There may be those who are asking, "What is the big deal about whether Jesus was in the grave a full three days and nights, or just half that time. Isn't it enough that he rose from the dead?".
The answer to this question is yes and no. Yes, it is extremely important that Jesus rose from the dead. Without his resurrection, our faith is worthless and we are still in our sins. Paul says in First Corinthians 15:17,
And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
So it is of the utmost importance that the Messiah be raised from the dead. It is also of the greatest importance that what Jesus said about his death and resurrection be held in the utmost reverence and not be watered down just so that we may validate our own traditions.
Whether knowingly in some dark conspiracy or through blatant ignorance, this is our sin. We have cast the prophetic saying of Jesus concerning his three days and nights in the heart of the earth to the dirt, so that we might validate our own traditions (see Barclay's Blunder on the home page for an example of this).
The Three Day Sayings
There are many statements of Jesus concerning his being raised from the dead on the third day, and most of them were spoken to his disciples. However, the one that is most telling is Matthew 12:40, because of the circumstances of its utterance.
One thing must be pointed out concerning the relationship between the saying found in Matt. 12:40 and the others. All the other sayings are not as to the point in comparison to the Matt. 12:40 text. It is the most specific utterance concerning the issue of a third day resurrection.
There is a principle in Biblical interpretation, called USUS LOQUENDI, which means usage in speaking.
When a writer has treated a given subject in different parts of his writings, or when different writers have treated the same subject, it is both justice to the writers, and important in interpretation, to collate and compare all that is written. The obscure or doubtful passages are to be explained by what is plain and simple.1
I have correlated the saying of Jesus, concerning the three days.
1. The greatest number of verses concerning the three days are phrased as follows,
". . . Be killed and the third day rise again".
". . . Be raised on the third day."
These phrases can be found in the following passages:
Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19, Mark 10:34, Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24: 6-7
2. The next phrase that is used is, ". . . After three days."
Matthew 27:63, Mark 8:31
3. Those which are connected to His temple sayings,
". . . Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it."
Matthew 26:61, John 2:19
4. The last and most descriptive phrase Jesus uttered is found in Matt. 12:40,
". . . As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whales' belly, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."
However, not everyone thinks Matthew's record can be trusted. See Barclay's Blunder on the home page for an example.
On, In or After three days?
When we look at the sayings of Jesus and compare them, we could get confused. He said that he would be raised from the dead . . . On the third day, After three days, In three days, Three days and three nights.
Some might argue that these are pointing to different times. Is it on the third day or is it after three days? Is it in three days or is it three days and three nights?
Not to worry. There actually is a period of time, in which all of these times converge into one. We will see this later in the Chronology.
Since it seems that the Matthew 12:40 text is the plainest, simplest, and most descriptive, it is the main text dealt with. What also makes this passage of utmost importance in comparison to the others, it is the only one spoken in response to a demand for authentication of the Messiahship of Jesus.
And so, let us go to Matthew 12:38-42, and understand the scenario and why this passage is so vital to this issue.
Then certain of the scribes and of the pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonah: for as Jonah 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. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, a greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, a greater than Solomon is here.
What caused the scribes and Pharisees to demand a sign? Let's back up, and see.
There was a man brought to Jesus, who was possessed of a spirit that caused him to be unable to see or speak. So Jesus healed him. The people who saw this healing begin to say, "Is this not the Son of David," a very definite messianic title. The people began to see and speak of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. This alarmed the leaders of Israel. Why?
The rabbis divided time into three ages; the primitive (patriarchal), the Law, and the Messianic. They were the guardians and shepherds of Israel in the age of the Law. Their authority however, would cease when Messiah came, for He would establish Messianic Law and the Messianic Kingdom.
Besides their personal reasons, there were more obvious political ramifications to the heralding of a Messiah, a King in Israel, i.e., a king who was not sanctioned by Rome. The proclaiming of a king, who was not appointed by Rome, was equal to rebellion. Rome did not tolerate rebellion. So when they heard the people speaking of Jesus as King Messiah, something had to be done.
