Today, as we celebrate Good Friday and look forward to Easter, let's consider a question that comes up almost every year.
When Jesus said he would be in the grave for “three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40), how are we to understand this time designation? Literally? Or some other way?
Every language has certain unique expressions, called idioms, that a speaker unfamiliar with the language finds hard to understand. For example, try explaining “kick the bucket” (=die) or “piece of cake” (=easy) to non-English speakers. These idioms make sense only to native speakers.
The same applies to idiomatic expressions concerning time. For example, if I text my wife, “I’ll be home in a couple of minutes,” then walk in the front door 10-20 minutes later, will she be surprised? No, of course not. She won’t ask me why I wasn’t home “in exactly two minutes.” Why? Because she understands the idiom, “a couple of minutes,” to mean “soon.” Similarly, let’s say my son and I have been doing yard work. Around 5 PM, I say to him, “Luke, let’s call it a day.” He won’t say, “But, Dad, it’s not midnight yet so how can we call it a day?” As a native speaker, he knows “call it a day” means “stop working,” even though only a partial day has passed.
As with English, so with the language of Israel. Hebrew has thousands of idiomatic expressions, many of them quite colorful. For instance, when Hebrew describes God’s patience, it says “he has a long nose.” Picture that! The language also has idiomatic expressions about time. For example, Hebrew often uses the expression tmol shilshom, literally, “yesterday, three days.” Depending on the context, it can mean “yesterday” or “previously” (cf. Exod. 4:10, where it means “in the past”). It does not mean a literal 72-hour period in the past or a time period within the last 24 hours. It just means “before today.”
Likewise, in Hebrew, the expression “third day” does not necessarily mean a literal third day. For instance, in Hosea 6:2, the prophet says, “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” He’s talking about a future event in which God will bring Israel home to himself, not something he will do after 48 hours have elapsed. Hosea is reflecting a common tradition in the Old Testament of significant events happening on the third day. For instance, Abraham and Isaac reached Moriah on the third day (Gen. 22:4); God descended onto Sinai on the third day (Exod. 19:11); and Jonah was in the fish “three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). This tradition of God doing something big on the third day, by the way, is probably what Paul was referring to when he said that Christ “was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4). He wasn’t referring to a specific “proof text,” but to this grouping of events and the prophetic message they implied.
Moreover, we see from the book of Esther that “after three days” can mean “on the third day.” As preparation for her appearance before the king, Esther asked her fellow Jews not to “eat or drink for three days, night or day” (4:16). On the surface, this would suggest that, after this three-day period, on the fourth day, Esther would go to the king. But, no, “on the third day,” Esther put on her royal robes and entered the king’s presence (5:1).
Thus, “after three days” in Hebrew idiom meant “on the third day.”
This same way of speaking was continued in later Jewish writings such as the Talmud, when Jewish scholars discussed days and partial days. For the rabbis, part of a day was equal to a whole day (see Lightfoot’s Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. 2, p. 210-211).
Regarding the “day and night” phraseology: this just means “one day” or even “parts of one day.” This is similar to English, such as when we say, “I’ve been working day and night to get this project done.” Of course, we don’t mean we’ve been working literal 24-hour periods. Rather, we’ve been putting in long hours each day.
In Hebrew, therefore, three days and three nights need not consist of three, full, 24-hour periods. Three partial days will suffice. It’s not much different in English. When someone says, “I’ll get back with you in three or four days,” if they then proceed to respond in two days or five days, we are not surprised. We all know that “three or four” is not to be taken literally.
All of this is vital background for us to understand what Jesus says in Matthew 12:40, “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.” If we were to understand this literally, as English speakers, then Jesus would not have been raised on the third day but the fourth day, after the (supposedly) 72-hour time period had passed. But, as we saw with Esther, “after three days” simply means “on the third day.”
In short, Jesus, as a Jew, was thinking and speaking in typical Hebrew fashion.
Therefore, there is no contradiction between the traditional understanding of Jesus’ time in the grave and the “three days and three nights” of Matthew 12. We must bear in mind that every language uses certain expressions about time that, when taken literally, will always be misunderstood.
Whatever language Jesus may have been speaking (probably Aramaic or Hebrew), his mind and expression were shaped by the Hebrew scriptures, by their mode of expression. He wasn’t going to adapt his language to 21st century English-speaking Americans! Rather, we must adapt our thoughts, teachings, and expressions to that context, that language, and that culture. When we do, we’ll realize that the partial days of Good Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday are “three days and three nights.”
I hope this has been helpful. Christ richly bless your Holy Week meditations as you await his resurrection on the third day!