While six ministers and I were eating at Cracker Barrel on a recent Monday, a question was raised about the day Jesus was crucified.
There was serious discussion about what Jesus said in Matthew 12:40 about how He, the Son of Man, would be buried for three days and three nights.” Could we fit that time frame into a Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection? One minister tentatively subscribed to an earlier-than-Friday crucifixion and others felt some discomfiture with the “apparent” conflict between Jesus’ words and His death on Friday and resurrection on Sunday sequence. Nevertheless, there is no “real” conflict!
Let’s read Matthew 12:40 where Jesus prophesied: “For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three night.”
John MacArthur points out in his commentary on Matthew:
The matter of three days and three nights is often used either to prove Jesus was mistaken about the time He would actually spend in the tomb or that He could not have been crucified on Friday afternoon and raised early on Sunday, the first day of the week. But as in modern usage, the phrase “day and night” can mean not only a full 24-hour day but any representative part of a day … The Jewish Talmud held that “any part of a day is as the whole.” Jesus was simply using a common, well-understood generalization (p. 329).
D.S. Carson adds his insight in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary:
Jonah spent “three days and three nights” in the fish (Jonah 1:17). But if the normal sequence of Passion Week is correct, Jesus was in the tomb only about 36 hours. Since they included parts of three days, by Jewish reckoning Jesus was buried “three days” or, to put it another way, he rose “on the third day” (16:21). But this does not cover more than two nights.
Some advocate a Wednesday crucifixion date. But though that allows for “three days and three nights,” it runs into difficulty with “on the third day.” In rabbinical thought a day and a night make an onah, and a part of an onah is as the whole … Thus according to Jewish tradition, “three days and three nights” need mean no more than “three days” or the combination of any part of three separate days (p. 296).
Craig L. Blomberg in The New American Commentary concurs when he observes:
“Three days and three nights” represents a Semitic idiom for any portion of three calendar days. So there is no need to see a contradiction with the traditional Holy Week chronology, including a Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection, or to propose any alternative chronologies (pp. 206-207).
Perhaps Gleason Archer, in his classic Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, offers the most comprehensive answer/explanation/reconciliation:
It is perfectly true that a Friday Crucifixion will not yield three full 24-hour days. But neither will a Thursday afternoon Crucifixion, nor a Wednesday afternoon Crucifixion, either. This results from the fact that Jesus died at 3 p.m. and rose at or about 6 a.m. The only way you can come out with three 24-hour days is if He rose at the same hour (three days later, of course) that He was crucified, namely, 3 p.m.
Actually, however, He rose “on the third day” (I Cor. 15:4). Obviously, if He rose on the third day, He could not already have been buried for three whole nights and three whole days. That would have required His resurrection to be at the beginning of the fourth day.
What, then, is the meaning of the expression in Matthew 12:40: “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth?” This can only refer to three 24-hour days in part or in whole. That is to say, Jesus expired at 3 p.m. near the close of Friday (according to the Hebrew method of reckoning each day as beginning at sundown), which would be one day.
Then Friday 6 p.m. to Saturday 6 p.m. would be the second day, and Saturday 6 p.m. to Sunday 6 p.m., would constitute the third day – during which (i.e., Sunday 6 a.m. or a little before) Christ arose … when you wished to refer to three separate 24-hour days, you said, “Three days and three nights” – even though only a portion of the first and third days might be involved.
A similar usage is apparent from the narrative in I Samuel 30:12, where “he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights” is equated with … “three days ago” – which could only mean “day before yesterday.” But if the Egyptian slave fell ill on the day before yesterday … then he could not have remained without food or water for three entire 24-hour days. We simply have to get used to slightly different ways of expressing time intervals (p. 328).
We can say with assurance that Christ was crucified on Friday and resurrected on Sunday and still be in tune with what Jesus said in Matthew 12:30. Let us conclude with the words of Theodore of Heraclea recorded in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: When “Christ says he will spend ‘three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’ He is referring to the end of Friday, all of Saturday and the beginning of Sunday, in keeping with the way people understood the beginning and ending of days” (p. 256).