Jesus Christ said He would be entombed for three days and three nights. Can this be reconciled with a “Good Friday” crucifixion and burial and an “Easter Sunday” resurrection? Or do the Gospels spell out a surprising, simpler solution that fits perfectly with what Jesus foretold?
In Matthew 12:38, we read where some of the Jewish religious leaders asked Jesus for a sign to prove He was the Messiah. “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you,” they challenged Him (New International Version).
But Jesus responded that the only sign He would give was that 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” (verse 40, NIV).
Traditional view doesn’t fit
But how can we fit “three days and three nights” between a Friday crucifixion, with entombment just before sundown, and a Sunday morning resurrection at sunrise? This traditional view allows for Jesus to have been in the tomb for only one 24-hour day and parts of two others!
Some believe that Christ’s statement that He would be “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” does not require a literal span of three 24-hour days (72 hours total) or even close to that. They reason that any part of a day, even just a few minutes, can be reckoned as a whole day.
Thus, since Jesus died in the afternoon and was entombed just before sunset, they think that the closing few minutes of Friday constituted the first day, that Friday night was the first night, that Saturday was the second day, that Saturday night was the second night, and that a few minutes at dawn on Sunday morning made up the third day.
But where, then, is the third night? Even if a few minutes of daylight late on Friday and another few on Sunday morning constitute “days,” this interpretation fails to explain how only two nights—Friday night and Saturday night—can somehow be the three nights of which Jesus spoke.
Moreover, Scripture is plain that Jesus had already risen before Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early Sunday morning, arriving “while it was still dark” (John 20:1-2). So in reality, no parts of daytime on Sunday could be counted as a day, as Jesus was already resurrected well before the break of dawn. Clearly it just doesn’t add up!
Jonah 1:17, to which Jesus referred, states specifically that “Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” We have no biblical basis for thinking that Jesus meant only two nights and one day, plus part of another day. If Jesus were in the tomb only from late Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning, then the sign He gave that He was the prophesied Messiah was not fulfilled.
So was Jesus Christ wrong? Or is something wrong with the traditional view of when and how long He was in the tomb? Let’s carefully examine the details from the Gospels. When we do, we uncover the real story of how Jesus’ words were fulfilled exactly as He said!
Two Sabbaths mentioned
Notice the sequence of events outlined in Luke 23. Jesus’ moment of death and hasty burial because of the oncoming Sabbath that would begin at sundown, is narrated in verses 46-53. Verse 54 states of this particular afternoon, “That day was the Preparation, and the Sabbath drew near.”
In Jewish society of that time, extra cooking and housecleaning were done on the day before a Sabbath in preparation for it (see Exodus 16:23). Thus the day before the weekly Sabbath was a time of preparation. The biblical Sabbath falls on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. According to Bible reckoning, days begin at sunset (Leviticus 23:32; compare Genesis 1:5, 8, 13), so all weekly Sabbaths start Friday evening at sundown.
Based on these facts, many people have assumed that it is the weekly Sabbath mentioned here, and that Jesus was therefore crucified on a Friday. But two types of “Sabbaths” or sacred rest days are mentioned in the Scriptures—the regular weekly Sabbath day, which fell on the seventh day of the week, and seven annual Holy Days (listed in Leviticus 23), which were also Sabbaths that could—and usually did—fall on days of the week other than the regular weekly Sabbath day.
Was the day after Jesus was crucified a weekly Sabbath or one of these annual Holy Days? Is there a way to know?
John 19:31 clearly states that this approaching Sabbath “was a high day.” This term does not refer to the weekly Sabbath (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset), but in this context to the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, one of God’s annual Holy Days (Exodus 12:16-17; Leviticus 23:6-7). A number of Bible commentaries, encyclopedias and dictionaries will confirm that John is not referring to the weekly Sabbath here, but rather to one of the annual Sabbaths—a “high day.”
In that year the high day or annual Sabbath mentioned here fell on a Thursday (meaning it began Wednesday evening at sunset). We can confirm this by looking at the details in the Gospel accounts, which show us that two separate Sabbath days—one the “high day” and the other the weekly Sabbath—are mentioned. You can follow along in the chart above.
Luke 23:55-56 tells us that the women, after seeing Christ’s body being laid in the tomb just before sundown, “returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils” for the final preparation of the body. They would not have done such work on a Sabbath day, weekly or annual, since it would have been considered a Sabbath violation. This is verified by Mark’s account, which states, “Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices [which they could not have purchased on a Sabbath day], that they might come and anoint Him” (Mark 16:1).
The women had to wait until this Sabbath was over before they could buy and prepare the spices to be used for anointing Jesus’ body. Then, Luke 23:56 tells us that, after preparing the spices and oils on Friday, “they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment”—which means they had to have also purchased the spices before that Sabbath on which they rested. This second Sabbath mentioned in the Gospel accounts is the regular weekly Sabbath, observed from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.
By comparing details in both Gospels—where Mark tells us the women bought spices after the Sabbath and Luke relates that they prepared the spices before resting on the Sabbath—we can clearly see that two different Sabbaths are being discussed here.
The first, as John 19:31 tells us, was a “high day”—the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread—which fell on a Thursday that year. The second was the weekly seventh-day Sabbath. Again, see these events spelled out day by day in the chart on page 11.
Sign of the Messiah
After the women rested on the regular weekly Sabbath, they went to Jesus’ tomb early on the first day of the week (Sunday), “while it was still dark” (John 20:1), and found that He had already been resurrected (Matthew 28:1-6; Mark 16:2-6; Luke 24:1-3). We should note that the word “day” in John 20:1 is not in the Greek manuscripts but was added by translators. Hence it should read, “Now, the first of the week . . .” Using the Hebrew method of reckoning time, no part of what we understand as Sunday daylight enters into the timing in John’s account.
So Jesus was not resurrected at sunrise on Sunday morning. When Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb while it was “dark,” she found the stone rolled away and the tomb already empty!
When we consider the details in all four Gospel accounts, the picture is clear. The preparation day on which Jesus was crucified was Wednesday. And He was entombed late that afternoon, just before a Sabbath began at sunset. However, that was a “high day” Sabbath, lasting from Wednesday sunset to Thursday sunset that week, rather than the regular weekly Sabbath that lasted from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.
While no one witnessed the moment of Jesus’ resurrection (as it took place inside a sealed tomb), to fit His words and the biblical evidence it had to have happened three days and three nights from Wednesday afternoon—that is, on Saturday, with Jesus leaving His tomb as the weekly Sabbath was ending at sunset.
This time line perfectly accommodates three nights (Wednesday night, Thursday night and Friday night) and three daylight periods (of Thursday, Friday and Saturday). This is the only time that fits Jesus’ own prophecy of how long He would be in the tomb. And, as we’ve seen, it fits perfectly with all the details recorded in the Gospels.
We can be assured that the entombment period Jesus gave as proof He was the Messiah was the very duration He foretold.
Because most people do not understand the biblical Holy Days Jesus Christ and His followers observed, they fail to understand the chronological details so accurately preserved for us in the Gospels!