From a Wisconsin reader I received the following question: “If Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon, and arose very early on Sunday morning, how must we explain that He was three days and three nights in the heart of the earth? Matt. 12:40.”
To the specific question here my answer can be very brief. First of all, I believe that we must accept as a fact that Jesus (not: was crucified) died on Friday afternoon. This, it would appear, is plain from the fact that, according to Scripture, the next day was the Sabbath, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, 56, John 19:31, 42. In the second place, this necessarily means that Jesus was not in the grave for an exact and entire period of three days and three nights, that is, seventy-two hours, but only for part of Friday, all of Saturday, andpart of Sunday. In other words, what we have in this expression is an instance of the part for the whole; and this is very common usage with respect to time, even among us. Thus, for example, I might say that I was out of town for a preaching engagement for three days, while actually I was out of town for only part of Saturday, all of Sunday, and part of Monday. This, by the way, is plainly the meaning in the light of Scripture itself. The Bible does not only say that Jesus arose from the dead after three days; strictly speaking, this would mean that He arose on thefourth day. But Scripture says—as we also confess in the Apostles’ Creed, that He arose on the third day: “And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures,” I Cor. 15:4.
I am aware of the fact that there are some who think to solve this imaginary problem by placing the death of Jesus earlier. But even this attempt would not solve the alleged problem. For in view of the time-of-day of Jesus’ death and the time-of-day of Jesus’ resurrection, it can never be reckoned that Jesus was literally and exactly in the grave three days and three nights, and that, too, in such a way that He arose on the third day.
In conclusion, I would caution that we should not become so preoccupied with this rather technical question that we lose sight of the thrust of the passage in which the verse in question is found. The “sign of the prophet Jonas” does not hinge on an exact three days and three nights whatsoever. I have neither time nor space to explain this “sign” at present; perhaps at a future date I can do so. But let me at least call the readers’ attention to the very significant and pointed passage in which this sign is mentioned: “Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. 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. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here,” Matt. 12:38-41.