“A Neglected Chapter in the History of Redemption: The 40 Days”
April 11, 2021
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
We are in the midst of the most concentrated section of the Christian year: from the beginning of Lent to Pentecost. Over the past two weeks we have celebrated Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter. But this Lord’s Day, today, also recalls that sacred and world-changing history. It was on this Sunday evening, a week after Easter, that the Lord appeared to his disciples a second time, with Thomas present. We are now, as it were, well into the period of 40 days that separated the Lord’s resurrection from his ascension to heaven. I thought it appropriate, therefore, this evening to reflect on the meaning of those 40 days.
v.44 By referring to the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms – one typically Jewish way to refer to the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible [Bock, ii, 1936] – Jesus effectively said the Scriptures bore comprehensive witness beforehand to his life and work.
v.47 This is biblical universalism. The good news is for everyone and it will be embraced by people from every tongue, tribe, and nation on earth. It must be embraced but it is for everyone! This is Luke’s version of the Great Commission, more famously reported in the final verses of the Gospel of Matthew.
v.49 The “promise of my Father” is a reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which story Luke will tell in the opening chapters of his second volume, the Book of Acts. His disciples were not to undertake in their own strength the great mission to which they had now been called; they were to wait for the Spirit who would empower their witness and draw multitudes to faith in Jesus.
But note that Jesus himself is sending the Spirit. “I am sending the promise of my Father.” The materials of the doctrine of the Trinity are here: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in intimate relation and all possessing the authority, power, and mind of the living and true God.
One final thought as we complete our reading of Luke’s account of the period between the Lord’s resurrection and his ascension to heaven. All of this came as a complete surprise to his disciples. If you consolidate all of the Lord’s previous remarks to his disciples regarding what was soon to occur, remarks spread over the final year or so of his public ministry – his arrest, his death, his resurrection, his return to heaven, and his sending the Holy Spirit – you will not find a clear prophecy of this period between the resurrection and his ascension to heaven. He said nothing specifically about the so-called “forty days.”
In the teaching now referred to as “The Upper Room Discourse” in chapters 14-16 of the Gospel of John he told his disciples that he was going back to his Father, that where he was going they could not come, that they would see him no more, that he would not leave them alone but rather was sending them another Comforter or Advocate in his place, viz. the Holy Spirit. All of this both confused them and depressed them. That he was leaving them seemed clear enough, but why and to what end they had no idea. His presence had been the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to them and now he was telling them that he was about to leave them and, so it seemed, to leave them for good. The whole idea of his death and resurrection was so alien to their understanding of the Messiah and his work, so contrary to what they imagined he had come to do, that they could make no sense of what he was saying to them, no matter that he said it again and again and in words perfectly plain in themselves.
But what he did not even try to tell them was that after his resurrection they would have further opportunity to be with him and to talk to him about everything that had happened. That before he left the world to return to his Father he would straighten all this out. He never said to them, “Look, I know you are struggling to understand what I am saying to you, but not to worry. A few days after I am executed I will rise alive again and we’ll talk about all of this in detail and sort out all of your questions.” He might have said that, but he didn’t.
That bit of historical detail, that silence about the 40 days, is important, I think. It is particularly important as a caution to those who imagine that we can describe in some detail how events are to unfold at the Lord’s Second Coming. As you are well aware, such scenarios have been a staple of Christian preaching and teaching throughout Christian history. First this is going to happen, then this, and then this. Charts are constructed and sometimes placed in the back of Bibles putting all these future events in order. And, as you also know, there have been, all along, fierce disagreements over these proposed scenarios. Even among like-minded believers – such as Presbyterian Calvinists like us – there remain fundamental differences of opinion regarding how the Bible teaches that history will unfold at the end.
For example, premillennialists, of whom there are a number in our PCA, though no doubt a minority, argue that the millennium, a great age of gospel and kingdom triumph in this world, in the history of this world, will occur after the Lord’s return. They are premillennialists because they maintain that the Second Coming will occur pre or before the millennium. Post-millennialists and Amillennialists disagree. One of their arguments against premillennialism is that again and again the Lord and his apostles refer to the Second Coming and seemingly in the same breath the Last Judgment, but say nothing about a period of gospel triumph between the Second Coming and the Judgment, a period in which, according to pre-mil teaching, the glorified Lord and a vast multitude of glorified saints will mingle with a large population of mortal human beings. Revelation 20 is, therefore, the only place in the Bible where a millennium after the Second Coming might seem to be taught. Fair enough. But the Lord spoke repeatedly of his resurrection and his departure from the world, but never on those occasions did he mention a period of time between his resurrection and his ascension when he would again be present with his disciples, a glorified man mingling with mortal men. Constructing a detailed scenario of the end of the Lord’s ministry from his comments beforehand proved impossible. No one could have predicted the forty days from what the Lord had said before his death. In the same way, it is doubtful that we can accurately predict the order of events at the end of history from the scattered comments we have been given in the prophecies of the Bible. We know in general that certain things will happen, but there is undoubtedly much that we do not know and cannot know. There may be events about which we have been taught nothing in the Word of God. It would serve the church if that were to be more widely acknowledged! So far, the Word of God.
