WHEN WERE THE DISCIPLES BORN AGAIN?

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached on Saturday Evening, January 31, 2009
at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles

“Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45).

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22).


I studied 17 commentaries on this verse last Wednesday night. I stayed up studying until 5:00 in the morning. Nearly all of the commentaries I studied (including several not cited) reference Genesis 2:7 which says,

“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).

Genesis 2:7 is referenced under “L” in the center column of the Scofield Study Bible, along with I Corinthians 15:45 which says,

“The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit” (I Corinthians 15:45).

This Scofield note implies that the “breath” of God which made Adam alive must come to fallen men, "dead in sin" (Ephesians 2:5) to “quicken” them or “give life” to them by the work of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. Dr. Walvoord’s commentary says,

“So he breathed on them and said, Receive the Holy Spirit.” The image and wording of breathing on them recalls God’s creative work in making Adam (Genesis 2:7). Now this post-Resurrection “breathing” was a new kind of creative work for they would…become new creations, Ephesians 2:8-10 (John F. Walvoord, Th.D., and Roy B. Zuck, Th.D., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament, Victor Books, 1984, p. 343; note on John 20:22).

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22).

The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Zondervan, 2003) says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Does not refer to empowerment for ministry, which took place later at Pentecost…” (note on John 20:22). Dr. John R. Rice said, “Keep these two things [this inbreathing and Pentecost] separate: the indwelling of the Holy Spirit began the day of the resurrection of Christ, John 20:22” (John R. Rice, D.D., The Son of God: A Verse-by-Verse Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1976 edition, p. 397, note on John 20:22).

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22).

Matthew Henry gave this comment,

Christ here seems to refer to the Creation of man at first, by the breathing of the breath of life unto him (Genesis 2:7), and to intimate that he himself was the author of that work, and that the spiritual life [of] Christians are derived from him, as much as the natural life of Adam…As the breath of the Almighty gave life to man and began the old world, so the breath of the mighty Saviour gave life…and began a new world…the breath of Christ signifies the power of his grace (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, 1996 edition, p. 984; note on John 20:22).

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22).

Dr. Charles John Ellicott said,

The [Greek] word rendered “breathed” occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, but was familiar from its use in the Greek [LXX] of Genesis 2:7. St. John uses to describe this act of the risen Lord the striking word which had been used to describe the act by which God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life. He [John the Apostle] writes as one who remembered how the influence of that moment on their future lives was a new spiritual creation, by which they were called, as it were, out of death unto life (Charles John Ellicott, D.D., Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Zondervan Publishing House, 1954 edition, Volume VI, pp. 543-544; note on John 20:22).

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22).

The Preacher’s Homiletic Commentary points out,

It must be remembered that this divine “breathing” of the Spirit was not conferred on apostles alone; others were present. It is therefore typical…It is not baptism or church membership or knowledge of Scripture that makes men and women true disciples of Christ. Now, as of old, it is a gift of the Holy Ghost (W. Frank Scott, M.D., The Preacher’s Complete Homiletic Commentary on the New Testament, Funk and Wagnalls Company, n.d., Commentary on John, p. 566; note on John 20:22).

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22).

Dr. J. Vernon McGee said,

I personally believe that at the moment our Lord breathed on them, and said, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost,” these men were regenerated [born again]. Before this, they had not been indwelt by the Spirit of God…I believe here that Jesus Christ breathed into these men eternal life by giving them the Spirit of God (J. Vernon McGee, Th.D., Thru the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983, volume IV, p. 498; comment on John 20:22).

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22).

The Applied New Testament Commentary says,

Then Jesus breathed on His disciples and gave them the Holy Spirit…it was then that they were born again of the Spirit… This is when they received true and full faith. This is when they received spiritual life. No man can be a true Christian without having received the Holy Spirit of Christ… “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” [he does not belong to Christ], Romans 8:9 (Thomas Hale, M.D., The Applied New Testament Commentary, Victor Books, 1997 reprint, p. 448; note on John 20:22).

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22).

If it is true that the Disciples were not born again until John 20:22, it would explain why they did not believe the Gospel when Christ preached it to them. Please turn to Matthew 16:21-23.

“From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men”
       (Matthew 16:21-23).

Peter actually rebuked Christ for preaching the Gospel! At this point Peter did not believe the message of the Gospel – the death and resurrection of Christ! He not only refused to believe the Gospel, but rebuked Jesus and attacked Him for preaching it!

Again, Christ made it very clear that He would die and be raised from the dead, the very essence of the Gospel. Turn to Matthew 17:22-23.

“And while they abode in Galilee, Jesus said unto them, The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men: And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again. And they were exceeding sorry” (Matthew 17:22-23).

When they heard the Gospel, “they were exceeding sorry” (Matthew 17:22-23).

Again, look at Luke 18:31-34. We know that the Gospel is the death and resurrection of Christ, but the Disciples were utterly blind to the Gospel.

“Then he took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished. For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again. And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken” (Luke 18:31-34).

“This saying was hid from them.”  II Corinthians 4:3 says, “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost” (II Corinthians 4:3).  Since the Gospel “was hid” from the Disciples, it is clear that they were still lost (Luke 18:31-34).  “If our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost” – a perfect description of the confused, bungling, faithless Disciples before “he breathed on them, and saith unto then, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22). 

“They understood none of these things” – that is, they understood nothing about the Gospel. The gospel was “hid from them.” They did not understand what He was talking about because they had never been born again. But on the night of the same day He rose from the dead He opened their understanding and they were converted. Look at Luke 24:36-45.

“And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them. And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:36-45).

He “opened their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” at the same time, on the same Sunday night, that

“he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22).

I am totally convinced that this was when the Disciples were born again, never a chance that it happened earlier. 

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22).

The Apostle Thomas was not there that night. Although he had heard Jesus preach about His death and resurrection, Thomas strongly refused to believe the Gospel. Look at John 20:24-31.

“But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:24-31).

It is clear, from his own words and unbelief, that one of the 12 Disciples, Thomas, was not born again before he encountered Christ that night.

Thus, I believe that he and the other Disciples were not born again until they encountered the risen Christ. Then, and only then, He “opened their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). Then, and only then, He “breathed on them” and they were born again.

Before that, they were struggling and trying to be Christians, sometimes doing well, at other times ready to give up, filled with constant doubts, finally running away from Jesus into the night. They came back very cautiously and reluctantly with no faith at all that Jesus had risen from the dead, although He had told them He would repeatedly before the crucifixion. They remind me of Luther, and John Bunyan, and George Whitefield, and C. H. Spurgeon before they were born again. And their encounter with the risen Christ, the opening of their understanding, and their regeneration by the Holy Spirit, are also reminiscent of the famous conversions of these great preachers. Remember,

“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

How about you? Do you expect to be born again without going through a struggle like these preachers and Christ’s Apostles? Do you think you can be born again without being deeply convicted of your sins? Do you think you can be born again without the Holy Spirit drawing you into a divine-human encounter with Jesus Christ? I hope not, because that’s exactly what you are going to have to go through – to be born again, and become a real Christian!

(END OF SERMON)
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