There has been considerable debate over the best way to interpret the three-days and three-night language of Matthew 12:40, either as three 24-hour days of exactly 72 hours or parts of three days and three nights. Because you can’t get three full days if the count begins on Friday, some interpreters have argued for a two-Sabbath approach and a crucifixion on Wednesday and a resurrection on Saturday. What does the Bible say?
The New Testament states repeatedly that Jesus will be raised on “the third day” or “in three days” (Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:61; 27:40; 27:64; Mark 9:31; 10:34; 14:58; 15:29; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:33; 24:7; 24:21; 24:46; John 2:19, 20; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4). Only once do we find the following: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). By letting the Bible speak for itself, that is, by letting the Bible interpret itself using the text of Scripture, we can dismiss the claim that there are contradictions or insolvable ambiguities.
In Luke 18:31–33 we see an all-inclusive statement about events leading up to the resurrection: “And [Jesus] took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again.’” First, notice that the geographical setting is Jerusalem. This will become important in determining the starting point of the three-day and three-night language of Matthew 12:40.
Second, Jesus is to be “delivered to the Gentiles.” This begins when He is arrested by the “Roman cohort” and “officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees” in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:3, 12). This takes place on Thursday evening before the “preparation day,” that is on Friday, the day before the Sabbath (Mark 15:42). It’s at this point that some claim that there was a special Sabbath distinct from the seventh-day Sabbath.
Before we get into the details of unraveling the evidence, notice that Matthew 12:40 does not say that Jesus would be buried in a tomb for three days and three nights. In fact, there is no mention of a crucifixion or a resurrection. It seems that His disciples did not understand “heart of the earth” to be a burial. When Jesus does mention that He will be killed and raised up, Peter says, “God forbid it Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:21). Why didn’t Peter say something similar when Jesus used the “three days and three nights” language earlier?
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