This post is to share a biblical insight of how Jesus’ mention of His burial duration of “3 days and 3 nights” occurs from the day of His death to His resurrection.

It is a topic that generates much interest and debate and views and hopefully this brief post will go some way in bringing an understanding of the way the Word of God deals with it. As it is a somewhat cursory insight, the post will at this stage not provide a full reference of scriptures that support it and also will be improved with further observations or adjustments at a later point.

In Matthew 12:38, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law in their stubborn unbelief wanted Jesus to show them a miraculous sign. Jesus responded in the following way: 

39 “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-40). 

Firstly, it is important to note that the Bible does not contain names of the days of the week, but simply identifies days by their placement in the week. For instance, Genesis 1 states that when God created ‘light’, it was done so on “the first day”, that is, there was no name given to it. This is how the remaining 6 days of Creation occurred, that is, “the second day”, “the third day”…”the seventh day” (Gen 1 – 2:1-3).

Critically, one has to be thinking in Hebrew as the Jewish people did to understand how days are counted. In western culture, exclusive counting is used where the current day is not “the first day” but rather 24 hours from now ‘one day’ would have occured. However, as Larsen (2008) notes below: 

‘the Jews employ ‘inclusive counting’ which is seen in Lev 23:15-16 where the only way 7 full weeks or 49 days can be counted as 50 from the day after the Sabbath until the day following the seventh Sabbath is when both the beginning and endings days are counted which means the days are counted inclusively…This can also be compared with Hosea 6:2 which states: “after two days He will revive us, on the third day He will restore us” ‘. 

Furthermore and importantly, the Bible counts the current day as one full day of ’24 hours’ regardless of how much time remains in the day. To illuminate this, in terms of our modern time system, if for instance there are only 2 minutes remaining to midnight on a certain day before the new day begins then that certain day is counted as ‘the first day’, that is, ‘day one’.

So, the Bible account goes that the Saviour Jesus Christ died for humanity’s sins at about 3pm on the 6th day of the week, the Preparation Day. He was buried that same day before the 7th day, the Sabbath (the Day God rested on at Creation week), which begun at sunset on friday. The Lord remains in the tomb until He is resurrected from the dead ‘3 days later’, which means on ‘the third day’. 

The Bible states that women went to the Lord’s tomb early on the first day of the week, which would have been at about dawn, on what we know as sunday morning. Importantly, biblically speaking, a new day begins at sunset (Gen 1:3-5) which means that ‘the third day’ began on saturday at sunset being that ‘the second day’ began at sunset on friday which is the beginning of the Sabbath as noted above. Note also that there were only about 3 hours remaining on ‘the first day’ when the Lord died and that those 3 hours were counted as ‘the first day’, that is, one full day, or one full day and full night for the purposes of ascertaining that ‘a day’ had passed despite whatever amount of time remained on that day. 

Additionally, it is important to highlight at this point the significance of repetition in the Jewish context. In this regard, Larsen, again, further notes that,

‘In the Hebrew context it is of paramount importance to use repetition [and] that if something is repeated it is strengthened. It has poetic force to say 40 days and 40 nights, but it loses that force if we say 40 days and 39 nights…The number 3 stands for divine power and intervention. Several times in the OT, divine intervention happens on ‘the third day’ as God said in Exodus 19:11: “Be ready, because on the third day I will intervene with a miracle…this is why Jesus was in the tomb “3 days”: [a portion of friday (approx. 3pm-6pm); all of ‘saturday’ (fri 6pm to 6pm sat – 24hrs) ; and, a portion of ‘sunday’ (sat 6pm to when Jesus rose on sunday morning)]…to assume that “3 days and 3 nights” in Hebrew is the same as “3 days and 3 nights” in English is to make an ethnocentric mistake’. 

