If you knew that you only had 40 days left on this planet, what would you do with them? Well, Jesus used His 40 days to prepare His disciples for the task of building His church and extending the Kingdom of God.
Have you noticed the significance of the number 40 in scripture? For instance, Moses was on Mt Sinai for 40 days when he went up to receive the 10 commandments from the hand of God; The 12 spies were in the Promised Land to prepare for its occupation by the Israelites, and so on.
Periods of 40 days were also significant in Jesus’ life: He was presented in the Temple 40 days after His birth, He was in the wilderness for 40 days before the start of His public ministry, and there were 40 days between His resurrection and ascension.
We commonly think of 40 as representing ‘testing’ but more accurately it represents Preparation. In the period between resurrection and ascension, Jesus was preparing His disciples for their key ministry. Acts 1:3 ‘After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave them many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the Kingdom of God.’
The question is of course, what did He teach them? Surely that which was most important for the establishment of the church and the extension of the Kingdom of God.
Imagine the following – you feeling strange and go to your doctor who then refers you a specialist who eventually says to you, “You have just 40 days left before you die?” What would you do with those 40 days? The glib answer would be that you would try to do all the things on your Bucket List. But how silly this would be for a Christian. Would we really think that anything we could experience now would even come close to the glory we will experience in heaven? Perhaps you would prepare for eternity by ensuring that you mended any broken relationships and put right any wrongs you had committed. Perhaps you would prepare your loved ones financially and spend quality time with them. Hopefully, you would also want to leave a legacy of what you felt was the most important truth you could pass on. And this is what I believe Jesus did in His last days with His disciples.
There have been many attempts to ‘reveal’ what Jesus taught over the 40 days in question. Some have claimed that certain Apocryphal books contain true accounts of Jesus’ teachings concerning the underworld and the realms of heaven. Other say that He passed on secret teachings orally to special initiates, who in turn passed them down through the ages. The Roman Catholic church contends that Jesus taught on church hierarchy and the 7 sacraments. But, how could we test the validity of any of these claims if not against the revelation of scripture? Surely it is better to piece together from the Bible itself what Jesus taught during this period.
Now this is not just of intellectual interest; it is important to us for WE are today’s disciples and we need to know what Jesus regarded as most important for His church and Kingdom so that WE can live by them.
The Lord Jesus’ teaching during those critical 40 days can be presented in four sections. The first group is found in Acts 1:4-8 ‘So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The ‘kingdom’ to which the disciples were referring was a socio-political concept. The Jews of that time hoped that they would be restored to their former glory, but Jesus swept this notion away with a few words. Earlier He had told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). In His prayer for His disciples, recorded in John 17, Jesus said, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”. In addition, Peter in his letters, calls Christians ‘Aliens and strangers in the world’. Over the years the church has distilled these teachings into the saying, ‘we are in the world but not of the world’
Of course, we Christians influence the kingdoms of the world with the Gospel, with truth, and with Kingdom of God values, but we don’t set ourselves up as Christian governments, companies, or armies. Christians can, of course, serve in government, business, and the armed forces as individuals responding to the call of God on their lives, but no more than this.
Dominionism is raising its head again in our age in the form of the New Apostolic Reformation and, as usual, distracts us from our true mission in this world. Our mission is not to replace the institutions of the world but rather to come to know Jesus, become like Him, and help others to do likewise. After Jesus had swept aside the disciples’ question he told them rather that they would receive power from on high to be His witnesses – witnesses to the person of Jesus, His truth, and His kingdom. Nothing has changed in this regard and we too are called to be Spirit-empowered witnesses in the world.
A second group of teachings can be derived from John 20:21-23 and Luke 24:45-49. ‘Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:21-23).
As the Father has sent me – we are the extension of Jesus ministry to the world His presence wherever we are.
Receive the Spirit – points to the fundamental importance of a metaphysical rebirth of the spirit rather than just knowledge, or actions, or commitment.
Forgiveness of sin – not the Roman Catholic confessional system, but authority to pronounce those who repent and believe as forgiven by God for their rebellion and wrongdoing. This assurance of forgiveness frees from guilt and recrimination and sets new believers free to experience the wonder of new life in Christ.
The conditions of forgiveness are repentance and belief. Luke 24:45-49; ‘Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Mark 1:15 has ‘The Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news.’ Acts 2:3, ‘Repent and be baptised every one of you, for the forgiveness of your sins.’ And in Acts 26:20 Paul is recorded as saying, ‘I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds’. The evidence of true repentance starts with a willingness to be baptised in water.
Repentance is a change of heart, mind and behaviour, and certainly not simply a formula statement as part of a recited ‘sinner’s prayer’.
When I was a new believer I was asked to teach the meaning of repentance to a group of young children. In order to simplify and illustrate I composed a little song – “You’ve got to stop, turn around, and walk towards Lord Jesus; got to stop, turn around, and walk towards the light. You’ve got to stop, turn around, and walk towards Lord Jesus; got to turn around and walk towards the light’’. I then explained to them that when we walk according to our own ‘light’ we get further and further away from the true light. With every step in the wrong direction, the shadows before us get longer and longer until we are completely lost in darkness. To change this, we need to stop walking in that direction. Then we need to turn around so that we face back towards Jesus. Then we have to walk towards Him. As we do this the shadows are behind us and grow shorter and shorter with every step. This wasn’t designed to be a description of how salvation occurs but simply to explain the nature of ‘repentance’. We know that The Holy Spirit reveals Jesus and draws us to Him, and we know that salvation is by the grace of God and not the product of our own ‘steps’. However, in this context, if we repent and believe then we will be forgiven and receive a new spiritual life.
The third group of teachings is found in Mark 16:15-20 and Matthew 28:18-20 and is so well-known that I will simply state it with just one brief comment. The Great Commission as per Mark’s gospel reads ‘He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well“.’ The signs of the Kingdom of God are not meant to be a source of entertainment for the gathered church, but to authenticate the proclamation of the Gospel. If we want to witness genuine miracles, best we get out into the world with the Good News on our lips.
The better-known version in Matthew’s gospel reads, ‘Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The last teaching was by way of Jesus’ interaction with Peter as the first leader of the church and is recorded for us in John 21:15-19. We know it so well – Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him and then tells him that if he truly does love Him he will demonstrate this by taking care of the Christians comprising the church. This is the primary task of church leadership – not to hatch, match, and dispatch; not to manage, or organise, but to take care of the people. To care for them is to know them, heal them, encourage them, instruct them in the good ways of God, to protect them, and to equip them to be fellow disciples. In short, it to LOVE them… as Jesus loves them.
So, what then were the things that Jesus thought were of such importance to His disciples, the church, and us?
One – The Kingdom of God is not political or material. It is not of this world, and our job is to witness to this as ambassadors of Jesus, the king of the unseen but eternally real Kingdom of God.
Two – We will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses.
Three – We are sent into the world as Jesus was sent into the world to proclaim the Kingdom of God, its truth, and its reality… to represent Jesus in the world.
Four – Rebirth of the spirit is required to enter the Kingdom of God and to be Jesus witnesses… not just commitment, but new spiritual life.
Five – We can proclaim forgiveness to all who truly repent and believe in Jesus.
Six – Miraculous empowerment and signs accompany the proclamation of the Good news.
Seven – The primary duty of church leaders is to care for Jesus’ people.
If Jesus regarded these things as so important that He needed to take His few remaining hours on Earth to emphasis them, then should we not take them seriously?