Question: Please comment on John 20:22: “And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” I have heard that some people teach that is the way to receive the Holy Ghost.
Answer: First of all, I would like to say that there is no special specified way for people to receive the Holy Spirit. In Acts 19:6 the Holy Spirit was received through the laying on of the apostle Paul’s hands. Again in Acts 8:17 they received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of the hands of the apostles Peter and John. These were the people of Samaria who had heard and believed the preaching of Philip as he preached Christ unto them, and were consequently ready to receive the Holy Spirit. Again in Acts 10:44, as Peter preached Christ unto the household of Cornelius, they opened their hearts and minds to the Lord and believed the words they were hearing, and the Holy Spirit came upon them. In this case there was no laying on of hands nor breathing on anyone or any other kind of maneuver just an open heart and mind reception of the Word as it was preached unto them. Also in Acts 2:1-4, the apostles and their companions (about 120 in number) tarried before the Lord in fasting and prayer for about ten days; when the day of Pentecost was fully come, the Holy Spirit came upon them and filled all of them. In this case there was no one doing anything at all to anyone; but they were just all fasting, praying, and waiting as they had been instructed to do. Again in Acts 4:31, we read, “And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost,…” This was a company of about 5000 men who were all believers and were under persecution and threat; they prayed, consecrated, and dedicated their lives unto God and literally laid their lives on the line before God; He accepted their sacrifice and filled them with the Holy Spirit. In all these cases we see there is no specified way, or maneuver, or ritual for the receiving of the Holy Spirit but just meeting the conditions to make them eligible for receiving the Holy Spirit consecration, dedication, obedience and faith.
Also, I consider John 20:22 as a rather prophetic statement of something to come, and do not believe that the apostles received the Holy Spirit at that time for the following reasons. The first nine verses of the first chapter of Acts describe the last meeting on this earth between Christ and His apostles. In verse 4, He “…commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father,…” Then in verse 5, He clarifies what He was referring to : “…Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” It seems clear here that they did not yet have the Holy Spirit at this time. Also Luke 24:49 is another scripture which runs parallel with this one: “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.” Luke 24:36, 53 contains a description of Christ’s last meeting with His apostles, and it is again clear that at this time they did not have the Holy Spirit.
The apostles were instructed in Luke 24:49 to tarry in Jerusalem until they were endued with power from on high. But when was this to be? Acts 1:8 gives the answer; “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit is come upon you:…” The infilling of the Holy Spirit is the source of this power to witness effectually for Christ, so again it is clear they did not yet have Him.
Jesus said in John 16:7 that if He did not go away, the Comforter would not come; but if He went away he would send Him. In John 14:26 Jesus declared that the Comforter is the Holy Spirit. Jesus had been gone back to heaven about ten days when the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost.
For all of these reasons I believe that Jesus’ statement in John 20:22 was a kind of prophetic statement of something yet to come. His “breathing” on them possibly corresponds with the creation of Adam, and God breathing the breath of life into his nostrils and he becoming a living soul. In this case, Jesus’ breathing on His apostles seems to have been a kind of symbolic imparting of spiritual inspiration and vision (without which no person can possibly be an effective witness and servant of Christ) to bring a quickening and regenerating grace into men’s souls which these apostles did not realize and possess in its fullness until they were filled with the Holy Spirit.