As you may remember, Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, begins with a brief recapitulation of vv. 44-49. There we read this:
“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
If you combine that short summary with the verses we read from Luke 24, it appears that Luke did not mean to suggest in v. 44 that by saying “Then he said to them…” he meant that all of his teaching was delivered on that first Easter evening. Rather, on a number of occasions during the forty days after his resurrection, the Lord instructed his disciples in the meaning of his life and work, how all of that had been prophesied and anticipated in the ancient scriptures, and what all of that was to mean for their future life and work. During that time, as Luke says, he also gave them their marching orders, no doubt explaining in greater detail the Great Commission, but, so far as we know, perhaps giving the apostles very specific instructions about how to proceed with their ministry. Given his way of teaching, illustrated so comprehensively in the Gospels, no doubt the Lord not only went over the ground more than once but took and answered their questions. They must have had a host of questions!
The fact is we know very little about those forty days. We know, for example, that the Lord appeared a number of times after that first Easter Sunday. He appeared to individuals or groups on five separate occasions on the day of his resurrection – to Mary, to the other women, to Peter, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and to the ten disciples and a number of others, gathered in Jerusalem that Easter night. But none of the Gospels mention all of those appearances and some of them only one or two. So we do not get the impression that anyone intended to list each and every one of the Lord’s post-resurrection appearances.
We know that subsequently he appeared to the eleven, that is, the Twelve minus Judas (and perhaps other disciples, both men and women), the following Sunday. That would be tonight in the recapitulation and celebration of that history in the Christian year. Thomas was present on that occasion. I wonder myself if these appearances to the Eleven, both of them on the first day of the week, were not meant to establish the pattern of Lord’s Day worship in the new epoch.
But we also know of an appearance to five of the disciples – Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel (whose other name may well have been Bartholomew, the Bartholomew mentioned as one of the Twelve in the Synoptic Gospels), James and John, as well as two others who are not named, perhaps members of the Twelve and perhaps not – this time in Galilee. That was the occasion of a miraculous catch of fish, the lakeside breakfast, and the famous conversation between the Lord and Peter in which the Lord tested Peter regarding his love for Jesus (John 21).
Paul tells us in the opening verses of 1 Cor. 15 that the Lord appeared at some point to James, that is the Lord’s own brother. We don’t when or where that took appearance took place, but the conversation between them on that occasion may well account for the important place James was to occupy in the leadership of the church in Jerusalem in the years that followed. Paul also tells us there that Jesus appeared in Galilee to a large group of disciples, more than five hundred. Neither the Gospels nor Acts refer to that appearance. Finally, on that or some other occasion, but also in Galilee, the Lord delivered to his disciples the marching orders we now universally refer to as The Great Commission, though as Luke’s different wording might suggest, he may have delivered those orders several times in different words.
The way this information about his appearances during the 40 days comes to us, piecemeal, without reference to time or specific place, and with no detail, suggests, if it does not prove, that the Lord may have spent a considerable amount of time with his disciples during those forty days doing what Luke says he was doing: opening their minds to understand the Scriptures. No doubt the skill and authority with which they interpreted the ancient Scriptures in the years that followed and supplied that interpretation in their writings depended on the Lord’s own instruction and example as an interpreter of the Bible.
The fact that years later Paul added a list of appearances about which the Gospels are silent, certainly raises the possibility if it does not suggest that there were more appearances, perhaps a number more, than we have record of in the New Testament. He may well have met with the apostles many times and for hours at a time, as would seem to be necessary to deliver the teaching that Luke here describes. Opening their minds to understand the Scriptures was hardly the work of a few minutes or an hour or two! All the more as they were struggling to comprehend events they had not expected and for which they had as yet no theological explanation.
