'The Son of Man Will Be Three Days and Three Nights in the Heart of the Earth'

Jesus Christ plainly said He would be entombed for three days and three nights. Can this be reconciled with a "Good Friday" crucifixion and burial and an "Easter Sunday" resurrection, which allows for barely a day and a half in the tomb? Or do the Gospels spell out a surprising, simpler solution that fits perfectly with what Jesus foretold?

The Son of Man Will Be Three Days and Three Nights in the Heart of the Earth
Source: DesignPics

In Matthew:12:38, some of the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign to prove He was the Messiah. "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you," they told Him (New International Version).

But Jesus responded 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 a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (verse 40).

Traditional view doesn't fit

But how can we fit "three days and three nights" between a Friday afternoon crucifixion and entombment just before sundown and a Sunday morning resurrection at sunrise? This traditional view allows for Jesus to have been in the tomb for only a day and a half.

Some believe that Christ's statement that He would be "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" does not require a literal span of 72 hours. They reason that any part of a day can be reckoned as a whole day.

Thus, since Jesus died in the afternoon and was entombed just before sunset, they think the closing few minutes of that Friday constituted the first day, Friday night was the first night, Saturday was the second day, Saturday night was the second night, and a few minutes at dawn on Sunday morning made up the third day.

But where, then, is the third night? Even if a few minutes of daylight late on Friday and another few on Sunday morning constitute "days," this interpretation fails to explain how only two nights—Friday night and Saturday night—can somehow be the three nights of which Jesus spoke.

In fact, Scripture is plain that Jesus had already risen before Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early Sunday morning, arriving "while it was still dark" (John:20:1-2). So in reality, no parts of Sunday could be counted as a day, as Jesus was already resurrected well before the break of dawn.

Jonah:1:17, to which Jesus referred, states specifically that "Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights." We have no biblical basis for thinking that Jesus meant only two nights and one day, plus part of another day. 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.

So which is it? Is something wrong with Christ's words, or is something wrong with the traditional view of when and how long He was in the tomb?

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 sequence of 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."

In Jewish society of that time, heavy cooking and housecleaning were done on the day before a Sabbath in preparation for it. Thus the day before the Sabbath came to be called "the preparation day" or simply "the preparation." The biblical Sabbath falls on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. According to Bible reckoning, days begin at sunset (Leviticus:23:32; compare Genesis:1:5, 8, 13), so all weekly Sabbaths start Friday evening at sundown.

Based on these facts, many people have assumed that it is the weekly Sabbath mentioned here, and that Jesus was therefore crucified on a Friday. But two types of "Sabbaths" are mentioned in the Scriptures—the regular weekly Sabbath day, which fell on the seventh day of the week, and seven annual Holy Days (listed in Leviticus 23), Sabbaths that could—and usually did—fall on days of the week other than the regular weekly Sabbath day.

Was the day after Jesus was crucified a weekly Sabbath, or one of these annual Holy Days?

John:19:31 clearly states that this approaching Sabbath "was a high day." This term does not refer to the weekly Sabbath (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset), but in this context to the first day of Unleavened Bread, one of God's annual Holy Days (Exodus:12:16-17; Leviticus:23:6-7). A number of Bible commentaries, encyclopedias and dictionaries will confirm that John is not referring to the weekly Sabbath here, but rather to one of the annual Sabbaths.

According to the biblical calendar, in that year this high-day Sabbath fell on a Thursday (meaning it began on Wednesday night at sunset). We can confirm this by looking at the details in the Gospel accounts—which show us that two separate Sabbath days are mentioned.

Luke:23:55-56 tells us that the women, after seeing Christ's body being laid in the tomb just before sundown, "returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils" for the final preparation of the body.

They would not have done such work on a Sabbath day, weekly or annual, since it would have been considered a Sabbath violation. 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 could not have purchased on a Sabbath day], that they might come and anoint Him" (Mark:16:1).

The women had to wait until this Sabbath was over before they could buy and prepare the spices to be used for anointing Jesus' body. Then, Luke:23:56 tells us that, after purchasing and preparing the spices and oils on Friday, "they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment"—which means they had to have acquired the spices before that Sabbath on which they rested. 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 being discussed here.

The first, as John:19:31 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. (To see these events spelled out day by day, see the chart.)

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), and found that He had already been resurrected (Matthew:28:1-6; Mark:16:2-6; Luke:24:1-3). Jesus was not resurrected at sunrise on Sunday morning. When Mary Magdalene arrived "while it was still dark" she found the stone rolled away and the tomb already empty!

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 that lasted from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.

Since Jesus was entombed in the late afternoon just before sundown, according to His own words He would have been resurrected at around the same time three days and nights later. 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), to fit His words and the biblical evidence it had to have happened three days and three nights later, near sunset on Saturday.

