The Forty Days leading to the Ascension

Third in the Ascension Series

Forty is a Biblical number—How else could it be described with such magnitude and significance? Its numerous mentions in Scripture draw us to reflect on each event with which it is associated.

We learn in the first chapter of Acts that the Ascension took place after Christ had remained on the earth ‘after his passion’ for 40 days. (Acts 1:3)

On the website, a section on the ‘Meaning of Numbers’ states the following about the number 40:

  • 146 mentions in Scripture
  • the number 40 generally symbolizes a period of testing, trial or probation.
  • Moses lived forty years in Egypt and forty years in the desert before God selected him to lead his people out of slavery.
  • Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights, on two separate occasions (Exodus 24:18, 34:1 - 28), receiving God's laws. He sent spies, for 40 days, to investigate the land God promised the Israelites as an inheritance (Numbers 13:25, 14:34).
  • Israel wandered in the wilderness 40 years, one for each day of their futile investigation
  • the 40 days and nights of Noah’s flood
  • Jonah warned Nineveh for 40 days
  • Jesus was tempted by the devil during his 40 days in the wilderness
  • others

Would you consider the length of days the Lord remained on the earth before his ascension to be a time of testing, trial or probation for his disciples? Perhaps so, in that it was a special time for them to put away all unbelief and gather their strength and wits and before the start of the gospel ministry in Jerusalem at Pentecost.

Another aspect of the 40-day or year time span is that God is at work to accomplish a particular goal. It is a required length of time for a specific accomplishment.

It was just the right amount of time for Moses to become a patient man after his murder of the Egyptian, and before he is commanded to return to entreat Pharaoh for the release of the Israelites. Forty years reformed his character.

Forty days are needed for Jonah to cry out and convince the Ninevites that God will judge them. It was the effective span of time. One or two weeks would not do.

It took exactly 40 days and nights of flooding for the earth to be covered with waters, to drown all life except for those on the ark.

It would take 40 days for the Lord to work with his disciples before he ascended—

  • It was a slower time —no planes, buses or cars. No electronic communications. All gatherings and discussions would be in person. Only the risen Lord could dematerialize or suddenly appear (Mark 16:14); everyone else had to walk, run or ride on an animal to arrive at a meeting.
  • We are told that both Jesus and the angel at the tomb told the women to advise his disciples to meet him in Galilee, (Mat 28:7, 10) and that they met him at a particular mountain (Mat 28:16) to learn about their future work (Mat 28:19-20). It would be a two or three day walk from Jerusalem to Galilee. (It would seem that this commissioning was repeated for enforced learning with three instances (Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:6-8) being individual versions.)
  • The women who followed Jesus needed assurance that he was alive and was continuing to carry out his Father’s mission. They would be valuable witnesses throughout their villages.
  • The Lord also appeared to many others of his followers such as Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13), and 500 brethren at one time. (1 Cor 15:6) All of these were witnesses who gained assurance, who could testify about his resurrection for any who doubted. This, too, built momentum for the work ahead. These appearances are for all of us— we all need to see in Scripture that the Lord is alive, after dying.
  • It takes time for the human mind to process a crisis event. The Lord understood that his disciples had experienced a trauma and needed time to adjust and heal, and with him present to guide and comfort them, they would get back to normal more quickly.
  • It was necessary for each one of them to recover from the shock and realize a new day of service was at hand. Though they would still daily follow the Lord, he would not remain on the earth, and they would follow him in a new reality. Each had lives, work and kinfolk or families to confer with or to settle in new ways before beginning their new work in the Lord.
  • They saw for themselves that he ate and had flesh as a man, with telltale wounds (Luke 24:39, 42-43). He wanted them to be fully convinced that he was still a man, the same man whom they had known before he died and was buried. He really was alive and well.

Yes, there was much work to do before Christ could ascend to his Father, and our Father (John 20:17). It was the work of a preacher and a friend, teacher, counselor, a brother, a prince of peace, and a prophet.

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