"If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven ..." (John 20:23)

"If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (John 20:23)
This verse, spoken by Jesus to his disciples, is difficult to understand without knowing the context of the situation and what Jesus is doing. There are also better translations* than the above from NIV.

Jesus passed on John's teachings

As described clearly in all four Gospels, Jesus became a student of John the Baptist, and once John was imprisoned, Jesus began teaching. He was carrying on the mission of his teacher, and then asked his own students to carry that same mission forward, as evidenced by these three verses:
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." (Matt. 3:2)
From that time on [after John's imprisonment] Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." (Matt. 4:17)
[Jesus told his disciples] "As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is near.'" (Matt. 10:7)
This illustrates clearly that the teachings of Jesus - generalized with the phrase, 'The kingdom of heaven is near,' - had been taught by John, then Jesus taught this, and then Jesus requested his own students teach this same teaching.

This indicates a lineage or succession of teachers that are passing on the same teachings.

A long lineage of teachers

Indeed, the succession did not start with John. In fact, the various Prophets of the Old Testament were also part of that succession and this is why their teachings were originally compiled. This includes Jeremiah, Job, Solomon, David, Samuel, Eli, Joshua, Moses, Jacob, Isaac, Lot, Abraham, Noah and others in between. While the ecclesiastical interpretations and translations of the Old Testament make it appear that the teachings being passed down over the centuries came from a lineage of sons and their fathers, actually, it is a lineage of students and their teachers.

Yes, sometimes the student was the son of the teacher. But sometimes not. For example, Samuel wasn't the son of Eli, yet Eli was his teacher. And Joshua wasn't the son of Moses, yet Joshua was certainly Moses' student.

The point of this explanation is to understand the context of what is taking place between Jesus and his own students. He is authorizing them to go out and pass on his teachings.

This is why Jesus first says, "Receive the Holy Spirit." (John 20:22) As we described with the more appropriate interpretation/translation of this verse, this is not some sort of ritual. Jesus is instructing his students to take shelter of the Supreme Being. He is asking them to surrender their lives to the Supreme Being and become God's servants.

Now once they do become God's servants, they become authorized to act on behalf of the Supreme Being.

Forgiving sins

You see, only the Supreme Being can ultimately forgive us of our self-centeredness and our self-centered activities. Why? Because it is ultimately the Supreme Being that we have offended by these activities. By abandoning the Supreme Being and seeking our self-centered enjoyment, we offend God. Why? Because we are intimately related to Him.

But a loving servant of the Supreme Being - someone acting on His behalf - may forgive sins (self-centered activities) because they are acting on behalf of God. How so?

Let's say that a business owner hires a manager to run the day-to-day operations of his business. Ultimately the business owner is responsible for who gets hired and fired. But if the business owner authorizes the manager to hire certain types of people based upon the overall goals and objectives of the business owner, then the manager can hire and fire people - as long as he acts on behalf of the business owner.

But let's say that the manager gets cocky and self-assured, and starts acting independently. Let's say that the business owner told him to only hire people if they are willing to work full time, and the manager likes a candidate a lot and decides to hire them even though they cannot work full time.

By acting outside of the parameters determined by the business owner, the manager is no longer working on behalf of the business owner. The business owner may now fire the manager because he didn't abide by the parameters he determined.

In the same way, if the Supreme Being - acting directly or through His representative - authorizes someone to act on His behalf, then that person may carry out those instructions as long as they abide by the parameters determined by God and as long as their activities are done with a motive to please the Supreme Being.

But if one of those elements is dropped - either they act outside those instructions or they begin acting with different motives - then they will lose that authorization by the Supreme Being. They will no longer be representing the Supreme Being in their activities.

Both of these elements have been dropped within the ecclesiastical sectarian institutions. While priests and ministers of these institutions may think they can forgive the sins of others, in fact, they cannot. They might imagine they are acting within the lineage of Jesus and his disciples, but the lineage has been broken by their not following Jesus' basic instructions and they're not acting with a desire to please the Supreme Being. They have no relationship with God and thus cannot represent Him.

There are many symptoms of this. First the fact that they did not become a student of one of God's representatives. Rather, they paid tuition to an institution that hired professional teachers to teach Bible history so they could receive a degree. This means what they received was a professional education. They were not introduced to the Supreme Being by God's representative, as Jesus did for his students and other prophets did for their students.

These professional ecclesiastical organizations that give out seminary degrees in exchange for tuition and passing some exams are not authorizing those graduates to represent the Supreme Being. They are authorizing them to only do what they do: Be professional instructors.

This is further illustrated by the fact that these ecclesiastical institutions pay their clergy as if it was a career position. The teacher is accepting a salary in exchange for teaching in the church. This means that they are already receiving their reward for their teaching. They are not being servants of the Supreme Being. They are being servants of money, and those who employ them.

This is evidenced by the fact that if the church deacons who hire the preacher to preach in their church don't like his teachings they can fire him. Thus the teacher must teach what pleases the congregation.

