Summary: The Spirit of God, as the breath of God, brings us to life, empowers us for the works of ministry, and points to Jesus as the Son of God.
"The Breath of God"
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 20 After He said this, He showed them His hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21 Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 22 And with that He breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."
...(Jesus) breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’...(Jn. 20:22)
Jesus breathed on the disciples. He exhaled, sighed, or blew upon them. He expelled His breath in their direction, on, or over them. There is a meaning behind His blowing on them. This is a kind of parabolic deed - an earthly action intended to convey a larger, heavenly message. He wasn’t just breathing; He was breathing on them to create an effect. Both what Jesus does, and what He says, equates this act of breathing on the disciples with the breath of God - the creative breath, the life-giving breath, the spirit-empowering breath of God.
In the Old Testament the Hebrew word ruach could be translated ‘spirit,’ ‘breath,’ or ‘wind,’ depending on the context. The same is true with the New Testament Greek word pneuma.
This is at the conclusion of His earthly ministry, after the resurrection and before the ascension, and here Jesus breathed on the apostles to reveal His identity as divine, and as a foreshadowing of the Spirit they were to receive on the day of Pentecost.
Jesus conveys this message; His followers need His Spirit to do His work.
Power for Life
When Jesus breathed on them and commanded them to receive the Holy Spirit He was reminding them of the creative life-force emanating from the being of God. God’s breath is what brought Adam to life in the garden. Gen. 2:7. the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (soul, KJV) In a way Jesus was reenacting that scene from Gen. 2. He was teaching them about the life He gives. This demonstration may have also brought to mind the imagery of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones. "This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: ‘I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’" 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’" 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet--a vast army. 11 Then He said to me: "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’" (Ez. 37:5-14)
It is the Holy Spirit who gives life. Just as physical breath is essential to physical life, the Holy Spirit (God’s breath) is necessary to spiritual life. We are never truly alive until we are quickened by the power of the Spirit of God. At best, without Him, we are like the church of Sardis, having ... a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. (Rev. 3:1) All we have is religion if we have not been born of the Spirit. In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." 4 "How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!" 5 Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." (Jn. 3:3-6)