For some time now, I’ve been puzzled about the time between the resurrection and the ascension. What was the Lord doing during that time? It certainly was something different from His Earthly Ministry up to that point. He had already accomplished everything He came to do. It seems like He would have been more anxious to return home.
Lack Of Specificity In 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. 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 that 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 God’s 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 that Israel was 483 years into a 490 year period that would see the culmination of God’s plan for mankind (Daniel 9:24). A few hours earlier they had assumed that the magnificent Temple King Herod was building was part of the preparation for restoring their Kingdom to its former glory. 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 had heard about one of these. Antiochus Epiphanes had set one up almost 200 years earlier as part of his demand that they worship him as God. It’s the only time it had ever happened. Jesus said when they saw that happen again, they should immediately flee into the mountains.
Then he told them about the Great Tribulation that would bring a terrible time of judgment, the worst the world had ever seen or would ever 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 an 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’ see Him coming in the clouds of the sky 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 there would be a 2,000 year gap of time between their time and the first specific sign. He spoke of everything as if it was going to happen to them, and in fact everything He said could have happened within what they believed was the remaining 7 years. It’s clear he was addressing them as representatives of Israel.
Looking back through history we can see He had a number of opportunities to be more specific with earlier signs. One of the best examples is the prophecy He had James give at the Council of Jerusalem 20 years later. “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) But He made no mention of any span of time between the Disciples’ day and ours.
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 6 more recorded appearances. 4 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 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 they had asked the Lord for a sign to prove He was the messiah. He told them the only sign He would give them was the sign of the prophet Jonah. He said He’d spend 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the Earth (Matt. 12:40) and then He did just that. Surely they knew of His resurrection, but none of the officials sought Him out. What do you suppose they were thinking? We overlook this, but here is 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 confirms that 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. I believe those 40 days were Israel’s time of testing. Jesus had given them the sign He promised, one that no one else could ever give them, and they didn’t respond. Even so, I think His offer of the Kingdom was still on the table. 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. Remember how the Lord sent Jonah to preach destruction to the Ninevites but Jonah went the opposite direction instead.
Running away to sea, Jonah was thrown overboard in a storm and swallowed by a whale. After three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, Jonah returned and preached a simple but devastating message to Nineveh. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4)
Jesus had repeatedly warned Israel of the consequences for 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 when they did God demonstrated His mercy and stood down. (About 100 years later Nineveh reversed its spiritual course again and was judged after all.)
Like wise 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. I just wonder if it was His decision to wait 2000 years. Maybe it could have happened within that 40 days of testing after the Resurrection.
Let Me Make This Perfectly Clear
Please don’t misunderstand me. Jesus had to die. Right from the Garden it’s been known that it would take the Messiah’s death to redeem us from our bondage to sin, so I’m not talking about that. Neither am I talking about the judgment of the nations for those who would have rejected God’s remedy for their sins regardless of Israel’s response. That is also a certainty. I’m just thinking that Israel could have made the last 2000 years of national suffering unnecessary.
But at this point all that is just speculation. The fact is 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. After all He’s been waiting 2000 years to do it. There’s more to come, but think about this.