Reading: John 20; Acts 1:1-3.
The Lord is desirous of showing us what is bound up within the compass of the forty days after His resurrection. The Word says that He appeared unto them by the space of forty days, and spoke the things concerning the Kingdom of God. We have called this particular period of the forty days, "The great probation". Forty throughout the Scriptures always represents a period of probation, a period in which certain things obtained and governed, with a great practical issue in view, with a future hanging upon them. That is quite patent from any knowledge which you may have of the various periods of forty days, and months, or forty years, recorded in the Word of God.
This is the greatest of all the probationary periods of the Bible, and of history. It is really a great and tremendous parenthesis with meaning, which it will take not only the rest of the dispensation, but all the ages to come to fathom and to know. That is saying a great thing, and it is not just language. Bound up with those forty days after His resurrection were all the future ages, but for our present purpose and benefit, what we want to see is that the whole dispensation was bound up with those forty days. In that period of probation, in that parenthesis, two great phases of the heavenly purpose met.
On the one side the incarnation, with all that it meant of the life, the teaching and the working of the Son of God. That met in the forty days; that merged in the forty days. On the other side the church, His Body, the corporate continuation of Christ.
These two phases of heavenly purpose: the Christ in life and teaching and work and the church His corporate, continual expression in life and teaching and work, met in the forty days. So that the forty days, on the one side, had a retrospective value. Everything that the Lord Jesus was, all that related to His Person, all that He had said, all His manner of life, and all the works that He had performed, were gathered up in the forty days and came to life in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It is quite clear that they were not alive to it until then, and it was not alive to them. There had been flashes of recognition as to His person, such as when Peter would cry by divine illumination, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God"; but, oh, how imperfect and inadequate was his apprehension of that Person, that he could have made that declaration and not long after have denied the Son of the Living God with oaths and curses, which was surely indicative of that very imperfect apprehension.
The Lord was not alive to them in the full sense during those months and years. He spoke in parables, veiled things, and they did not understand. He made it clear that they were not understanding His acts when He fed the five thousand, and then the four thousand. He had to say, 'Do you not yet understand? Do you not see?' Even in the mighty miracles they were not seeing the significance. In the forty days after the resurrection it all came to life, "Then remembered they His words"; "Then He opened their understanding that they might understand the Scriptures". It all came to life in a new way.
There was no more dramatic moment than that when Mary recognised Him. "Sir, if you have carried Him away (He was dead to her), tell me where you have laid Him..." "Mary!" "Rabboni!" (John 20:15,16). He is alive! There is recognition. Everything in those forty days lived anew, with new meaning, with new power, with new virtue, with new value, all new. All the fulness of the incarnation waited for resurrection to be spiritually apprehended and livingly understood.
That is all the retrospective side of the forty days. There is the prospective side. There is the church to be. There is the dispensation stretching out ahead, and the forty days are unto that. The retrospective brought everything into Life for them. The Lord Jesus during those forty days was preparing them to be the church. After all, what is the church if it is not that Body living in the quickened, divinely illumined knowledge of the risen Lord? He was preparing them. He was really producing (shall we say) the elements by which the church was to be constituted. The very constitution of the church hung upon what those forty days held of spiritual recognition, spiritual perception, spiritual quickening, spiritual worship, and all that we have there.
So, then, how important were the forty days, how full of significance, not for them alone but for us. That is not just history of a bygone time, that abides timeless for the church, and all its members. There is no church, and there can be no membership of the church except on the ground of what transpired in the forty days as a living experience. You and I have got to come into the value of the forty days. Blessed be God, it can be. The risen Lord is still appearing to hearts, to lives. It is still blessedly possible, and actually true, that hearts are coming to recognise Him, and falling down and saying as never before, "My Lord, and my God" and coming to the place where they, with such depth of heart feeling, cried, "Master, Rabonni". That is as possible today as it was then. This is a timeless thing. It is this that makes the believer, it is this that makes the church, and apart from this the church is a hollow shell. Oh, that today as never before, with all that we have known of the Lord, all our walk with Him, all our listening to His words, we should say, "My Lord! My God!" with a new heart, an outgoing heart-burst of worship. It would take an artist to put into those moments the right kind of expression. You have to sit down and contemplate that little drama in that early hour before the daybreak. Mary spoke to Him as to the gardener, and then with an accent, a tone, something as of yore, and yet with newness, He mentioned her name.
Put yourself in that position if you can. You have lost one very dear by death. They have gone out of your world and left you desolate. A few days after, one is present with you speaking perhaps about that one, and you begin to speak to that one present as though they were only in a very distant way related to the one whom you have lost as to a stranger. Then suddenly that one present mentions your name. They are a stranger to you; you do not know that they have ever seen you before, and they mention your name with a tone that is exactly and only the tone that was used by that one whom you lost. You hear their actual voice, you are startled and you simply exclaim their name, "Master", is that You? It is most terrifically impressive. What is going to be the result of that? Imagine this woman, going off as fast as she could to let it be known. Oh yes, there is something new in the relationship to the Lord like that, the marvel of Himself.
