From the March/April 2017 issue of Discern Magazine

How Do You Count Three Days and Three Nights?

Jesus said He would be in the grave three days and three nights. But how can you get that out of the traditional Good Friday afternoon to Easter Sunday morning?

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You would think that most people could count to three without a problem. But that doesn’t seem to be true when it comes to the length of time that Jesus Christ said He would be in the tomb. Did He really mean “three days and three nights,” or is it possible He only meant parts of three days and parts of three nights?

Mainstream Christianity observes Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and Christian churches around the world attract large crowds for their worship services on these two occasions.

But for those who take the Bible at its word, it is extremely hard (actually impossible) to get either three days and three nights—or even parts of three days and three nights—between Friday sunset and Sunday sunrise.

So what is the truth? What does the Bible actually tell us?

Matthew 12:39-40 is key, “But He answered and said to them, ‘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’” (emphasis added).

An impossible count

Before examining these verses, let’s first establish if it is even possible to get three days and three nights between Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning (“while it was still dark,” John 20:1). Let’s count together: Friday night is the first night; Saturday is the first day; and Saturday night is the second night. But that’s it! We have a grand total of two nights and one day!

It is impossible to count three days and three nights between Friday sunset and Sunday sunrise!

Is it possible to count parts of three days and parts of three nights between Friday and Sunday? To do so, you must consider that the short time on Friday afternoon is part of a day; Friday night was a full night; Saturday was a full day; Saturday night was a full night; and then somehow Sunday morning was part of a day (even though John says the women went to the tomb and found it empty “while it was still dark”). Even this count would give us just parts of three days (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) but only two nights (Friday and Saturday).

The truth becomes obvious: it is impossible to count three days and three nights from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning and equally impossible to count parts of three days and parts of three nights.

If Scripture is to be believed, there is no possibility of a Friday crucifixion and a Sunday morning resurrection.

Taking Christ at His word

The current teaching of mainstream Christianity that Christ was crucified on a Friday and resurrected on Sunday morning is simply wrong and contradicted by the Bible. It is important that we accept clear statements from Scripture and build our beliefs on them and not accept something that is more convenient. We take Christ at His word—He would be in the tomb for three days and three nights.

According to Bullinger’s Companion Bible, this phrase used in Matthew 12 literally means three days and three nights and is not an idiom open for interpretation:

“When the number of nights is stated as well as the number of days, then the expression ceases to be an idiom, and becomes a literal statement of fact” (Appendix 144, p. 170).

What day was Christ crucified?

If Christ was not crucified on Friday, on what day was He crucified? In Matthew 26:19-21 and 27:33-35 we find that He was crucified at a place called Golgotha on Passover day, the 14th of the first month of the Hebrew calendar (Leviticus 23:5).

The truth becomes obvious: it is impossible to count three days and three nights from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning and equally impossible to count parts of three days and parts of three nights.According to John’s account, many of the Jews ate their Passover meal the night after the death of Jesus Christ (John 18:28), which would be the beginning of Nisan 15 since, for the Jews, each day begins at sunset. Some argue that Christ ate a “pre-Passover” meal and not the real Passover the night before He died. But what does Scripture say?

We have nine verses that describe the meal eaten by Christ and His disciples as the Passover. There are three verses in Matthew, three in Mark and three in Luke (Matthew 26:17-19; Mark 14:12, 14, 16; Luke 22:8, 11, 15). Based on this evidence, we can be assured that Jesus and His disciples ate the Passover meal on the evening before His death, which, according to Scripture, was the evening of Nisan 14.

What year?

In order to determine the day of the week, we must ask another question. In what year did this take place? The most commonly accepted year for the crucifixion is A.D. 33, but this seems to be too late based on the internal evidence of Scripture.

There are several markers in Scripture that can be used to arrive at a different year: (1) the 70-weeks prophecy in Daniel, (2) the governorship of Pilate, (3) the death of Herod, (4) the census during the reign of Augustus Caesar and (5) the number of Passovers during Christ’s ministry recorded in Scripture.

