“The Appearing of the Resurrected Jesus”
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
(1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
Why did Jesus only appear only to certain people after his resurrection? And why did he only walk on the earth for "forty days" (Acts 1:2-3) before he was "lifted up" into heaven (Acts 1:9-11)? Luke, like any good historian, was very careful to "investigate" and record these details in both of his accounts to the “most excellent Theophilus" (Lk. 1:1-4; Act. 1:1-2). These details are not without their significance.
First let’s tackle the “forty days” question. We see the number 40 cropping up all over Scripture. The number 40 is not entirely symbolic but we often see that it represents a division in epochs of time. The earth was flooded for "forty days and forty nights" (Gen. 7:4); the spies explored the land of promise for "forty days" (Num. 13:25); the Israelites wandered the land for "forty years" (Num. 32:13), representing a generation (Psa. 95:10); the life of Moses is divided into three forty-year periods (Acts 7:23,30,36); several Israelite leaders ruled for "forty years," like Eli (1 Sam. 4:18), Saul (Acts 13:21), David (2 Sam. 5:4) and Solomon (1 Kgs. 11:42); Goliath challenged the Israelites twice a day for "forty days" (1 Sam. 17:16); Moses spent three consecutive periods of "forty days and forty nights" on Mount Sinai (Deut. 9:11, 25; 10:10); and before his temptation and his public ministry, Jesus fasted for "forty days and forty nights" (Mt. 4:2).
We see the number forty not just representing symbolic periods of time but also measuring other things like a “mikvah,” a collection of forty se’ah of water (about 200 gallons) for ritual cleansing (Lev. 15), and forty lashes being the limit of punishment administered by the Jews in the first century (2 Cor. 11:24).
This brings us to Acts 1:3. Jesus "presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God." By appearing very much alive and with "many proofs" for a forty-day period, Jesus was beginning a new epoch of human history: the age of his rule. In the very next chapter his disciples opened the gates of the kingdom of God to all who would believe and turn to the Lord (Acts 2:38; cf. Joel 2:28-32). This forty-day interim period equipped the "witnesses" (Acts 1:8) of the resurrected Jesus to "make disciples of all nations" (Mt. 28:19).
By appearing alive for a period of forty days, Jesus facilitated the transition of human history into the age of new creation, new covenant and new life. In the past, prophets could only inquire of this mysterious age and angels longed to catch a glimpse of it (1 Pet. 1:10-12). Finally, after that forty-day period, the mystery that was once hidden was revealed in the revealing light of Jesus' resurrection and ascension.
But while Jesus was still on earth for that forty-day period, why did he only appear to a select few people? All evidence within Scripture points to the fact that Jesus only appeared to believers after his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Paul pointed this out as a proof of the general resurrection to the Corinthian church, stating that most of the witnesses to the resurrected Jesus were "still alive" at the time of his writing (1 Cor. 15:6). This meant they could be contacted to verify the legitimacy of Jesus’ life after death. But in the summary list Paul gives in verses 5-8 only believers saw Jesus alive from the dead ("brothers" in v.6). While it is entirely possible he appeared to nonbelievers nothing is said of this in Scripture.
This brings up an interesting "what if?" and "why not?" scenario. When Jesus was "declared the Son of God... by his resurrection," (Rom. 1:4) why didn’t he go up to Pilate and say, “Hey, remember Me? The ‘King of the Jews’?” Why not, after being vindicated in the resurrection, pay a visit to the houses of the guards who drove the nails in his hands or who gambled for his garment? Why not go straight to the temple and look the Pharisees and Scribes in the eye? Or to the Sanhedrin, to Caiaphas, the high priest, and Annas? Wouldn’t that prove once for all that they were wrong about him? Wouldn’t witnessing the risen Jesus transform their stone-cold hearts and turn them back to the Father?
Sadly, no. In fact, Jesus told a story that said as much (Lk. 16:19-31). The plea was, "if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!" And the lesson was, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead" (Lk. 16:30-31).
God never does things the way we would do them but he always has a good reason for doing things his way (Isa. 55:8-9). God saves people by the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 1:16-17). The "word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18ff). It pleases God to save people by preaching a message that only the humble can receive. The wise of this world will stumble over it and reject it. The gospel has the power to save but it also has the double-edged effect of condemning those who reject it (cf. Heb. 4:12). Indeed, "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men."