If you've been to Sunday School for any extended period in your life you know about Hebrew numerology and the repeated use of the number forty in Scripture. That it's mentioned 146 times in the Bible is some indication of it's significance. Most Bible scholars agree that it represents---
(1) the time marker between one significant epoch to another
(2) a number indicating the end of trials or tests
(3) a number signaling a period of probation or preparation
(4) the period of time measuring a generation
(5) in many cases a simple counting of days.
That Jesus chose to reveal himself to his disciples and the people of first century Israel for a period of forty days is really a matter of conjecture. It could be that Dr. Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, noted the forty day period (see Acts 1:3) to maintain the character of his writing. Remember his strategy to provide "...an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught" (Luke 1:3). Or, it could be any of the others.
There is another Lukan connection, however. Luke wrote that the earthly ministry of Jesus began with a forty day period in the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil himself. He was led to that place by the Spirit and he was full of the Holy Spirit (see Luke 4:1). During those forty days Jesus fasted and "ate nothing". It is interesting to note that after resurrection, Jesus appeared to his followers and the world around them for forty days and that in one of his appearances he asked them for something to eat. Yes, and there's a Spirit connection too. In the first instance he was full of the Holy Spirit and led by the Spirit into the wilderness. On the last occasion he promised that they would be filed with the Spirit if they remained in Jerusalem for ten more days. Thought provoking.
Even with all the potential symbolism and the reality that many of the mentions of forty in Scripture were actually shadows of Christ, the forty days of post-resurrection appearances were times of intense instruction for his followers. Once again there's some speculation about the number and order of his appearances, attempts to sync the Gospel accounts and those referenced in the Pauline Epistles. As in the debate about the number forty the chronology of his appearances and the number of people counted in them seems to be straining at gnats in my opinion. They are important in that Jesus used the appearances as means of presenting what Luke called "many proofs" (Acrs 1:3) that he, in fact, had risen from the dead, as he had predicted.
What is clear is that Jesus taught his followers during those forty days. Luke said the curriculum of that instruction was Jesus "speaking about the Kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). That his post-resurrection teaching was about the Kingdom is notable because the term "kingdom", the Greek basileia, was used 162 times in the New Testament, forty-four occasions in Luke's Gospel. In my own mind this emphasis was essential during those forty days. On the day of Pentecost, ten days following his ascension, the disciples would be equipped with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came to them and the church epoch was launched (Acts 1:8). That they would comprehend the concept of the Kingdom before being his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth seemed an essential lesson plan for them. In the two thousand years following these pivotal events the distinction of the mission of the church as an element of the Kingdom of God has often been blurred.
This is especially true in the contemporary church. The mission of local churches has often been narrowed to a plot of ground or a facility distinct from the greater parameters of kingdom mission. In many instances the local church is isolated from the greater Kingdom focus through local identity and ministry to sustain the church and endure the cultural influences that are changing the world near to us. In a greater sense mission has morphed into survival techniques and the goals of Kingdom building are often subservient to local needs---finances, facility maintenance, care of the church membership, and others---at the expense of greater Kingdom service.
Jesus took forty days to teach them about the Kingdom. In some ways it was advanced learning for Kingdom disciples. Which is a good lesson plan for those of us living in a post-resurrection world.
Forty days. Discipleship 201.
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