After all, “forty days,” is not simply a nice round number. It is a highly suggestive symbol. “Forty” appears often in the Bible and has already appeared in the account of the Lord’s ministry. At the time of the flood it rained forty days. Moses was on top of Sinai receiving the Law for forty days. Israel was in the wilderness for forty years. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus was forty days in the wilderness, fasting and being tempted by the Devil. I don’t mean to suggest that Luke didn’t mean that the period of time between the resurrection and the ascension was not actually forty days, though he might well have been slightly rounding up or down. The various forties I mentioned were faithful enumerations of time. In any case, forty fits. There were fifty days between Passover and Pentecost, which leaves approximately a week remaining between the Lord’s ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But that doesn’t mean that God did not, by this means, also create a symbol of redemptively or theologically significant time. Forty in these various instances of days or years may be at one and the same time an exact or close approximation of the duration of a period of time and a powerful symbol of special time, unique time, historically significant time.
So “forty days” in this case at the end of his earthly ministry almost certainly suggests – as an inclusio with the forty days of the Lord’s preparation in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry – a significant period, a period of momentous activity, a decisive, extraordinary, and unique chapter of the Gospel history, just as the Lord’s temptation had been. But if this is a significant chapter in the most significant period of all history, the history of our redemption, it receives comparatively little attention. I read this week the final chapters of several standard accounts of the Lord’s life and ministry and, while understandably the resurrection receives a great deal of attention, and similarly the Lord’s appearances as proof of his resurrection, the work of the Lord in preparing his disciples during the forty days, was passed over virtually without comment.
I know of hymns devoted or partially devoted to the forty days of the Lord’s temptation, but I know of no hymn devoted to these forty days. But it is not at all difficult to appreciate how vital they are to the unfolding history of salvation.
Let me put the point in this way. Christianity is a religion of authority. Our claims regarding God, Jesus Christ, and the way of salvation rest absolutely on the authoritative proclamation of Holy Scripture and, supremely, the account of the history of redemption we find in the Gospels and Acts and the explanation of that history we find in the rest of the New Testament. We know, from other sources besides the NT, for example, that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, but only these men could tell us what Jesus was doing on the cross and what his crucifixion means for us and the world. And, what is terrifically interesting and important is that before his resurrection and before his teaching of the disciples during the forty days they could not have explained that to us.
We know from the Gospels that the disciples were largely clueless about many of the most fundamental facts of the gospel during the Lord’s ministry. So far as we can tell they did not know that Jesus was God or that God was triune. There is no clear confession of the deity of Jesus Christ by one of his disciples prior to his resurrection. They knew and said he was from God, but not that he was God. In the same way, they did not know that he had come to die for sinners. Indeed, when he told them that suffering for our sin was his errand in this world, they rebuked him and when he informed them that he was going to Jerusalem to die they attempted to talk him out of it. They had no clear understanding that he was a Redeemer and still less what form that redemption would take.
But by Pentecost Sunday, fifty days after his resurrection, all of this was clear in their minds. They were confessing Jesus Christ as God and man. They were proclaiming in his name the forgiveness of sins. And in their writings, the Gospels, Acts – remember Mark is Peter’s gospel and behind Luke and Acts stands the authority of the Apostle Paul – and the epistles they explained the meaning of this history clearly, confidently, and applied it to the intractable problems of human existence, human sin, and human mortality.
Where did this knowledge come from? How could men who were so confused become so sure. Indeed, how could men who were not theologians themselves by any means become the principal definers of the Christian faith. How could men who struggled to understand the first thing about Jesus of Nazareth become, virtually overnight, his interpreters to the world? How could Peter, the blustering fool at Caesarea Philippi, who presumed to rebuke Jesus for saying that he was going to Jerusalem to die, and the coward of the night of the Lord’s arrest, I say, how could that Peter become the fearless preacher of salvation in Christ on the day of Pentecost and the man who serenely ignored the threats of the religious leadership in the weeks that followed? How could this man take Jesus’ place at the head of a movement that was now drawing thousands into its membership, including many priests who might well have stumbled at the prospect of learning the meaning of life from an unlettered Galilean fisherman?
“What then were the apostles? It is plain from the divine record that they were men immediately commissioned by Christ to make a full and authoritative revelation of his religion; to organize the church; to furnish it with officers and laws, and to start it on its career of conquest through the world.” Charles Hodge, What is Presbyterianism? 53.
