Problem: Roman Catholics claim that Jesus gave His disciples the power to forgive sins and that this power has been passed on to Roman Catholic priests down through the centuries. Does this text support their position?
Solution: Jesus did give His disciples the power to forgive sins, and this power still exists today. However, it is not unique to Roman Catholic priests. Any believer in Christ possesses the same power to pronounce someone’s sins forgiven, based on their trust in the finished work of Christ. Notice the context of the passage.
First of all, many see this as an extension of the power promised in Matthew 18:18 to bind and loose sins with the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19). It is given to all the apostles, not just Peter (see comments on Matt. 16:18). And inasmuch as the mission of the church extends “to the ends of the age” (Matt. 28:20), Christ is “present” to forgive sins with all who preach the Gospel at any time or place.
Further, this is John’s parallel to the Great Commission. Jesus introduces it by the words, “as the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (John 20:21). But the clergy (priesthood) is not the only group commissioned to serve Christ; every believer is to be a witness (cf. Matt. 28:18–20; 2 Cor. 4:1ff).
Finally, this power is present only through the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). This is parallel to what Jesus said later, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). But all believers have this same power to pronounce forgiveness of sins as the witness to the good news of Christ throughout the world. There is absolutely no mention here about any unique priestly power resident in a select clergy. It is simply John’s equivalent of the Great Commission to all believers to proclaim the message of Christ’s forgiveness to all the world (cf. Luke 24:47).