Question from a Site Viewer
What did Jesus meant when he said, “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.” I know what he meant but when did this happen? This could not have happened before he was raised from the dead; because the Bible says on the third day he rose from the dead.
Thank you for the interesting question about Jesus’ statement that He would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40). You note that Jesus could not have fulfilled the prophecy of being three days and three nights in the heart of the earth because Scripture is clear that He arose on the third day. You ask when the Matthew 12:40 prophecy was fulfilled. I believe it was fulfilled when Jesus died and was buried until Sunday morning when He arose. I think the solution comes from analyzing what Jesus said in Matthew 12:40.
The actual statement, as I translate Matthew 12:39-40, is as follows:
And He (Jesus) answering said to them: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah, the prophet. For even as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, thus the Son of Man shall be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
I think most everyone agrees that Jesus was intending to convey a time frame. However, the more obvious point Jesus is making is that Jesus’ sojourn in the earth would be finite in time, just as Jonah’s sojourn in the fish was for a limited time. There would be a resurrection! And it would happen at some time period associated with three days and nights.
When one looks at the statement, one may read the statement as Jesus’ wanting to convey to us that there would be three periods of daylight and three periods of darkness when He would be in the earth. While this is a possible reading, it is not the only possible reading of what Jesus is saying. One may, with faithfulness to the text, read Jesus as using the language “day and night” simply to refer to and emphasize a day period. This is similar to the language employed repeatedly in Genesis 1, where the term “evening and morning” is referenced as a one-day period (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). I believe this latter reading of what Jesus is saying is best for the following reasons. These reasons are in no particular order of importance.
First, it does not make much sense for us to read Jesus as intending to draw a distinction between daylight and night-time when one is in the belly of a fish, or buried in the heart of the earth. Daylight and night-time have little meaning in such situations. Rather, it is the passage of time that has meaning.
Second, if we were to believe that Jesus is referencing actual daylight and darkness hours, this passage would stand alone in Scripture in demanding three periods of daylight and three periods of darkness. I am loath to build much theology on a single verse of Scripture.
Third, the passages in Matthew 27:63 and Mark 8:31 which speak of a resurrection after three days do not necessarily support three days and nights in the grave. If I say “after sixteen years a child can drive,” you would most commonly understood me as meaning the child can drive after they reach the age of sixteen. I am neither intending, nor would you take me to mean, that the child must reach the age of seventeen. “After sixteen years” can mean the sixteenth year. This same potential meaning exists in the Greek language. “After three days” includes within its potential range of meaning any time after part of the third day has passed. Thus, for Christ to say that after three days He would rise and for Him also to say that He would rise on the third day (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 24:7, 21, 46; see also Acts 10:40; 1 Corinthians 15:4) are not inconsistent statements. He did not think they were inconsistent, as He made both statements. With both statements, we understand that He was wishing to convey that He would rise again at some point on the third day.
And the third day is the day after tomorrow. In Luke 13:32, Jesus speaks of the day He is in as today, the next day as tomorrow, and says He will be perfected on the third day. The third day, in Jesus’ usage, was the day after tomorrow.
Also, we must keep in mind that the days for the Jews began at sundown and ended at sundown. Thus, the sixth day of the week began Thursday at sundown and ended on Friday at sundown. The seventh day of the week began Friday at sundown and ended Saturday at sundown. The first day of the week began Saturday at sundown and ended Sunday at sundown.
If, for the moment, I leave Matthew 12:40 aside, I find that all of the statements of Christ and Scripture on the time between the crucifixion and the resurrection can be harmonized easily with a crucifixion on Friday and a resurrection on Sunday. Jesus would have died on the sixth day of the week at 3:00 P.M. (known as the 9th hour as the days in Biblical times were divided between the night watches and the daylight hours). He would have been in the grave on the seventh day of the week, and He would have arisen on the first day of the following week. He rose on the third day and also after parts of three days.
Further, the early church followed a Friday crucifixion. Perhaps the earliest accepted statement comes from Justin Martyr who tells us
For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn; and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things . . .
