THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS
Most of the Christian world believes Jesus died on a Friday afternoon and was resurrected the following Sunday morning. Scripture teaches Jesus died at the 9th hour (3 P.M.) on the Preparation Day which was the 14th day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar. It was in the afternoon of the 14th of the first month that the lambs were slaughtered and prepared for the eating of the Passover. It is apparent Jesus died at the very time the lambs were being killed for eating of the Passover. Jesus fulfilled the typology of the Passover lambs in becoming the Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world.
Scriptures show the Preparation Day for the Passover was followed by the first day of the Feast of Unleavened bread. John refers to it as a special or High Day Sabbath (John 19:31). We know from Leviticus 23 that the First Day of unleavened Bread was a special Sabbath Feast of the Lord and began as darkness brought to an end the 14th day of the first month and marked the beginning of the 15th day of the first month.
Scripture records the women came to the tomb after the Sabbath, early in the morning on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1). Since Scripture records it was the first day of the week when the women came to the tomb, we know it was the day after the weekly Sabbath since we know the weekly Sabbath occurs on the seventh day of the week. Was this Sabbath also the High Day Sabbath that followed the Preparation Day on which Jesus died? If the High Day Sabbath fell on the weekly Sabbath the year Jesus died, then the Preparation Day on which Jesus died would have been Friday. Under this perspective, Jesus would have been placed in the tomb late Friday afternoon and resurrected early Sunday morning. Some point out that the word Sabbath is in the plural in Matthew 28:1 and Mark 16:1 and actually means Sabbaths. Some see this as confirming evidence to both the weekly Sabbath and the High Day Sabbath occurring on the seventh day of the week the year Christ died. Therefore, it is believed Jesus must have died on Friday.
This perspective, however, has been seen to be problematical because of what Jesus said to the Pharisees when they asked for a sign.
Matthew 12:39-40: Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you." He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Jonah 1:17: But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.
Jesus said He would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Heart of the earth is generally seen to mean grave or tomb. The question that is asked is how do you fit three days and three nights into a Friday afternoon and Sunday morning time frame? The typical answer is that Christ didn’t mean three full days and three full nights. He meant portions of three days and nights. This conclusion is based on there being a number of Scriptural statements that say Jesus rose on the third day which is seen as allowing for a portion of a day to be considered a day.
Matthew 16:21: From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Luke 9:22: And he said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."
Acts 10:39-40: "We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.
1 Corinthians 15:3-4: For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
Furthermore, an event that occurred the day the tomb was found empty is seen as strongly supporting the Friday/Sunday time frame for the crucifixion and resurrection. In Luke 24, it is recorded that on the same day the tomb was found empty, which was the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were walking down a road from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus. As they were walking, Jesus joined them but they did not recognize Him. Jesus asked them what they were talking about. They assumed Jesus was a visitor to Jerusalem and didn’t know what had happened. So they began to tell him all that had happened pertaining to the death of Jesus. Here is what they said.
Luke 24:20-21: The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.
These disciples were telling Jesus “it is the third day since all this took place.” It is reasoned that if the first day of the week was considered the third day since all this took place, Saturday must have been the second day since all this took place and Friday must have been the first day since all this took place. If you go back any further, it would become the fourth or fifth day since all this took place. Therefore, it is concluded that the three days “since all this took place,” must include portions of days and by simply counting backwards (Sunday, Saturday, Friday) it takes you to a Friday crucifixion.
A passage in the book of Esther is also used to support the belief that three days and three nights can mean portions of days and nights.
Esther 4:16: "Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish."
Esther 5:1: On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king's hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance. When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.
We see here that fasting was to be done for three days which is defined as night and day periods of time. The indication is that after these three periods of night and day Esther would approach the king. Yet we see Esther approaching the king on the third day. Therefore, it is believed when Scriptures says Jonah was in the fishes belly three days and three nights it doesn't literally mean three full days and three full nights.
