Matthew 12.40: For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
A few years ago as I was looking up and studying on the Passover, I came across a video where a man was trying to prove that Jesus didn’t actually raise from the dead on Sunday morning, the “first day of the week” as our translations read. Though I found it to be interesting, I didn’t look too much into it because I knew that no matter what the day, He still was crucified and rose again. To me, it didn’t bear any spiritual significance to know the exact dates of the happenings as much as believing the events actually taking place themselves. However, certain verses have crept into my mind this week and have shed a light into my own understanding of this question, and into my own inadequacies for the believing and the accepting of the things from the “mainstream.”
The above verse was an answer that Christ gave to the Torah scholars and Pharisees when they said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” Now the things to consider here are the “three days and three nights”, and the statement “the heart of the earth.”
I always thought about the timing from “Good Friday” to Sunday morning and have always been uncomfortable with the explanations usually given. It is clear and evident that this time frame does not encompass the three days and three nights. The popular tradition seems to falter when you count two nights and one day. What is the explanation of this, then?
The next issue is that He says He will be in the “heart of the earth.” I’ve heard many unsatisfactory explanations on this as well. “It’s not meant that he will be dead for that long or be in the grave for that long, but that He will be in the hands of man for three days and three nights,” say most. What is the explanation of this in light of the sign of Jonah?
The first thing we must be confronted with is that these events didn’t take place in the Western world, so then why do we view them in this context? Jesus (Yeshua) was Jewish and lived as such, being obedient even unto death. With that being said, we should look into the festivals that were going on at that time, namely the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In Leviticus 23.5-7, it reads: In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, is the LORD’S passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the LORD: seven days ye shall eat unleavened bread. In the first day ye shall have an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work.
We see here in Leviticus that after Passover is through, and the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Hebrew: matzot) begins, there also begins a “Sabbath” – a holy convocation where the Jews were not to work from the previous evening to the next (the Jewish days always begin the night before when the sun sets – another important detail). This is in line with the verse in John 19.31 after Christ’s death on the cross: The Jews therefore, because it was the Preparation, that the bodies should not remain on the cross upon the sabbath (for the day of that sabbath was a high day). That is by saying a “high day” or “high Sabbath”, it means it was a very important one. This is not speaking of the weekly Sabbath, the 7th day of the week – known to us as Friday night sundown to Saturday night sundown. So then, it is clear that there are two distinct “Sabbaths” during the week of His crucifixion.
To even begin to “figure it out” from here, we must consider the time of His death as given in the Scriptures found in Matthew 27.46: And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? According to Jewish traditions, the ninth hour would be about 3 p.m. in how we tell time now. In line with this verse, we see that He breathed His last breath at 3 p.m. while it was still considered to be on the day of the Passover. Thence, He truly became our very own “Pesach Lamb.” A Lamb without blemish.
An interesting topic in itself is that the Gospel of John (ch. 18) implies that the Pharisees were to commence the Passover the night after Jesus had it with His disciples, which would fall on the first day of Unleavened Bread. I do not believe that Christ would have celebrated a Holy Day on it’s wrong day – as Phillipians 2.8 says: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross. In other words, He obeyed God the Father in every thing and detail. This can only mean one thing; that the Pharisees were celebrating it on a day when they shouldn’t have, and sometime between the command of God to the Hebrews in the Torah and the crucifixion, they changed it themselves. So at the time that they were sacrificing their “Passover lamb”, they didn’t realize they were also sacrificing the true Passover Lamb.
In the expression “the heart of the earth”, we must look in the sign of Jonah. When he was brought into the belly of the whale, he prayed to God in Jonah 2.2,3: And he said, I called by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou didst cast me into the depth, in the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Being in the belly of the whale, Jonah compares it to being in the belly of Sheol (and even mentions a similarity with the heart of the earth statement, with his own “the heart of the seas”). What Sheol means in it’s totality is still unbeknownst to me, though I believe the translations of this word as pit, grave, or hell, have been grievous. In Hebrew, it is simply defined as “the abode of the dead.” In the New Covenant, it is rendered Hades and in Luke 16, Jesus gives a scary portrait of it in regards to suffering. Some say it is only a parable that Christ made up to prove a point. This may well be the case, it being a parable, but if you believe this way you must consider two very important details. The first is that He uses specific names and people. In other parables, He never did such a thing. The second is you must be faced with the fact that all the other parables were stories of “everyday life”. In other words, they weren’t stories out of the realm of possibility. In fact, it is possible that those did indeed happen the way He stated – only He was using it to stress a spiritual meaning. The same could be said of this in Luke 16. Also, consider that if this is a true place, it could help explain 1 Peter 3.19: in which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, and he foreseeing this spake of the resurrection of the Christ, that neither was he left in Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption in Acts 2.31. Notice the distinction between His “body” not seeing decay and “He” was not abandoned to Sheol (Hades).
With all of that being said and considered, it seems to me that He died at about 3 p.m. on the fourth day of the week (a Wednesday). Joseph of Arimethea had only about 3 hours to have Him buried before sunset when an especially important Sabbath was to begin (the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread). Christ’s followers would honor this Sabbath and do no work, which would be the fifth day of the week (Thursday). On the sixth day (Friday) however, the women would have bought and prepared spices so they could anoint His body – as evidenced in Mark 16.1 (also in Luke 24.1): And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, that they might come and anoint him. The Sabbath mentioned in this verse would be the festival Sabbath, and not the weekly. Then comes the weekly Sabbath (Saturday) which of course begins on Friday night at sundown and His followers (which includes the women mentioned above) would have honored and rested. If Christ was honest and true – as I assume we all believe He is – He would have risen from the dead after three days and three nights. There is no contradiction in the verse in Luke 24.46 (and others) where it states, and he said unto them, Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day. The reason being is that Christ clearly demonstrates the difference between a “day” and a “night”. So, again, if He is true and faithful as He proclaims to be, then He would have risen on the Sabbath around 3 p.m. – a full three days and three nights. The expression “first day of the week” in Jewish tradition (according to David H. Stern, the translator of the Complete Jewish Bible) simply means “the coming out of the Sabbath”, which would mean Saturday evening to us. And in John 20.1, we read that when they came to the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week (very early Sunday morning to us), it was “yet dark.” He had already been raised from the dead before that sunrise!
What a beautiful thing and expression it is to know that Yeshua the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who Himself said “I am the Lord of the Sabbath” would not only be raised from the dead on the Sabbath, but become a Sabbath (rest) for us! With His death, we may now enter into that rest, into Him!