Jesus was God's representative

Furthermore, these institutional professional teachers cannot introduce us to the Supreme Being because they do not know Him. All they can do is talk about Jesus' life and talk about the family and politics. They speak of Jesus as though Jesus was God. Thus they do not even know who God is. They claim that Jesus is the Supreme Being, even though Jesus clearly indicated he was not God:
"By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but Him who sent me." (John 5:30)
"For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me." (John 5:36)
"And the Father who sent me has Himself testified concerning me. You have never heard His voice nor seen His form" (John 5:37)
"For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of Him who sent me." (John 6:38)
"My teaching is not my own. It comes from Him who sent me." (John 7:16)
"Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own, but He who sent me is true." (John 7:28-29)
"I am with you for only a short time, and then I go to the One who sent me." (John 7:33) 
"But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me." (John 8:16)
"I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me." (John 8:18)
"I have much to say in judgment of you. But He who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from Him I tell the world." (John 8:26)
"The One who sent me is with me; He has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases Him." (John 8:29)
"If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but He sent me." (John 8:42)
"As long as it is day, we must do the work of Him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work." (John 9:4)
[Jesus praying to God]"I knew that You always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that You sent me." (John 11:42)
"When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the One who sent me." (John 12:44)
"For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it." (John 12:49)

So why are these ecclesiastical institutions claiming that Jesus is God when Jesus is clearly stating he is not the Supreme Being and was sent by God? Because they do not know the Supreme Being.

And this is the case for the Nicene Creed. This is the document most ecclesiastical church institutions accept as their philosophical basis - defining Jesus as God within some sort of vague trilogy - with God the Father's identity even more vague.

Nicene Creed is a political document

It is a compromise - driven by Constantine - between two philosophies at the time, being taught by some ecclesiastical institutions up to the fourth century. One camp wanted the Nicene Creed to come out and say Jesus was God and the other camp was clear that Jesus was God's representative.

The split between early Christian groups eventually formed the differing opinions about Jesus. More than two centuries later, those ecclesiastical teachers representing these institutions came to the table in Nicea with differing opinions of who Jesus was. They struck a deal - forced upon them by Constantine the Roman emperor. The result was a document that attempted to create a single interpretation of Jesus and his teachings, in order to consolidate Christianity. Meanwhile, the Supreme Being was virtually ignored in the Nicean Creed.

And through the centuries, as these ecclesiastical institutions moved further from the teachings of Jesus, Jesus was defined increasingly as the Supreme Being.

Today they have practically erased from their teachings the real Supreme Being - that Person Jesus taught about and wanted his students to come to know and love.

So how can they follow Jesus' most important instruction?
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matt. 22:37-38)
If they think Jesus is the Supreme Being, how do they follow this? The only thing they can do is try to imagine they are loving Jesus. So they conjure up some sentimental feelings about Jesus - how Jesus died for their sins and so forth - and proclaim that they are satisfying Jesus' instruction because they believe they love Jesus.

Then how do they explain the following statement by Jesus?
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Matt. 7:21-23)
Jesus is obviously speaking directly to those who would proclaim Jesus is God and he is the all and all. Yet Jesus says he will tell them: "'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'"

Why would he do that? Because they are ignoring the Supreme Being - the very Person Jesus is loving and serving, and wants us to love and serve. This is confirmed by:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."
Doing someone's will means serving them. When we tie this together with Jesus' instruction to love the Supreme Being, we arrive at loving service: Someone who has come to know the Supreme Being; has come to love Him; and is doing what the Supreme Being wants. This is called loving service.

But since their teachers don't know the Supreme Being they cannot love Him. They haven't been introduced. How can we love someone we don't know?

Yes, we must be introduced to the Supreme Being. Coming to know the Supreme Being isn't a mechanical thing of rituals. It is about a relationship. God is a Person and that means developing a personal relationship with Him.

Much of the Bible has been manipulated and mistranslated over the centuries by these ecclesiastical institutions. Thus in them the Supreme Being is often mischaracterized. They have made God appear angry and vengeful. Who could love someone like that?

This is the purpose of learning from someone who has a relationship with the Supreme Being. Such a person knows the Supreme Being personally so they can disclose His kind and gracious personality, and His all-attractive beauty. Such a person can indicate how thoughtful and caring the Supreme Being is because they have experienced this directly. 

This is why Jesus' disciples accepted him as their teacher. Because he introduced them to the Supreme Being.

And this means Jesus is God's representative. Someone who becomes empowered by the Supreme Being to represent Him can forgive sins due to their empowerment.

Such is the empowerment Jesus is speaking of with his disciples - who had the opportunity to become empowered should they become advanced in their loving relationship with the Supreme Being and pass on the teachings of Jesus and thereby begin to represent the Supreme Being.

*Here is the translation of this verse from the Gospels of Jesus:
"If you remove the sins of anyone, their sins have been removed. If you take the sins of any, they will be taken.” (John 20:17)