This time line perfectly accommodates three full nights (Wednesday night, Thursday night and Friday night) and three full daylight periods (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). This is the only time that fits Jesus' own prophecy of how long He would be in the tomb. And, as we have seen, it fits perfectly with all the details recorded in the Gospels.

We can be assured that the entombment period Jesus gave as proof He was the Messiah was exactly the duration He foretold. Because most people do not understand the biblical Holy Days Jesus Christ and His followers kept, they fail to understand the chronological details so accurately preserved for us in the Gospels.

The Chronology of Jesus Christ Death, Burial and Resurrection


mahnster's picture

Great post! I totally agree and hold that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday. And maybe you noted this, but Jesus also didn't need the stone rolled away from the tomb...even if his new body materialized in the tomb, rather than his mortal body just disappear when he went to the heart of the earth, he didn't need doors as he proved later.... but rather Mary & Mary et. al. needed to get IN to the heavily sealed tomb that dark Sunday morning...


nmmerritt's picture

Also, John:19:14 says it all--it was the preparation of the passover..., for those who believe that preparation was before the weekly Sabbath.


wordwalker's picture

I agree with your logic but I believe you may be overlooking the fact that Jesus is not only the Passover but he is also first fruits. 1cor15:20 It is only with Thursday crucifixion that he fulfills this. See timeline at **Link removed to comply with comment policy** He is in the grave Thursday day,Friday day Saturday day. Thursday night, friday night and Saturday night. Resurrection on first day of the week before dawn on the Jewish festival of first fruits. These festivals are known in Hebrew as moeds which means appointments or appointed times. Also known as holy convocation the Hebrew word miqraw meaning rehearsal .


LivingMiracle's picture

Jesus sent the disciples to prepare food and instructed them on a meeting place for the Passover meal. (so this was the eve of the Passover)Matt:26:17-20 After Jesus and his disciples were done with the Passover meal, He took bread (unleavened) and broke it and said to them that it was His body which will be given up for you.....etc. Do this in remembrance of Me. Then he took the cup of wine and this is my blood which will be given up for you....etc. Do this in remembrance of Me. Matt:26:26-28. (thus is "The Lord's Supper") Jesus had not officially became the "sacrificial lamb" in place of the Passover lamb yet until His death on the cross. (literally speaking-slaughtered lamb)Jewish days went from 6 to 6 instead of 12 to 12 like ours. I don't think the Sanhedrin would have Jesus arrested until the end of Passover day--the first Sabbath during the feast of unleavened bread week. 1st day of the week was Sat. the Jewish regular weekly Sabbath (2nd Sabbath during Passover week). Mary Magdalene came early in the morning on the first day of the week to Jesus' tomb. (Saturday) most likely. Jesus entered heaven to the "Holy of Holies" with His own blood. He is the Lamb of God.


LivingMiracle's picture

One thing that confuses me is that the Roman soldiers broke the legs of the two criminals and put a spear in the Lord's side because they wanted them to be dead and not be hanging on the crosses on the Sabbath Jewish holy day(as sometimes men hung for days before death came). The Romans were tolerable of the Sanhedrin. So this could have been either 1 or 2 days before the weekly Sabbath holy day. Things aren't real clear that way, unless someone can enlighten me a on this. Bless You!

Ivan Veller

Ivan Veller's picture

Hello wordwalker,

“Jesus died and was placed in a tomb just before sundown (Luke:23:50-56)—immediately before the beginning of the annual ‘high day’ (John:19:31) that commenced the Days of Unleavened Bread, which began at sunset. Three days and three nights later—near sundown on the afternoon of the weekly Sabbath (Saturday)—Jesus was resurrected…Jesus rose from the dead near sunset on the weekly Sabbath during the Days of Unleavened Bread” (Neff 2005): http://www.ucg.org/doctrinal-beliefs/wave-sheaf-how-ancient-ceremony-for...

“[T]he sheaf was harvested on Saturday night…It was then waved before and accepted by God on the first day of the week (Sunday) during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus:23:11)”: http://www.ucg.org/gods-holy-days/wave-sheaf-offering-ceremony-foreshado...

“The Mishnah…describes how a messenger would go out and bind the standing stalks of grain into sheaves so that it would be easy to cut. The priest, followed by his entourage, would come to the field, sickle in hand, and ask, ‘Is the sun set?’, to which the people would answer, ‘Yes!!’” (Lane 2004, “The Wave Sheaf Offering,” Living The Way).

