As frustrating as social media can become regarding matters of …well anything, there is no doubt near limitless opportunity to challenge our perceptions and doctrinal positions. If we are willing to do the work of a Berean, even holding our closest kept doctrines up to the light of Scripture for examination, and ask questions of our pastors and teachers, there is room for growth, even from discussions originating in social media.
During Holy Week, we shared a post that examined the timeline of Holy Week and the Passion of Christ. The timeline we shared was a Thursday evening Passover meal with Jesus and His disciples, the institution of the Lord’s Supper, His arrest, His trial through the night and into Friday morning, Crucifixion on Friday afternoon, burial before sundown Friday, Resurrection before daybreak on Sunday morning.
The primary focus of today’s CTT post is on the wording we find in Matthew 12:40. Let’s look at the verse in it’s immediate context and then we’ll explain the thought being conveyed in this passage, its wording, and how it reconciles with the rest of Matthew and the other Gospel Accounts of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Matthew 12:38-42 (ESV) | The Sign of Jonah
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher,we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just 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. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold,something greater than Solomon is here.
So, the common objection we’ll hear from folks insisting on a modern, literalistic interpretation of this passage is something to the effect of, “hey, since Jesus listed days and nights here, He’s explicitly laying out 3×24 hour periods where He lay in the tomb”. We’re going to address this objection by looking at the following questions:
- How many times is this phrasing used to describe the burial of Jesus as opposed to the more general phrasing of “3 days” or “on the third day”?
- How did Matthew account for the timeline of the Passion of Christ? How about Luke, the physician?
- If the extra wording isn’t for specifying timing of the time in the tomb, why the extra wording? Where is the significance in this phrase to be found?
This will probably end up being a long post, but I want to cover these three points to the best of my ability. Please double-check my work (open Bible, not an open mind) and don’t hesitate to talk these issues over with your pastor. Please understand that due to my lack of training in Koine Greek, I’ll be making my arguments based on the ESV translation, trusting the scholarship of others to provide solid translations.
1. How is Jesus’ time in the tomb referenced?
There are a number of ways we could go about researching this question. Let’s begin with how many times Matthew refers to Jesus’ time in the tomb. Matthew references it 7 times. We’ve already seen the first reference in Matt 12:40. Let’s look at the other references Matthew makes:
Matt 16:21;17:23;20:19;26:61;27:40;27:63-64; (ESV)
Matthew 16:21(ESV) 21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
Matthew 17:23 (ESV) 23 and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.
Matthew 20:19 (ESV) 19 and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
Matthew 26:61 (ESV) 61 and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’”
Matthew 27:40 (ESV) 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
Matthew 27:63-64 (ESV) 63 and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ 64 Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.”
Interesting, isn’t it? Now here we have Matthew talking about Jesus being raised “on the third day”, “in three days”, “after three days”, and we have a reference to being in the heart of the earth for 3 days and 3 nights. Matthew didn’t only record what Jesus said of Himself, He also recorded what the people remembered, the unbelievers and the enemies of Jesus, this is how they remembered it and we see how they hurled these words back at Jesus as an insult to Him. When we start looking to the other Gospel writers, we’ll see another 10 mentions of Christ’s death and resurrection, with a mixture of these same reference points of “in three days”, “on the third day”, and “after three days”. So what are we seeing here? Is this a discrepancy in the amount of time Jesus spent in the tomb? No. This reflects the fluid nature of how time is referenced in the culture of the day. Clearly Matthew, who was writing to the Jews, had no issue whatsoever using the various references to time without a problem. A point that is clearly made in the Matt 27:63-64, where if we applied our modern-day, down-to-the-minute specificity of time keeping we’d say, “hey, bozos, if you’re trying to prevent an event that happens after 3 days, why would you only place guards until the start of the third day?”
So, we’ve demonstrated how the Gospel accounts treat all presented phrasing as equally descriptive of the time Jesus spent in the tomb. Those who seek to delve into various theories and algorithms to try to reconcile all of these times to fit our modernist accounting of time do so NOT to reconcile the scriptures with each other, but simply to modernize the time keeping, and undermine the Scriptures in the process. So how should we treat the Jewish accounting of days? We should accept that the Scriptures are sound. The death and burial of Jesus was a VERY public event, during the feast of unleavened bread. Jerusalem was packed with people. His death and resurrection was easily falsifiable yet no one proved the Apostles false. Secondly, we do have extra-biblical resources for learning how the Jews accounted for days, hours, months, and years. In our modern culture, we have standardized time such the length of an hour or a day remains fixed, regardless of the sunrise/sunset. In Jewish culture, the standard was sunrise and sunset as observed by certain people. The length of a day and that of an hour varied throughout the year (source). The idea of converting references to “3 days” to exactly 72 hours is a modern concept that we need to resist applying to Scripture. Even when we see “3 days and 3 nights”, but we’ll talk more about that in point 3. Any part of a day was called that day. In fact, the only place in the whole Bible that refers to “half days” is in Revelation 11:1-14, where John is sharing the vision of the Two Witnesses who die and are raised up in 3 and a half days.
