I’ve been reading Dan Kimball’s book How (Not) To Read the Bible. It’s a well-constructed book with lots of illustrations that helps to make sense of the “antiwomen, anti-science, pro-violence, pro-slavery and other crazy-sounding parts of Scripture” that skeptics bring up in attempts to discredit the Bible. Some Christians won’t like all of Kimball’s explanations, especially when it comes to the topic of creation. That’s to be expected. He probably wouldn’t like all of mine, especially on the topic of eschatology. An opening chapter quotation by Greg Koukl caught my attention.

If there was one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one single skill I could impart, one useful tip I could leave that would serve you well for the rest of your life, what would it be? What is the single most important practical skill I’ve ever learned as a Christian?

Here it is: Never read a Bible verse. That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph at least.

The most misunderstood and misinterpreted Bible verses are those ripped from their surrounding context and the larger context of the entire Bible. I would add to Koukl’s advice: compare Scripture with Scripture.

Now we come to a most disputed Bible verse. There has been considerable debate over the best way to interpret the three-days and three-night language of Matthew 12:40, either as three 24-hour days of exactly 72 hours, parts of three days and three nights, or possibly something else. Because you can’t get three full days if the count begins on Friday, some interpreters have argued for a two-Sabbath approach and a crucifixion on Wednesday and a resurrection on Saturday. What does the Bible say?

Paradise Restored

Paradise Restored

When it was first published three and a half decades ago, Paradise Restored helped to precipitate a massive paradigm shift in the Evangelical and Reformed world from abject pessimism to unabashed optimism. The rea­sons are simple enough: this classic work is forthrightly Biblical. It is masterfully written. It is pungently clear. And it is powerfully persuasive.

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The New Testament states repeatedly that Jesus will be raised on “the third day” or “in three days” (Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:61; 27:40; 27:64; Mark 9:31; 10:34; 14:58; 15:29; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:33; 24:7; 24:21; 24:46; John 2:19, 20; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4). Only once do we find 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). By letting the Bible speak for itself, that is, by letting the Bible interpret itself using the text of Scripture, we can dismiss the claim that there are contradictions or insolvable ambiguities.

In Luke 18:31–33, we see an all-inclusive statement about events leading up to the resurrection: “And [Jesus] took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again.’” First, notice that the geographical setting is Jerusalem. This will become important in determining the starting point of the three-day and three-night language of Matthew 12:40. Second, Jesus is to be “delivered to the Gentiles.” This begins when He is arrested by the “Roman cohort” and “officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees” in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:3, 12). This takes place on Thursday evening before the “preparation day,” that is on Friday, the day before the Sabbath (Mark 15:42). It’s at this point that some claim that there was a special Sabbath distinct from the seventh-day Sabbath.

Before we get into the details of unraveling the evidence, notice that Matthew 12:40 does not say Jesus would be buried in a tomb for three days and three nights. Jesus does not mention that He’s going to be crucified. It seems that His disciples did not understand the “heart of the earth” language in Matthew 12:40 to be a burial. When Jesus does mention that He will be killed and raised up, Peter says, “God forbid it Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:21). Why didn’t Peter say something similar when Jesus used the “three days and three nights” language earlier?

In Joe Kovaks’ book Shocked By the Bible: The Most Astonishing Facts You’ve Never Been Told,[1] there is a discussion of when Jesus was crucified to fit with a 72-hour burial—three full days and three full nights. Kovaks takes the position that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday and raised from the dead on Saturday. Traditionally, Jesus is said to have been crucified on Friday and raised early Sunday morning, the first day of the new week. Kovaks is not alone in taking this position.

Does the Bible say Jesus would be buried in the center of the earth for three 24-hour days?

Attempts to resolve the 72-hour burial of Jesus rests on a mistaken assumption that the “heart of the earth” is a reference to the time Jesus spent in the tomb. Here are some points to consider:

1. There were times when Jesus spoke in parables so He would not be understood by everyone: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted…. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matt. 13:11, 13). The Scribes and Pharisees had come to Jesus asking for a sign. Similar language and context are used by Jesus in John 2:19: “The Jews therefore answered and said to Him, ‘What sign do You show to us, seeing that You do these things?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” The context clearly states that Jesus was not referring to the temple in Jerusalem but the resurrection of His body as the true temple, something the disciples did not understand until after Jesus was raised from the dead (John 2:20–22). From Matthew 24:1–3, we know because from the context that Jesus was referring to the physical temple in Jerusalem (23:38): “not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (24:2).

2. Since Matthew 12:40 is the only place in Scripture where “three days and three nights” and “heart of the earth” are used, we can assume that it is an idiomatic expression that takes some deciphering using other Scripture passages beginning with the book of Jonah.

3. If Jesus was buried in the “heart of the earth,” and “heart” is a metaphor for “center” or “middle,” then Jesus was not buried in the literal heart (center) of the earth. From what we know of Jesus’ burial, He was buried above ground (Matt. 28:2) in a rock-hewn grave (Mark 15:46) that could be entered and exited easily. It had an above-ground stone “door” that could be moved.

4. 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; cp. Ezek. 38:12; Acts 1:8).

5. Jesus continually points to Jerusalem as the place where He would 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).

6. From the time of His being “delivered up” on Thursday evening in the Garden of Gethsemane 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 often translated as “earth” is better translated as “land” in this context:

1a. Thursday **Night
1b. Friday
**2a. Friday **Night
2b. Saturday
**3a. Saturday Night
3b. Sun

Occam’s Razor: “entities should not be multiplied without necessity,” or more simply, the simplest explanation is usually the right one. I believe the above is the simplest explanation that does not require an extra Sabbath and having the crucifixion on Wednesday.

For more information on this topic see Ralph Woodrow, Three Days & Three Nights—Reconsidered in the Light of Scripture (Riverside, CA: Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, 1993), 6–7.

Through New Eyes

Through New Eyes

James B Jordan provides a provocative introduction to Christian worldview using Biblical world models and symbols, making the claim that this was the way God has chosen to set forth how we are to think about His world and about human history.

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[1]Joe Kovaks, Shocked by the Bible: The Most Astonishing Facts You’ve Never Been Told (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008).