There has been considerable debate over the best way to interpret the ‘three days and three nights’ language of Matthew 12:40, either as three 24-hour days of exactly 72 hours or parts of three days and three nights. Because you can’t get three full days if the count begins on Friday, some interpreters have argued for a two-Sabbath approach and a crucifixion on Wednesday and a resurrection on Saturday. What does the Bible say?
The New Testament states repeatedly that Jesus will be raised on “the third day” or “in three days” (Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:61; 27:40; 27:64; Mark 9:31; 10:34; 14:58; 15:29; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:33; 24:7; 24:21; 24:46; John 2:19, 20; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4). Only once do we find the following: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). By letting the Bible speak for itself, that is, by letting the Bible interpret itself using the text of Scripture and comparing with other passages, we can dismiss the claim that there are contradictions or unsolvable ambiguities.
In Luke 18:31-33 we see an all-inclusive statement about events leading up to the resurrection:
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“And [Jesus] took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again.’”
First, notice that the geographical setting is Jerusalem. This will become important in determining the starting point of the three-day and three-night language of Matthew 12:40.
Second, Jesus is to be “delivered to the Gentiles.” This begins when He is arrested by the “Roman cohort” and “officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees” in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:3, 12). This takes place on Thursday evening before the “preparation day,” that is on Friday, the day before the Sabbath (Mark 15:42). It’s at this point that some claim that there was a special Sabbath distinct from the seventh-day Sabbath.
Before we get into the details of unraveling the evidence, notice that Matthew 12:40 does not say that Jesus would be buried “in the tomb for three days and three nights” as the above chart mistakenly states.
In Joe Kovaks’ Shocked By the Bible,1 there is a discussion of when Jesus was crucified to fit with a 72-hour burial — three full days and three full nights.
Like the author of the above chart, Kovaks takes the position that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday and raised from the dead on Saturday. Traditionally, Jesus is said to have been crucified on Friday and raised early Sunday morning, the first day of the new week. But this does not fit with a 72-hour, literal three-day burial.
Some have argued that a part of a day and part of a night can mean a full day and night. But Jesus spent only Friday and Saturday nights in the tomb. A full night is missing if we count beginning with Friday. And if He was raised from the dead on Saturday, as some argue, then another day is missing as well.
To get three full days and three full nights to bring it in harmony with Matthew 12:40 and three full 24-hour days, some have moved the crucifixion back to Wednesday, claiming that Thursday was a special Sabbath, a “Passover Sabbath” and not the usual Friday-Saturday Sabbath. Joe Kovaks holds this position, and so did R. A. Torrey who writes:
“To sum it all up, Jesus died just about sunset on Wednesday. Seventy-two hours later, exactly three days and three nights, at the beginning of the first day of the week, Saturday at sunset, He arose again from the grave.”2
Another problem with the Wednesday view is that the disciples who met and walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus did so on the day of His resurrection (Luke 24:13). The disciples tell this “stranger” (to them) of the crucifixion and death of Jesus (24:20) and say that “it is the third day since these things happened” (24:21). If Jesus had been crucified on Wednesday, then Sunday would have been the fifth day since these things happened. The third day was Sunday, the first day of the week. A Thursday crucifixion would have made it the fourth day.
So even if Jesus was crucified on Friday and raised on Saturday, we are still missing a third night (first night, Friday, second night, Saturday). Attempts to resolve this apparent contradiction center on the mistaken assumption that “heart of the earth” is a reference to the time Jesus spent in the grave. Here are some points to consider:
- Matthew 12:40 is the only place in Scripture where “three days and three nights” and “heart of the earth” are used together.
- If Jesus was buried in the “heart of the earth,” and “heart” is a metaphor for “center” or “middle,” then Jesus was not buried in the literal heart (center) of the earth. From what we know of Jesus’ burial, He was buried above ground (Matt. 28:2) in a rock-hewn grave (Mark 15:46) that could be entered and exited easily.3. Jerusalem was considered the “heart of the earth: “Thus says the Lord GOD, ‘This is Jerusalem; I have set her at the center of the nations, with lands around her’” (Ezek. 5:5; cp. Ezek. 38:12; Acts 1:8). In fact, “every great people of antiquity, as a rule, regarded its own central city or most holy place as necessarily the centre of the earth.” Many ancient maps bear this out. The most famous being the Hereford Mappa Mundi or “Map of the World” (c. 1285) at Hereford Cathedral where “Jerusalem is drawn at the centre of the circle.” There’s also this symbolic map by Heinrich Bunting (1554-1606) depicting Jerusalem as the center of the earth.
- Jesus continually points to Jerusalem as the place where He would be betrayed and crucified: “From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised on the third day” (Matt. 16:21). When did the “suffer many things” begin?:
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him up to the Gentiles to mock and scourge Him, and on the third day He will be raised” (Matt. 20:17-19).
5. When you look at the context of Matt. 12, you can see that Jerusalem is the focus. The Queen of the South comes to Jerusalem (1 Kings 10:2) “from the ends of the earth” (Matt. 12:42). “Ends of the earth” and “center of the earth” (12:40) are metaphors.
6. From the time of His being “delivered up” on Thursday evening in the Garden of Gethsemane, that included His betrayal and “being in agony,” taking the cup of suffering (Isa. 51:17) that He was to endure (Luke 22:39-46), to the day He “will be raised” constitutes “three days and three nights” in the heart or center of the land, that is, in Jerusalem. The Greek word often translated as “earth” is better translated as “land.”
So then, there is no contraction, no need to change the day of the crucifixion from Friday to Wednesday, or to count partial days as full days. Jesus’ suffering began on Thursday and His resurrection occurred on the third day in Jerusalem – “the heart of the earth.”3
Joe Kovaks, Shocked by the Bible: The Most Astonishing Facts You’ve Never Been Told (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008). ↩
R. A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1907), 107–108. ↩
For a detailed study of this subject, see Ralph Woodrow, Three Days & Three Nights—Reconsidered in the Light of Scripture (Riverside, CA: Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, 1993). ↩