2. Matthew’s Timeline of the Passion of Christ, and Luke’s account of how Jesus referenced on the road to Emmaus
Okay, so we already pointed out how Matthew’s account uses various references to the 3 days of Christ’s death and resurrection. What I’d like to do now is work through Matthew’s account of the timing of the death and resurrection of Jesus to really drive home the point that Matthew wasn’t confused or internally inconsistent. Now, another thing worth noting is that the 7 days of the week having names didn’t fully take until about the 3rd or 4th century A.D. The Jews only had one day of the week that was named, and that was the Sabbath. The days were numbered 1 thru 7, with the seventh day being the Sabbath. If you’d like to read through the Matthew account and build the timeline yourself, simply open your Bible to Matthew 26 through 28. For our purposes here, I want to highlight specific passages working from the resurrection backward.
Matthew 28:1-2 (ESV) Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
Okay, so the empty tomb was discovered by the Marys toward the dawn of the first day of the week, the day following the Sabbath. Matthew gives us a very precise record of which part of which day this event took place. The Sabbath had ended roughly at sundown on what we’d call ‘Saturday night’, and the empty was discovered early in the morning on what we call Sunday. Incidentally, this is why the Church meets on Sunday rather than keeping Saturdays… because we now are part of the 8th day, the Lord’s Day after His Sabbath rest from all of His previous work, the “it is finished” on the cross. Since the resurrection takes place on the first day of the week, it counts as a full day, the third day. We already see that the Sabbath was the second day, but let’s see what Matthew records for that day.
The Sabbath of our Lord and Savior
Matthew 27:57-66 (ESV) When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.
Folks like to mess around with this day and try to insert days before and after this day to stretch out timelines. I don’t think there’s any legitimacy to this, particularly within Matthew’s account. We see Jesus buried, the next day the guard is put in place until the third day, and the next day (after the Sabbath) the tomb is empty. Three days accounted for by Jewish reckoning with the Sabbath in the center. Where folks play with dates is by first insisting that Preparation Day has to be a certain date, and then they start to squeeze in narratives between verses to justify their fixed dates.
Now what we have here is Jesus being crucified on the day of preparation, before the Sabbath, before the First day of the week. Jesus had a truly rough day which didn’t start on the day of preparation, but on the first day of the feast of unleavened bread, the day the Passover Lambs were slaughtered. So let’s go there in Matthew’s account.
Jesus Keeps Passover with the Disciples
Matthew 26:17-19 (ESV) Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover.
Okay, so Matthew (writing to a Jewish audience) didn’t explain the significance of the first day of Unleavened Bread. I get this detail from Mark’s account Mark 14:12 (ESV) And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” That fixes the Passover to that evening after they slaughtered the Passover Lamb, where the LORD then institutes the Lord’s Supper, Judas runs off to betray Jesus… and sometime later returns and Jesus is arrested and is immediately taken to trial throughout the night (where Peter betrays Him 3 times before the rooster crows). Once day breaks, Jesus stands before the Roman courts as the Jews push for Rome to crucify Jesus. This is a very tight timeline, and it is of the Passover leading into 3 days: (Passover Thursday), Friday, Saturday (Sabbath), Sunday.
Regarding the 3 days, I’d like to take a moment to turn to Luke’s Account of the Resurrection and the Emmaus walk found in Luke 24. Please read the full chapter, but we’ll pull some selected texts to focus on the timing of events.
Luke 24:1-3 (ESV) But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
Luke 24:9-12 (ESV) and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.
Luke 24:13-27 (ESV) That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
Luke 24:30-31 (ESV) When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.
Luke 24:36-49 (ESV) As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
The first day of the week, was the third day, and the Christ had risen on that third day as it was Written.
3. Why the extra wording?
Okay, so why the extra wording in Matthew 12:40? Let’s reread the passage in its context.
Matthew 12:38-42 (ESV) Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher,we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just 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. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold,something greater than Solomon is here.
Notice I chose to highlight different portions of this passage this time around? That’s because this is the purpose of the extra wording “three days and three nights”. Matthew isn’t sharing extra insight on the timing of Christ’s resurrection, he’s quoting Jesus’ words of rebuke against the scribes and Pharisees. Matthew is connecting for us that Jonah foreshadowed Christ. The men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, and these scribes and Pharisees murdered Him. This isn’t the only time Matthew records this point. It happens again in chapter 16, but this time Matthew doesn’t draw out the teaching.
Matthew 16:1-4 (ESV) | The Pharisees and Sadducees Demand Signs
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.
The point of the extra wording was for the hearers in that day and for us who read it now to reflect back on the Old Testament Account of Jonah. No doubt this was part of the teaching Jesus did on the road to Emmaus as He taught them from the Scriptures to see how everything pointed to Christ’s death and resurrection. Matthew is the only Gospel writer to use this expanded connection to Jonah with the phrasing of the three days and three nights. We can replicate the timelines in Mark and Luke. John takes a different approach in his account, and we might take some time to work through his account in another CTT post down the road.
Scripture interprets scripture. We let the clear passages teach us how to understand the unclear passages, and we let the text do the teaching. The Scriptures don’t need our help, we just need to read them and trust that God the Holy Spirit will grow our faith through the hearing (reading) of God’s Word. We need to be careful with how we try to force verses to reconcile with our modern-day paradigms, for in so doing we run the risk of completely disregarding the harmony of the scriptures in favor of our own machinations.
Hebrews 13:20-21 (ESV) Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
In Christ Jesus,