Was It Really Three Days and Three Nights?

According to Christian tradition, Jesus died on Good Friday around 3 p.m. the ninth hour of the day (Matt. 27:45-46; Mark 15:33-34; Luke 23:44). He was buried at about 6 p.m. (Luke 23:54), and then on Sunday, at dawn, Jesus rose from the dead. Yet, according to Matthew 12:40, Jesus said, For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Topics: The Death of Christ

According to Christian tradition, Jesus died on Good Friday around 3 p.m. – the ninth hour of the day (Matt. 27:45-46; Mark 15:33-34; Luke 23:44). He was buried at about 6 p.m. (Luke 23:54), and then on Sunday, at dawn, Jesus rose from the dead. Yet, according to Matthew 12:40, Jesus said, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

How then can it be said that Jesus was in the tomb for three days and three nights when the tradition accounts for about 36 hours?

How do we get three days and three nights out of one day and two nights?

To answer these questions, some have argued for a crucifixion on Wednesday or Thursday. But neither yields three complete 24-hour days as Jesus died around 3 p.m. and rose around 6 a.m. The only way to get an exact 24-hour period is to have Jesus die and rise at the exact same time, yet the biblical witness does not support this theory.

Does this seeming contradiction dismiss the validity and authority of Scripture? Does it put the nail in the coffin for the inerrancy of Scripture? Or does a resolution surface upon further study? And how can we make sure not to miss Jesus’ point in the sign of Jonah?

A Jewish Idiom

The key to resolving the issue lies in an understanding of Jewish idioms. The Jewish idiomatic phrase, “three days and three nights” includes enough linguistic flexibility to cover a period of time from Friday evening to Sunday morning. Historically, the phrase was used to distinguish the daytime (dawn to dusk) sense of the word “day” from the 24-hour cycle sense of the word “day.” So if a writer wanted to refer to parts of a 24-hour period and not just the daytime aspect of the term “day,” that person would use the Jewish idiom, “a day and a night.”

In Jewish thought, a day referred to the whole 24-hour period or a part of the day (1 Sam. 30:12-13; 2 Chron. 10:5, 12; Esther 4:1; 5:1). So, as D.A. Carson points out in the Expositors Bible Commentary, the phrase “three days and three nights” cannot mean more than three full days, but it can refer to a combination of any part of three separate days. And since Christ remained dead for a portion of three 24-hour days – Friday, Saturday and Sunday – it would be correct to express the account by saying, “three days and three nights.”

To understand this passage, we have to think about the concept of time in the Jewish sense, not in our 21st century Western sense.

A Heart Problem

And more than a problem of understanding Jewish idioms, we often have a heart problem that Jesus addresses in Matthew 12:40. Jesus was dealing with people who had already made up their minds and hearts about Him. He was a threat to their status and power. The intellectuals and the religious demanded a sign from Jesus under the false pretense of a desire to believe.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with a desire for a sign from God. Given the right motive of faith, a desire to learn and grow, the Lord can use a sign to stir up belief. When we request a sign out of this motivation, we are content to wait on the Lord for His answer. But when we request or demand a sign out of a heart settled on unbelief, we still won’t be convinced by a sign because of our stubbornness.

A mere sign cannot overcome committed unbelief, especially since the Lord has given an adequate sign for us to believe, namely the resurrection of His Son. In the case of a committed hardened heart, it is unlikely that any sign would be sufficient to cause change.

Jesus knew even in Matthew 12 that the climax of His life on earth would come with His death, burial and resurrection. Because He was delivered from death, we can trust what He said.

So are you coming to the “problematic” Scriptures with faith seeking to understand or are you coming to these texts with a heart bent toward unbelief? Those listening to Jesus that day missed the point, and, tragically, many today search the Scriptures to find errors instead of searching the Scriptures to find Jesus, who alone is able to calm the ever searching heart.

Related Resources

Article

The Seasonal Nature of Lent

Jonathan Woodlief

The season of Lent is an invitation to meet Jesus in our suffering. It drives us toward the love of God and reminds us that Jesus shares in our sufferings and we get to share in His—all for the purpose of becoming more like Him.

Talk

The Season of Lent

Matt Chandler

The season of Lent is about identifying with the suffering and temptation of Jesus Christ for 40 days preceding Holy Week. In it, we orient and prepare our hearts to the weight of sin and death in order to celebrate the Resurrection all the more fully.

Article

Giving Up My Own Way for Lent

Erin Brindley

Jesus’ confession in the garden gives permission to those on a Lenten journey to say, “I don’t want to, but I want to want to.” The first thing we should give up for Lent is our desire to self-protect against suffering that sanctifies.