Return to About Mormons home
Forty Day Ministry of Christ
by John Gee
After his resurrection, Jesus spent much of the next forty days with his disciples, "speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3) and opening "their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures," namely, what is "in the Law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms concerning [him]" (Luke 24:44-45). As part of Jesus' ministry, these forty days are important to Latter-day Saints. In addition, a major section of the Book of Mormon is devoted to his post-resurrection ministry in the Western Hemisphere.
The New Testament mentions the forty-day ministry but provides only limited detail. For example, during this time Jesus appeared to the Twelve with Thomas present (John 20:26-29), spoke of "things pertaining to the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3), "and many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book" (John 20:30). Paul mentions that on one occasion Jesus "was seen of above five hundred brethren at once" (1 Cor. 15:6). Finally, before his ascension Jesus commanded the apostles to go "into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15-16; cf. Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 24:47-48; John 21:15-17; Acts 1:4-5).
Over forty accounts outside scripture claim to tell what Jesus said and did during his forty-day ministry. Latter-day Saints believe that some of these accounts, like the apocrypha, contain things "therein that are true," but in addition contain "many things that are not true" (D&C 91).
These accounts report the following: Jesus teaches the apostles the gospel they should preach to the world. He tells of a premortal life and the creation of the world, adding that this life is a probationary state of choosing between good and evil, and that those who choose good might return to the glory of God. He foretells events of the last days, including the return of Elijah. He also tells the disciples that the primitive church will be perverted after one generation, and teaches them to prepare for tribulation. These apocryphal accounts state that Christ's resurrection gives his followers hope for their own resurrection in glory. Besides salvation for the living, salvation of the dead is a major theme, as are the ordinances: baptism, the Sacrament or Eucharist, ordination of the apostles to authority, their being blessed one by one, and an initiation or Endowment (cf. Luke 24:49; usually called "mysteries"), with an emphasis on garments, marriage, and prayer circles. These accounts, usually called secret (Greek, apokryphon; Coptic, hep), are often connected somehow to the temple, or compared to the Mount of Transfiguration. Sometimes the apostles are said to ascend to heaven where they see marvelous things. Whether everything in such accounts is true or not, the actions of the apostles after the post-resurrection visits of Jesus contrast sharply with those before.
Many people dismiss accounts outside the New Testament with the labels apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, fiction, or myth. Some ascribe them to psychological hallucinations that the trauma of Jesus' death brought on the disciples. Others discard such traditions because sects later branded as "heresies" championed them. Most ignore them. Latter-day Saints generally tend to give thoughtful consideration to them, primarily because of the long, detailed account in the Book of Mormon of Christ's post-resurrection ministry among the Nephites and Lamanites "who had been spared" (3 Ne. 11-28).
Many elements found in the Old World forty-day literature also appear in 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon. This account tells how Jesus was announced by his Father to some of the surviving Nephites and Lamanites, and how he descended from heaven to the temple at Bountiful to minister to the multitude there for three days. The people "did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record" that Jesus had risen from the dead (3 Ne. 11:13-17). Jesus chose twelve disciples, gave them authority to perform ordinances, and commanded them to teach all the people (3 Ne. 11:18-41; 18:36-39; 19:4-13; Moro. 2). He declared his doctrine, forbidding disputation about it: "The Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me. And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved" (3 Ne. 11:32-33). Jesus' teachings, including a version of the Sermon on the Mount very similar to the one contained in the New Testament, comprise "the law and the commandments" for the people (3 Ne. 12:19). Jesus healed their sick, blessed their children, and prayed for the multitude (3 Ne. 17:2-25; 19:5-36). Many were transfigured when angels descended to minister to them (3 Ne. 17:22-25; 19:14-16). Jesus instituted the ordinances of baptism and the Sacrament of bread and wine (3 Ne. 11:22-29; 18:1-14, 26-35; 19:10-13; 20:3-9), and taught the multitude how to live their lives free from sin (3 Ne. 18:12-25). He also taught that sin prevents participation in the ordinances, but no one is forbidden to attend the synagogue or to repent and come to him (3 Ne. 18:25-33). He described the future in terms of covenants made with the house of Israel, quoting Old Testament prophecies of Moses (Deut. 18:15-19 = 3 Ne. 20:36-38; Gen. 12:3; 22:18 = 3 Ne. 20:25, 27), Isaiah (Isa. 52:1-3, 6-8, 9-10, 11-15 = 3 Ne. 20:36-40, 32, 34-35, 41-45; Isa. 52:8-10 = 3 Ne. 16:18-20; Isa. 52:12, 15 = 3 Ne. 21:29, 8; Isa. 54 = 3 Ne. 22), Micah (Micah 4:12-13; 5:8-15 = 3 Ne. 20:18-19, 16-17; 21:12-18), and Habakkuk (Hab. 1:5 = 3 Ne. 21:9), that the remnants of Israel will be gathered when the prophecies of Isaiah begin to be fulfilled and when the remnants begin to believe in Christ, the Book of Mormon itself being a sign of the beginning of these events (3 Ne. 16:4-20; 20:10-23:6; 26:3-5). After inspecting their records, Jesus gave them additional prophecies that they had not had (Mal. 3- 4 = 3 Ne. 24- 25), and "did expound all things" to their understanding (3 Ne. 20:10-26:11).
Even more sacred things said and done by Jesus during his three-day visit to the Western Hemisphere were not included in the present record (3 Ne. 26:6-12). His post-resurrection ministries to the people of Nephi and to the Old World disciples were only two of several he performed and of which records were made (3 Ne. 15:11-16:3; cf. D&C 88:51-61; TPJS, p. 191). Latter-day Saints hope to prepare themselves to receive the fuller accounts that are yet to come (2 Ne. 29:11-14; D&C 25:9; 101:32-35; 121:26-33; A of F 9).
Brown, S. Kent, and C. Wilfred Griggs. "The Forty-Day Ministry of Christ." Ensign 5 (Aug. 1975):6-11, also in Studies in Scripture, ed. K. Jackson, Vol. 6, pp. 12-23. Salt Lake City, 1987.
Nibley, Hugh W. "Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum." Vigiliae Christianae 20 (1966):1-24, reprinted in CWHN 4:10-44.
For comparisons with the Book of Mormon, see H. Nibley, "Christ Among the Ruins," Ensign 13 (June 1983):14-19, in CWHN 8:407-34; and Since Cumorah, CWHN 7. Specialized studies include H. Nibley, "The Early Christian Prayer Circle," BYU Studies 19 (1978):41-78, in CWHN 4:45-99.
For the primary sources, see the references in the preceding works; English translations of many are found in Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, 2 vols., Philadelphia, 1965, and James M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library, San Francisco, 1978, rev. ed. 1988.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, Jesus Christ, Forty Day Ministry
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company
All About Mormons