Forty Special Days
It would not have been very unusual for a Galilean carpenter in that era to have died in his early thirties. Life expectancy then cannot have been very different from that in the poorer parts of the world today. Nor was it very strange for such a man who had gotten involved in a controversial public ministry to anticipate his own death in the capital city, and warn his friends what to expect. They were dangerous times for anyone who lifted his head above the parapet. But what was utterly bizarre was his expecting to suffer a horrible execution, and then 'rise from the dead'.
From our vantage point of faith, and further on in the world's history, we can see the resurrection of Jesus Christ as part of a plan, and therefore not so surprising. In fact, as Christians we have got used to the whole idea. "Born of the virgin Mary... crucified, dead and buried.… rose the third day" ‑ the story of the Son of God who came among us, gave his life to save us from evil and extinction, and returned temporarily to the Father for a two thousand year moment in eternity.
The resurrection was real, a solid fact in history, and not a myth. While every religion has its stories, the brief post-resurrection episode is crucial in our Christian story. For forty days Jesus appeared to His friends, not dead but alive. He then disappeared from sight, hearing and touch - gone. Mission accomplished. Luke summarises: "before he was taken up [to heaven] he gave instructions by the power of the Holy Spirit to the men he had chosen as his apostles. For forty days after his death he appeared to them many times in ways that proved beyond doubt that he was alive, and he talked with them about the Kingdom of God." (Acts 1.2-3 GNB). The detailed record of this period is scattered over the gospels, the accounts varying in what they report, but consistent in the conviction that "Jesus is alive!" How do they tell the story?
Mark's gospel, embodying it is thought the recollections of Peter, is suddenly cut off after recording the appearance of an angel to the women who had come to embalm Jesus' body. "Don't be afraid. You are looking for Jesus from Nazareth who has been crucified. He has risen from the dead. He is not here. Look, here is the place where they laid him. Now go and tell his followers, and Peter, Jesus is going into Galilee ahead of you, and you will see him there as he told you before." (Mark 16.6-7). (The rest of this gospel is a summary written by a later hand.)
Matthew's gospel follows the same line, except that the women now meet Jesus Himself, who tells them not to be afraid, and promises to meet His disciples in Galilee. On a hill in Galilee Jesus meets the eleven, and gives them his final instructions.
Luke, who must have gathered the material for his gospel while Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea, tells the Jerusalem end of the story. He gives details of the women at the tomb. The first day of the resurrection Jesus walks with two disciples, who then rush back to Jerusalem with the news. Jesus appears to the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, and it is from Jerusalem that he leads them out to Bethany before he is separated from them. They are told to remain in Jerusalem until they receive 'power from on high' - the Holy Spirit. Why does Luke omit mention of Galilee? Perhaps his sources knew only the Jerusalem part: perhaps, it has been surmised, he was running out of writing space and had to be brief? Who knows. John's gospel includes meetings both in Jerusalem and Galilee. Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene near the tomb, to Thomas in the upper room, and then to Peter beside the lake in Galilee. John's account has his customary freshness of personal details, perhaps first recorded early on, and then edited much later into the complete gospel as we have it.
Putting these accounts together, we can trace the purpose in what Jesus was doing during this period. He reassured his grieving disciples; He let it be known that he really was Jesus, Son of God, who was alive again after being killed; and He gave his followers instructions for the future.
If the disciples were shattered by his death, they were incredulous at his resurrection. Such things do not happen in this world (though the killing aspect is all too frequent). There was strong personal grief. So he appeared to Mary Magdalene who at first thought he was the gardener, and then, parting from her gave her a job to do: "Go to my brothers and tell them, I am going back to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (John 20.17). It was 'goodbye', but a parting for the best of reasons.
Thomas was the object of His personal care. Thomas, the realist, the loyal, who could face the worst but found it hard to believe the best. Jesus gave him the tangible proof he needed, His body that could be seen and touched. "Stop being an unbeliever, and believe!" - there must have been arguments with the other disciples when they told him they had seen Christ alive. Now his astonishment knew no bounds - "My Lord and my God!" (John 20.28).