They could not deny that a miracle had been done. That was evident for all to see. However, what they could do was cast doubt upon the authority by which it was performed. They claimed that Jesus operated by the power of Ba'alzebub (Satan). Jesus responds, "How can Satan cast out Satan?" His kingdom could not stand if he worked against himself like that.
They could not withstand this 'greater than Solomon', so they moved to Plan B. Demand a sign.
We must understand they were not asking for a miracle, of those there had been plenty. They wanted a type of vindicating sign from God on behalf of Jesus, to publicly validate his Messiahship.
Here's an example from Scripture. Remember back in Numbers 16, when God opened the earth, swallowing up Korah and his house, and fire devoured his associates? All this was done to validate to Israel, that Moses and Aaron was God's true appointed leaders. This is the type of sign these guys were looking for. Something so unmistakably God, there would be no doubt. Of course, these scribes and Pharisees were counting on the fact that God would vindicate them as the true leaders of Israel and not Jesus.
Jesus tells them that it is 'an evil and adulterous generation' that seeks a sign of vindication, instead of believing the prophets. However, Jesus accommodates them with one sign, and ONLY ONE SIGN, the sign of Jonah the prophet.
This sign held a two-fold significance. The first was the resurrection itself. Just as Jonah came out of the great fish alive, so Jesus would come out of the grave alive. Secondly, the emphasis of this sign of Jonah, is the time element. Just as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the whale [Jonah 1:17], so the Son of man, Jesus, would be three days and nights in the heart of the earth. Jesus tells them that the vindicating sign they are looking for, is this. After his death, he would stay in the 'heart of the earth,' or the grave (She'ol), for three days and three nights. After that period, he would come out ALIVE. He is telling them precisely when he will be resurrected from the dead.
If the time element was not of great importance, Jesus would have simply said something like, "Just as Jonah came forth from the great fish alive, so the Son of Man will come forth from the heart of the earth alive." By Jesus being very specific about the time, he is placing this statement in the realm of the prophetic. If it is not fulfilled as he said, then he is proven a false prophet.
Without the time element, the resurrection could have happened at any time, but by stating a specific time, Jesus has put himself in a corner. Fulfill it exactly or else.
This period of three days was important for another prophetic reason. In Psalm 16:10 it states, "Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One (Messiah) to see corruption." It was a common belief among the Jews, that after death, the corruption of the body began to occur after three days. Remember that Lazarus was in the grave for 4 days and "he stinks" or his body was beginning to corrupt (John 11:39). The Jewish commentary on this verse (Ps. 16:10) states that, "No worm or maggot should have power over him."
So by stating his resurrection would take place on the third day, he is telling the leaders that he will not 'see corruption,' as the psalmist had predicted.
It is obvious that these men understood Jesus to mean a literal three days and nights. After the death of Jesus, members of the great council went to Pilate, saying, "Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore, that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first." [Matt. 27:63-64]
Why such a specific time? Because that is what Jesus said, and that is how they understood him.
They understood three days and three nights to mean three full days. They asked for the sepulchre to be guarded until the third day, meaning up to and including the end of the third day. They wanted a guard posted at the tomb for a full three days, i.e., three days and three nights.
Seeing how this sign was given to those who did not believe, it is imperative that it be fulfilled exactly. If not, then he would be the liar and fraud they accused him of being. The Scriptures demand it, when it says,
And if thou shalt say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.
Why would the Lord lay down such a guideline for determining a false prophet and then speak a prophetic word, and not fulfill it? It is impossible!
Edersheim states concerning this sign of Jonah,
"And yet to all time this is the sign, and the only sign, which the Christ has given, which he still gives to every 'evil and adulterous generation'. . . This is the 'sign', the evidence, the only 'sign', which the Christ gives his enemies . . ."2
1 Milton S. Terry. BIBLICAL HERMENEUTICS, 1890. 2 Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 375.