When the Jewish religious authorities confronted Christ and practically demanded evidence that He was indeed the Messiah, Jesus replied, “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas 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” (Matt. 12:39–40).
Consider the tremendous impact and significance of Christ’s declaration. This clear, plain statement was the only sign Christ provided as evidence that He was your savior and mine. He staked His claim that He was the Messiah on the exact length of time He would be in “the heart of the earth.” If He remained exactly three days and three nights in the tomb, He would indisputably prove that He was the Messiah. If not, then He was nothing more than an impostor!
The doctrinal teaching of mainstream Christianity is solidly based on the tradition of a Good Friday crucifixion and an Easter Sunday resurrection. But does this timeline support the only sign of Christ being the Messiah?
What does the Bible say?
In Jonah 1:17 we read that “the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Most Biblical scholars are quick to point out that the Hebrew idiomatic expression “three days”, as in Esther 4:16 and 1 Samuel 30:13, can refer to any part of three days and three nights.
However, in Appendix 14 “The Three Days and Three Nights of Matt. 12.40”, The Companion Bible provides this explanation: “But, when the number of ‘nights’ is stated as well as the number of ‘days’, then the expression ceases to be an idiom, and becomes a literal statement of fact.”
Therefore, Esther fasted 72 hours—three complete 12–hour days and three complete 12–hour nights—and then “on the third day”, she came before the king (Esther 4:16; 5:1). The young Egyptian captive said three days and three nights he had gone without food or water (1 Samuel 30:12). That was what he meant when he said “because three days agone I fell sick” (verse 13).
Thus, three days and three nights is a literal period of three 24–hour days—72 hours. Jesus very emphatically stated that as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish, so would He be in His grave three days and three nights. Jonah was 72 hours in the “grave” and was resurrected by God when the fish vomited him out (Jonah 2:2, 10). Likewise, Christ was 72 hours in His tomb and was then resurrected by God to become the savior of all mankind. It doesn’t require an advanced mathematics degree to determine that a Friday crucifixion and a Sunday sunrise resurrection amount to about 36 hours or one day and a half!
Night and day
The gospel writers provide us with New Testament references indicating that Christ would be resurrected on the third day (Matt. 27:63; Mark 8:31; Luke 24:7; John 2:19–21). As the Word Who created all things, Christ determined that “the evening and the morning were the first day….And the evening and the morning were the second day….And the evening and the morning were the third day” (Genesis 1:4, 8, 13).
Here we have the clear delineation from God’s own Word of what is “the third day.” It includes three dark periods God called Night and three light periods called Day. Jesus said each period contained twelve hours (John 11:9).
This was how God set the days to be reckoned—from sunset to sunset. Thus, “a night and a day” make up a complete, 24–hour day (II Cor. 11:25)!
When was Christ crucified and buried?
If Christ were to fulfill the only sign that He had given, He had to be resurrected at the exact time His body was laid in the tomb. The Bible says that Christ died shortly after the ninth hour (Matt. 27:46–50) and was buried that same day before sunset (Matt. 27:57; Mark 15:34–37) because it was the “preparation day” (John 19:42).
To the Jews the preparation day was that day when all manner of cooking and housework was done in preparation for the Sabbath day. Consequently, many have blindly assumed that the crucifixion was before sunset on Friday, the preparation day for the weekly Sabbath on Saturday. However, there are two types of Sabbaths mentioned in the Bible: the weekly Sabbath on a Saturday and the seven annual, holy day Sabbaths of Leviticus 23 which could occur on any day of the week.
Was Christ buried on the preparation day for a weekly Sabbath or an annual holy day Sabbath? John 19:31 clearly says that it was the preparation day for a “high day” Sabbath. In Appendix 156 “Six Days Before the Passover”, The Companion Bible tells us what the Jews considered to be the “high day”:
That ‘sabbath’ and the ‘high day’ of John 19.31, was ‘the holy convocation’ [Leviticus 23:7, 24, 25], the first day of the feast. which quite overshadowed the weekly sabbath.
This great sabbath, having been mistaken from the earliest times for the weekly sabbath has led to all the confusion.
In Matthew 26:2, we read that “…after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified.” Jesus Christ was crucified on the Passover! Following the Passover was an annual holy day, a high day Sabbath. The preparation day was not for the weekly Sabbath but rather the first day of Unleavened Bread, which that year fell on our Thursday, reckoned as beginning on Wednesday at sunset! This then was the Sabbath that was approaching, so Joseph of Arimathea hastened to bury the body of Christ before sunset.
What day was the resurrection?
The plain Bible truth then is that Christ was buried on Wednesday late afternoon, just before sunset. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses, together with Salome, went to Christ’s tomb “very early in the morning on the first day of the week” at dawn, as the sun was rising (Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1). Because of these references, many have incorrectly presumed that the resurrection occurred on Sunday, the first day of the week, at sunrise. But when they got there, they found the large stone had been rolled away and Christ's tomb empty!
They saw a young man—actually an angel—who told them that “He is not here, but is risen” (Luke 24:6). At sunrise of Sunday morning, Jesus was already risen! Christ was resurrected from the grave right before sunset on Saturday, exactly three days later! Thus, He fulfilled the sign that He was indeed the Messiah.
Is Christ the Messiah?
Despite the claims of those who staunchly cling to the Good Friday–Easter Sunday tradition, the plain, straightforward truth of the Bible is indisputably clear. Jesus Christ was crucified, died and was buried late Wednesday afternoon before a Sabbath began at sunset. That Sabbath was the high day Sabbath of Unleavened Bread from Wednesday sunset to Thursday sunset, not the weekly Sabbath which lasted Friday sunset until Saturday sunset.
He remained in the “heart of the earth” or the grave for exactly three days and three nights, from Wednesday before sunset to Saturday before sunset, when He was resurrected. Notice that the angel said ‘…for He is risen, as he said” (Matt. 28:6). He rose at precisely the time He said.
He fulfilled the sign, the only one He gave proving beyond any doubt that He was indeed the Messiah: “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 Jonas: For as Jonas 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” (Matt. 12:39–40).
We have a savior—Jesus Christ!