Jesus' disciples locked the doors to their own prison. Fear, grief, and shame haunted the dark cold room in which they sat. Their beloved Lord, teacher, and friend had been crucified. Jesus had breathed His last.
The One whose creative breath breathed into the lifeless clay bringing Adam to life had stopped breathing.
The light of the world had been placed into the darkness of a tomb. To whom and to where shall they go? The One who had words of everlasting life (John 6:68) lay lifeless in a grave.
Into their despair, the resurrected Lord stood among them alive and breathing. Despite the locked doors, Jesus showed up to bless His beloved. "Peace be with you" (John 20:19) echoed from the lips of the Lord. Then, the Apostle John notes a peculiar detail, Jesus breathed on His disciples (John 20:22).
John is often bringing us back to the Old Testament, specifically Genesis. He begins His Gospel account with these words, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men" (John 1:1,3–4). Jesus, the Word of God is responsible for creation and life.
So, why does John include this detail of Jesus breathing on His disciples in his account? As Jesus breathed on His disciples, He brought dry bones to life.
The prophet Ezekiel wrote of a valley of dry, dead bones. He heard the voice of the Lord say to him, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live" (Ezekiel 37:9). The Spirit, the wind, the breath of God brought dead things to life.
Jesus breathes on souls dead in sin and brings life through the work of the Holy Spirit. "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld" (John 20:22–23). Jesus not only breathes out absolution on His beloved disciples, He sends them out to carry His breath of forgiveness.
Jesus continues to breathe His gifts on His beloved. He continues to breathe absolution upon sinners like me and you, He continues to fill us with the Holy Spirit and all His comfort.
Martin Luther writes, "He sends the Holy Spirit to preach Christ into my heart and to fill it with His consolation. This is the main glory and prerogative of the Holy Spirit."
Our Lord paid our wage of death (Romans 6:23) with His life, His breath, His perfect atoning death in our place. His life, His breath was given for us that we may have the life only He can give. Just as Adam was brought to life through the breath of God, we too are brought to life through the Word of God, through the Gospel breathed out on us.