Ivan Veller

Ivan Veller's picture

Technically, as a ‘general rule,’ “The entire night” of any rite would have been considered “valid for reaping” (Megillah 2:6, “The Mishnah: A New Integrated Translation and Commentary” 2008).
See also Menahoth 10:9, Talmud. (Verse references courtesy of ICG-AU, “Omer”.)

Traditionally, however, “the sheaf was reaped from the field as the Sabbath ended and [night] began. This is the period of the day called ben ha arbayim. It was the time at dusk when one day was ending and the other was beginning. We know this from the Mishna…which says: ‘Rabbi Hananiah, prefect of the priests, says it (meaning the barley sheaf] was reaped on the Sabbath. He [that is, the priest] says to them, 'Shall I reap on this Sabbath?' And they [a kind of chorus that had gathered around: the other priests, the Levites, and other spectators] shall say, 'Yes.' He repeated this three times. ‘Shall I reap on this Sabbath?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Shall I reap on this Sabbath?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Shall I reap on this Sabbath?’ ‘Yes!’” (Rightenbaugh, “Wave Sheaf,” Forerunner Commentary).

Neusner (2001), in “A Theological Commentary to the Midrash: Pesiqta de rab Kahana” (Vol. 1), p. 85, originates the above citation to M. Menahot 6:3.

Ivan Veller

Ivan Veller's picture

Source text verified: Accessed via Halakhah’s online Soncino “Babylonian Talmud,” Seder Kodashim (Holy Things), Menahoth, section 65a (PDF p. 231). Footnote reiterates: “(10) On the Sabbath.”

“The priest then cut off a standing stalk of grain, then took it to be prepared for the offering the next morning” (Lane 2004).

“Any work which can be done on the eve of the Sabbath does not override the Sabbath…Let it be reaped on the eve of the Sabbath!...[Alternatively, if ‘reaping’ is considered ‘harvesting’ work] it does override the Sabbath...[but permissibly so, like other religious duties for which priests] did not wait until nightfall [to perform]…[Footnote:] (11) The reaping of the ‘Omer may be performed on a Sabbath, i.e., when the first day of the Passover fell on a Friday” (Halakhah, Soncino “Babylonian Talmud,” section 72a, PDF p. 258).

“Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed on the date for…the wave sheaf offering”: http://members.ucg.org/papers/otpassover.pdf

“The Sadducees offered the Sheaf on the Sunday inside the Passover week”: http://www.ucg.org/holidays-and-holy-days/counting-pentecost-when-first-...

Ivan Veller

Ivan Veller's picture

“In [a] Good News [article] entitled ‘The Wavesheaf Ritual – Proof of Christ and the Bible' [June 1975,] Lawson C. Briggs wrote, ‘In the time of Jesus the wavesheaf was offered on the Sunday during Passover week…the priests – who were mostly Sadducees – were in charge of the Temple and all the Temple ceremony (Acts:4:1-6; 5:17)…The wave sheaf had been chosen in advance, as Christ was. It was tied in a bundle, symbolizing His captivity. It was cut loose from the ground just at sunset – just the time at which Christ rose from the dead…The cutting of the grain symbolized Christ's actual resurrection’” (Lane 2004).

“[A]t the end of the Sabbath, at dusk, the priests put the sickle to the grain, as it says in Deuteronomy:16:9” (“Wave Sheaf,” Forerunner Commentary).

“‘[T]he resurrection occurred…Saturday night, when the wave sheaf was cut…It was a rule that it should be reaped by night, at the very beginning minutes, so there would be no delay in preparing it, and then the next morning it was to be waved. The resurrection occurred when the wave sheaf was cut, [and the] ascension occurred when it was waved before the altar’ (Herman Hoeh, Pasadena Bible Study, June 9, 1978)” (Lane 2004).

Ivan Veller

Ivan Veller's picture

“The wave-sheaf offering represented Jesus Christ…the ‘firstborn from the dead’”: http://www.ucg.org/booklet/gods-holy-day-plan-promise-hope-all-mankind/f...

The Scriptures likens God “to a farmer who patiently tends His crop, waiting for the right time to harvest”: http://www.ucg.org/gods-holy-days/gods-harvest-feasts-his-assurance-hope...

“This spring harvest period is symbolic of all of those who are being called and prepared for entering the Kingdom of God. They are the additional ‘firstfruits’ that God is calling to salvation at this time…[Rom:8:23]. The richness of meaning found in the festivals of Passover, the Days of Unleavened Bread and Pentecost far exceed the imagined meaning of the Easter sunrise service” (Neff 2005).

“God's seven biblical festivals are contained within the three major harvest seasons…These three festivals symbolically portray humanity's salvation in successive stages. Each stage involves greater numbers than its predecessor…[culminating] when…billions who never had their opportunity for salvation will finally receive it”! http://www.ucg.org/gods-holy-days/gods-harvest-feasts-his-assurance-hope...

