There’s a moment in John chapter 20, not long after the resurrection when Jesus appears to his disciples and, after the initial joy of realising that this isn’t a hallucination and that Jesus really is back, the disciples are commissioned to continue the work Jesus was doing on Earth.
And, in order to empower this motley bunch of scared and confused fishermen and tax collectors, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit. In doing so, he breathes on them.
This is odd.
I mean, breathing on someone really isn’t the done thing, is it? It’s not polite.
And yet, biblically speaking, it’s a physical metaphor for something a lot deeper than Jesus sorting out his succession planning. Go back to the first time you hear of someone in the Bible breathing on someone else.
It’s way back in Genesis chapter 2. The moment in which God creates man, Adam, and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life. Is there a connection with Jesus’s breathing on the disciples? The act seems too deliberate for it not to be symbolic and here in John we have a story of new life – Jesus resurrected, the disciples scared and scattered but now coming back together and being restored and empowered to start the early church. This is the Easter story after all, a story of new life, and so a link to the creation makes sense.
It’s also a moment of foreshadowing, an advance echo of what’s going to happen at Pentecost. There the Holy Spirit turns up in power, filling the disciples and manifesting as fire and the sound of a rushing wind. And that’s important, because the idea of wind, breath, in connection with God is important. Because that’s his name, one of them at least.
Ruach – the Hebrew for wind, breath, spirit – is a theme that runs throughout the Old Testament. It’s right there at the beginning, in Genesis 1, with the Spirit hovering over the waters, again linking the concept of breath and spirit with creation. It implies empowerment too, which also ties in with the commissioning of the disciples. But it’s also, at three points, a name for the Holy Spirit himself – Ruach Hakodesh. Look at Psalm 51:11 (“Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me”) and Isaiah 63:11 (“Where is he who set his Holy Spirit among them?”)
In those cases it echoes something else John records in his gospel, a moment in chapter 14 where Jesus tells the disciples that he won’t always be with them, but they won’t be alone – the Holy Spirit will be with them. This is straight after he tells them that they’ll do greater things than he did… Which is what he’s commissioning them to do in chapter 20. Again, the presence of God is key.
Through a divine wind, breath, Holy Spirit, God gives himself to his people. He’s not distant, sat on a cloud and smiting royally, he’s within us, alongside us. This is something that runs throughout the Bible – God’s breath, Spirit, yes, but also the Shekinah glory in the Temple and the incarnation of Jesus himself (Immanuel, God with us, as Matthew put it). The point is clear – God is with us. In so many ways, he’s with us.
And so Jesus breathing on the disciples isn’t really a weird thing to do. It’s a promise of something amazing still to come, a confirmation that God will always be with them – and, by extension, always with us. It’s a quiet moment in John’s gospel, but its implications are immense: