Three Days and Three Nights
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 (Jonah 1:17).
Nearly the whole Christian world believes that Jesus was crucified on Friday and rose from the dead Sunday morning. But if you have read the New Testament with any care at all, you may have a lingering question about this. Jesus said plainly that he would be in the grave for three days and three nights. How can we squeeze three days and three nights into the time between Friday, about sunset, and Sunday morning before daybreak? Here is what Jesus said:
But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 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” (Matthew 12:39-40).
Now, how do we get three days and three nights between late Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning – a period of about 36 hours? We can count this off on our fingers: Friday night, Saturday, Saturday night, and we end up with one day and two nights. Yes, I know some people think it is a Greek idiom, but you don’t have to be a scholar to check that out. If you know how to use a concordance, you can take a Bible and easily walk through the usage of these terms. “Three days” may be ambiguous, but when you toss in the expression “and three nights” you add an emphasis to the expression that really requires that third night.
Let me suggest an alternative for you to consider. Suppose Jesus was not crucified on Friday. Suppose he was crucified on a Wednesday. That would mean that in the year Jesus was crucified, the 14th day of the first month of the Jewish calendar would have been on a Wednesday. In that case he would have been buried late on Wednesday afternoon. You can then count them on your fingers. Wednesday night, Thursday, Thursday night, Friday, Friday night, Saturday – three days and three nights. So why does the whole Christian world think otherwise? This is a fascinating story, so settle back and let’s take a look.
Late in the afternoon on the day of his crucifixion, Jesus finally ended his suffering and died. From Mark’s account:
And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last. Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!” There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses, and Salome, who also followed Him and ministered to Him when He was in Galilee, and many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem. Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus (Mark 15:37-43).
Now everyone knows the Sabbath is Saturday, so this had to be Friday, the preparation day, right? Well, no, not necessarily. Continuing from Luke’s account of the same events:
And behold, a man named Joseph, who was a member of the Council, a good and righteous man (he had not consented to their plan and action), a man from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who was waiting for the kingdom of God; this man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. And he took it down and wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid Him in a tomb cut into the rock, where no one had ever lain. And it was the preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin (Luke 23:50-54 NASB).
So it was firmly established that this is a preparation day followed closely by a Sabbath day. Backing up just slightly, here is what John says about the death of Jesus.
After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop, and brought it up to His mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And He bowed His head, and gave up His spirit. The Jews therefore, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away (John 19:28-31 NASB).
The Sabbath in question was a high day because it was the First Day of Unleavened Bread. The 15th day of the first month was a Sabbath day in the Jewish calendar, no matter what day of the week it fell on. So if Jesus was crucified on the 14th, on a Wednesday, then Thursday would have been a Sabbath day. See Leviticus 23:24-39, where annual holydays are called Sabbaths regardless of the day of the week. (All the holydays except one fall on calendar dates, not on particular days of the week.)
So nothing of what we have read so far requires a Friday crucifixion. Why is this so confusing in the New Testament? Because none of the Gospel writers anticipated our problem with this some 2000 years later. For them, it was as clear as crystal. Going back a little further in Mark’s account:
After two days it was the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take Him by trickery and put Him to death. But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar of the people.” (Mark 14:1-2).
They wanted to get this whole mess out of the way before the high day, the 15th. It would be a Sabbath, no matter if it was on a Thursday, which it appears to have been in this year. Continuing with John’s account:
And after these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. He came therefore, and took away His body. And Nicodemus came also, who had first come to Him by night; bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. And so they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been laid. Therefore on account of the Jewish day of preparation, because the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there (John 19:38-42 NASB).
Why was the location of the burial important? Because a Sabbath day was coming on. They had to get the body of Jesus down off the stake and the work of burial finished before sundown, when the Sabbath began. There is no slack in here. I have included all this information to establish that Jesus’ body went into the tomb in the last moments before the sun went down, beginning the Sabbath day.
So our question is, was this late on Friday, just before the Sabbath, or late on Wednesday, just before the festival Sabbath? The latter of these alternatives would give us our three days and three nights.
Now notice two fascinating items. It was the custom of the time to wrap a body with spices, mummy-style before burial. The problem in this case was that there was no time. Joseph and Nicodemus did a hasty job of preparing the body. The women wanted to do more in the way of burial customs and planned to do so. Luke, from a slightly different perspective, notes: “And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment” (Luke 23:55-56).
If you are reading carefully, you will realize that there is a problem here. They had to bury Jesus in haste because there was no time. How then could these women go home and do the work of preparing more spices before the Sabbath began?
There is another account of this in Mark’s gospel. It isn’t a major point with Mark. It is almost an aside: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body” (Mark 16:1 NIV).
So they bought their spices when the Sabbath was over, prepared their ointments and spices and then rested the Sabbath day. It is easy to miss since the details of the sequence of events are spread over four gospels. But the women saw Jesus buried in the last minutes before sundown beginning the Sabbath. Then, when the Sabbath was over, they bought spices, prepared them, and then rested the Sabbath day according to the commandment. This second Sabbath was indeed Saturday.
When these men wrote all this down, more than thirty years had passed since the events. Each of them told part of the story, but neither saw any reason to explain to us that there were two Sabbaths that week with a day in between – Thursday and Saturday. If we have this right, then we have no problem at all in finding three days and three nights between Jesus’ burial and resurrection.
But perhaps we should also ask why three days and three nights even matter. How did they get into the picture? To answer that, we can start by looking at another remarkable resurrection. There was a family in Bethany who were very special to Jesus. He loved Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and no doubt had spent a lot of time with them. So when they sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was dying, they expected him to come to them right away. But when word came to Jesus, he delayed for two more days. He told his disciples, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).
After delaying these extra days, waiting deliberately for Lazarus to die, Jesus said to his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.” The disciples didn’t catch his drift at first, so Jesus spoke more plainly: “Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him” (vv. 11-15).
It is clear enough right from the start that Jesus intended, not merely to heal Lazarus, but to raise him from the dead. The whole episode, though, was terribly hard on Mary and Martha.
When Martha heard Jesus was coming, she left the house to meet him, Mary staying behind. Then Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.
But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You” (vv. 21-22).
The pain of this moment is palpable. And that last phrase of Martha’s seems to imply that she thought Jesus might indeed raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus replied: “Thy brother shall rise again.” It is the answer we hear at funeral after funeral of people we love. Your loved one will rise again, you will be reunited in the day of resurrection.
“I know,” said Martha, “that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus’ answer to this plaintive cry is the hope that all of us carry:
I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26).
Martha did believe, and she returned to the house and quietly told Mary that Jesus had come at last. Mary got up quickly and went to Jesus. When she found him she fell down at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had only been here, my brother would not have died.” That had to hurt, even though Jesus knew what he was going to do. Knowing what Mary and Martha had to suffer, “he groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (v. 33). Here was Mary crying like her heart would break, and a collection of mourners also who had followed her from the house.
“Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Lord, come and see,” they replied. “Jesus wept” (vv. 34-35).
These two words speak volumes about Jesus’ humanity. Even knowing he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, he hurt inside for the pain others were feeling. And there is something inside all of us, no matter how well prepared we think we are for the death of a loved one, that makes us weep in the face of death.
Still groaning, Jesus approached the cave where they had placed Lazarus. There was a stone across the entrance and Jesus told them to take it away. Martha protested, “But, Lord,” she said, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days” (v. 39).
And this begins to answer the question of Jesus’ delay. It had to be established that Lazarus was truly dead before Jesus raised him. Otherwise it might have been argued that Lazarus only appeared to be dead. Jesus called out, “Lazarus, come forth!” And the man who had been dead staggered out of the tomb still wrapped in his shroud.
We tend to forget in this day and age when we can be more certain through science when a person is dead, that in ages gone by, they were not so sure. Some held a belief that the soul stayed with the body for three days after death. Here is one Jewish source:
Tractate Semahot ("Mourning") says: “One may go out to the cemetery for three days to inspect the dead for a sign of life, without fear that this smacks of heathen practice. For it happened that a man was inspected after three days, and he went on to live twenty-five years; still another went on to have five children and died later.”
Other Jewish sources believe they should only use wood coffins, and they do not embalm the dead. The reason offered is that “as the body decays, the soul ascends to Heaven.” The decay was assumed to begin after three days. So if Jesus had been buried at sunset on Friday and rose while it was still dark Sunday morning, he would have been in the tomb less than 36 hours. The Pharisees and others might have argued that he had not been dead, that this was no miracle. He had merely lapsed into a coma and then recovered. So the three days and three nights turn out to be more important than one might think..
But now we have raised yet another problem. This sequence suggests that Jesus rose from the dead on Saturday evening instead of Sunday morning. How do we deal with that little anomaly? This may come as a surprise to you, but there is no passage in the Bible that tells us precisely when Jesus rose from the dead. There is a reason for that: there were no witnesses to the actual event. The first people who saw Jesus alive saw him on Sunday morning, but that does not mean that was the time of the resurrection.
But wait. What about Mark’s statement, “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils”? (Mark 16:9). Bear in mind that no one witnessed the actual resurrection of Jesus, so no one could testify as to the moment. Thus, this passage is describing, not the time of the resurrection, but the time of Jesus’ appearing to Mary. The Greek texts have no punctuation, so all the commas and periods are left to the translators. Just put the comma in the right place and all becomes clear. “Now when Jesus was risen, early the first day of the week he appeared first to Mary Magdalene.” Also note in Mark’s testimony that the first person to see Jesus alive was Mary. That confirms that no one saw the moment of the resurrection of Jesus.