It is a known Hebrew idiom to speak of partial days as representing the whole day. However, Jesus said three days and three nights. Some believe this phrase negates the Hebrew practice of using partial days for the whole day and demands a full 72 hour period of time. Even if portions of days and nights can be validly considered as full days and nights, we still have the problem of only two nights, Friday and Saturday night. Where is the third night? Jesus’ statement appears to be rather straightforward. He said He would be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
Because of the missing third night some have rejected outright the Friday crucifixion and Sunday morning resurrection time frame. It is believed to be incompatible with Jesus’ statement about being three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. While there are several alternative perspectives advanced by those who reject the Friday/Sunday tradition, most who reject this tradition believe Jesus was crucified late Wednesday afternoon and resurrected late Saturday afternoon, exactly three days and three nights or 72 hours after the crucifixion. One Christian theologian, E W Bullinger, actually diagrams the Wednesday to Saturday time frame in his Companion bible published in 1922.
Those who take the position that Jesus was a full three days and three nights in the tomb offer two basic lines of evidence. The first line of evidence is to point out that Jesus indicated there are twelve hours in a day and so by implication there are twelve hours in a night. Therefore it is believed when Jesus spoke of three days and three nights he understood this to mean three full days and three full nights.
John 11: 9-10: Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light."
It is further pointed out that in the Genesis creation account God is seen as dividing the light from the darkness and calling the light day and the darkness night. God then goes on to designate the evening (darkness) and the morning (lightness) as the first day, second day, third day etc. it is believed this proves a day consists of twelve hours of light and twelve hour of darkness. Therefore, it is believed that when it is stated Jesus rose after three days or the third day, it must mean after three evenings and mornings or a total of 72 hours. This is considered a strong argument for Jesus being in the tomb a full three days and full three nights. It is pointed out that a number of the Gospels teach it would be after three days Jesus would be resurrected. Here is one example.
Mark 9:31: because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise."
Although these are considered strong arguments for the full three days and three nights position, it should be noted that those who hold to a strict 72 hour time frame for Jesus being in the tomb use portions of days just as those who hold to a Friday to Sunday time frame. They begin counting the hours Jesus was in the tomb from near the end of the Preparation Day which is believed to have been late Wednesday to shortly before the end of the weekly Sabbath. While this approach does encompass 72 hours, it uses partial days to achieve this instead of full days and nights as defined in the Genesis sunset to sunset description of days. Yet the Genesis account is used to support the full three days and thee nights position.
The second line of evidence offered in support of the three days and three nights in the tomb perspective is the belief that the two Sabbath days that occurred while Jesus was in the tomb were on different days. We know from the Scriptures that Jesus was crucified on the Preparation Day. The day after the Preparation Day was the first Day of Unleavened bread which was a High Day Sabbath. This High Day Sabbath can fall on the seventh day of the week resulting in a double Sabbath (the weekly Sabbath and the First Day of Unleavened Bread high day Sabbath). Those who believe Jesus was in the tomb a full 72 hours believe the year Jesus died, the high day Sabbath did not fall on the weekly Sabbath. It is believed it fell two days before the weekly Sabbath because of how Mark and Luke report events.
Mark 15:47, 16:1-2: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid. When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb.
Luke 23:55-56, 24:1: The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment. On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.
It is believed the Sabbath after which Mark said the women bought and prepared spices to anoint the body of Jesus was the High Day Sabbath. This is believed to be the case because Luke said the women went home to prepare the spices and then rested on the Sabbath before going to the tomb early the first of the week. It is argued that the women must have rested on the High Day Sabbath which was beginning about the time Jesus was laid in the tomb. They then bought and prepared the spices the next day (Friday) and then rested on the weekly Sabbath. Therefore, it is believed both Mark and Luke have the women preparing spices the day after the High Day Sabbath which would have been Friday, a common work day, and then resting on the weekly Sabbath. Therefore, there must have been two separate Sabbaths between the crucifixion and the resurrection.
From this it is concluded Jesus was crucified and buried shortly before sunset on the Preparation Day which was Wednesday. Thursday was the High Day Sabbath that followed the Preparation Day on which the women rested. The next day was Friday when they bought and prepared the spices and then rested on Saturday, the weekly Sabbath. Thus, three full days and three full nights are seen as passing between the crucifixion and resurrection.
