If we only read the Gospels of Mark and Luke, we might get the impression that Jesus’ ascension was on resurrection Sunday. Matthew speaks of going to Galilee but he does not put things into a clear time frame. John shows us that Jesus appeared to the disciples eight days after Easter (John 20:26–31) and then, that He revealed Himself sometime later, by the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee (John 21:1 ff.), though for this appearance John gives us no chronology. Paul lists a number of post-resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5–8), but the list has no chronological indications and is clearly partial, leaving out appearances to the women recorded in the Gospels, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and probably other post-resurrection appearances as well. Those that Paul specifically names—Cephas, the twelve, James, the apostles—are apparently chosen because of their position as authoritative witnesses. The 500 brethren are mentioned, I assume, because there were so many of them on a single occasion together witnessing the resurrection. Though they are not authoritative representatives like Cephas and the others on Paul’s list, many of them were still alive as 1 Corinthians was probably written by AD 55, just 25 years after Jesus’ resurrection.

It is only in the book of Acts that Luke informs us that in fact, Jesus appeared to the disciples for a period of 40 days—a significant number, of course.

Why did Jesus appear repeatedly over a period of 40 days? Firstly, to present the disciples with “many infallible proofs,” as Luke says in Acts 1:3. If Jesus had only appeared once or twice, a few days apart, the disciples might have reason to doubt their experience. Repeated appearances in different places over an extended period of time, accompanied by proofs that were undeniably persuasive, provided the disciples with the kind of assurance they needed in order to be official public witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus removed any ground for reasonable doubt about the reality of the resurrection.

Second, Jesus took time to teach the disciples, as He did the two on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27) and the eleven and others gathered together (24:44–49): “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27; cf. vs. 44–47). How many hours did Jesus devote to teaching His disciples during these 40 days? We cannot be sure. We also have to remember that Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would give the disciples understanding (John 16:13) and that He had, even before Pentecost, given the disciples a downpayment on the coming Pentecostal blessing when He breathed upon them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:21).

What we can be sure of is that Jesus’ teaching during this 40 day period was rather extensive.

How do we know that?

The 40 day period itself suggests as much, for it corresponds to Moses receiving the law from Yahweh at Mt. Sinai. Though Jesus is not with His followers day and night for the whole 40 day period, we have to remember that many or most of His closest disciples were together for most of that time. When Jesus taught the disciples on the road to Emmaus, their hearts burned within them as they heard His words (Luke 24:32): surely a common experience for the men and women who heard Jesus’ post-resurrection instruction! And, just as the Emmaus disciples rushed back to Jerusalem to tell others of the risen Jesus, we can only imagine that those to whom Jesus presented Himself thought and spoke constantly of Jesus’ resurrection and the wonderful things He had been teaching them. We must assume, therefore, that even when Jesus was not directly present and instructing His disciples, they were comparing notes, so to speak, as they reflected together on what Jesus had taught them.

Peter’s Pentecostal sermon is evidence of the overwhelming transformation in Biblical understanding as a result of Jesus’ 40-day instruction. Imagine: when and how did Peter gain his new understanding of the prophecy of Joel 2:28–32? He certainly could not have understood this prophecy before Jesus rose from the dead. Shortly after quoting Joel, Peter teaches his hearers that Psalm 16 is actually David speaking as a prophet and foretelling the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:25–31)! No one in ancient Israel read Psalm 16 like this before Jesus’s new life, nor did anyone afterwards, except the Apostles. I think we can be relatively certain that Peter learned this way of reading Psalm 16 during that 40-day instruction period—though it is, of course, always possible that the Holy Spirit inspired Peter on the spot. Finally, Peter shows an utterly new understanding of Psalm 110:1:  “Yahweh said to my Lord, Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.” Peter explains that God resurrected Jesus, that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, and that, therefore, as seated at the right hand of God, Jesus has been officially installed as both “Lord” and “Christ” (Acts 2:33–36). Peter’s sermon represents a revolution in Peter’s understanding of what we call the Old Testament, and seems to give us some idea of what Jesus was teaching during the 40 days.

I have been focusing on Peter since he is the first of the apostles to show this entirely new understanding of the Scriptures that God had given to Israel—an understanding in which the whole of Biblical revelation is centered on the Messiah Jesus. But, as I have argued in other places, Matthew almost certainly wrote his Gospel as soon as he was able to put his notes together,1 sometime in the months after Pentecost. Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching was about the “kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3), which was in fact the focus of Jesus’ pre-resurrection teaching also, though Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 4:17; 5:3, 10, 19–20; 7:21; 8:11; 10:7; 11:11–12; 13:11, 24, 31, 33, 44–45, 47, 52; 16:19; 18:1, 3–4, 23; 19:12, 14, 23; 20:1; 22:2; 23:13; 25:1).

Jesus’ calling of Matthew (Matthew 9:9) occurred somewhat after His famous sermon (Matthew 5–7), but it is entirely plausible that Matthew was present when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount—not only present, but present and taking notes, which is why we have such a long and faithful representation of what Jesus taught on that occasion. Imagine how, after the resurrection, Matthew, writing his Gospel for the newly baptized Jewish believers, would have understood the wonderful words he wrote in his Gospel:

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. (Matthew 5:17).

After the resurrection, Matthew understood in an entirely new way—a world-view-revolutionary way—what it meant to say that Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets. Like Peter, Matthew learned to read the Scriptures with the King of the kingdom as the center and focus of all that had been revealed and taught before the coming of Christ.

Jesus’ resurrection was indeed an event of a single day— resurrection day —but it is profoundly important for Christians to remember that there is a resurrection season that commemorates the 40 days that Jesus instructed His disciples, the 40 days that He offered proof so undeniable that the disciples’ confidence was boosted beyond the level of any reasonable doubt. In those 40 days, Jesus—proving himself the first Christian theologian—opened the disciples’ minds to see what Scripture was all about. It was about the Messiah Jesus. The King Himself was the focus and center: a King that no one would have imagined — a crucified King who was raised from the dead to be seated at God’s right hand!

It took 40 days of instruction for the disciples to begin to digest the meaning of the resurrection. Even more, of course, we have to assume that they spend their whole lives thinking about, meditating on, and seeking to understand the implications of Jesus’ resurrection.

  1. https://theopolisinstitute.com/dating-matthew-1/  &  https://theopolisinstitute.com/dating-matthew-2/ ↩︎
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