This is another aspect of the question, equally cogent, which should receive consideration. Let us note five considerations.
1. USE BY DISCIPLES ON ROAD TO EMMAUS.
The story is recorded in the last part of Luke's Gospel. It is a beautiful story. One can almost see the two disappointed travelers meditating on the events of the past few days. Their hopes had been raised, and then utterly dashed to the ground. While they were cogitating a stranger approached them. They did not recognize Him, but as is customary in the East, they quickly entered into conversation.
The stranger, seeing them very much in earnest, raised the query: "What manner of communications are these that ye have one with another, as ye walk, and are sad?" Luke 24:17.
Immediately came a counterquestion from Cleopas: "Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?" Verse 18.
As the disciples answered the queries of the stranger and told Him about Jesus of Nazareth and how He had been condemned to death and crucified, they made this significant remark: "And beside all this, today is the third day since these things were done." Verse 21.
An important point is emphasized in these words. Here were these men, meeting the Saviour, whom they did not recognize. This meeting on the roadside evidently took place in the afternoon of the first day of the week. Obviously, if the first day of the week, Sunday, was the third day in this listing, the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, must have been the second day. Still further, the first day of the group of three days during which these things were done, must have been the day before the Sabbath. That was obviously the sixth day of the week, commonly known as Friday.
2. USE IN CONNECTION WITH THE RESURRECTION:
The expressions containing the words "three" and "third" might be classified as follows: (SEE PDF FOR TABLE)
Actually the expressions occur more often, but where two or three or more Gospels refer to the same experience, we have endeavored to list but one in this classification. It should be observed that the same Saviour who said in Matthew 12 :4o, "three days and three nights," said also in Mark 8:31, "after three days," and "in three days," John 2 :19 ; and on five occasions "the third day." Hence, in the mind of the Master these expressions must have meant one and the same thing. In other words, He used these three forms in referring to the period which would elapse between His crucifixion and His resurrection. Granted, they may seem different to us. They convey different shades of meanings to our minds.
Perhaps the strongest expression of all, if we take it literally, would be "after three days," for that would mean not only three full days of twenty-four hours each but some hours after. Then there is the expression "three days and three nights." If we push that to its full value, then we have seventy-two hours. But when we come to the expression "the third day," even in our own Western method of speaking, at most this would be two full days and part of a third.
Consequently, we shall be led into difficulties if we push the meaning of the expression, "three days and three nights," as being a literal seventy-two-hour period. It must be evident that if this expression, together with the expression "after three days," is to be understood in its full value so far as hours are concerned, then Jesus rose from the dead not on the third day but on the fourth day. That, of course, would be contrary to the many passages which teach that He rose from the dead "the third day according to the scriptures." 1 Cor. 15:4.
Inasmuch as all these expressions are found in the Sacred Record, and are of equal value and inspiration, it is certainly advisable that we give careful and thoughtful study to all aspects of the question, so that complete harmony may be seen in all the passages concerned.
It will be observed in the foregoing listing that the expression "three days and three nights" occurs once. The other forms occur several times. This opens up a principle of interpretation. Shall we take the expression that occurs once and make that primary, and endeavor to harmonize the other expressions with that one? Or, shall we not take the seventeen uses of the other expressions and seek to understand the one expression in the light of the seventeen ?
3. USE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT.
Observe the following instances of parts of days being regarded as the whole.In the case of Joseph (Gen. 42:17, 18), his brethren were to be put into ward for "three days," but Joseph talked with them on 'the third day."
b. In the case of Rehoboam (2 Chron. 10:5, 12), king of Judah. He told those who made complaints to come again "after three days," but it was well understood when they should return, for in verse 12 it mentions that they came "on the third day."
The case of circumcision (Gen. 17:12). This rite was to be performed when the child was eight days old, and yet in Leviticus 12:3, the counsel is that it should be done on "the eighth day."
4. USE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.
The same principle is recognized also in the New Testament, as will be seen in the following :
The Saviour Luke 24 :46
The angels Luke 24 :7
The apostle Peter Acts 10:40
The apostle Paul 1 Cor. 15:4
The two at Emmaus Luke 24 :21
The enemies Matt. 27:63, 64
In the minds of the enemies of Jesus there evidently appeared no contradiction or misunderstanding. They did not use this against the followers of Jesus. Had there been any basis for so using it, they would certainly have done so.
