One of the great mysteries of Scripture is that which concerns the forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. What was Jesus doing on earth for forty days after His resurrection? Why did He stay here? What was the purpose of the forty day period? Does the Scripture answer any of these questions for us? Simply put, Scripture teaches us that Jesus remained with His disciples for forty days after His resurrection in order to strengthen their faith in the truth about His Person and work, to give the instruction about the progression of church government, to equip them for the Apostolic ministry of preaching the Kingdom of God and to prepare them to fulfill the rest of the unfolding revelation of God in the New Testament Scriptures.
Reinhold Seeberg, in his Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, coined the phrase, “The Gospel of the Forty Days.” In this work he drew attention to what he believed to be the meaning of the forty day interval in the teaching ministry of Jesus to His apostles. William Childs Robinson, in his book Our Lord, digested several of Seeberg’s points when he suggested that the disciples were strengthened during that period in the following Christian truths:
“1. The conviction of the heavenly power and glory, or divine essence of Christ
2. The certitude of the necessity for salvation of the death and resurrection of Christ and the connection between the death and resurrection. This connection is elsewhere presented rather than defined.
3. The representation of the Spirit not only as the object of Divine gifts but also as Divine subject.
4. The triadic formula (which overtly and covertly peeps through manifold times in the apostolic literature) comes forward as a self-explanatory representation without anywhere being expounded.
5. The fact of baptism, which is connected with the name of Christ or of the Trinity and is everywhere valued as a means of salvation. Neither Jewish proselyte baptism, nor the baptism of John, nor the practice of Jesus explains this fact.
6. The common conviction that the Christian mission is to extend to the nations of the world.
7. That there was in the apostolic period a fixed teaching, which was valued as “the traditions,” “the word,” “the teaching,” “the Gospel,” or “the command” of Christ and which, as well as the demonstration of the Deity of Christ, included in itself teachings on virtues, vices, ecclesiastical practices, eschatology, etc.”1
In addition to the work of Seeberg and Robinson, the Presbyterian members of the Westminster Assembly offered another suggestion about what Jesus was teaching His disciples during the forty days after His resurrection. In the second chapter of their Jus Divinum Ministerii Evangelici the Presbyterian Assemblymen insisted that the Apostles must have received from Christ, during His forty day post-resurrection appearances to them, some instruction concerning the precise form of church government which He wished His church to observe throughout future generations. They wrote:
“In the very front of the Acts it is said, that Christ after His resurrection (and before His ascension) gave commandments to the Apostles and spake of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God Acts 1:2,3, & etc. viz. of the politie of the church some say. Of the Kingdom of grace say others. Judicious Calvin interprets it partly of church government, saying, “Luke admonisheth us that Christ did not so depart out of the world, as to cast off all care of us. For by this doctrine he shows that he hath constituteth a perpetual government in His church. Therefore Luke signifies, that Christ departed not, before He had provided for their Church government.”2
In his The Last Days According to Jesus, T. V. Moore–a 19th Century Presbyterian theologian–explained that the global mission of Christ to the nations was also at the heart of the teaching of Jesus during the forty days. He explained:
“There is hardly a leading doctrine in the Christian system that was not in some sense brought forward during these memorable interviews. There is hardly a phase of Christian experience that is not brought into review in the words spoken by our Lord during this remarkable period. It was, therefore, to the apostles a period of training, that fitted them eminently for the great work to which they were called in preaching the gospel to all nations. Like the forty days that preceded the public ministry of the Lord, it was designed and adapted in an eminent degree to furnish preparation for the new manifestation of the kingdom then to be made.”3
One might argue that these suggestions are mere speculations into our understanding of the forty days, or that they are new doctrines that contradicted what our Lord taught during his pre-resurrection ministry. But neither of these objections carry any weight since it was the Lord Himself who told His disciples that He had many things to tell them (during His pre-resurrection earthly ministry) that they were not able to bear at that time. There would be fuller and clearer revelation to come. It is this revelation that we find so clearly articulated in the New Testament epistles.
T.D. Bernard, in his outstanding work The Progress of Doctrine, helps us understand that Jesus was giving the disciples the yet unrevealed content of the epistles. He wrote:
“Had they not heard the truth from their Lord? Yes; and it was to be the office of the Spirit to recall to their minds the truth which they had heard, as the text and substance of their future knowledge. “He shall bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” But though in the teaching of Jesus all the truth might be implied, it was not all opened; therefore the Holy Ghost was to add that which had not been delivered, as well as to recall that which had been already spoken. There is an evident contrast intended, with regard to extent of knowledge, between “these things which I have spoken while yet present with you,” and “all things which he shall teach you.” Nay, there is the plainest assertion which could be made, that things were to be said afterwards which had not been said then ; and those not few but many —(” I have yet many things to say unto you “)—not of secondary importance but of the highest moment (” Ye cannot bear them now”—ου δυνασθε βασταζειν). They are things of such a kind as would now weigh down and oppress your minds, seeing that they surpass your present powers of spiritual apprehension.
But these many and weighty things shall not be left untold: “When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth.” He shall guide you (οδηγησει), as by successive steps and continuous direction (εις την αληθειαν πασαν), into the whole of that truth of which the commencements have now been given ; and especially into the highest and central part of it. For it is also made plain on what subject this light shall be poured, and into what mysteries this guidance shall lead. ” He shall testify of me;” ” he shall glorify Me;” ” he shall take of mine and show it unto you;” “at that day ye shall know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Not then for some secondary matters (details of Church order or relations of Jews and Gentiles) was this light and witness of the Holy Ghost reserved (though to these questions also the divine guidance extended), but rather for the great and central mystery of godliness, embracing the nature, work, and offices of Jesus Christ, his mediatorial relations to the Father and to the Church, the redemption of men by his blood, and the salvation of men by his life. But instead of attempting to enumerate these great ideas, it were better to comprehend them all in his own vast and unexplained expression, “He shall take of mine (εκ του εμου λημψεται), and shall show it unto you…”
…The testimony came; the things were spoken; and in the apostolic writings we have their enduring record. In those writings we find the fulfillment of an expectation which the Gospels raised, and recognize the performance of a promise which the Gospels gave. If we do not, [then] the word of salvation which began to be spoken by the Lord has never been finished for us. Then, not only would the end be wanting, but the beginning would become obscure. The lessons of holiness would still shine in their own pure light, and the rebukes of human error would show in their severe outlines ; but the words which open by anticipation the mystery of the great salvation, flashing sometimes on its deep foundations, sometimes on its lofty summits, would but dazzle and confuse our sight; and we should be tempted to turn from their discoveries, as from visions which had no substance, or from enigmas which we could not interpret.”4
Without doubt, more could be deduced from the Gospel narratives–as well as from the apostolic teaching–about the forty day period; however, these observations reveal the importance and necessity of the teaching of our Lord during the forty days prior to His ascension. It was necessary for Christ to accomplish the work of redemption, and then entrust the meaning of it to His Apostles, so that the Church might understand what the fullness of His saving work in redemptive-history means for us today.
1. William Childs Robinson Our Lord (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1937) pp. 98-99
2. Jus Divinum Ministerii Evangelici (London: Printed by J.Y. for Joseph Hunscot, 1647) p. 14
3. T. V. Moore Last Days of Jesus (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1858) pp. 298-299
4. T. D. Bernard The Progress of Doctrine (London: Macmillan and Co., 1864) pp. 84-87