(The First Apology of Justin, Chapter 67)
Justin Martyr lived from 110 A.D. to 165 A.D. There also is a longer version of Ignatius’ epistle to the Trallians which also asserts a Friday crucifixion, and yet links it to Christ’s statement about Jonah. Here is the quote:
“As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man also be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The day of the preparation, then comprises the passion; the Sabbath embraces the burial; the Lord’s Day contains the resurrection.
(Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, Chapter 9)
Scholars debate whether this longer version of this epistle is authentic, so I only note it for the discussion. However, if authentic, Ignatius would be powerful evidence for a Friday crucifixion, since he knew the apostles personally, having lived from 30 to 107 A.D. He was the third bishop of Antioch, the sending church of Paul, the Apostle. Even though later there developed minor independent traditions in the church as to the day of Christ’s betrayal and the day of His resurrection, the church has remained consistent in teaching a Friday crucifixion of Christ.
Because of Matthew 12:40, some have proposed a Thursday crucifixion to provide for three daylight hours and three nighttime hours. However, a Thursday crucifixion does not work well. It conflicts the the statement that He would rise on the third day. Some of proposed solutions arguing that Christ rose on Saturday and was only discovered on Sunday, but this theory is not consistent with the sense of each of the resurrection accounts, nor the emphasis of the early church that the first day of the week was the Lord’s Day because it was the resurrection day.
Further, we know from Matthew, Mark and Luke, that Jesus ate the last supper on the Feast of Unleavened Bread and was crucified later that same day (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:1,7). The Passover occurred on Friday in 30 A.D. and 33 A.D., but on Tuesday and Sunday in 31 A.D. and 32 A.D., assuming that the Passover fell after the Spring Equinox, which appears most likely. See calculations of John Newton, whose findings are still found to be mostly sound [see article by John Pratt in the Quarterly Journal of Royal Astronomical Society - Sept. 1991)]. These dates also correspond well with the dates found at the U.S. Naval Observatory calendar. Since Tuesday and Sunday do not fit into the Biblical account as dates possible for the crucifixion, we are left with 30 A.D. and 33 A.D. as the most probable years and a Friday Passover seems most probable for those dates. (If Passover was before the Spring Equinox, as some have argued, it may be possible to have a Thursday date for Passover in these years. I do not find their arguments to be convincing.)
Given the unanimous view of the early church, given the fact that Scripture repeatedly states that He would rise and did rise on the third day, and given the dates of the Passover, I conclude that a Thursday crucifixion is not to be preferred.
This, then, brings me back to Christ’s statement in Matthew 12:40. With the above evidence, I am less inclined to let this one passage drive me away from a conclusion the remaining evidence seems to compel, especially when it seems there is an easy way to reconcile this passage with the rest of Scripture and with historical truth. For these reasons, I believe that Christ in stating in Matthew 12:40 that the Son of Man would be in the heart of the earth three days and three night was intending us to understand that He would be dead for three days (the day of His passion, the Sabbath, and the portion of the day of His resurrection) and that He would not be dead thereafter. For the reasons set forth above, I think this reading is to be preferred. It accords with the context of Matthew that He would rise on the third day, it accords with the greater Scriptural teaching that He would rise on the third day, and it accords with the long-standing view of the church.
Let me make one quick point about why I find the testimony of the church to be relevant. While I do not not hold the church to the same level of authority as the written Scriptures, I believe that the views of the historic church should not be lightly dismissed. God did not simply send His Spirit to guide the 21st century Christians into truth. Rather, He sent His Spirit at Pentecost to the early church and subsequently to all who believe in Him. I therefore do not want to ignore the wisdom God through His Spirit may have given those who have gone before me. And certainly, the earliest views of the church are more likely to reflect the views of the apostles who were their teachers than those of later generations who were more removed from the apostles’ teachings.
I hope this explanation is helpful. May the resurrected Lord Jesus guide you into His truth that you might be filled with the knowledge of Him. May you do His will fully pleasing to Him, serving those around you with the love of the Father, representing well our dear Savior.