One of the questions I often receive from people when I teach on evidence for the resurrection (or apparent contradictions in the Bible), concerns Jesus's statement regarding the number of days and nights He would spend in the grave. The question goes like this:
“Jesus said He would spend three days and three nights in the grave (see Matthew 12:40) so how was that fulfilled if Jesus was crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday morning? That seems at best like three days and two nights, but Jesus specifically said three nights.”
Well, what do we say to that? Critics of the Bible point to this passage in Matthew 12:40, then look at all of the “Good Friday” services taking place, then do the math and conclude that Jesus couldn’t count or that the Gospel writers erred. This is one of the most commonly cited “apparent contradictions” in the Bible. Well, the critics have overlooked something—as is often the case.
It's very likely that Jesus was not crucified on a Friday (as churches traditionally celebrate); but rather a Thursday. Let me walk you through a couple of the reasons I, and others, believe this to be the case.
First, nowhere in the Bible are we told that Jesus was crucified on Friday. Many people have concluded He was crucified on a Friday because it says in Mark’s gospel that Joseph of Arimathea came to Pilate and asked for Jesus’s body “the day before the Sabbath” (Mark 15:42). People read that and conclude that the Sabbath that is mentioned here (and Luke 23:54) refers to the Saturday Sabbath the Jews observed every seventh day of the week (Exodus 20:8-11). “If that is the case” they say, “Jesus must have been crucified on Friday.”
What they overlook though is that the weekly Saturday Sabbath is not the only Sabbath the Jews were told to observe. Leviticus 23:5-7 says that the Jews were to observe a special Sabbath the day after Passover. Here is what the passage says:
“In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight is the LORD’S Passover. Then on the fifteenth day of the same month there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work (Leviticus 23:5-7).” See also Exodus 12:12-16
Ahh, did you see that? There is a special Sabbath (a day of no work) the day after the Passover, no matter what day of the week Passover fell on. So, question for you. What feast was going on the day Jesus was crucified? The Passover (John 18:28 makes that clear).
The timing of Jesus’s death was no accident. The events of the first Passover in the book of Exodus (when the Lord passed over the homes that had the blood of the lamb on the doorposts) foreshadowed the time when God would provide a way for our sins to be passed over through the blood of a lamb—the Lamb of God, Jesus (John 1:29)—who would take away the sins of the world.
So, Jesus was crucified on the Passover, just as God had planned. Passover happened in the first month of the Jewish calendar, every year, on the fourteenth day of the month. What happened the next day? The Feast of Unleavened Bread began and according to Leviticus 23:7, there was to be no work done. That is the Sabbath I believe is being referred to in the New Testament Gospels when it says the Jews were concerned about crucifixion victims being left on the cross on the Sabbath. And the apostle John even confirms in his Gospel that the Sabbath that occurred the day after Jesus’s crucifixion was a special one. He says:
“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).”
Passover Sabbaths were known as "high days" (v. 31). Every Sabbath day was a holy day to the Jews but this was a "high day" (megale hemera in the Greek, which literally means "a great day").
So, knowing that there was a Sabbath the day after the Passover frees us up to back up the day of the crucifixion. We are not bound to a Friday crucifixion with a Saturday Sabbath. We can assume with a fair degree of confidence that the crucifixion happened on Thursday, followed on Friday by the Passover Sabbath, then Saturday's normal Sabbath, and then an early Sunday morning resurrection. And thus Jesus's prophecy about being in the grave three days and three nights (in Matthew 12:40) was perfectly fulfilled.
“Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40).”
Thursday going into Friday was night one.
Friday going into Saturday was night two.
Saturday going into Sunday was night three.
And then Jesus was raised just as the Gospels say.
So, with a little investigation, an alleged error in the Gospels concerning the resurrection can be laid to rest. The Bible is absolutely trustworthy and it proves to be so the more we investigate it. For more of these kinds of resolutions to apparent contradictions in the Bible, see our "Bible Difficulties" page.
Now, some of you brothers and sisters in the faith are probably saying, “Now hold on here a second Charlie before you go signing off. Are you saying we shouldn’t celebrate on Good Friday?”
Absolutely not. I think we should celebrate what God accomplished through Christ’s crucifixion every day. If your church is having a Good Friday service, go and be blessed. Give the Lord the praise and thanks He is due. But give thanks to Him on Thursday and on Saturday and on Tuesday, etc.