Peter, guilty of disowning his Lord, was specially cared for. "Tell his followers, and Peter" said the angel. "He has appeared to Simon" reported the gathered disciples to Cleopas. By the lakeside in Galilee, Peter was given the chance to reaffirm his loyalty, and was given the task of feeding Jesus 'sheep'.
The women at the tomb were told, No, don't be afraid. Cleopas and his despairing companion were given a full explanation from scripture, and a new hope. The eleven were reassured: He took pains to demonstrate that He was real, not ghostly or imaginary, and He put His resurrection in context: if they considered the scriptures, alongside what Jesus Himself had told them, His resurrection was no more than they should have expected.
In all this, to convince them that He, Jesus, who had died, was actually speaking to them, was vital. It is equally vital for us, who not having seen, do believe. It was sometimes the little things that convinced them. His tone of voice when he said "Mary". His characteristic manner of dividing the bread which caused the penny to drop for Cleopas when all afternoon he had only been conscious of someone with exciting ideas. The meeting with the seven disciples fishing on the lake was a more elaborate parallel, what He was doing now being the same as what He had done before. He guides experienced fishermen, tells them where to find the fish, and the result is a marvellous catch. Three years before, he had done this and invited the astonished fishermen to become 'fishers of men'. Now, a death and a resurrection later, he was giving the same men the same object lesson, and leaving them to carry on the same work. No wonder they recognised "It is the Lord!"
Jesus did not rely only on these flashes of recognition. To His disciples He spelt it out: "Peace be with you... Why are you troubled? Why do you doubt what you see? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have a living body as you see I have... Do you have any food?....Remember when I was with you before? I said that everything written about me must happen - everything in the law of Moses, the books of the prophets and the psalms. It is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that a change of hearts and lives and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name...." (Luke 24.38-44).
And so He gave them His instructions. First a rendezvous in Galilee as they drew breath at what had happened - and He met 500 of His followers on one special occasion. Then, back at Jerusalem, instructions to stay together there and wait for the power of the Holy Spirit that would be given them. And after that?
John reports: "As the Father sent me I now send you." He breathes on them, in token of receiving the Spirit. "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven. If you don't forgive they are not forgiven." To Peter: "Take care of (feed) my sheep." To all disciples, "Follow me."
Luke speaks of repentance and forgiveness of sins preached in His name to all nations, starting at Jerusalem. "You are witnesses of these things." "When the Holy Spirit comes to you, you will receive power. You will he my witnesses, in Jerusalem. in all of Judea, in Samaria, and in every part of the world."
Matthew tells of the great commission given on the hill in Galilee. "All power in heaven and earth is given to me. So go and make followers of all the people in the world. Baptise them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey everything that I have taught you, and I will be with you always, even until the end of this age." (Matthew 28.18-20).
Today, almost two thousand years later, we are Christians as a consequence of the obedience of those disciples; and not only them, but a chain of believers reaching down through the centuries from them to us. There have been the faithless and the faithful, the struggling and the strong, the meek and the misguided. As we test the quality of our own faith, there are challenges to us implicit in Jesus' words in the first days of the resurrection.
Do we, like Thomas, need to stop doubting but believe?
Do we, like Peter, feed His sheep - and shall we be taken where we are unwilling to go? (John 2l.18)
Shall we, as was expected of John, live till Jesus returns - and does it matter? (John 21.22-3) Do we have any better knowledge of God's programme than the first disciples, or should we expect to? (Acts 1.7)
Are we His witnesses'? Making disciples? Baptising? Preaching repentance and forgiveness?
Need we be waiting for the power and direction of the Holy Spirit?
When Jesus told the eleven that He would be with them always, does that also include us?
These forty special days were a time for providing evidence, for giving personal encouragement, and for setting a course for His followers who thought they would have to 'go it alone'. It was a time when Jesus showed His deep love for His followers, and they showed their relief and joy and love to Him. He is still loving all His followers. He loves us.
(Bible quotations from the New Century Version unless otherwise indicated.)