And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Did Jesus give the apostles the authority to forgive sins? Is that the right way to interpret the above passage? I don’t believe so, because first of all, God is the only one who can forgive sins (Isaiah 43:25). We also know that there is only one Mediator between God and man, and that is Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5).
What I believe is meant here is similar to what Jesus told His apostles in other passages like Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18 regarding what they bind and loose on earth. Their job as apostles was to reveal through divine inspiration (the breath of the Holy Spirit) the terms for forgiveness and to bind the will of Christ upon those to whom they preached. What they bound on earth was not of their own will and choosing, but instead were the things that were already bound in heaven. They simply declared the terms of the contract to men.
In their preaching and teaching you can see that the apostles did not forgive people’s sins, but what they did do is reveal the way to have forgiveness of sins. They taught that people had to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38), and to repent and be converted (Acts 3:19-20) in order to receive forgiveness of sins. The apostles “bound” those terms upon others, because that is how those folks would be forgiven. When speaking to those who were already Christians, the apostles taught them to repent, confess to God in prayer and ask Him for forgiveness (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9-2:2). You don’t see the apostles going around doling out forgiveness certificates, rather, what they did was direct people to Jesus. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
All of that to say this: There is one mediator between God and us. There is one who forgives and decides who is clean before God. We must keep this in mind. We are not the arbiters of another’s forgiveness. As followers of God we can direct people’s attention to the Way to be forgiven, but to give or withhold forgiveness of their sins before God is not our task. That’s God’s end of the stick. And thankfully, that end of the stick is in good hands!