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”
- Chrysostom ca. 344–407 AD “Priests ... Whose sins you shall forgive,” He says, “they are forgiven them: whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” [John 20:23].
- The Letter of Barnabas 74 AD “You shall confess your sins. You shall not go to prayer with an evil conscience.”
- Ignatius of Antioch 110 AD “For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop.”
- Hippolytus 215 AD [The bishop conducting the ordination of the new bishop shall pray:] God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ... pour forth now that power which comes from you, from your Royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he bestowed upon his holy apostles... and grant this your servant... to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command.
Scriptures on Confession
What does the Bible say about confession?
“he shall confess that he has sinned” (Leviticus 5:5). “confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers” (Leviticus 26:40). “make confession to [God]” (Joshua 7:19) “in a great ceremony... confessed that they had sinned against the Lord” (1 Samuel 7:6). David confessed to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13) “make confession to the Lord God” (Ezra 10:11). “When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away” (Psalm 32:3). “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” (Psalm 32:5). “He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13)
“confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel” (Daniel 9:20) “baptized ... confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:6) “many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds” (Acts 19:18) “every tongue shall confess to God.” (Romans 14:11) “Confess your trespasses to one another” (James 5:16) “confess our sins” (1 John 1:9)
“whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32) “confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus” (Romans 10:9) “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:11) “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims” (Hebrews 11:13) “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God” (1 John 4:2) “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” (1 John 4:15)
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Confession is an ancient part of a godly life. People confessed their sins publicly, and to God’s representative, and in prayer. Confession is good for the soul. Confession seems to come in two parts. We confess that we are sinners and that the sinless One is our Savior. In other words, after confession of sin comes forgiveness and public confession of faith in Christ.
John 20:28 MY Lord and MY God
At the cross all the disciples abandoned Jesus. He appeared to them and offered his peace. Thomas confessed very personally, “My Lord and my God!” He did not say OUR Lord or even THE Lord, but MY Lord and MY God. This is what is meant when people speak of a personal relationship with God. Jesus went on to give a special blessing to us who would believe even though we have not seen. We see Jesus, not with physical eyes. When we see Jesus with spiritual insight, we also believe like they did. And as Jesus revealed himself to those disciples, so he reveals himself to each of us.
We confess that we have not faithfully stuck by Jesus but have been fearful like those disciples. Jesus stands among as he stood among them granting us the peace which surpasses all understanding. Ministry begins when we openly confess our sins. Then it awakens as we are able to boldly confess the One who forgives us all our sins.