This is key to understanding how it is that the Lord Jesus Christ could be buried on the 6th day (thurs sunset to friday sunset) at a little time after about 3pm on our modern friday, and be in the ‘heart of the earth’ (Matt 12:40) for “3 days and 3 nights”. As written above, any portion of a day was counted as one day. This means that the Lord was also intrinsically revealing that inspiteof whatever period of time that a day had remaining in it that it should be taken as if there were actually in effect 24 hours that had passed and therefore that the remaining period of that Friday constituted ‘one day’/’the first day’. As scripture reveals, Jesus died on and was buried on ‘the sixth day’, which the Bible calls the Preparation Day which will briefly be mentioned again later. 

It should be noted of course that there is obviously one full 24 hour period between the Lord’s burial and resurrection which occurred from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset as above (‘the Sabbath’ period). Therefore, as ‘the third day’ began at sunset on the Saturday, the Lord rose from the dead at some point between sunset Saturday and obviously before the very early morning hours of our Sunday dawn being that the Bible states that the women arrived at Jesus’ tomb in the early hours of Sunday morning, ‘the first day’ of the week. But Jesus was not there, He had risen! 

Therefore, going by the Bible’s day-counting system, it is approximated that Jesus spent somewhere between 27-39 hours in the tomb. For closer accuracy sake, this counting begins from about 3pm Friday until Saturday sunset (27 hours), and concludes at about dawn on Sunday morning (12 hours later making 39 hours). 

Further, it should be said that there is a common view that Jesus rose around about the beginnings of dawn or just before. This would mean that. hypothetically for instance, if 5am is taken to be ‘the beginnings’ of daybreak on that day then Jesus would have been in the tomb for approximately 38 hours, that is, rising ‘three days later’ – from the modern Friday afternoon (about 3pm) to Sunday morning at about 5am. Therefore, we can see from the above that when the Lord said that He would be in ‘the heart of the earth’ for ‘three days and three nights’ that He was not talking literally but was referring to God’s power and lingual communication, and therefore counting manner, which, as explained above, regarded any portion of a day as ‘one day’.

Finally, this way of counting may seem strange to many believers especially in light of prevailing but incorrect positions that assign an earlier day to Christ’s death. For instance, some have thought that in order for 3 full days and nights to work that the Lord would have had to die on Wednesday to ensure a Sunday morning resurrection or that there was another ‘Sabbath’ during that week which necessitated the crucifixion taking place earlier than the day before the actual weekly Sabbath.

However, this is error because the John 19:31 scripture usually relied on to justify this position does not in any way suggest there was another Sabbath day during the week. Rather, the actual weekly Sabbath coincided with a ‘high day’ as the word “hemera” for ‘day’ is used in this passage and not ‘Sabbath’ which is an error in translation. This means that the Feast of Unleavened Bread in Leviticus 23:6-8 following the Passover is the ‘high day’ and that it commenced on the same day as the weekly Sabbath (‘Saturday’) in that particular week which was ordinarily the day of sacred assembly where no customary work was done (Lev 23:3).

That is, as alluded to, the ‘high day’ of John 19:31 was not a ‘special Sabbath’ as many translations wrongly state. This is because verses 6-8 of Leviticus 23 do not assign the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the Feast immediately Passover) as operating as an official ‘Rest’ day Sabbath like the assigned and formal ‘Sabbath’ ‘Rest’ days occurring during the Feast of Trumpets (Lev 23:24), Day of Atonement (v. 32), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23:39) where derivations of the ‘Sabbath’s’ hebrew words are used. Thus, again, the ‘high day’ of John 19:31 happened at the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread on day 15 of the first month (Lev 23:6) which fell on the weekly Sabbath after the 6th day weekly Preparation Day (John 19:31; Luke 23:54; John 19:14). This means there was no second ‘Sabbath’ earlier in the week before the weekly Sabbath.

Thus, with this information above, we can see that the error of an earlier or ‘second’ “Sabbath” has caused much of the Church to believe that Jesus could not have died on the actual 6th day of the week. That is, obviously because a literal 3 days and 3 nights cannot occur between ‘Friday’ and ‘Sunday’. However, as shown above and earlier on with the unfortunate missing or ignored truth of the inclusive counting approach by God and His ‘poetic expression’ of language, any portion of a day is ‘a day’ and ‘night’ thus the Lord died on our 6th day friday and rose ‘3 days’ later on the first day sunday which shows no confusion.