If Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, and raised on Sunday, then how can it be said that he was in the grave for three days and three nights?
This is a question that stumbles a lot of Christians, and sometimes fuels the skeptic. The problem is clear: if Jesus died around 3 pm on Friday, and was raised around 6 am on Sunday, then he was only in the grave around 39 hours. That’s a far cry from the 72 hours of a three day/three night burial. How does this add up?
The first order of business is to examine the scripture from whence we get our three-day/three-night understanding. It comes from a single verse: Matthew 12:40. In context, Jesus’ authority had been challenged and so He likened his ministry to that of the prophet Jonah. Just as Jonah had been three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, Jesus explained that He would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
This is not the only time Jesus referred to His burial, however, it is the only time Jesus referred to it as “three days and three nights.” As it turns out, Jesus spoke about His burial on a number of other occasions, but always used a different method of calculating:
“From that time Jesus began to show to 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 the third day.” Matt 16:21 (emphasis mine)
Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.” Matt 17:22-23 (emphasis mine)
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.” Matt 20:18-19. (emphasis mine)
When writing or speaking about Jesus’ resurrection, both Peter and Paul used the same expression as above:
“Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly,” (Peter) Acts 10:40 (emphasis mine)
“…and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,” (Paul) 1 Cor. 15:40 (emphasis mine)
We can see that the preferred method of explaining the resurrection is to indicate that Jesus was raised on the third day.
But why would Jesus liken his burial time to that of Jonah of three days and three nights? Well, I believe that it is easy to see that in that single instance Jesus was using figurative language. Obviously, the earth does not have a “heart,” nor did He intend to be buried at its center. Therefore, since Jesus was using figurative language in that passage, I don’t believe we should press it too hard for a literal understanding. I believe that He was answering their question about His authority by likening it to a story with which they were familiar.
It is plain to see that the religious leaders correctly understood Jesus’ words. After His death, they went to Pilate and asked that a detachment of guards be posted at the tomb, because Jesus had claimed he would rise “after three days” (Matt 27:61-63).
Okay, but was Jesus raised on the third day?
Before I answer that question, allow me to demonstrate something that I believe is fairly important. That is, the first-century Jewish mind did not reason with time in the same way that our modern, western minds do. A really good example of this is found in Acts 19.
In Acts 19:8-10, Luke records details of Paul’s ministry. He suggested that Paul remained in Ephesus for a total of 2 years and 3 months. However, in the following chapter, as Paul is recounting that same time frame, he states that he remained there “for three years” (Acts 20:31).
I believe that this passage gives us a unique glimpse into the first-century Jewish mind. Although Paul had spent 2.25 years in Ephesus, he unapologetically rounds it up to three years. Luke, who recorded this account, would certainly have noted the difference, yet it was not corrected. I believe this is because both Luke & Paul saw that any part greater than one number could rightly be understood as the next higher number. We westerners don’t think like that, but apparently they did.
One last important matter to keep in mind: the Jews reckoned that a new day began at sundown, not midnight. We follow Roman reckoning, which calculates a day running from midnight to midnight. The Jews counted a day as running from sundown to sundown.
If Jesus was crucified and then buried before sundown on Friday, then that would be day one. Saturday – or the Sabbath – would be day two. Sunday – or the First Day of the Week – began on sundown, and was the day that Jesus arose. That would be day three. Therefore, it would be completely accurate for the first-century Jew to say that Jesus arose on the third day.