by Mike Ratliff
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:38-41 ESV)
Today is Good Friday. From what we learned in our last post, Do This In Remembrance Of Me, we saw where Passover was a feast instituted by God to be held on Nisan 14 every year. Also, the Jewish day always began at sunset. Therefore, Nisan 14 began at sunset on Thursday and ran until sunset on Friday. At sunset Nisan 15 would begin. The next festival or feast after Passover was Unleavened Bread. This feast was eaten in the afternoon following the Seder, which was the Passover meal. Notice that this feast was held prior to sunset on Nisan 15 so it would still be Nisan 14.
Now, with this in mind let us look at something that is quite troubling to many Christians. In Matthew 12:40 Jesus made this statement, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” However, using our 21st Century methods of calculating time and our Western mindsets we struggle lining up what Jesus said here with the timing of His crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
The problem is that there are some missing pieces on our logic. The Jews reckoning of a ‘day” was not given as A.M. to P.M. Instead, the day’s start was in the evening to the next evening, from sunset to sunset. The 7th day of the week, the Sabbath, actually starts on Friday evening. The morning of the 1st day of the week is Sunday morning since Saturday evening is when it began. However, even with this understanding we know that Jesus’ time in the tomb was not a full three days and nights.
In our way of thinking, Jesus died in the afternoon on Friday and was buried before it got dark. He lay in the tomb that evening then all day on Saturday and was resurrected on Sunday morning. That is a great deal fewer hours than the 72 which is how many hours are in three 24 hour days. In fact, if we use 3 p.m. on Friday as the time of Jesus death and allow about an hour to lay Him in the tomb we have 8 hours from that time to Midnight. Then we add 24 hours for Saturday to bring it to 32 hours. Then if we add from Midnight on Saturday to sunrise on Sunday we probably have 6 to 8 more hours. That would bring the total to around 40 hours more or less. So why did Jesus say 3 days and nights in a tomb? Look closely at v40 again. Did Jesus say that the 3 days and nights would be in a tomb? No, He said he would spend 3 days and nights in the heart of the earth. What does that mean?
Where is the heart of the earth? The term seems to suggest a place deep underground. The tomb in which He was lain was very close to the place He was crucified and the opening was at ground level. When John and Peter looked in through the opening they could see the place where Jesus body and been placed. So this tomb was not deep in earth. I contend that Jesus was using figurative language in Matthew 12:40. He was using an analogy to express a spiritual truth.
The Greek Word for “Earth” in Matthew 12:40 is “γης” or “ge.” It means the earth or land. However, in analogical thought it stands in antithesis to heaven; it is associated with the idea of emptiness, weakness, sinfulness, and does not correspond with the wisdom and power of God. The word “heart” here is “καρδια” or “kardia.” It refers to the human heart or the center of something. In this case Jesus was saying that for 3 days and nights He would be in the center of or in the middle of and subject to those who are empty, weak, sinful, and stand in antithesis to the wisdom and power of God.
What was Jesus’ status and ability when He was in His ministry? Could He go anywhere He pleased and do whatever He desired to do? Yes, and no one could do anything to limit Him in any way. Why? He was doing the Father’s will and that meant He was not subject to the whims of men in any way. However, something changed when our Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper which began the Crucifixion sequence. What did Jesus tell Pilate?
So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:10-11 ESV)
When the time came for the New Covenant to be sealed in our Lord’s blood, the requirement was for Him to become subject to those who sought His life. When did the Crucifixion sequence begin?
After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table close to Jesus, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. (John 13:21-31 ESV)
Notice, that our Lord told Judas to quickly do his evil deed. It was at this moment as Satan entered Judas that the events began that would lead to our Lord’s crucifixion. He became subject to others to whom the Father and given authority over Him. This was prior to the institution of the Lord’s Supper so this is during the Seder. Therefore, we are looking at not long after sunset at the beginning of Nisan 14.
We know that later that evening Judas led the mob to Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem to where Jesus was praying and the disciples were sleeping. Judas betrayed our Lord with a kiss and the mob arrested Him. Jesus was held by the high priests, or He was under their authority for 3 full days and nights. They did with Him whatever they pleased. They committed a horrible sin in condemning an innocent man, their kinsman. who was also the Messiah.
Let’s calculate this again. The Seder or Passover began on Nisan 14 and Jesus began the Crucifixion process before the Lord’s Supper was instituted by telling Judas to quickly betray Him. So Jesus was placed under the authority of evil men at that point. Even if we use the time of arrest as the start of the 3 days and nights we are still talking about the evening portion of Nisan 14. This is Thursday at sunset. He was held and tried that night into Friday morning. He was crucified around 9 a.m. and died that afternoon prior to sunset. He was quickly buried because it was getting dark. At sunset He had been under the authority of these evil men from Thursday at sunset through Friday at sunset which is one full day and night. He was in the tomb from sunset to sunset on Nisan 15 which is Friday evening to Saturday evening. That made two full days and nights. He arose from the grave on Sunday morning which is the day portion of Nisan 16. So, how many hours was Jesus under the authority of men?
My calculations are that it was around 60 hours. I am not being dogmatic about that though. We do not know at what hour our Lord rose from the grave. We do not know the exact time that our Lord told Judas to quickly betray Him. So we don’t know exactly how long our Lord was under their authority. What we have is this. He was delivered into the hands of sinful men on Thursday evening. This made one evening. HE was scourged, beaten and crucified on Friday morning. This made one evening and one morning so far. On Friday evening His burial was rushed and then the Sabbath starts. This makes two evenings and one morning so far. On Saturday morning the Sabbath continues so this makes two evening and two mornings so far. Then we have Saturday evening and our Lord remained in the tomb. This makes three evenings and two mornings so far. Then on Sunday morning our Lord was Raised from the dead. He rose from the grave. He was resurrected. He is alive. This makes Him being under the authority of evil men three evening and three mornings.
He was three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, which was to be subject to sinful men. He is no longer my brethren. His alive. He is on the throne. He reigns and will forever more.