Just because the Apostles and other disciples of Jesus wouldn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection, doesn’t mean they had lost all hope. It is true that they didn’t look for Jesus to walk out of the grave, but the mention of the third day by the two traveling to Emmaus indicates that they did look for something to occur three days after Jesus was crucified (Luke 24:21). Nevertheless, how should we understand this? They couldn’t have mentioned the three days in the context of Jesus’ promise to rise again, otherwise their faith in that promise, i.e. to at least look for his resurrection, would have permitted the two to recognize Jesus who walked with them. Moreover their disbelief of the women’s witness, saying it was pure nonsense, shows they couldn’t have been looking for Jesus to rise from the dead. So, what significance did the three days have for Jesus’ disciples?
The third day has had an interesting history in the lives of God’s people. For example, Abraham journeyed with Isaac and on the third day saw the place where he was to sacrifice him (Genesis 22:4). In other words, for three days Abraham’s heart held his son dead, but on the third day he was given back to him. For three days Joseph held 10 of his brothers in prison, saying they couldn’t leave unless one of them would go and fetch their brother, Benjamin, but on the third day, he came and permitted all to return to Jacob, except for Simeon (Genesis 42:18). So, nine were released from prison on the third day.
In Joshua 2:16 the two spies were told to hide themselves in the mountain for three days until those who sought their lives returned to Jericho, and on the third day they would be free to return to their people. Israel camped for three days beneath Mount Sinai, and on the third day the Law was given (Exodus 19:16). Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, and on the third day he was vomited ashore, as though he were alive from the dead (Jonah 1:17; 2:10). The children of the captivity camped for three days, and on the third day it was found they had no son of Levi (Ezra 8:15). For three days and three nights Esther and the Jews in captivity fasted, and on the third day she put on her royal apparel (Esther 5:1). Israel was humbled under the discipline of God, but believed that after two days he would revive them and on the third day they would be raised up (Hosea 6:1-2). This is a picture not of literal resurrection but of renewal of the nation.
Therefore, although Jesus clearly said he would rise on the third day, the disciples had no context in their worldview to understand a literal resurrection (cf. Luke 24:11). Therefore, they looked for a spiritual kind of resurrection, perhaps of the nation or maybe of the Lord’s work led by a new prophet. It seems clear that the Apostles and disciples with them struggled to understand what might occur on the third day after Jesus was crucified. The two on their way to Emmaus claimed “this is (G71) the third day since these things were done” (Luke 24:21). Literally, the Greek is “this leads (G71) the third day since these things were done” (Luke 24:21). In other words, this day, the first day of the week, is the first day after the third day, so hope was fading, because nothing happened! The disciples had been looking for something to occur on the third day, which would have been the weekly Sabbath (Saturday), but they were losing all hope, because it was now after the third day.
It was this context that Jesus addressed, as he began to upbraid his disciples for their unbelief and slowness to accept what the scriptures say (Luke 24:25-27). Then he explained that according to the scriptures it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer, and he began to tell them about those prophesies that pertained to him (cf. Genesis 3:15; Genesis 49:10; Numbers 21:8-9; Deuteronomy 18:15; 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 16:10, Psalm 22, Psalm 110:1-7; Psalm 118; Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 53:1-12; Daniel 9:25-27; Malachi 4:2-6).
The problem with Jesus’ disciples’ understanding of scripture was that they believed only those prophecies which agreed with what they had been taught about the Messiah (cf. John 12:34). They saw all of the glory of the Messiah, but nothing of the pain in those prophecies. Cherry-picking prophecy doesn’t work. If one is willing to accept the good, one must also be willing to embrace the bad in order to make sense of the good and to put the good in its proper context.