When we think about the life of Jesus, we find the supreme example of productivity. Now I don’t mean that He wandered about with a to-do list. But I do mean that He was a man with limited time. He ministered for only a handful of years, and then after His resurrection He remained for only forty days. Would you be comfortable altering the entire course of human history in that timeline?
This does raise the question, “How long did Jesus stay on earth?” There is some disagreement concerning the precise nature surrounding the length of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The traditional view is that Jesus stayed on earth for 33 years. After His resurrection, Jesus taught His disciples for forty days before He ascended into Heaven. The historian Luke helps us to understand the beginning of Christ’s ministry. Luke wrote, “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age,” (Luke 3:23 ESV) Scholars have typically understood Jesus’ earthly ministry to have persisted for three to three and a half years (AD 29-33) Often the timeline has been established by considering the Gospel of John and its mention of at least three Passover feasts (cf. John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55).
Some have argued about the significance of Jesus’ ministry beginning at the age of thirty. For example, the ancient Levites would begin service in publish worship at the age of thirty (Num. 4:3). Perhaps there is an angle where Jesus, as He stepped into His role as the final great High priest began His ministry following God’s appointed custom (cf. Hebrews 5:4-6; 6:20). Another angle is that perhaps, Christ began his ministry at thirty as an echo to King David for “David was thirty years old when he began to reign,” (2 Samuel 5:4 ESV) Jesus is the long-awaited Son of David, and King of Kings so maybe this is going on behind the scenes.
All of this speculation proves fascinating as we seek to connect the story of Scripture as a whole, but perhaps the clearest window behind the three years is found back in the Gospels. Luke preserves for us the parable of the Barren Fig Tree in Luke 13:6-9. Three years in that parable was a sufficient time to assess the state of the fig tree which symbolically represented Israel (cf. Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1; Matthew 21:18-19; 24:32-34; Acts 13:46). Their judgment was proclaimed most clearly at the end of His ministry at the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25). The three years provided ample time to deliver God’s Word faithfully, assess the spiritual state of Israel, and prepare the land for a new work of God’s Kingdom.
As we consider the length of Christ’s ministry, we also learn about God’s concern for His people. Jesus spent a significant amount of time with His disciples. In one sense, three years is not much time at all. However, we need to remember that Jesus spent every day with His disciples up until the end. Every day they witnessed the character of the Christ. They heard Him tell stories. They saw Him do the impossible. They saw Him undo the arbitrary ethical demands of the Pharisees and correct the theological errors of the Sadducees. They watched Him dismantle their understanding of power, greatness, and leadership. They observed the perfect balance of justice and mercy. They saw Him pray alone. They heard Him when He preached before thousands, and when He paused to care for what some consider the “dregs of society” even on a one-on-one encounter.
Although the three years were brief by comparison, they were an immensely rich vein of life and teaching that would guide His apostles the rest of their days. This doesn’t even begin to encapsulate that period of 40 days following His resurrection when Jesus opened the whole Old Testament to His apostles, so that they might see how it all pointed towards Him (cf. Luke 24:44-45).
You and I will never have the sort of experience that the Apostles had when Christ walked the earth. But we have not been left abandoned. The same Holy Spirit that empowered Christ and the apostles continues to abide in us (cf. John 14-16). We aren’t without the voice of Christ, for the Scriptures are inspired by the same Spirit that guided every syllable of Christ’s teaching. We have this gift as the sum of His years on earth. It is our rich inheritance. It is our guiding light. It is God’s perfect and flawless gift to us. He is still teaching us. And O how many lessons do we have yet to learn! We age endlessly and our world continues to change. But what never changes is our need for the timeless wisdom of He who is Wisdom personified, the very Incarnate Word of God, the priest-king Jesus who lived and died, who was raised and ascended and who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.