John 20: The Music of the Spirt
In John 20 Jesus has been resurrected, but Jesus’ disciples do not yet understand this; they have fled and are meeting together in a locked room. Suddenly Jesus appears among them, he greats them and ends by giving them the Holy Sprit. This is not Pentecost where the disciples are endowed with the Holy Sprit, but apparently an earlier prequel event.
John narrates it as such:
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”
John uses an interesting word here when he recounts Jesus’ “breathing” on them. The Greek word is ἐνεφύσησεν (emphusao) literally to “blow in or into as in playing the flute. ” This term is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint in Genesis 2:7:
“then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed (ἐνεφύσησεν) into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
No where else in the Old Testament is this exact Greek term used again, nor is it used elsewhere in the New Testament. There are other cases of “blowing” or “breathing” --- but this word isn’t used.
Other Possible Terms
John could have used the term Luke does in Acts 9:1 “to blow or breathe upon”:
“But Saul, still breathing (ἐμπνέων) threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest”
Or a term Mark and Luke use, for example in Mark 15:37:
“And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed (ἐξέπνευσεν) his last.”
But that term, perhaps the “breath of life” --- in the sense that if breathed out, the breather no longer has any life. This of course wouldn’t work in this context, since Jesus is not dying again when he breaths the Holy Spirit!
There are still other terms for breathing or blowing John could have used, for example in Matthew 7:25 the parable of the house built on the rock.
“And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew (ἔπνευσαν) and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.”
This would literally mean to “blow or breath” and could very well have been used in this context from what I can tell. But then again, this might leave one with an inaccurate impression of the Spirit, and would not make an important connection I think John was trying to make.
Old Testament Usage
Given this term’s use in Genesis 2:7 --- where God breathed the “breath of life” into man; John no doubt whishes to parallel this event with the one he is narrating. Just as God breathed Life, Jesus is breathing the Spirit of “life in all its fullness” and eternal life. This can even be viewed as a type of new creation and animation of man.
Further, the use of ἐνεφύσησεν (emphusao) provokes images of playing a flute type instrument. If you’ve ever tried to play a flute you’ll realize it’s a very deliberate act, you have to position and use your lips correctly, this is called your “embouchure.” You can’t just go around blowing at random and without deliberate purpose, or you’ll just end up with a lot a nothing (it’s doubtful you’ll even produce a sound!)
I think John not only was making a connection with Genesis but also showing how artful and deliberate an act of “blowing” Jesus made.