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Was Jesus Buried for Three Days and Three Nights?

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Twenty times the New Testament tells us that Jesus will be raised on "the third day," six times in Matthew's gospel alone (Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:61; 27:40; 27:64). This is confirmed outside the gospels (Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4). Only once do we read the following: "For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matt. 12:40). Is Jesus referring describing how many days He will be buried? Most commentators would say yes. As a result, there is an apparent contradiction. If so, then we have a problem.

So what are some of the proposed solutions? One possible explanation, the most widely cited one, is to maintain that a part of a day and a part of a night can mean a full day and night. Since Jesus spent the part of three days in the tomb, this can mean three full days, any part of day representing a full day. This is a possible solution, but it doesn't seem to do justice to the text.

To get three full days and three full nights to bring it in harmony with Matthew 12:40, some have moved the crucifixion back to Wednesday, claiming that Thursday was a special Sabbath, a "Passover Sabbath" and not the usual Friday-Saturday Sabbath. R. A. Torrey held this position:

To sum it all up, Jesus died just about sunset on Wednesday. Seventy-two hours later, exactly three days and three nights, at the beginning of the first day of the week, Saturday at sunset, He arose again from the grave.[1]

Torrey ends up multiplying interpretive problems to solve just one. Occam's Razor seems to apply here: The interpreter should not increase the number of steps necessary to explain the meaning of a text, especially since nothing is said about a special mid-week Sabbath.

Attempts to resolve this apparent contradiction center on the mistaken assumption that "heart of the earth" is an exclusive reference to the time Jesus spent in the grave. Notice that Matthew 12:40 says nothing about a crucifixion, burial, or a resurrection. Has an interpretive problem been created where none ever existed?

1. Since Matthew 12:40 is the only place in Scripture where "three days and three nights" and "heart of the earth" are used in relation to Jesus ministry, it might be a parable. Jesus often spoke in parables and used parabolic devices to teach (Matt. 13:11, 13; see 13:34–35). Many times people didn’t get the meaning (Mark 4:13).

2. Jesus was not buried in the "heart of the earth." "Heart" is a metaphor for "center" or "middle" of something like in the “Heart of Dixie,” that is, the center of the South or the “heart of the city,” the center of a city. It’s a common expression.

3. Jerusalem was considered the "heart of the earth: "Thus says the Lord GOD, 'This is Jerusalem; I have set her at the center of the nations, with lands around her'" (Ezek. 5:5; Psalm 74:12; Ezek. 38:12; Acts 1:8).

4. Jesus continually points to Jerusalem as the place where He will be betrayed and crucified: "From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised on the third day" (Matt. 16:21). When did the "suffer many things" begin?: "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him up to the Gentiles to mock and scourge Him, and on the third day He will be raised" (20:17–19).

5. From the time of His being "delivered up" on Thursday evening in Gethsemene to the day He "will be raised" constitutes "three days and three nights" in the "heart of the land," that is, in Jerusalem. The Greek word gas can mean either "land" or "earth."

6. Jesus says that "Jonah the prophet" is a "sign" (Matt. 12:39). Gentiles—"the men of Nineveh" and the "Queen of the South"—will stand up on judgment and condemn "this generation." Jesus was a Jonah to Israel, "the heart of the earth." Jesus "came to His own"—to those who live at the center of the earth—and "those who were His own did not receive Him" (John 1:11).

By interpreting Scripture with Scripture, I believe this is a possible solution to an interpretive problem that has perplexed so many for so long.

Endnote:

[1] R. A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1907), 107–108.

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