Most churches commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday. But how does this fit with the sign Christ gave?
As proof that He was the Messiah, Jesus Christ promised in advance exactly how much time He would spend in the grave. He called it “the sign of the prophet Jonah.”
The sign of Jonah
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had seen Him work miracles but still didn’t believe He was the Messiah (Matthew 12:23, 38). In fact, the Pharisees plotted “how they might destroy Him” (verse 14) and accused Him of working for Satan (verse 24)!
So when they asked for another sign, Jesus said:
“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For 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” (verses 39-40).
Jesus referred to the great miracle from the book of Jonah. God prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights before God told the fish to spit him out, alive, on the shore. And Christ let everyone know that He would be in the grave for the exact same length of time. He said the sign of Jonah would be the only sign He would give them. This important prophecy was very specific.
How do you get three days and three nights between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning?
Yet today most churches ignore this sign or try to explain that it didn’t really mean three full days and three full nights. Why? Because of a common misunderstanding about the holy times during that week many call Holy Week.
First, try to do the math. Almost all Christian churches teach Jesus Christ died and was buried late Good Friday afternoon, then was raised early Easter Sunday morning. That’s Friday night, Saturday day and Saturday night: two nights and one day. Even if you wanted to stretch things to call the few minutes of daylight on Friday a day, that’s only two days and two nights. Remember, Jesus was already risen before sunrise on Sunday (John 20:1).
Why would Jesus make a point of saying three days and three nights if He didn’t mean it? Is this a contradiction in the Bible or is there a simple explanation everyone would understand if they celebrated the festivals of the Bible as Jesus and His disciples did?Why would Jesus make a point of saying three days and three nights if He didn’t mean it? Is this a contradiction in the Bible or is there a simple explanation everyone would understand if they celebrated the festivals of the Bible as Jesus and His disciples did?
Understanding the timing of the biblical festivals helps us understand the sign of Jonah
Jesus clearly stated that He and His disciples were celebrating the Passover when He washed their feet and added the New Testament ceremony of the bread and the wine. He said: “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15).
Jesus and His disciples followed the command found in Leviticus 23 describing the “feasts of the Lord.” “On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover” (verses 4-5). Biblical days started in the evening, so after that Passover ceremony, but still on the Passover day, Jesus was arrested, beaten and crucified. He died around 3 p.m. (“the ninth hour” of daylight in the Jewish system of time keeping; Matthew 27:45-50; Mark 15:33-37; Luke 23:44-46) and was buried before sunset. In fact, the Jewish leaders were urgent that Jesus’ body not remain on the cross the next day.
“Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (John 19:31).
Most people today would see the word Sabbath and assume this means Saturday, since the regular weekly Sabbath day taught in the Bible is from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. But most miss the fact that John called it a “high day.” What did he mean? Let’s quickly go back to Leviticus 23. What comes right after the Passover (the 14th)?
“And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; seven days you must eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it” (Leviticus 23:6-7).
This First Day of Unleavened Bread was an annual Sabbath day—a high day. And it can come on different days of the week.
So the logical explanation is that Christ was exactly right about the three days and three nights. People today are just confused about when He died and was resurrected. It couldn’t have been on a Friday afternoon and Sunday morning.
The accompanying chart shows the math that works—the chronology of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection that matches the biblical festivals and confirms the sign of Jonah—the only sign Jesus said He would give!
You can learn more in the section “Holy Days vs. Holidays.” You can also see a more detailed infographic on the “Chronology of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection” on our infographics page.