A Bible Study by Jack Kelley
For some time now, I’ve been puzzled about the time between the resurrection and the ascension—wondering why the Lord lingered during those 40 days. It certainly wasn’t to complete His mission. By all accounts, He had already accomplished everything He came to do. It seems like He would have been more anxious to return to His heavenly home.
The Olivet Discourse
My curiosity was first aroused during a review of the Olivet Discourse. To show you what I mean, we’ll have to do a quick review of the first 34 verses of Matt. 24. I’m particularly interested in the way the Lord answered the disciples’ questions about the signs of His coming and the End of the Age. The disciples were clearly looking for specific signs. But in Matt. 24:4-14 He began by mentioning a handful of general signs that don’t appear to have any clear relevance to time.
First, He warned them many false messiahs would come claiming to be Him. Next, came wars and rumors of wars, but He said not to be alarmed by such things, they wouldn’t be signs of the end. Then He gave the “birth pang” signs, famines, earthquakes and, in Luke’s account, pestilence. These are signature signs of coming judgment that Jesus said would lead up to the end.
He said Jews would be persecuted and put to death, hated by all nations. This would cause many to turn away from the Jewish faith to hate and betray each other. False prophets would also appear and deceive many people. The love of most would grow cold, but he who stood firm to the end would be saved. I believe the love He was talking about here is the love of God because this is the love that saves us.
I wonder what the disciples thought about all of this so far. Remember they were under the impression Israel was 483 years into a 490 year period that would see the culmination of God’s plan for mankind (Daniel 9:24). Up until an hour or so earlier they had assumed the magnificent Temple King Herod was building was part of the preparation for restoring their Kingdom to its former glory. But then Jesus had told them it was all going to be torn down. Now He was giving them vague and general answers to their specific questions.
Finally, in Matt. 24:15, He gave them the first clear sign. An abomination that causes desolation would be set up in the Holy Place. They knew this had happened once before. The Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes had set one up almost 200 years earlier as part of his demand that they worship him as God. It made the temple unfit for use, and the way the Lord had miraculously cleansed it is still celebrated every year in the Feast of Hanukkah. It was the only time it had ever happened. Jesus said when they saw that happen again, they should immediately flee into the mountains.
He said the abomination of desolation will bring about the Great Tribulation, a terrible time of judgment, the worst the world ever has seen or ever will see. He said if he didn’t bring it to an end at the appointed time no one on Earth would survive, but for the sake of the elect He would bring it to its end. He said when He did, the sun and moon would stop shining, and the stars would fall out of the sky (Matt. 24:29). Then they’d see His sign, the only source of light in the dark sky. And finally, they will see Him coming in the clouds with power and great glory (Matt. 24:30).
In all this, He never mentioned the Church. (In fact in His entire earthly ministry, He only mentioned the Church twice—in Matt. 16:18 and Matt. 18:17.) He didn’t even hint at the fact that 2,000 years would separate their time and the time of the first specific sign. He spoke of everything as if it was going to happen to them. It’s also clear He was addressing them as representatives of Israel.
From our perspective, we see that He could have been much more specific, especially with the earlier signs. But the clear explanation of how things would unfold didn’t come until the Council of Jerusalem 20 years later. In effect, James told the group of early Church leaders, “Israel is being set aside until the Lord takes from among the Gentiles a people for Himself. Then He’ll return to rebuild David’s fallen tabernacle” (Acts 15:13-18). During the Olivet Discourse, Jesus had made no mention of this happening.
What Was He Waiting For?
Then there’s the issue of the apparent dead time between the resurrection and the ascension. What was that all about? He didn’t do any public teaching or healing, and there were no other miracles either. After His meeting with the disciples on Resurrection Sunday, there were only six more recorded appearances. Four were to the disciples (John 20:26-31, John 21:1-23, Matt. 28:16-20, Acts 1:3-8), one was to James (1 Cor. 15:7) and one was to about 500 others, his only public appearance (1 Cor. 15:6) between the resurrection and the ascension.
Otherwise, the Bible is silent about how He spent His time. There’s no account of discussions being held on how to launch the Church, and He didn’t fill in any of the blanks from the Olivet Discourse. We know why He didn’t go back to the Temple. He told the leaders there they wouldn’t see Him again until they said, “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matt. 23:39).