The listing of the Passovers during His ministry provides evidence of a 3½-year ministry beginning in the fall of A.D. 27, when Christ was about 30 years of age, and continuing through four Passovers (A.D. 28, 29, 30 and 31). Based on this evidence, we believe a better date for Christ’s death is A.D. 31.

With the help of the Hebrew calendar, we can calculate that Passover in A.D. 31 was on Wednesday.

Events around Christ’s death and burial

Here is what we know from Scripture about the events on that Wednesday. Jesus Christ was crucified around 9 a.m. (Mark 15:25). At noon began three hours of darkness (Mark 15:33). Christ died at the end of the darkness, around 3 p.m. (Mark 15:34). Joseph of Arimathea came to Pilate seeking Christ’s body (John 19:38). With Pilate’s approval, Joseph rushed the body to a tomb nearby just before sunset or around 6 p.m.

That evening was the beginning of the Sabbath, but it wasn’t a weekly Sabbath. It was a high day, the first day of Unleavened Bread (John 19:31). This all happened so quickly that the women had no time to properly prepare the body. Everyone rested on the holy day (Sabbath), leaving no time for the women to purchase and prepare spices until after the Sabbath had passed.

The women were able to purchase and prepare the spices on Friday, the day after the first Sabbath (high day). After purchasing and preparing the spices, there was not enough time left in the day to go to the tomb to anoint the body before the second Sabbath (weekly Sabbath) began another day of rest at sunset (Luke 23:55-56).

So, after the second Sabbath and early on the first day of the week (before sunrise), they went to the tomb with the spices. But when they arrived, the body was gone (Luke 24:1-3). Jesus had been resurrected exactly as He said, after 72 hours in the tomb, late on Saturday afternoon.

Is there a contradiction of terms?

But what about the scriptures that speak of “after three days,” “the third day” and “in three days”? Do they contradict the period of “three days and three nights”?

“After three days” is found in Matthew 27:63. If Christ was resurrected just before sunset on Saturday and exactly 72 hours after His body was put into the tomb on Wednesday, then it was “after three days.” A 6 p.m. burial on Wednesday and a 6 p.m. resurrection on Saturday satisfies the statement “after three days.”

“The third day” is used in Matthew 16:21. If Christ was buried at sunset on Wednesday, then Saturday would be the third day (Thursday was the first day, then Friday, then Saturday). This term creates no problem since Saturday clearly qualifies as “the third day.”

“In three days” is found in Matthew 26:61. The same holds true here. A 6 p.m. resurrection on Saturday is “in three days” or “within three days” (Mark 14:58).

Why do most celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday?

It is clear from the Scriptures that Jesus Christ was neither crucified on Friday nor resurrected on Sunday morning. He was crucified on a Wednesday afternoon, entombed around 6 p.m. and resurrected 72 hours later, around 6 p.m. on Saturday.

So why does mainstream Christianity insist on a Friday crucifixion and a Sunday resurrection? For most Christians, this is the primary “proof” that Sunday is the appropriate day of worship. The reasoning goes that if Christ was resurrected on Sunday, there is justification for worshipping on Sunday, instead of the biblically commanded seventh day of the week.

As Christians, it is our responsibility to accept the Scriptures for what they say and not what we want them to say. Jesus Christ gave only one sign that He was the Messiah—He would be three days and three nights in the tomb. If He wasn’t, then, by His own words, He should be rejected as our Savior.

But He was three days and three nights in the tomb! The sign was fulfilled exactly as He said. He is our Savior!

How do you count three days and three nights? It is quite simple—follow the Scriptures!

For a graphical look at this, see our infographic “Chronology of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection” in the Learning Center.

About the Author

Jim Franks

Jim Franks is president of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He and his wife, Sharron, live in the Dallas, Texas, area.

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