Understanding the three days and three nights of Matthew 12:40
We know He rose on Sunday, the first day of the week. Glorious resurrection! What a manifestation of God’s power! All the hopes of mankind were dependent on that victory. Jesus offered Himself to be crucified so I could attain to immortality. I will give Him my worship forever!
Which day did He die; Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday? Knowing which day He died is not of great theological importance. We can all be friends, no matter which day we believe He died. If this article can help us be united about which day He died, I would be glad. I believe we can be at rest about which day He died.
Which day of the week did the apostles remember His death? The Jews of Jesus’ day had been remembering the “Feasts of the Lord” for centuries. Every year they would remember the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of Firstfruits. Jesus died on the Passover and rose on the Feast of Firstfruits. Jewish Christians continued to remember Jesus’ death on Passover and His resurrection on the Feast of Firstfruits. The Feast of Firstfruits was always on a Sunday, but Passover was always on the 14th day of the first month at full moon, which could fall on any day of the week. Observing these feasts along with the other Jewish people was a very natural thing to do for the Jewish Christians. I find it very interesting that the early Christian Jews probably didn’t commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion on a certain fixed day of the week.
As time passed, the Jewish nation was destroyed, and the influence of the Jewish traditions waned. Christian Gentiles who had no connection to the Jewish feast days tended to remember Jesus’ death on the Friday before His resurrection. This produced quite a bit of tension in the early church, with some insisting on remembering His death at full moon on Passover and others wanting to remember it on Friday. By 197 AD, nearly all Christendom was remembering His death on Friday. Tertullian, about 205 AD, mentions Friday as the day of Jesus’ death. I am not aware that the early church ever contested a Friday death.
Do we have support from Scripture for a Friday crucifixion? Yes, we have strong support. There are ten references in Scripture that specifically state Jesus rose “the third day.” Let’s look at three of them.
From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day (Matt 16:21).
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: (1Co 15:3-4).
But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done (Luke 24:21).
There is no question that Jesus rose the third day. If Jesus died on Friday, which day would be the third day? Friday would be the first day. Saturday would be the second day. Sunday would be the third day. We know Enoch was the seventh from Adam (Jude 14). Do we include Adam in the seven? Yes! 1. Adam 2. Seth 3. Enos 4. Cainan 5. Mahalaleel 6. Jared 7. Enoch. Therefore, the third from Adam would be Enos. Let’s look at an example from Exodus. And the LORD said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes, And be ready against the third day: for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai (Ex 19:10-11). If “today” was Friday, which day of the week would the Lord be coming down? Sunday! Let’s look at one more example. And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected (Luke 13:32). If Jesus spoke those words on Friday, which day would be the third day? Sunday! Even today, if you were sentenced to three days in jail, if you arrived at the jail at 10:00 PM on Friday, you would likely be released at 1:00 AM on Sunday morning, 27 hours later. Jesus was crucified on Friday, and on the third day, Sunday, He was resurrected.
Some people suggest that there were two Sabbaths between Jesus’ death and resurrection; one for the first day of Unleavened Bread and one for the regular Sabbath. I acknowledge that does happen occasionally, but there is no indication from Scripture that was the case when Jesus died. The following verses give no room for two Sabbaths. And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid. And when the Sabbath [not Sabbaths] was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. No indication of two Sabbaths (Mark 15:47-16:1). And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day [not Sabbath days] according to the commandment. Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre (Luke 23:56-24:1). These verses give no room for two Sabbaths.
A beautiful Old Testament picture of Jesus’ death is found in Genesis 22 when Abraham offered Isaac on Mount Moriah. Notice how it was on the third day that Abraham bound Isaac on the altar. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off (Gen 22:3-4). This type supports a Friday crucifixion.
The evidence we have looked at supports a Friday crucifixion. So how are we supposed to take the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:40? For 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. If Jesus died on Friday and rose on Sunday morning, there is no way to have three nights in the tomb. The phrase “a day and a night” is a Hebrew idiom referring to a “day” or even “part of a day.” As an idiom, it didn’t have a specific reference to a whole day and a whole night. We can see this illustrated in 1 Samuel 30:13. Then David said to him, To whom do you belong, and where are you from? And he said, I am a young man from Egypt, servant of an Amalekite; and my master left me behind, because three days ago I fell sick. If he had fallen sick on Friday, what day of the week was he talking with David? Sunday. That would be three partial days and only two nights. Now, let’s look at verse 12. And they gave him a piece of a cake of figs and two clusters of raisins. So when he had eaten, his strength came back to him; for he had eaten no bread nor drunk water for three days and three nights. The phrase “three days and three nights” was a familiar Hebrew idiom which covers any parts of three days and three nights. It is intended to make reference to any part of three days. It is an idiom which is not intended to mean three full days and three full nights specifically. We use idioms today which would confuse people from another language. For example, if I told you, “I have been working day and night for the last week to get my project done,” you would understand that I have been working hard to get my project finished, but you would not understand me to be saying that I have worked 24 hours each day, day and night, for the last seven days. Another example. If you are working outside at 3:30 PM and you see rain coming, you might tell your co-worker, “Let’s call it a day,” meaning, “Let’s stop working.” It is an idiom we understand. We know he was not trying to call it 24 hours. In like manner, the Hebrew idiom, three days and three nights referred to a day or any part of a day. This same way of speaking was continued in later Jewish writings such as the Talmud when Jewish scholars discussed days and partial days. For the rabbis, part of a day was equal to a whole day (see Lightfoot’s Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. 2, p. 210-211). When we understand the Hebrew idiom, the conflict of “three days and three nights” disappears.
There is one more area of conflict about a Friday crucifixion I would like to mention. In Exodus 12:3, the children of Israel were to take a lamb into their homes on the 10th of the first month and have it killed on Passover, the 14th. If the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday was when Jesus was taken into their homes (Jerusalem) (the 10th), then the crucifixion would have to occur on 14th, which would be Thursday. There are several questions I don’t know the answer to and would like someone to solve. Did the triumphal entry occur on a Sunday? Or was it on Monday? If the triumphal entry when Jesus entered Jerusalem was on Sunday, do the few minutes Jesus spent at the end of the day in Jerusalem (Mark 11:11) actually count as “being taken into the home?” Mark 11:1-15 makes it clear that the cleansing of the temple happened the day after the triumphal entry. Would this possibly be a better time to identify as when “the lamb was taken into their home?”
The New Testament does not command us to annually commemorate the exact day of Jesus’ death or the exact day of His resurrection. I think it is entirely legitimate for us to do so if we would like to. But having bad attitudes toward each other about which exact day we should commemorate is addressed. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. (Rom 14:4-5) We need to be gracious with each other about which day we believe that Jesus died. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1Co 5:7b-8). Jesus did die, and He did rise from the dead! May we serve Him in all sincerity and truth.
I was pleased to find a helpful article in the Sword and Trumpet by A.D. Wenger (July 1936), and also a helpful article about Hebrew idioms by Chad Bird.
Understanding the three days and three nights of Matthew 12:40