Do these two passages conclusively show there were two separate days on which Sabbaths fell during the period between the crucifixion and the resurrection? Mark has the women buying spices after the Sabbath was over. We can’t conclude from Mark’s statement alone whether he meant the High Day Sabbath, weekly Sabbath or both. Luke has the women preparing spices and then resting on the Sabbath. Since it is assumed Luke sees the women preparing the spices after the High Day Sabbath and then resting on the weekly Sabbath, it is also assumed Mark is referring to the High Day Sabbath when saying the women went shopping for spices after the Sabbath. However, Luke doesn’t say when it was the women prepared the spices or what Sabbath they rested on. He simply says the women went home and prepared spices and rested on the Sabbath.
If you see Luke simply making an editorial comment about the women preparing spices, you could conclude both Mark and Luke are seeing the women preparing spices after the weekly Sabbath and not the High Day Sabbath. This would allow for the High Day and weekly Sabbath occurring on the same day, namely the seventh day of the week. This would support a Friday/Saturday time frame for Jesus being in the tomb.
Both Mark and Luke follow up their discussion of the women preparing spices by recording they went to the tomb. The flow of these accounts could suggest that both Mark and Luke see the women buying and preparing spices immediately after the weekly Sabbath was over at sundown and then taking their freshly prepared spices to the tomb early Sunday morning. This actually appears more logical than they preparing spices on a Friday and then having them sit unused until Sunday morning while resting on the Sabbath.
As can be seen, the passages in Mark and Luke can be interpreted to support a strict three day and three night position but can also be interpreted to support a Friday to Sunday time frame.
There are additional perspectives extant that attempt to coordinate Jesus’ statement about three days and three nights with the Good Friday/Easter Sunday tradition.
Some have conjectured that Jesus saying He would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth is an idiomatic expression. An idiomatic expression is where you give meaning to a saying that cannot be deduced from the saying itself. For example, using the expression “It’s raining cats and dogs” to say it is raining hard is an idiomatic expression. Taken by itself, “it’s raining cats and dogs” appears to mean it’s raining cats and dogs. But in actuality it means it’s raining hard. The expression “it’s raining cats and dogs” has nothing to do with cats and dogs. Some feel Jesus was using the expression “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” to simply say He would be in the grave for a certain period of time. If this is the case, the expression “three days and three nights” would not identify the actual time spent in the tomb.
However, there is no evidence in the Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic language of the first century where the expression “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” was used idiomatically. To conclude this expression was idiomatic, you would have to find it used as such in the languages of Jesus’ day. As already stated, it was a known Hebrew idiom to use the word day to represent a partial day. However, there is no evidence that the expression “three days and three nights” was used in an idiomatic manner. Therefore, the idea that this was an idiomatic expression is problematic.
Another attempt to fit three days and three nights into a Friday afternoon and Sunday morning time frame involves questioning the meaning of the phrase “in the heart of the earth.” It is pointed out that Jesus did not say tomb or grave. He said He would be in “the heart of the earth.” Could three days and three nights in the heart of the earth mean something different than being in a tomb for that period of time? Some believe it does.
The Greek word translated heart in Matthew 12:40, is kardia. The Greek for earth is gee. Scriptural translators render the Greek kardia into the English word heart 159 times in the NT to identify the innermost thoughts and passions of man. Only in Matthew 12:40 is kardia used to identify something other than the heart of man. Here it is used to identify an innermost area within the earth. The Greek gee is commonly translated as earth, land or ground in the NT.
In Greek literature outside the NT, kardia is used both literally and figuratively to identify the center or middle of something. As to the meaning of the Greek gee, while it generally refers to the physical earth or land, by context it can at times be seen to refer to the inhabitants of the earth as seen in several NT passages. One Greek Lexicon I consulted showed gee can be used to designate the people who dwell on the earth or land and not just the earth or land itself.
Because of the broader sense in which kardia and gee can be used, some believe when Jesus says he will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, he is referring to the entire period of His trial in addition to the time spent in the tomb. Heart of the earth is interpreted to mean the center of his Jewish enemies who were inhabitants of the land of Jerusalem. Since the trial of Jesus began during the night of the 14th and ended with his crucifixion the afternoon of the 14th, some believe we must begin counting the three days and three nights beginning with the night of the 14th.
Under this perspective, Thursday night is the beginning of the14th and is considered to be the first night Jesus is in the heart of the earth. The day of the crucifixion is Friday and is considered Jesus’ first day in the heart of the earth. Friday night is the second night. The daylight portion of Saturday is the second day and Saturday night is the third night. Sunday is the third Day. As can be seen, this approach allows for there to be three days and three nights but does not demand the three days and three nights be a full 72 hours. Jesus is seen as being raised from the dead early on the third day.
