Question: If Christ was in the grave only a part of three days, approximately 36 hours, how can we explain Matt. 12:40, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The three days can be explained as parts of three days, but how can the three nights be explained?
Answer: It is true that our Lord was not actually three whole days and three nights – 72 hours – in the grave, but part of Friday, part of Sunday, and the whole of Saturday. Still, the “three days and nights” can be made good by having recourse to the Jewish method of computing time. The Jews conceived of the day as beginning at sunset (Luke 23:52-56), and they counted any part of the day and night, i.e., of the 24 hours, as forming the whole period (24 hours). (Jerusalem Talmud as quoted by Lightfoot. See also I Sam XXX:12,13; II Chron. X:5, 12; Hos. VI:2).
If now it be borne in mind that Christ died and was laid away in the tomb in the afternoon of Friday, then it will be seen that, according to those Jewish conceptions, He was in the grave for a period of time that began at sunset of Thursday and extended to the sunset of the Sunday at the early dawn of which He arose from the grave, and was thus in the grave for three days and three nights. We have then this computation:
Sunset of Thursday (beginning of Friday) to sunset of Friday (beginning of Saturday) – first night and day.
Sunset of Friday to sunset of Saturday (beginning of Sunday) – second night and day.
Sunset of Saturday to sunset of Sunday (beginning of Monday) – third night and day.
Question: In the last part of Matt. XX:23 Jesus said to His disciples, “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.” Does Jesus refer here to His second coming?
Answer: This disclosure of Christ, in order to be correctly and fully understood, must be viewed in the light of its context. It forms a part of a discourse of Christ by which, at the beginning of His public ministry, He sent forth His disciples to preach the Gospel (Matt. 10:1-42).
They must first go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and not, as yet, to the Gentiles and the Samaritans. It is the cities of Israel in which they are first to labor (vss. 5, 6). The burden of their message is to be that the kingdom of God is at hand (vs. 7). In confirmation of their glad tidings and to provide the hearers with tangible evidence of the character and the blessedness of the kingdom that they are to preach, they are empowered to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils. They are to perform these wonders free of charge, seeing that they have also freely received (vs. 8). As a workman is worthy of his hire, they are to go forth empty-handed and accordingly allow the people among whom they labor to provide in their material necessities (vss. 9, 10). They need have no fear that they will be in want, for in every city where they come there will be worthy houses ready to receive them into their homes, and with these people they shall lodge till they go thence (vs. 11). Their method of locating the worthy houses shall be this: they shall approach a family with a salutation of peace. If the response is favorable and they be taken in, their peace shall abide on that house. But if not, they shall depart out of that house or city, shaking the dust off of their feet (vss. 12-13). And for that city or house, seeing that it rejected and persecuted Christ’s messengers, and despised and trampled the gospel, it shall go harder in the day of judgment than for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha (vs. 15).
We have now proceeded far enough to allow us to concentrate on verse 23 that contains the clause with regard to which the question is put. The verse reads, “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye unto another; for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.” The question is, to which coming of Christ the clause in bold alludes.
Let me now give what I consider to be the correct explanation of this verse.
To get at the right meaning of these words of Christ it is necessary to consider that we must not end with them in the twelve disciples. It is the church of all ages to come that in the final instance is here being mandated and informed as to what the future holds in store for her. This is plain from the universal note that the discourse, to which this verse (vs. 23) belongs, strikes throughout, as for example in the verses 16-22.
Christ sends forth His servants not as wolves but as sheep in the midst of wolves – the hostile world. Hence in all their contacts with the wolves they must conduct themselves as sheep and not as wolves. They must be wise as serpents but at the same time harmless as doves, meaning that they shall not reward evil with evil but love their enemies and pray for them (vs. 16). But they must be on their guard against men and not be deceived by appearance. Men who pose as their friends will deliver them up to counsels in order that they may be scourged in their synagogues (vs. 17). And they shall be made to appear before high-ranking civil rulers – governors and kings – for Christ’s sake and for a testimony against them and the Gentiles (vs. 18).
Mark you, Gentiles and not exclusively Jews. How plain that included in the scope of this discourse is the whole hostile world and thus also the church of all the ages to come.
The servants of Christ are not to be concerned about how and what they shall speak in their trials before the great ones of the earth. For it is not they that speak but their heavenly Father through them (vs. 20). In the heat of the bitter hatred of Christ’s sheep, all natural affection will dissolve, so to speak. The brother (denier of Christ) shall deliver up the brother (follower of Christ) to death, the father the child, and children their parents. So shall God’s people be hated of all men – including their unbelieving relatives, however close – for Christ’s sake. But he that endureth to the end shall be saved (vs. 22).
Now verse 23. Yes, the servants of Christ, particularly the proclamators of the Gospel, must endure. They must not forsake their ministry because of persecutions. But neither must they be careless of their lives by needlessly allowing themselves to fall into the hands of their enemies. But when they persecute them in this city, they shall flee to another, i.e., they shall carry on their labors in a community only as long as it is safe for them to be there and then hasten to the next city. They must not seek martyrdom. For the work of the ministry must go on. All the cities in Israel must be visited. And then the gospel must be preached to all creatures, i.e., to the Gentiles (vs. 23a).
To encourage his servants – the twelve disciples and second the proclamators of the gospel of all the ages to come – Christ says that they by no means shall have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come, meaning that they shall not by any means have reached all the cities, finished the territory. The thought conveyed is that they shall scarcely have begun their labors, when the Son of man be come.
We must distinguish here three comings of the Son of man.
a. The coming of the crucified, risen and glorified Christ in the Spirit when the day of Pentecost was fully come.
b. The coming of Christ – the Son of man – in terrible judgment over the apostate Jews in the year 66, ending in the total destruction of Jerusalem and the permanent depriving of the Jewish nation of its land.
c. The final coming of Christ in judgment over the whole world.
Now it is evident that the reference in verse 23 cannot be to the coming of Christ under b above. For then the idea of this verse would be that the proclamation of the gospel to the cities of Israel – the lost sheep of the house of Israel, vs. 6 – had scarcely begun when cut short by the coming of the Son of man in judgment over Jerusalem. But this was not so and could not be so. And the view that Christ was speaking of His final coming in judgment is just as inadmissible for the same reason. The end which would then come through the territory, which is now the whole earth, had not yet nearly been finished.
I therefore hold with Calvin that the reference in verse 23 is to the coming of Christ in the Spirit. That Christ came in this sense meant that by His suffering and death on the cross He had expiated the sins of His people and was set with them in heaven. It meant that the church was now filled with the Spirit of her crucified, risen and glorified Lord. It meant that there was now in readiness for proclamation a gospel, glad tiding, that never before had been heard – the gospel of the work of Christ as now actually finished. And as organs of the church thus enriched, the disciples continued their ministry but now of this new Gospel, i.e., of the Gospel of the kingdom of heaven as no longer at hand but now as actually come.
And when all the cities of Israel had been visited and the elect in them gathered and saved, Christ came in judgment over apostate Judah and Jerusalem. And when the gospel has been preached to all creatures and the church gathered, Christ will come in judgment over the world.
The destruction of Jerusalem was thus pre-indicative of the final and permanent passing away of the world because of its abominations including its rejection of the gospel, its crucifying Christ afresh and putting Him to open shame.