Three Days and Three Nights

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Three Days and Three Nights

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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×
shows some of the scribes and Pharisees asking Jesus for a sign to prove He was the Messiah. 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” (Matthew 12:40 Matthew 12:40For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
American King James Version×
).

But can we fit “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” between a Friday-afternoon crucifixion and a Sunday-morning resurrection? The traditional view of the crucifixion and resurrection only allows for Jesus to have been entombed for a day and a half.

Some try to reconcile Christ’s words with their belief in a Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection by rationalizing that Christ’s “three days and three nights” statement does not require a literal span of 72 hours. They reason that a part of a day can be reckoned as a whole day. Hence, since Jesus died in the afternoon—around “the ninth hour” after daybreak, or about 3 p.m. (Matthew 27:46-50 Matthew 27:46-50 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? 47 Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calls for Elias. 48 And straightway one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink. 49 The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him. 50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
American King James Version×
)—they think the remainder of Friday constituted the first day, Saturday the second and part of Sunday the third.

However, they fail to take into consideration that only two nights—Friday night and Saturday night—are accounted for in this explanation. After all, the Bible is clear that Jesus had already risen before the daylight portion of Sunday (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×
). Something is obviously incorrect in this common conclusion 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 reason to think these days and nights were fractional. Nor is there any basis for thinking that Jesus meant only two nights and one day, plus parts of two days, when He foretold the length of time He would be in the grave. Such rationalization undermines the integrity of Jesus’ words.

The reason that Friday is the day most think of as the day of Christ’s crucifixion is that Mark 15:42 Mark 15:42And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath,
American King James Version×
states that it was the preparation day (the day before the Sabbath). In the normal weekly Sabbath cycle, Friday is indeed the preparation day. But in this case, there were two Sabbaths during that week. The Sabbath referred to in Mark 15:42 Mark 15:42And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath,
American King James Version×
was an annual Holy Day—the First Day of Unleavened Bread. 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×
confirms this by specifically stating that it was a high day, or annual Holy Day. Then two days later was the weekly Sabbath, which is the one referred to in 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×
.

When did Jesus die and when was He resurrected?

Here’s the timeline: Jesus was laid in the tomb in a hurry, as sunset (the beginning of the Holy Day) was approaching (Mark 15:42 Mark 15:42And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath,
American King James Version×
). Joseph of Arimathea, wanting to properly bury Jesus before the beginning of the high Holy Day, took down Jesus’ body and wrapped it in linen. He then placed the body in the tomb (Luke 23:53 Luke 23:53And he took it down, and wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a sepulcher that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid.
American King James Version×
; Mark 15:43 Mark 15:43Joseph of Arimathaea, an honorable counselor, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly to Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus.
American King James Version×
). Luke’s account then says Jesus’ female disciples observed that He was buried as the Sabbath drew near (Luke 23:54-55 Luke 23:54-55 54 And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath drew on. 55 And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulcher, and how his body was laid.
American King James Version×
).

After seeing Christ’s body being laid in the tomb just before sunset, the women then “returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils [for the final preparation of the body]. And 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×
). How could they have prepared these spices and oils in the very short time before sunset?

The wording of Mark 16:1-2 Mark 16:1-2 1 And 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. 2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came to the sepulcher at the rising of the sun.
American King James Version×
adds to the confusion some experience because it seems to suggest that the spices were purchased after the weekly Sabbath rather than before it on Friday? How is that possible?

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 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 the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The second was the weekly seventh-day Sabbath. Mark did not mention this weekly Sabbath rest in his account, but Luke, who wrote his account of these events later, did.

Thus, the women returned after seeing the burial Wednesday afternoon. They rested on the high-day Sabbath Wednesday night and Thursday. They bought the spices either Thursday night or Friday morning. They prepared them on Friday prior to sunset and then rested on the weekly Sabbath from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.

Then, early on Sunday, before dawn, “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×
), they went to the tomb to apply the embalming mixture. They discovered that Christ 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×
). The only plausible timeline for the events of the crucifixion week is that Christ was in the grave three full days and three full nights, from late on a Wednesday until late on a Saturday.

Now, consider Christ’s promise that He would be in the grave for the same length of time that Jonah was in the belly of the great fish in conjunction with this historical record. What is the correct way to understand “three days and three nights” in both Matthew 12:40 Matthew 12:40For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
American King James Version×
and 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×
? It means three literal days and three literal nights—72 full hours.

Sign of the Messiah

If Jesus were in the tomb only from late Friday afternoon to sometime early Sunday morning, then the sign He gave that He was the prophesied Messiah was not fulfilled. The claim of His Messiahship rests on the fulfillment of His words—it’s that serious a matter.

When we allow the Scriptures to interpret themselves, all four Gospel accounts accurately harmonize and attest to the validity of Jesus’ promise that He would be in the grave three days and three nights—not just part of that time.

Several Bible translations recognize that more than one Sabbath is discussed in these events. In Matthew 28:1 Matthew 28:1In 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.
American King James Version×
some Bible versions, including Alfred Marshall’s Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, Ferrar Fenton’s Translation and Green’s Literal Translation, properly translate a phrase occurring here as “after the sabbaths.” Young’s Literal Translation and The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (1992, p. 1270) similarly acknowledge that multiple Sabbaths are intended here.

Some stumble over Mark 16:9 Mark 16:9Now 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.
American King James Version×
, not taking into account that there is no punctuation indicated in the original Greek. Therefore, to be in harmony with the material presented in the other Gospels, a better translation of the verse would be: “Now having risen, early the first day of the week He appeared first to Mary Magdalene…” So it’s not saying that Jesus rose early on Sunday morning, but that He appeared early on Sunday morning to Mary Magdalene, having already risen some time earlier.

We can be assured that the duration of Christ’s entombment before His resurrection, which He foretold as proof of His Messiahship, was precisely as long as He said it would be—equaling the “three days and three nights [Jonah was] in the belly of the great fish” (Matthew 12:40 Matthew 12:40For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
American King James Version×
). Thus, Jesus rose late Saturday afternoon around sunset—not Sunday at sunrise—exactly three days and three nights after He was placed in the tomb just before sunset on Wednesday.

Christ’s prophecy of the time He would be in the tomb was fulfilled precisely. Because most people do not understand the biblical high days kept by Jesus Christ and His followers, they fail to understand the chronological details so accurately preserved for us in the Gospels.

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