Some have taken this approach a huge step further. Some have concluded the three days and three nights have nothing at all to do with the time Jesus was in the tomb. Some believe the three days and three nights began when Judas went to the Jewish religious leaders and negotiated a price for Jesus’ betrayal. While it is true that Jesus identifies Judas as the betrayer the night before his crucifixion, it is apparent the betrayal had already occurred several days earlier and it is believed this is when the three days and three nights in the heart of the earth began. Here again, “heart of the earth” is believed to mean in the center of the enemies of Jesus. How is this perspective Scripturally arrived at?
Matthew 26:2-4: "As you know, the Passover is two days away--and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified." Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him.
After making the statement about the Passover being in two days and He being handed over to be crucified, it is recorded that the religious leaders ploted to kill Jesus. Then in verses 6-13, we see Jesus having a meal at the house of Simon the leper in Bethany. While there, a woman poured expensive oil on Jesus’ head which Jesus said was an anointing for His burial. His disciples reacted indignantly to this and expressed their thoughts that this oil could have been put to better use by being sold and the money given to the poor. Apparently Judas is the most upset about this as we see him going to the chief priests to betray Jesus to the Jewish religious authority.
Matthew 26:14-16: Then one of the Twelve--the one called Judas Iscariot--went to the chief priests and asked, "What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?" So they counted out for him thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
Matthew 26 begins by Jesus saying the Passover was two days away. Then there is the dinner at the home of Simon where the anointing with oil takes place. Then it is recorded Judas negotiates with the religious leaders to have Jesus betrayed. It is believed it was from the time Judas met with the religious leaders that Jesus was as good as dead and this was the beginning of Jesus’ three days and three nights in the heart of the earth which is interpreted to mean in the hands of the religious leaders. Under this perspective, it is believed the three days and three nights began two days before the Passover and ended when Jesus died Friday afternoon. It is believed Jesus was resurrected early the next day which was the Sabbath.
This perspective sees the three days and three nights not as pertaining to Jesus’ time in the tomb but the time Jesus was virtually at the mercy of the religious leaders after Judas agreed to betray him. Even though Jesus was alive during this period of time, He was as good as dead because He was going to be crucified. In an effort to support this perspective, it is pointed out that Isaac, who is seen in Scripture as a type of Christ, was to be sacrificed by Abraham on Mt. Moriah. Genesis 22:4 indicates it took three days to arrive at Mt. Moriah. Isaac was alive during these three days but was as good as dead in Abraham’s eyes. It is also pointed out that while Jonah was as good as dead when swallowed by the fish, he was alive in the fish’s belly. He wasn’t dead. It is reasoned that since Jesus was dead when placed in the tomb, Jonah’s time in the fish’s belly cannot be analogized to Jesus’ time in the tomb.
It is further pointed out that in Exodus 12, there is instruction that the Passover lambs were to be set aside on the 10th of the first month and killed on the 14th. Between the 10th and 14th these lambs, while still alive, were as good as dead as they would be killed on the 14th. Since Passover lambs are seen in Scripture as pointing to Christ as the lamb of God sacrificed for the sins of the world, here too it is believed the typology fits the perspective of Jesus being considered as good as dead while still being alive in the days just before His crucifixion on the 14th.
Those who take this position, believe Jesus died in the afternoon on the 14th which they believe was a Friday, and He was resurrected some time after the beginning of the 15th, which under this perspective was both the High Day Sabbath and the weekly Sabbath. It is believed the resurrection took place at the beginning of this double Sabbath. How is it determined Jesus was resurrected at the beginning of the Sabbath shortly after His burial?
Those who take this position point out that the phrase “first day of the week” found in the resurrection passages is translated from the Greek sabbaton which is translated 59 out of 68 times in the NT as Sabbath. They believe the Greek sabbaton should be translated "Sabbath" in the resurrection passages as well and not as “first day of the week” as is commonly done. This would place the resurrection on the Sabbath. It is believed the resurrection occurred at the beginning of the Sabbath because the Scriptures teach the body of Jesus would not see corruption. This is believed to mean Jesus' body would not decay. Therefore, it is believed Jesus was in the tomb only a few hours because any time longer than this would have resulted in His body beginning to decay.
