Summary: As Jesus stood in their midst and proclaimed peace, Jesus was also about to send them forth.
When Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection did He really establish confession to a priest?
Let’s understand what Jesus said and how it was understood in early church history.
Let’s look at John 20:19-31 and Jesus’ appearance to the disciples.
John 20:19 Peace in Our Fears
In John 20:19, what did Jesus mean, peace be with you? He said it on Resurrection Sunday and the following Sunday. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines it as "the tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ, and so fearing nothing from God and content with its earthly lot, of whatsoever sort that is." The apostles began their letters with this greeting. Christians ought to offer peace to friend and foe alike. Many churches offer peace before communion. Jesus came to the disciples in their fears and brought them peace from heaven. They were then sent with the message of peace, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
John 20:23 Sent Proclaiming Heaven’s Forgiveness
Does John 20:23 mean confession to a priest? Early church fathers taught confessing to God for most sins and in public for grievous sins. In the early Church, confession was before all. Western practices are from the 7th to 11th centuries and are not the most ancient interpretation of this passage. In the east, sins are confessed to God and witnessed by a priest. For practical purposes the priest represents the entire community. Verse 23 literally means, “their sins have already been forgiven” i.e. by heaven. This instruction was given to all those assembled. Anyone sent in power of the Holy Spirit is sent with this message of forgiveness.
John 20:23 Faith and Forgiveness
In John 20:23, does Jesus contradict his instructions mandating forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer? The gospel message is a message of forgiveness of sin to those who accept it, but those who refuse forgiveness are not forgiven. Thomas saw Jesus’ wounds, but faith is evidence of things without visible proof (Hebrews 11:1), a mystery. All the disciples doubted, not just Thomas. This is written that we might believe and that believing we might have life through his name. Faith is a gift from God. God entrusts incredible authority to faulty disciples. We accept the message of Jesus, delivered by ordinary faulty people, and will be forgiven when we do.
Early Church Fathers on Confession
Does the church have authority to forgive sins? This is a topic of dispute between Protestants and the two most ancient church communities, Catholic and Orthodox. Though its format has changed, the early church fathers seem to have accepted confession of sin to God in the presence of a priest as normal.
Didache ca. 70 AD “Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience... gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure.”
Irenaeus of Lyons 180 AD “make a public confession”
Origen of Alexandria ca. 244 AD “he does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and ... if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him [James 5:14-15].”
Cyprian of Carthage 250 AD “sins are expiated... conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the hand of the priest... let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world”
Athanasius of Alexandria 295–373 AD “he who confesses his sins with a repentant heart obtains their remission from the priest.”
Basil the Great 330–379 AD “confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries [i.e. the Sacraments] is entrusted [i.e. priests]... in the Gospel ... they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matthew 3:6]; but in Acts they confessed to the Apostles [Acts 19:18].”
Augustine of Hippo ca. 354–430 AD “...when you hear a man confessing his sins, he has already come to life again; when you hear a man lay bare his conscience in confessing, he has already come forth from the sepulchre; but he is not yet unbound. When is he unbound? By whom is he unbound? “Whatever you loose on earth,” He says, “shall be loosed also in heaven” [Matthew 16:19; 18:18; Jn 20:23]. Rightly is the loosing of sins able to be given by the Church… (Psalms 101:2-3)
Ambrose ca. 333–397 AD “for sins to be forgiven ... Christ granted even this to His Apostles, and by His Apostles it has been transmitted to the offices of priest.”
Jerome ca. 347–420 AD “Just as in the Old Testament the priest makes the leper clean or unclean, so in the New Testament the bishop and presbyter [i.e. priest] binds or looses”
Theodore Of Mopsuestia ca. 428 AD “It behooves us, therefore, to draw near to the priests in great confidence and to reveal to them our sins”