Searching Truth

Searching Truth's picture

To Living Miracle,,I dont think theres a problem with John:19:31..Its states ,for that Sabbath was a High Day..There talking about the Holy passover Day,Not the weekly Sabbath..If you read on,It says that they came to Jesus by night and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes,,about a hundred pounds in weight,to prepare his dead body..Now they would have never done that if it was the weekly Sabbath ,Its GOT to be talking here about the passover or High sabbath night...Nicodemus had to be carrying the load since it was about a hundred pounds....

Searching Truth

Searching Truth's picture

The First Day of the week is Sunday,In any time frame...Starts at Saturday at sunset and end Sunday at sunset.It use to be on every calender that was produced,,It still is on some but not like years ago...Dont understand the comment made about Saturday being the first day of the week.......God bless everyone who is searching for truth!!I need you guys prayers...and I,ll give mine to you...


bluestareagle5's picture

I wonder why it seems Christians seem to insist Jesus died on a Friday when the bible doesn't mention that. Sometimes I thing we cause more problems for ourselves by making assumptions. As an example I got into a debate earlier today with a Muslim who shared a you tube video of a man attempting to disprove Christ died on the cross because Christian insist Jesus died on a Friday. Well your article does fit into what the bible does say about the crucifixion of Jesus and for this I am glad.


angelbandit's picture

Scripture does not tell us as to whether the first day was a Friday. Also, in Matthew:12:40 Christ does not say that he would be in the tomb for three days and three nights. He used the words 'heart of the earth'.

Ivan Veller

Ivan Veller's picture

Hi angelbandit,

Jonah, whose experience typified Christ’s burial, was swallowed by and entombed in the ‘heart’ of Sheol for 3 full days and nights. He prayed: “‘out of the belly of Sheol [that swallowed me] I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas…the roots of the mountains” (Jonah:2:2b-3,6a, ESV 2011).

When “the earth opened and swallowed up Dathan, and covered the company of Abiram” (Ps:106:17), they literally went to their graves—“‘go[ing] down alive into Sheol’” (Nm. 16:30). David’s imprecatory prayers (to Him who “avenges blood”) plead for “justice” and rescue “from those who hate me, O you who lift me up from the gates of death” (Ps:9:7,12-13): “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away…from the…violence…and iniquity…[stealing lives, they “would have swallowed us up alive…We have escaped like a bird” (Ps:124:3,7)] Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive (Ps:55:6-15)—“those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth” (Ps:63:9). By contrast, others “drew near to the gates of death…[but God] healed them, and delivered them from their destruction” (Ps:107:18-20 ESV).

Ivan Veller

Ivan Veller's picture

“If I make my bed in Sheol…If I take the wings of the morning [c.f. “I will awaken the dawn” (Ps:57:8; 108:2 ESV)]…even the darkness is not dark to you… For…you knitted me together in my mother's womb… when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Ps:139:8b-15).

[Also see: ““wings…mercy seat” (Ex. 37:9), “wings…refuge…redeemer’” (Ruth:2:12; 3:9), “Keep me…hide me in the shadow of your wings” (Ps:17:8), “precious…steadfast love…refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Ps:36:7), “merciful…refuge…in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge” (Ps:57:1), “chicks…wings” (Luke:13:34 NIV).]

“If I ascend to heaven…[vs.] depths of the earth” (Ps:139:8a) can refer to caving, climbing (soaring), or sailing range: “Mortals search out the farthest recesses for ore in the blackest darkness…No bird of prey knows that hidden path…[to] the roots of the mountains” (Job:28:3-9, NIV 2011). “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also” (Ps:95:4 ESV)—his are “the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea” (Psalm:8:8). Storm-tossed sailors on the high seas “mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths” (Ps:107:26).

Ivan Veller

Ivan Veller's picture

Hi again angelbandit,

“He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge…A thousand may fall…but…[God will be] refuge…deliver[ance]…protect[ion]…rescue…[and] salvation” (Ps:91:4-17 ESV).

David (cf. 2 Sam:23:15-17?) reflects: “my soul thirsts for you…faints for you…weary…no water…[but] your steadfast love is better than life [itself]…[A]s long as I live…[m]y soul will be satisfied… when I remember you upon my bed…[at] night” – as, presumably, even on his future deathbed as night closes over him – “for…in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds [cf. “embraces” (Son. 2:6)] me. But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths [‘heart’] of the earth” (Ps:63:1-9). God “…will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up…his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth” (Hos:6:2-3 ESV)—raising to new life. We find metaphor for resurrection: “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths [‘heart’] of the earth you will bring me up again…my soul…you have redeemed” (Ps:71:20-23).

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