It is true that the Greek Sabbaton is rendered as “first day of the week” in the resurrection passages whereas it is rendered Sabbath throughout the NT to designate the weekly Sabbath. More precisely it is mia Sabbaton that is translated “first day of the week,” Here is an example:
Matthew 28:1: After the Sabbath (Sabbaton), at dawn on the first day of the week (Greek: mia Sabbaton which means “one or first Sabbath), Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
Why do the translators render Sabbaton as Sabbath 59 our of the 68 times it occurs in the Greek Scriptures and render it “first day of the week” in the resurrection passages and a few other places in the NT?
In studying the Greek and Hebrew scholars on this issue it is apparent the Sabbath was held up as the focal point of the week. Other then the Sabbath, the other days of the week did not have names. All other days are looked upon as days remaining until the Sabbath. What we call Sunday is the one or first of the Sabbath. Monday is the two or second of the Sabbath and so forth. Therefore, while Sabbaton is used to designate the seventh day, it is also used to count days to the seventh day. When Sabbaton is preceded by the Greek mia, it is referring to the first day of the week as mia is the numerical one in Greek. When Sabbaton appears by itself, it refers to the seventh day Sabbath.
Therefore, the translators are correct in rendering mia Sabbaton as first day of the week in the resurrection passages. This removes any validity to the claim that Jesus must have been resurrected on the Sabbath because the word Sabbaton appears in the text where we commonly find the rendering “first day of the week.”
There are some additional Scriptures used to support the belief that the three days and three nights in the heart of the earth is associated with Jesus’ betrayal, trial and crucifixion and not His actual stay in the tomb. Here is one of them.
Matthew 20:18-19: "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!"
It is believed when Jesus says that three days later He will rise, He is saying He will rise three days after the events of His betrayal, condemnation, humiliation and death. In other words, the three days and three nights pertain to what led up to His death and not that he was in the tomb for that period of time.
We earlier looked at Luke 24, where it is recorded that on the same day the tomb was found empty, two of Jesus’ disciples were walking down a road from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus and Jesus joined them incognito.
Luke 24:20-21: The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.
The saying, “it is the third day since all this took place” is seen as pertaining not to Jesus being three days and three nights in the tomb but to His having been handed over to the religious leaders via the betrayal by Judas, tried and sentenced to death and then crucified. The “all this took place” is believed to include all that led up to the crucifixion and not the time spent in the tomb.
There are a number of problems with the over all perspective that the three days and three nights relate to Jesus’ betrayal and trial and not to his time spent in the tomb. I believe Matthew 27:62-66 pretty much dismantles this perspective.
Matthew 27:62-66: The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. "Sir," they said, "we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, `After three days I will rise again.' So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first." "Take a guard," Pilate answered. "Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how." So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
The day after the Preparation Day was the first full night and day Jesus was in the tomb. The chief priests tell Pilate Jesus said He would rise from the dead after three days. They ask Pilate to secure the tomb until the third day. Whether you believe the three days represent three full days or portions of three days, the context is Jesus being dead in the tomb during this period of time. You don’t rise from the dead unless you are dead. Jesus wasn’t dead when he was betrayed or tried. He was dead after the 9th hour on the Preparation Day. This should pretty much put to rest the perspectives that the three days and three nights began with his betrayal and that the heart of the earth means something other than being in the tomb.
We have examined a number of Scriptures that bear on this issue. We haven’t looked at them all. Some attempt to use certain passages in Daniel to prove a Wednesday Crucifixion. Others have traced the Hebrew calendar back to the year they think Christ died and what day the Passover would have been that year. In using this approach, some arrive at a Wednesday crucifixion, some a Thursday crucifixion and some a Friday crucifixion. While there are reasonable arguments for the various positions held on this issue, the bottom line is that the exact time frame for the crucifixion and resurrection is difficult to ascertain. It is instructive that the New Testament writers don’t make this an issue and neither should we. What was important to them and should be important to us is that Jesus was crucified and resurrected. This is the foundation of the Christian faith.
For an overview of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, go to "Evidence For The Resurrection."