There is still another expression which might be noticed, and this is found in both the Old and the New Testaments. It is the expression, "to day and tomorrow, and the third day." Observe the following scriptures: Exodus 19:10, 11; I Samuel 20:12; Acts 27:18. Then note particularly the words of Jesus in Luke 13: 32: "He said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected." This is in full harmony with the expression "the third day," used so many times in the Scriptures.
5. USE BY JEWISH AND OTHER AUTHORITIES.
We must remember that we are dealing with an expression in common use among the Jews, and it would certainly be well to understand the Jewish viewpoint. It would hardly be correct for us to impose our Western understanding of language on Eastern terms and expressions. First, observe the following from Greek authorities :
"In the Jewish mode of reckoning time, by which small parts of days were counted as whole days, and accordingly a space of time not two whole days might be computed as three days and nights."--S. T. BLOOM-FIELD, The Greek Testament With English Notes (London : Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1847), vol. 1, p. 71.
"In the Jerusalem Talmud (cited by Lightfoot )it is said 'that a day and night together make up a . . night day, and that any part of such a period is counted as the whole.' "—HENRY ALFORD, The Greek Testament (London: Rivingtons, 1868), vol. 1, p. 133, col. 2.
"So far as I can learn the effort to locate the death of Jesus on Wednesday is due to the wish to interpret 'after three days' literally and in opposition to 'on the third day' for the day of Resurrection of Jesus. In simple truth if 'after three days' has to mean after seventy-two hours, that would be on the fourth day, not on the third day, a flat and hopeless contradiction. The use of 'after three days' is simply a more or less free vernacular idiom such as we use today and is easily understood in harmony with 'on the third day.'" —A. T. ROBERTSON, Expositor (in answer to a question).
"In common with other nations, the Jews reckoned any part of a period of time for the whole, as in Exodus 16 :35. Attention to this circumstance will explain apparent contradictions in the sacred writings ; thus, a part of a day is used for the whole, and part of a year for the entire year."—THomAs H. HORNE, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (London : C. T. Cadell), vol. 3, p. 180.
Then what do the Jewish authorities tell us? Notice the following from the Jewish Encyclopedia and Abenezra:
"In Jewish communal life part of a day is at times reckoned as one day; e.g., the day of the funeral, even when the latter takes place late in the afternoon, is counted as the first of the seven days of mourning ; a short time in the morning of the seventh day is counted as the seventh day ; circumcision takes place on the eighth day, even though of the first day only a few minutes remained after the birth of the child, these being counted as one day. Again, a man who hears of a vow made by his wife or his daughter, and desires to cancel the vow, must do so on the same day on which he hears of it, as otherwise the protest has no effect ; even if the hearing takes place a little before night, the annulment must be done within that little times."--fewish Encyclopedia, Art. "Day" (New York : Funk and Wagnalls, 1903), vol. 4, p. 475.
"Abenezra, an eminent Jewish commentator, on Leviticus 12 :3 says, that if an infant were born in the last hour of the day, such hour was counted for one whole day,"—THOMAS H. HORNE, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scripture (London : C. T. Cadell), vol. 3, P. 180.
Note also the following instances from the writings of Josephus
1. That the eighth day means within that number of days. (Antiquities, book I, chap. 12, par. 2.)
2. That after three days means the third day. (Antiquities, book 8, chap. 8, pars. 1, 2.)
3. That forty afterwards means the fortieth day. (Wars, book I, chap. t6, par, 2.) i
4. That n five days means the fifth day. (Ibid.) In the footnote to c and d we read:
"This way of speaking, after forty days, is interpreted by Josephus himself, on the fortieth day. .
In like manner, when Josephus says, . . . that Herod lived after he had ordered Antipater to be slain five days, this is by himself interpreted .. . on the fifth day afterward."
Hence there is real Scriptural basis for the belief that the Saviour of mankind was crucified and buried on Friday, rested in the tomb over the Sabbath, and rose from the dead on Sunday, the first day of the week. In the light of these findings there should be no difficulty in understanding the words of the Saviour in Matthew 12:40.
Although it is instructive to know the facts regarding the time Jesus was in the tomb and to understand the harmony of the Scriptures which relate to this great event, the all-important thing is to know that Christ "was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification." Rom. 4:25. What a glorious and blessed truth is emphasized by the great apostle to the Gentiles when he declares:
"For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures." 1 Cor. 15 :3, 4.
May it be our earnest desire and longing to be like Christ. May we pray from the heart with the same great champion of the truth of God, "That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection."
"King of glory! Soul of bliss!
Everlasting life is this:
Thee to know, Thy power to prove
Thus to sing, and thus to love,"