In Matthew 12:38 Matthew 12:38Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from you.
American King James Version×, some of the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign to prove He was the Messiah. But Jesus told them that the only sign He would give was that 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” (verse 40).
But how can we fit “three days and three nights” between a Friday-afternoon crucifixion and a Sunday-morning resurrection? This traditional view allows for Jesus to have been entombed for only a day and a half.
Some believe that Christ's “three days and three nights” statement does not require a literal span of 72 hours, reasoning that a part of a day can be reckoned as a whole day. Thus, since Jesus died in the afternoon, they think the remainder of Friday constituted the first day, Saturday the second and part of Sunday the third. However, only two nights—Friday night and Saturday night—are accounted for in this explanation. Something is obviously wrong with the traditional view regarding when Christ was in the tomb.
Jonah 1:17 Jonah 1:17Now 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.
American King James Version×, to which Christ referred, states specifically that “Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” We have no basis for thinking that Jesus meant only two nights and one day, plus parts of two days. If Jesus were in the tomb only from late Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning, then the sign He gave that He was the prophesied Messiah was not fulfilled.
Let's carefully examine the details from the Gospels. When we do, we uncover the real story of how Jesus' words were fulfilled precisely.
Two Sabbaths mentioned
Notice the events outlined in Luke 23. Jesus' moment of death, as well as His hasty burial because of the oncoming Sabbath that began at sundown, is narrated in verses 46-53. Verse 54 then states, “That day was the Preparation, and the Sabbath drew near.”
Many have assumed that it is the weekly Sabbath mentioned here, and that Jesus was therefore crucified on a Friday. But John 19:31 John 19:31The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) sought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.
American King James Version×shows that this approaching Sabbath “was a high day”—not the weekly Sabbath (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset) but the first day of Unleavened Bread, which is one of God's annual high, or Sabbath, days (Exodus 12:16-17 Exodus 12:16-17 16 And in the first day there shall be an holy convocation, and in the seventh day there shall be an holy convocation to you; no manner of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, that only may be done of you. 17 And you shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this selfsame day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt: therefore shall you observe this day in your generations by an ordinance for ever.
American King James Version×; Leviticus 23:6-7 Leviticus 23:6-7 6 And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread to the LORD: seven days you must eat unleavened bread. 7 In the first day you shall have an holy convocation: you shall do no servile work therein.
American King James Version×). These annual Holy Days could—and usually did—fall on days of the week other than the regular weekly Sabbath day.
This high-day Sabbath was Wednesday night and Thursday, since Luke 23:56 Luke 23:56And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.
American King James Version×shows that the women, after seeing Christ's body being laid in the tomb just before sunset, “returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils” for the final preparation of the body.
Such work would not have been done on a Sabbath day since it would have been considered a violation of the Sabbath. This is verified by Mark's account, which states, “Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices [which they would not have purchased on the high-day Sabbath], that they might come and anoint Him” (Mark 16:1 Mark 16:1And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
American King James Version×).
The women had to wait until this annual “high day” Sabbath was over before they could buy and prepare the spices to be used for anointing Jesus' body. Then, after purchasing and preparing the spices and oils on Friday, “they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56 Luke 23:56And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.
American King James Version×). This second Sabbath mentioned in the Gospel accounts is the regular weekly Sabbath, observed from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.
By comparing details in both Gospels—where Mark tells us the women bought spices after the Sabbath and Luke relates that they prepared the spices before resting on the Sabbath—we can clearly see that two different Sabbaths are mentioned. The first, as John 19:31 John 19:31The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) sought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.
American King James Version×tells us, was a “high day”—the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread—which, in A.D. 31, fell on a Thursday. The second was the weekly seventh-day Sabbath.
Sign of the Messiah
After the women rested on the regular weekly Sabbath, they went to Jesus' tomb early on the first day of the week (Sunday), “while it was still dark” (John 20:1 John 20:1The first day of the week comes Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, to the sepulcher, and sees the stone taken away from the sepulcher.
American King James Version×), and found that He had already been resurrected (Matthew 28:1-6 Matthew 28:1-6 1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher. 2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. 3 His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: 4 And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. 5 And the angel answered and said to the women, Fear not you: for I know that you seek Jesus, which was crucified. 6 He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.
American King James Version×; Mark 16:2-6 Mark 16:2-6 2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came to the sepulcher at the rising of the sun. 3 And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher? 4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. 5 And entering into the sepulcher, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. 6 And he said to them, Be not affrighted: You seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
American King James Version×; Luke 24:1-3 Luke 24:1-3 1 Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came to the sepulcher, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulcher. 3 And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.
American King James Version×).
When we consider the details in all four Gospel accounts, the picture is clear. Jesus was crucified and entombed late on Wednesday afternoon, just before a Sabbath began at sunset. However, that was a high-day Sabbath, lasting from Wednesday sunset to Thursday sunset that week, rather than the regular weekly Sabbath, lasting from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.
He remained in the tomb from Wednesday at sunset until Saturday at sunset, when He rose from the dead. While no one witnessed His resurrection (which took place inside a sealed tomb), it had to have happened near sunset on Saturday, three days and three nights after His body was entombed. It could not have happened on Sunday morning, because when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb that morning before sunrise, “while it was still dark,” she found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.
We can be assured that the length of His entombment that Jesus gave as proof He was the Messiah was exactly as long as He foretold. Jesus rose precisely three days and three nights after He was placed in the tomb.
Because most people do not understand the biblical high days Jesus Christ and His followers kept, they fail to understand the chronological details so accurately preserved for us in the Gospels.
For more information, please read our booklet Jesus Christ: The Real Story .