Three Days and Three Nights in the Tomb?
I continue to meet people who advocate that Jesus spent a literal three days and three nights in the tomb. One problem with this is for that to be taken as a literal three days and nights, it would make Jesus’ resurrection happen on the fourth day and on a Saturday. It goes against about 20 Scriptures that clearly say Jesus would or did resurrect on the third day. I have read several studies on this and some are 20 pages long. I will try to condense this article into four pages with the crucial information. These people’s argument is from one verse,
For 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 (Matt 12:40 NKJV).
First, I would like to point out that virtually all of the early church fathers who wrote on the subject say Jesus died on a Friday (what the Jews called “preparation day”), spent the Sabbath in the tomb, and resurrected early on Sunday. Of particular interest is what Ignatius, a disciple of the apostle John, wrote in a letter,
“As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man also be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The day of the preparation, then comprises the passion; the Sabbath embraces the burial; the Lord’s Day contains the resurrection.
(Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, Chapter 9)
Second, it is fairly well-known that the Jewish writers would count a part of a day or night as whole days and nights such as can seen in the book of Esther,
"Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!" (Est. 4:16).
If they fasted for a whole three days and nights, Esther would have gone to the king on the forth day. Instead she went on the third day,
Now it happened on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king's palace, across from the king's house, while the king sat on his royal throne in the royal house, facing the entrance of the house (Est. 5:1 NKJV).
A lot of the controversy over the days of the crucifixion come from the book of John whose chronology seems to be a day earlier than the Synoptic Gospels. One of these verses is
Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover (John 18:28 NKJV).
If the high priests had not eaten the Passover yet, then it must not be Passover yet, right? And if it was not yet the Passover, what did Jesus eat that He called the Passover? Whenever I run into a perceived controversy between something Jesus said and something one of the other Bible writers said, I take what Jesus said as higher priority. Surprisingly, most commentators do just the opposite and say Jesus really didn’t eat the Passover, even though He said He did,
Then He said to them, "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:15-16 NKJV).
So who was right, Jesus or John? They are both right. If Jesus said He ate the Passover, then that is what He ate. The fact is that Thursday night began the Passover on the 14th of the month, which continued to the next day (Friday the preparation day for the sabbath). In the Bible the new day always began at sundown the night before. So when John said the high priests did not want to defile themselves so they could eat the Passover the next day, it was still Passover day. This was the day when all the special sacrifices at the temple were done for Passover, while the night before was the actual Passover meal. It was required for the Old Testament Jews to bring other sacrifices to the temple such as the peace or free-will offerings,
Three times a year shall all your males appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed: Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you (Duet. 16:16-17 AMP, underline mine).
It was the eating of the freewill offering to which John was referring. The Jewish Christian and Hebrew, Greek and Talmudic scholar, Alfred Edersheim, explains that after the morning sacrifices of the temple were completed on Passover, the people brought their free-will offerings, also called festival offerings or Chagigah in Hebrew,
And now the ordinary morning service was over, and the festive sacrifices were offered. It only remained to bring the private burnt-offerings, and to sacrifice the Chagigah* which they must offer in the festive meal that would afterwards ensue. And so the strangest contradiction was enacted. They who had not hesitated to break every law of God’s and of their own making, would not enter the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled and prevented from the Chagigah! Surely, the logic of inconsistency could go no further in punctiliously observing the letter and violating the spirit of the law.
* The evidence that the expression in John 18:28, “They went not into the judgement hall . . .that they might eat the Passover,” refers not to the Paschal lamb, but to the Chagigah . . .
The Temple: Its Ministry and Services, Eerdmans, 1988, p.255.
Another controversy surrounding the chronology of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection is that John calls the day Jesus was crucified, “the preparation day.”
Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, "Behold your King!" But they cried out, "Away with Him, away with Him! Crucify Him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar!" Then he delivered Him to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus and led Him away (John 19:14-16 NKJV, underline mine).
The phrase “Preparation Day of the Passover” at first makes one think that the Passover had not yet come. It could have been the preparation day of the festival Sabbath of Passover instead of the weekly Sabbath. So we are right back to wondering what Jesus ate that He called the “Passover.”
Furthermore, there was an ongoing debate between the Pharisees and Sadducees on the law of the first fruits offering,
He shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it (Lev. 23:11 NKJV).
Was this speaking of the weekly Sabbath or the festival Sabbath also called a “high Sabbath”? Fortunately for us, the Scriptures tell us this particular Sabbath was both,
Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away (John 19:31 NKJV, underline mine).
This particular weekly Sabbath was also a high holy day Sabbath—the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. So while John causes some controversy, he also clarifies some things such as this. The reason he called it the Preparation Day of the Passover is easily solved when we understand that the Jews also called the week long Feast of Unleavened Bread “Passover” or “Passover week.” In other words they used the two phrases interchangeably. John was referring to the weekly Sabbath of the Passover week.
So Jesus ate the Passover with everyone else on Passover night, the 14th (Thursday night),
Then they shall eat the flesh on that night; roasted in fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs they shall eat it (Ex. 12:8-9 NKJV, underline mine).
The next day (Friday) was still the 14th, Passover day when Christ was crucified. Then He was placed in the tomb shortly before the weekly Sabbath began at sundown, which began the Sabbath or Saturday. That evening also began the 15th day of the month. The fifteenth was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened bread.
He rose on Sunday the 16th, which was the day of the Feast of Firstfruits,
But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor. 15:20 NKJV).
The Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection is the only chronology that fits the types portrayed in the Feasts. If He spent three days and three nights in the tomb (72 hrs.), then He would have had to be crucified on a Wednesday, which would not fit the types of the festivals of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Fristfruits.
Another problem with Him spending 72 hours in the tomb is you have to interpret the tomb, which we know to be hewn out of the side of a cliff, as the “heart of the earth.” We do know that Jesus went to Sheol to preach to those there, and that could be considered “the heart of the earth”; but He could not have spent three days and nights there as He Himself told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be in Paradise with me.” Paradise was is heaven not in Sheol.
So what did Jesus really mean by three days and three nights in the heart of the earth? Psalm 74 says,
For God is my King from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth (Ps. 74:12 NKJV).
The phrase “heart of the earth” is interchangeable with “midst of the earth.” The word for “salvation” in this verse is Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus. It is telling us Jesus is working salvation in the heart of the earth. Jesus says He will be doing this for three days. Peter tells us
But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us (2 Peter 3:8-9 NKJV).
In other words Jesus was telling us in Matt. 12:40 that He would be working salvation in the heart of the earth for three millennial days. The heart of the earth is our hearts,
Do not let your adornment be merely outward--arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God (1 Peter 3:3-4 NKJV, underline mine).
The great fish vomiting Jonah out of its mouth was a type of resurrection. After the third millennial day from the resurrection of Christ, the book of Revelation tells us the second resurrection will occur and all people left on earth will be believers, not needing salvation. Thus, as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, the Son of Man will be in the midst of the earth working salvation for three thousand years. There is no need to ignore the 20 some Scriptures that speak of a third-day resurrection for the sake of one verse.