Three days and three nights
The “three days and three nights” mentioned in Matthew 12:40 have confused some people because of the supposed differences between how long Christ said He would be in the tomb as it relates to the amount of time between His burial and resurrection that are recorded in the Bible.
Some people have declared that if we are to accept all of the teachings of the Bible, we must believe that Jesus was in the grave exactly three days and three nights—or a full 72 hours of time. They say this is the main proof of Jesus’ divinity and Messiahship.
These say that proof of the Messiahship of Jesus is made to depend more upon the length of time Jesus was in the tomb rather than upon the all-important fact of His resurrection.
The meaning of Matthew 12:40
A careful study of the context of Matthew 12:40 will show that the central thought and meaning of the Bible text is Jesus’ reproof of the unbelief of His critics. The length of time Jesus stayed in the tomb could not possibly be “the only supernatural proof” of His Messiahship.
The Bible plainly teaches that the proof of Jesus’ divine status and mission was His resurrection. The importance of Christ’s resurrection is clearly stated by Paul who wrote that Christ was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). Jesus’ resurrection is the evidence of His Sonship. (See also Acts 13:30-37; 1 Corinthians 15:19-22; Romans 4:24, 25.)
The great emphasis in the Scriptures is on the fact of Christ’s resurrection, not upon the time He spent in the tomb.
7 facts to keep in mind
To argue that Christ lay in the tomb for 72 hours is to deny Bible facts and to reveal ignorance about Jewish custom and idiom. The facts to remember when studying this problem may be summed up as follows:
- Jesus Christ was crucified on the Passover, the 14th day of Abib, and died at the 9th hour or at about three in the afternoon. This day was also “the preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath.” (See Mark 15:34-38, 42; Luke 23:44-46, 54; John 19:14, 31, 42; Leviticus 23:5; Exodus 12:2, 6; 1 Corinthians 5:7.)
- Jesus was buried between the 9th hour when He died, and sunset, the beginning of the Sabbath. (See Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:51-56; John 19:31, 38-42.)
- The next day after the Passover was the 15th day of Abib, a solemn annual Sabbath. This was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, commemorating the first Passover when God delivered the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage after the Destroying Angel had slain the firstborn of the Egyptians. It was a day of solemn convocation when all men were required to present themselves before the Lord. (See Exodus 12:14-17; Exodus 23:14, 15, 17.)
- John 19:31 says that the day following the Crucifixion was “a high day.” Adam Clark’s Commentary explains that it was a “high day,” because:
- It was the seventh-day Sabbath of the 10 Commandments. (see Exodus 20:8-11.)
- It was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a solemn annual Sabbath, commemorating the first Passover when God destroyed the firstborn of the Egyptians.
- Edersheim in his Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 2, page 613, says: “The Sabbath about to open was a ‘high day’—it was both a Sabbath and the second Paschal Day, which was regarded in every respect equally sacred with the first.” Therefore, the coincidence of the annual with the weekly Sabbath made this day “a high day.”
- He lay in the tomb during the “high day” or the day of the two coinciding Sabbaths while His disciples “rested the Sabbath day according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56).
- He arose from the dead early on the first day of the week, which is Sunday. (see Matthew 28:1-6; Mark 16:9; Luke 24:1-6.) The Jews reckoned a “day” from sunset to sunset. (See Leviticus 23:32.) Therefore, Jesus arose from the grave between sunset Saturday night and sunrise Sunday morning.
- Two of His disciples walked to Emmaus “that same day” (Luke 24:13). Jesus, unrecognized, joined them and was told about the crucifixion that had taken place two days before. They said: “Today is the third day since these things were done” (Luke 24:21.)
- 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4 says that Jesus “rose again the third day according to the Scriptures;” that is, He arose “on the third day.”
- The expression “after three days” found in Mark 8:31 and Matthew 27:63 must, therefore, be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ statement to His disciples found in Mark 9:31 as follows: “The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men and they shall kill him: and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day;” that is, He would rise from the dead on the third day.
- See also John 2:19, which reads: “...Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” Jesus, therefore, lay in the tomb from late Friday afternoon until shortly before sunrise on Sunday morning, a period considerably less than 72 hours.
Putting it all together
How are the above facts to be reconciled with Matthew 12:40, which says that the Son of man was to be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth?
In studying this problem, we need to bear in mind that Jesus was born and raised in the East under the influence of Eastern customs and language. He used the idioms of His time and country and was accustomed to using the Jewish method of determining time.
- The Angus-Green Cyclopedic Handbook of the Bible, page 351, says: “It is to be observed that the Jews and other Orientals generally speak of any part of a day, or a period of time as if it were the whole. In like manner, fractions of a day are in England treated as legally whole days.”
- Dummelow's Commentary, page 669, quoting Lightfoot, says: “The Son of man shall be three 'onahs' in the heart of the earth. ‘Onah’ meant a day and a night, and a part of an 'onah' was reckoned as a whole.”
- In his footnote to Matthew 12:40, Weymouth writes: “Literally ‘three days and three nights,’ a striking Hebraism. According to the Talmud a day and a night together make up a ‘night-day,’ and any part of such a period is counted as a whole. Thus in our Saviour's case the three ‘night-days’ consist of about three hours of the Friday, the whole of Saturday (reckoned in the Jewish mode from sunset to sunset), and the first half—the night—of the Sunday.”
- Adam Clark’s Commentary on Matthew 12:40 quotes the Jerusalem Talmud in which Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says: “A day and a night make an ‘onah’: and a part of an ‘onah’ is as the whole.” Rabbi Ismael also computed a part of the ‘onah’ for the whole.” Clark’s Commentary goes on to say: “Thus then three days and three nights according to the Jewish method of reckoning included any part of the first day, the whole of the following night, the next day and its night, and any part of the succeeding or third day.” The Talmud was the arbiter of questions of law and practice among the Jews, and its definition of the “day” or “onah” is authentic.
The facts regarding the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, studied in the light of Jewish custom and idiomatic speech, are in complete agreement with Matthew 12:40.
Any attempt to change the crucifixion day from Friday to Wednesday and the resurrection day from Sunday to Saturday is wresting or twisting, the Scriptures. However, in the study of this problem, we should always bear in mind that the important fact which should engage our study is not the time which Jesus spent in the tomb, but rather the great fact of His resurrection, which made possible His mediation in our behalf, as well as the assurance of our resurrection and redemption.