By Canon Mark A. Pearson
Every Easter, many Christians enjoy either a sunrise service or a later church celebration or both, and then conclude their Easter celebration is over. But Easter is a season, not just a day; forty days, not just one! The Easter season commemorates the forty days the resurrected Jesus walked this earth before His Ascension back to heaven. Luke wrote, “To them He presented Himself alive after His passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Many churches burn a Paschal (or Easter) Candle during this forty day period. Just as a Christmas tree with its lights reminds us of the birth of Christ, the Light of the World, so does this candle remind worshippers of Christ’s forty days on earth. Why did Jesus walk for 40 days on earth before His Ascension back to heaven?
1. To demonstrate He was truly raised. Jesus’ Resurrection was not a sentimental “He lives on in our hearts,” really an admission He was not bodily raised. Nor do Christians believe only in the “immortality of the soul.” We believe in the Resurrection of the body. Without these “many proofs” Luke spoke of in Acts 1:3, people could say He rose from the dead but why should anyone believe them? People had to see the risen Christ, and see Him they did! St. Paul writes, “…He was raised on the third day … appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time…. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:4-7).
Read about Jesus’ appearance to the believing women on Easter morning (Luke 24:1-12), to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-31), to ten apostles on Easter evening (John 20:19-23), to “Doubting Thomas” (John 20:24-29), and to seven by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-14). Some skeptics allege the Resurrection was a lie held together by a conspiracy, but there were too many witnesses for a conspiracy to hold. Far from recanting their testimony as a lie, many eye-witnesses suffered martyrdom for what they knew to be the truth: Christ rose from the dead.
2. To remind them of what He had already taught and to point them to their mission. He had been the teacher without parallel during the three years of His earthly ministry. But now He needed to repeat some of what He had already taught (maybe they’d understand it now!) and explain the Resurrection in the light of Old Testament prophecies (Luke 24:27).
But there was also a future component. They were to carry out His work but in order to do that they first needed to wait and then they had to go.
Wait. Perhaps in their excitement they wanted to rush around telling everyone, “Jesus is alive! Death is conquered! His teaching is vindicated! He is truly the Messiah we’ve been waiting for!’ The danger is they would attempt to evangelize in their own power. The results would not be good. We can think of times in our own lives when we’ve tried in our own strength to do something great for God. We either failed miserably or else did something that looked great on the surface but effected n oreal change in individuals or society. We grew foliage but did not bear fruit.
Jesus told them first to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit to be bestowed upon them (Acts 1:4). This was not an idle hanging around but an active attending to prayer (Acts 1:14). Just as the early Christians had to be filled with the Spirit before they could embark on their earthly ministry (Luke 3:21-11), so must we be if we are to accomplish anything lasting for God.
Go. While some Christians need regular reminders to “wait and be empowered,” others need to be reminded they are “blessed to be a blessing.” While going into one’s prayer closet is necessary, staying there can become a selfish retreat from responsibility. The Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 is a commandment. Note several features of it:
*Go. Don’t wait for people to ask you about God. Initiate the conversation. Tell people about Jesus. Share your testimony. Invite people to church.
*Make disciples. God is not looking for mere converts. He wants disciples — people who love, obey and serve Him (see John 14:15).
*Baptizing them. Amazingly, there are those who believe baptism is an optional exercise. The leaders of the apostolic church saw baptism as part of the Gospel message (Acts 2:38, 22:16; Ephesians 4:5; Colossians 2:12).
*In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our focus is not some vague, generic “God,” but the God of the Scriptures. He is the One we teach, serve and worship.
*Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. While it’s enjoyable to come out of a worship service with a “Holy Ghost high,” some churches stress feelings and experiences to the neglect of careful instruction in the content of the faith. Authentic Christianity involves the heart (spiritual experiences), the hands (service), the will (obedience), and the head (doctrinal and moral content) (see Matthew 22:37).
3. A third reason why Jesus spent 40 days on earth after His Resurrection was to rivet home three essential features of discipleship after His ascension. Jesus would no longer walk about with them. How would they order Christian lives?
*The community. Most of our Lord’s post-Resurrection appearances were to groups of leaders, thereby emphasizing both the necessity of the corporate and the importance of leaders. Although, of course, individuals have a personal relationship with Jesus, He also stresses the community as a place He will be specially present: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). The Church is the body of Christ on earth (1 Corinthians 12:27).
*Scripture. Before He died, Jesus made provision for there to be a New Testament to be added to the Old. The Holy Spirit would ensure the Gospel writers would accurately recall Jesus’ words, the Spirit would teach them everything Jesus did not have time to teach, and the Spirit would reveal what would happen at the end of the age (John 14:26, 16:12-13).
*Holy Communion. On the first Easter Jesus accompanied two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:1-35). They did not recognize Him until He celebrated Holy Communion in their midst. From the earliest days the Church saw the service of Holy Communion as the chief act of worship. Many Christians today are rediscovering the importance of frequent attendance at the Lord’s table. May the confession of the Emmaus disciples be our fervent prayer, “Be known to us in the breaking of the bread” (see Luke 24:35).
4. A fourth reason why Jesus spent 40 days on earth after His Resurrection was to reassure His followers that, despite their failing Him, He still loved them. Some of the women stayed by Jesus at the cross. Except for John, the men ran away (Matthew 27:55-56, 26:56; John 19:25-27). Peter had even denied knowing Jesus (Luke 22:54-62).
What must the men have felt once they heard Jesus was risen? On the one hand, they were overjoyed. Their beloved Lord was alive, His predictions of the Resurrection were true, He had conquered death!
On the other hand, they must have felt shame and fear. Shame, because they knew they had abandoned their Lord when He needed them most. Fear, because He might now reject them for their cowardice. Had he not said, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33)?
They needed the encouragement, as do we, that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). One of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances specifically concerns the restoration of Peter (John 21:1-19). I do not believe it was a coincidence that Jesus asked Peter three times if Peter loved Him. Peter had earlier denied Jesus three times. Jesus is making sure that Peter understood he was truly forgiven.
It’s one thing to be forgiven, but can a person, having badly blown it, ever be restored ? Jesus’ answer to Peter is a re-sounding yes. Three times Jesus’ statement is, “Feed my sheep.” While often the appropriate path of restoration for a fallen church leader is a longer and slower one than Peter’s, God is the Lord of second chances, of forgiveness and restoration. Peter had sinned but was restored. There’s hope for us all.
Jesus walked for 40 days on earth before His Ascension back to heaven, to demonstrate He was truly raised, to remind them of what He had already taught, to point them to their mission, to rivet home three essential features of discipleship after His Ascension and to reassure His followers that, despite their failing Him, He still loved them.
These are all important parts of our walk with the Lord. Let’s not stop celebrating the Resurrection at noon on Easter Day but enjoy the forty day Easter season and all it has to teach us. +