Let’s see …Three days and three nights, right?
Well, we’ll count Friday, Good Friday, as day one. That’s when they say Jesus was crucified, so he died that afternoon and was buried that day before dark. Day two must be Saturday. Uh oh, everyone knows Easter Sunday is Resurrection Day, and he was alive early in the morning when Mary came to the tomb. Anyway, even if they aren’t full days, we have counted three days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The three nights? Friday night, Saturday night, …no Sunday night. How can we make it work? And why does it matter? It’s just tradition, and I guess the early church had a little trouble counting.
But there is more to it than just tradition. Jesus himself laid his whole claim to Messiahship on these three days and three nights. It was to be his proof, his sign.
Matthew 12:38-40 Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying,
Master, we would see a sign from thee.
But he answered and said unto them,
An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign;
and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas:
For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly¹;
so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Before we go to pieces and begin to doubt our faith, let’s look again at the account. Thankfully, we have four separate witnesses to these three days and three nights; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And, yes, each day and each night is present and accounted for.
Sabbath Day Confusion
The confusion over the time sequence between Jesus’ death and His resurrection is caused by our lack of familiarity with the Law. Certain feast days were also Sabbath days, in addition to the weekly Sabbath day according to the Commandment. Beginning with the Passover meal, the 1st Day of Unleavened Bread was a feast day Sabbath. Sabbath days require preparation in order to have the necessities of life on a day of total rest, such as food and cleanliness, as well as special treats and traditions of the feasts.
All four Gospels record that Jesus died on the Preparation day and that He was risen on the 1st day of the week when the women came to the tomb. His own prophecy about the sign of Jonah would be void if during this sequence there were just one Sabbath day, the weekly Sabbath. The Sabbath day following the Preparation day on which He died was called a “high day”(John 19:31). As the Lamb of God, Jesus prophetically had to die at the time of the killing of the Passover lambs, that is, on the day of preparation for the 1st Day of Unleavened Bread, a high Sabbath. So, that “high day” had to be the Sabbath of the 1st Day of Unleavened Bread, not necessarily the weekly Sabbath.
The women must have come to the tomb, not the day after the high Sabbath the 1st Day of Unleavened Bread, but after the weekly Sabbath “according to the Commandment” ((Luke 23:56). The responsibility for preparation primarily falls on women; cooking, cleaning, decorating. The women are our final key to understand the prophetic sequence of three days and three nights.
These women had been witnesses at the crucifixion. They watched Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus wrap and bury Jesus’ body in the tomb (Matt. 27:57-61). Mark 16:1 says when the Sabbath was past, [the women] had bought sweet spices. The next verse speaks of them going to the tomb very early on the 1st day of the week. John even says it was yet dark. They couldn’t have bought the spices on the day He died; they were at the crucifixion and the burial. They wouldn’t have bought them before that day; they couldn’t have known to do so. They couldn’t have bought them on the High Day Sabbath; the markets would have been closed. They had to wait until the 2nd Day of Unleavened Bread, when the markets would be open again. Even if they could have bought the spices on the Preparation day, there was no time to prepare them between Jesus’ death and burial and the onset of the High Day Sabbath. They could not have been prepared by the early morning hours when it was still dark on the 2nd Day of Unleavened Bread.
Because they were women, they were responsible to clean up from the High Sabbath that had just passed. On the 2nd Day of Unleavened Bread they must prepare again for the weekly Sabbath that would be the following day. Any woman who has kept Sabbath days strictly knows the rigorous schedule this would have demanded. They did not live in a day of convenience, no health food stores where they could buy ready-made burial spice kits.
They had to wait for the market to open, go buy the spices, prepare them, possible by boiling, mixing, cooling and straining, as well as, clean, cook and prepare for another Sabbath Day. By this time the weekly Sabbath Day, which was the 3rd Day of Unleavened Bread that year, was upon them. They had to rest according to the Commandment (Luke 23:56).
The very next event is recorded by all four Gospels. They came to the tomb very early while it was yet dark at the end of the [weekly] Sabbath on the 1st day of the week , which was the 4th Day of Unleavened Bread that year. They wasted no time. It had now been three days and four nights since Jesus was crucified. They would have expected his body to have begun to decompose, as some feared in the Lazarus story, except that they had seen Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus wrap His body with spices when they buried Him. Apparently, Joseph and Nicodemus had in their haste used unprepared spices, being in a hurry to bury Him before the High Sabbath Day. The women still wanted to do their duty to the dead. They were coming to anoint His body with the spices they had prepared on the 2nd Day of Unleavened Bread.
They wouldn’t have known that a seal had been put on the entrance to the tomb, or that a watch of soldiers had been stationed there, since the Pharisees had asked that of Pilate on the 1st Day of Unleavened Bread, the high day Sabbath (Matt. 27:62-66).
When they got there He was risen already. He likely resurrected about 3:00 pm Saturday afternoon, since he died at the time of the killing of the Passover lamb, around 3:00 pm on the Day of Preparation. That makes exactly three days and three nights, the only sign that evil and adulterous generation would receive.
He was indeed in the heart of the earth three days and three nights!
Can we doubt that He is indeed the Messiah?
¹Jonah 1:17 Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
I have written a short booklet called “The Sign of Jonah the Prophet” which includes a parallel of the four Gospel accounts mentioned above available here for free download.