It is that kind of thing that makes the church; it is that wonder, that marvel, that ascendancy, that "something" which is not just an ordinary relationship with a member of the Godhead. The church ought to be a people like that. You and I ought to be more like that, and that is what the Lord is saying.
Or look at Thomas. "Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe!" 'Say what you like, I am not going to believe!' So he has shut himself out and is a man alone. Then, for some reason or other, perhaps sick of his loneliness or under the persuasion of some friends, he comes in on one occasion where they are. He is no more with them in heart, but he is there in body, and the Lord appears, and the first act of the Lord is to make straight for that man. 'Now Thomas, come and see the marks that you demanded to see, reach hither your finger!' I do not think that Thomas touched those marks or that side. Thomas broke, and went down; "My Lord, and my God". It is that sort of thing that makes the true Christian life and makes the church.
That is what the Lord is after, to get us away from our mere ecclesiasticism, all that externality and formality, and get us down to the place where God in Christ has got our hearts in brokenness and worship, and we simply say "My Lord, and my God".
It was thus He constituted His church, as a wondering, worshipping, marvelling company, caught up in the sheer ecstasy of a new discovery of Himself, Oh, that that might be the atmosphere in which we live, that that might be the nature of our lives!
You see what we mean by saying the forty days gave character to the dispensation so far as the church was concerned. That is the meaning of the resurrection. The knowledge of Christ after this kind was intended by Him to characterise the rest of the age in the corporate person of the church. That means that the church is something which has died with, and to, Christ after the flesh. It seemed to be necessary that they should die with and to Christ after the flesh before something could happen.
He had been with them in all the fulness of Who He was, and while abiding with them for three years and more, they could not see Him. In many ways He would manifest Himself. John, writing about the whole of that life, speaks of the things which Jesus did in that whole space of time, and he recorded them in order that we might believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. These men were there; they did not have the written record, they had the personal presence, and the things happened; yet they could not see Him. When He spoke they could not understand what He was saying; not that they were unwilling, prejudiced or suspicious, but they simply could not; it was not in them. No doubt from time to time they made honest efforts. We believe that some of these men at least really did want to know and to understand.
In what He did, they did not see beyond the act, they did not see the significance of the act. What are you going to do with that kind of thing? Are you going to say it is hopeless? What do you do with a hopeless thing? Well, you had better bury it. If this is as far as a thing can go, it is best that it should die and for there to be something new. So it was necessary, and so it came to pass in a spiritual way, that they died with and to Christ after the flesh. It was no use their living on that poor level of incapacity, inability, impossibility. So the crash came, and He went, and in a sense Christ was gone for them and all that was bound up with Him went with Him, and we find them in a desolation with nothing left. Not a fragment of His words held their hearts. "For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead". Oh, amazing statement! "For as yet...". After all, they knew not the Scriptures that He should rise from the dead.
So everything had gone, and their world was a blank. They had died with and to Christ after the flesh. But they rise with and to Christ after the Spirit in His resurrection. See all the marks of that resurrection. Why, eyes are growing bigger and bigger, mouths gape, the heart is wondering and worshipping; they have risen with Him and to Him. That is the church. That is how He constituted the church. That is what He was seeking to do. The church that day died with Him and to Him after the flesh, and had risen with Him and to Him after the Spirit. After the flesh is clearly seen to mean just limitation and impotence. After the Spirit is manifestly to release life and power. That is the value of the forty days in spiritual experience. That is the meaning of the probation. That is the thought for the age. That is what the Lord is seeking to have in you and in me.
It is Christ in that fulness released from human limitation, released from earth bonds, released in fulness becoming the answer to the deepest longing of the human heart; so deep that the human heart can do nothing else but worship.
These forty days are strangely marked by the absence of words on the part of the disciples. It is simply a period of ejaculation, spontaneous expressions in short sentences. That is the nature of the discovery of the Lord. You feel far more than you can say, things are too wonderful for words. You have got something in the Lord which it is well-nigh impossible to convey to others.
In all this the desire, the longing, the outreaching is that we should ask the Lord for recovery, or, if it has never been true, a producing, a constituting of this in us. What do we long for? It is not for words, discourses, messages, things to say and preach, but that inner heart life of wonder with the Lord, where the Lord fills everything. That is His thought for the church.
We must ask the Lord to make more of this true in our case, that the divine desire and purpose for this age may have some realisation, at least where we are concerned.