But remarkable and unexpected as their transformation may be, they certainly very quickly became the men we know as the apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ and the founders of the Christian church. But how did it happen? How was it that the wealth of experience they had accumulated as they accompanied the Lord through the years of his ministry, watched him at work, witnessed his miracles, and heard his teaching, much of it, no doubt, many times over; I say, how was it that all of that became Christianity, with its doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the incarnation, substitutionary atonement, justification by faith, and all the rest? All of that vivid recollection, of course, took on entirely new meaning once they saw him alive again Easter Sunday and, still more, once he explained to them who he is and what he had come into the world to do. The raw material of their long and breathtaking experience with Jesus became the authoritative witness they alone could give to the world once he had set all of their recollections of his ministry on the firm foundation of true and deep understanding.
Remember this. The Bible never asks you to believe all of this, the history and its interpretation – amazing, controversial, and utterly unique in the experience of the world – on a whim or someone’s say-so. The foundation of our confidence in the truth of biblical revelation is the history itself, out of which flows the message of the gospel. History sometimes witnessed by thousands, or by hundreds, or by small groups, and sometimes by a single individual, I say this history alone can explain the tremendous impact it created; history that became the Christian message that radiated outward from the Holy Land and transformed the history of the world; all of which proclaimed by eyewitnesses with all the excitement and wonder of those who had encountered a breathtaking reality they had known nothing about before.
Without the resurrection it is simply impossible to account for the Christian faith or its utterly remarkable early history. It is impossible to account for the personal history of the Apostle Paul, perhaps the greatest and most influential intellect of the first century, or his writings, some of the most influential in the history of the world, apart from his encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road. And in the same way it is impossible to account for the personal history and the world-changing influence of the lives of Peter, James, and John among others apart from their encounter with the risen Christ after his resurrection.
The New Testament itself simply cannot be explained, not really, apart from the resurrection and the forty days. The theology that first appears in Peter’s Pentecost sermon and is then elaborated in the writings of the apostles, a theology that no first century Jew could have or would have invented, came from somewhere! And that somewhere can only be the Lord’s resurrection and the instruction the disciples received from him during the forty days. The men themselves, as they recount their personal histories in the Gospels they wrote, candidly admit and to their own discredit that they did not understand the truth prior to the resurrection – no matter their extensive encounter with the Lord Jesus – and could never have explained his life and work as they came to do had they been left to their own devices. The forty days are what give us the New Testament or most of it. In the case of the Apostle Paul, he had, as he often reminds us, his own equivalent of the forty days, his own encounter with the risen Christ and his own education at the feet of the Lord. He received, as he put it, the gospel directly from the Lord.
These men, as the Lord told them just before he left the world, were to be his witnesses, his first and primary witnesses. And as a prosecutor or defense attorney today prepares his or her witnesses, the Lord prepared these men. He made sure they understood the meaning of what they had seen, how all of this had been prophesied centuries before, and what its implications were for the life of faith and for the salvation of the world.
Today an increasing number of Christians, even real Christians, are ready to pick and choose among the teachings of the Bible. They accept the Holy Trinity and the incarnation, but they are not sure that by faith in Jesus Christ alone can a person go to heaven and not hell. They believe, in the main, that Jesus died for their sins and that we are justified by faith and not by works, but they are not certain that it is necessary that they should live lives of sexual chastity or that there is but one way and one way only to be reconciled to God. The teaching of the Bible no longer controls in any absolute way their worldview, which has been at least as much shaped by the subjectivism, sentimentality, relativism, pluralism, and therapeutic concentration of modern western culture. They may be Christians, but they are, alas, far too much modern American Christians.
But, I suppose, were the Lord Jesus to appear to them and tell them that all of those teachings of the Bible are true, will always be true, and that he expects them to bear witness to that truth, hard as it may be in some ways, they would realize that they had no option but to believe and obey. But you see, that is precisely what the Lord Jesus has done! What we have in the New Testament, as we had it in the Old, is the repetition in the teaching of the Lord’s disciples of what they had been told by the Lord Jesus himself. In the New Testament we hear the echo of those conversations the Jesus had with his disciples during the forty days. And in regard to matters which, perhaps, he did not discuss with them, but which nevertheless appear in their teaching, it was Jesus who, during the 40 days, taught them how to read the ancient Scriptures, and it was he, remember, who promised them that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth. What we have in the New Testament is truth straight from the horse’s mouth; the faith once and for all delivered to the saints! The men who wrote these books have told us what he told them and here we learn just when it was that he explained it all to them and how it was that it all came to make such perfect sense to them that they could explain it all so clearly to us. This too is the history upon which our faith is founded and by which we know that it is true! All of it entirely, absolutely true!
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