Alex, re-read the beginning of the article. The case which I allege receives even the slightest of support from one single verse is their case “that the Apostles received the Holy Spirit well before Pentecost.” I did not claim that that one verse is all they have in support of their whole pneumatology. And I stand by what I said: That is, indeed, the only verse/occurrence which can be alleged to support the claim that the apostles received the Holy Spirit before Pentecost.

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