The Unmistakable Sign
Before the cross, these leaders had asked the Lord for a sign to prove He was the Messiah. Even though His ministry was characterized by miracles that confirmed Old Testament prophecies about Him, He told them the only sign He would give them was the sign of the prophet Jonah. He said just as Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish, He would spend three days and three nights in the belly of the Earth (Matt. 12:40).
And then He did just what He told them He was going to do. Surely they all knew of His resurrection, but none of the officials sought Him out. What do you suppose they were thinking? Many overlook this, but His resurrection was the most unmistakably miraculous sign He could have given them. It didn’t take any faith to interpret, and it couldn’t have been fabricated. It’s as if He had looked them in the eye and said, “I know you’re going to kill me. But after three days I’m going to rise again, and that’s how you’ll know I’m your Messiah. That sign will prove it to you beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
Acts 1:3-5 confirms He appeared to the disciples from time to time over a 40 day period as we saw above, and says He told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. Then He ascended into Heaven.
After considerable thought, I have concluded those 40 days were Israel’s time of probation, or trial. The Bible contains several such 40 day periods, involving Moses and Israel (Exodus 24:18), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), Jonah and Nineveh (Jonah 3:4), Ezekiel and Judah (Ezekiel 4:6), and Jesus (Matt; 4:2). There are also 15 references to 40 year periods of trial, and one to a 400 year period (40 x 10). For this reason the number 40 has become associated in the Bible with trial.
Jesus had given them the sign He promised, one that no one else could ever give them, and now He was giving them time to respond. I think His offer of the Kingdom was still on the table during that time. He was waiting for them to accept, knowing they wouldn’t, but waiting just the same.
And consider this. The three day-three night sign may not have been the Lord’s only reason for comparing Himself to Jonah. God had sent Jonah to preach destruction to the Ninevites. It was a simple but devastating message; “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4)
Jesus had repeatedly warned Israel of the consequences of rejecting Him. In Matt. 21:43 He said, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
And remember that first Palm Sunday? “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44) (Note that He called Himself God.)
As it had been with Jonah, this was a straight forward pronouncement of judgment. There was no indication they could change things. But in Nineveh the people repented anyway, from the lowest to the highest. When God saw this, He had compassion on them and did not bring the destruction He had threatened (Jonah 3:10).
Could the judgment on Israel have been avoided too? What if after Jesus had given them the “sign of Jonah,” they had repented like the Ninevites had? Could they also have stayed the hand of God?
Obviously, God knew the Ninevites would repent. Jonah even accused Him of knowing this and said that was why he ran away instead of warning them of the coming judgment (Jonah 4:1-2).
Just as obviously He knew the Israelites would not. But as I’ve said before—knowing the future is not the same as controlling it. God has given man free will, after all. Had the Ninevites not repented they would have been judged, but because they did repent God demonstrated His mercy and stood down.
Likewise, had the Israelites repented, perhaps they could have avoided the judgment that sent them into exile for 2000 years. After all, God will forgive them as soon as they ask Him, and will restore their Kingdom as well (Joel 3:20-21). I just wonder if they could have begun their restoration within that 40 days of trial after the Resurrection. It appears that’s what the disciples thought would happen. Just before He ascended, they asked the Lord, “Are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:8).
Let Me Make This Perfectly Clear
Please understand me. Jesus had to die. Right from the Garden, it’s been known it would take the Messiah’s death to redeem us from our bondage to sin. And the judgment of those who rejected God’s remedy for their sins also had to happen, because whether then or now, Daniel’s 70th Week had to be fulfilled. I’m just wondering if Israel could have made the last 2000 years of national suffering unnecessary by responding to the Lord’s offer of the Kingdom while He was still here.
History shows that after the 40 days had expired, Jesus fulfilled the words of the prophet Hosea. “I will go back to my place until they admit their guilt. And they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me.” (Hosea 5:15)
Zechariah 12:10 says the time will come when they will admit their guilt, and according to Joel 3:21, when they do God will pardon them. And then they will finally receive the Kingdom He’s been waiting 2000 years to give them. 06-07-14