There is nothing in the Gospel accounts to dispute that Jesus rose from the dead Saturday evening rather than Sunday morning. Three days and three nights from his burial would naturally take us to an evening. But there is something else that is highly suggestive.
Remember that I have been telling you that the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread are all about Christ. There was, at this season, a little noticed ceremony in the Temple service that was also all about Christ. This was the season of the first ripe barley. But the people were not allowed to eat any of that year’s crop until a small portion of it had been offered to God by the priest. It is called “The Wave Sheaf” in the King James Version, and the ceremony is described in Leviticus.
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. 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’” (Leviticus 23:9-11).
This could not be done on the Sabbath because it was an act of work, of harvesting and preparing the grain offering. So it was done when the Sabbath ended. The ceremony is also described in Alfred Edersheim’s well known book, The Temple, Its Ministry and Service. The ceremony had to take place after the Sabbath day according to the law. It was an act of work to “harvest” the wave sheaf.
So, just after sundown, at the end of the three days and three nights that had passed since Jesus was buried, a noisy little procession of people made their way down from the Temple carrying torches and no doubt passing around a little wine. This is a festival, and a harvest festival to boot. They are having a good time. They came to a field that had been selected ahead of time where there were several bundles of grain already tied together, but not yet cut from the ground.
One of the sheaves was selected, and a man stood over it holding a sickle over his head. He shouted a series of questions to the crowd gathered around him and they shouted their answers back at him:
“Is the sun down?” he shouted. The crowd answered, “Yes!”
“This sheaf?” “Yes!” “With this sickle?” “Yes!” “Shall I reap?” “Yes!”
And with a stroke, he cut the sheaf from the ground. That may have been the moment that Jesus, who is also called “the Firstfruits,” opened his eyes in the tomb. Through that night, the sheaf was prepared for offering. The grain was threshed from it and parched in a pan over fire. Early the next morning, it was presented to God in the Temple. This sheaf is the very first of the firstfruits from the fields around Jerusalem. Now consider this very New Testament idea:
But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
No grain could be harvested until the wave sheaf of the firstfruits was presented to God. Jesus Christ was the firstfruits and, according to the book of Revelation, the first born from the dead.
So the connection is made to the moment of Jesus’ resurrection. Then there was a striking instance on the morning of Jesus’ first appearance to his disciples. The very first to see the risen Christ was none other than the broken hearted Mary Magdalene. She stood at the entrance to the tomb, weeping and stooped down to look inside. There, she saw two angels in white robes. They said “Woman, why are you weeping?” Thinking they were the men who had removed Jesus’ body, she replied: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him” (John 20:13).
In frustration, Mary turned around and saw a man she thought was the gardener. He also asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”
“Sir,” Mary replied, “if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away” (v. 15). At that point, Jesus called her by name and for the first time, she realized that Jesus was alive.
She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God’” (John 20:16-17).
Later that day, Jesus would allow his disciples to touch him. The implication is that between the time Mary saw him, and the time he met with his disciples, he had ascended to the Father and returned. There is a minor difference in translation from the King James Version, which reads, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.”
In either case it is plain that between the time Jesus saw Mary and later his disciples, he ascended to the Father and returned. This would have been very near to the moment when the sheaf of firstfruits was being offered in the Temple. The parallel with the wave sheaf cannot be ignored. In the symbolism of the events, Jesus came to life when the sheaf was cut, was prepared during the night, and was presented to the Father the next morning.
Now there is another curious thing about this incident. It took place on the first day of the week, right? Well, yes, but there is more to it than that. Remember that these people were Jews, and nowhere in the Bible do they refer to the day after the Sabbath as “the first day of the week.” To a Jew, what we call Sunday would always be called the “morrow after the Sabbath.”
So why do we read this in the New Testament: “Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave” (Matthew 28:1 NASB)? The normal way for a Jew to say this would be “Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.”
What is the significance of the “first day of the week?” There is no word for “week” in this passage. Literally it is “the first of the Sabbaths” and it is plural. Where in the Bible do we have a series of Sabbaths described? We were close to it before:
You shall eat neither bread nor parched grain nor fresh grain until the same day that you have brought an offering to your God; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the LORD (Leviticus 23:14-16).
This 50th day is the day Christians know as Pentecost. So the day of the firstfruits offering was day one of the seven weeks of harvest leading up to Pentecost, also known as the “Feast of Weeks” because it comes at the end of seven weeks.
So when we find this expression in the New Testament: “Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week,” it is a reference to the first day of the seven weeks leading up to Pentecost. It is not merely a day of the week, but a singular day of the year. So how and when did this get changed to the first day of the week? And how did Christians come to observe “Easter” instead of the Day of Firstfruits?
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