There has been quite a bit of confusion that has been taught with regards to meaning of the “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” mentioned by our Lord in Matthew 12:40.
Most of those who attempt to explain this passage attempt to address it by saying that Jesus would be dead and his body would remain in the tomb for three days and three nights. Those who do this sometimes appeal to the Jewish reckoning of time that a portion of a day can be referred to as a whole.
Is this how we should read Jesus’ words concerning the three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, or is Jesus making a reference to the whole of his sufferings which were soon to take place in Jerusalem?
According to the scriptures the sufferings of Christ include the betrayal by Judas, the arrest and trial before the High Priest and Jewish leadership, the condemnation and cruel treatment of Jesus by the Jewish leadership, being delivered to Pilate (the Roman governor) and being rejected and condemned by the Jews and Gentiles, and being flogged and beaten by the Roman soldiers.
Neither the Gospels nor the book of Acts present a view of the cross without the sufferings which preceded the cross. Yet we have entire theological views that give little to no attention to the things Jesus suffered and endured before he was nailed to the cross. However, we cannot have a proper understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus without the whole of what he suffered.
In the language of scripture, the passion of Jesus was the totality of his sufferings beginning the night he was betrayed and reaching its finality in his death on the cross.
According to the scriptures Jesus ate the Passover with his disciples on the evening of the first day of unleavened bread (Matthew 26:17-21). That same night Jesus was betrayed, arrested, and brought before the Jewish leadership who were plotting to put him to death. He was tried, beaten, and mocked by them. As it was dawning towards the next day Jesus was denied by Peter just before the rooster’s crow just as Jesus had predicted. Very early that morning Jesus was led away by the leading priests and elders to the Roman governor, Pilate. As this was taking place Judas went out and hanged himself.
Jesus was examined by Pilate and accused before Pilate by the Jewish elders and the chief priests. Jesus was then placed on trial before the people who gathered at Pilate’s house that morning. Jesus was condemned by the people who were influenced by the Priests and elders and to cry out that Jesus be crucified. Pilate then released Barabbas and ordered Jesus to be flogged. After being flogged and mocked by the Roman soldiers they led Jesus away to be crucified. Jesus was crucified at 9 am in the morning (the third hour) and died at 3pm (the ninth hour). Jesus was then taken down from the cross and buried.
According to Matthew, the very next day was the Sabbath (Matthew 27:62). On this day, the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate and requested that the tomb be secured with guards, “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’ So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his disciples from coming and stealing his body and then telling everyone he was raised from the dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we were at first.” Pilate replied, “Take guards and secure it the best you can.” So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it (Matthew 27:63-67 TNLT).
Now, according to Matthew 28:1-6, on the very next day which was the day after the Sabbath (which was the day after the crucifixion) the angel of the Lord rolled away the stone because Jesus had risen from the dead.
According to the book of Matthew Jesus was crucified, the next day was the Sabbath, and the next day was the first day of the week and Jesus had risen just as he had said.
I think it’s important to remember the words of Jesus from Luke 13:32, “I do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.” Notice the succession which Jesus gives, (1) today (2) tomorrow (3) the third day.
The language of scripture is that Jesus rose on the third day, and this fits with the actual timeline given to us by the gospel writers. It also agrees with the timeline of the feasts of the Lord; Passover, Unleavened bread, and First-fruits. These were all prophetic with regards to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
According to the timeline of the appointed feasts, Passover was on the 14th day (at evening) of first month which was Nisan 14 (or Abib 14). The next day was the 15th day and the beginning of seven days of unleavened bread. This day was also a Sabbath, and the next Sabbath was not until seven days later. Passover actually set the course for the Sabbaths for the rest of the calendar year. On the 16th day of Nisan or Abib was the feast of first-fruits. There was only one day between Passover and first-fruits and that was the Sabbath of unleavened bread. According to Paul, Jesus’ resurrection fulfilled the fruits-fruits (1 Corinthians 15).
Jesus was crucified on Passover, the 14th day. His body rested in the tomb on the Sabbath of unleavened bread (the 15th day) and He was raised from the dead on the 16th fulfilling the first-fruits.
Again the Sabbath after Passover began all the weekly Sabbaths of the year. A careful study of the feasts in Leviticus 23 will clarify this. This also agrees with the timeline given by Jesus when He says, “Today, I do cures, tomorrow I cast out demons, and on the third day I shall be perfected.” Notice again the succession, today, tomorrow, and the third day.
Now, what about the three days and three nights in the heart of the earth? Most people interpret this as the literal time between the death and resurrection, i.e., the actual time that Jesus’ body was in the tomb. Yet, the text doesn’t say in the tomb. It says, in the heart of the earth. Could it be that, in the heart of the earth, refers to totality of the sufferings of Jesus? (1) The day/night he ate the Passover with his disciples and was betrayed, (2) the day/night He was placed on trial and crucified, (3) the day and night his body rested in the tomb.
Could the meaning of three days and three nights in the heart of the earth be referring to the time span of his sufferings or passion in Jerusalem?
After Jesus was raised from the dead, he met two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus. One of them, whose name was Cleopas, asked Jesus, “Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days ?” Jesus said unto them, “what things ?” Then they said to Jesus, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, today is the third day since these things were done.”
*These things* which these two disciples refer to include the betrayal and trial along with the crucifixion. As these men spoke with Jesus, it was the *third day* since the day Jesus had been put on trial and crucified.
This fits also with the stated timeline that Jesus had given to his disciples. For example Matthew 16:21 says, “From that time forth began Jesus to show unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day”
According to Matthew 16:21, the third day would be the third day from the beginning of His sufferings at Jerusalem from the hands of the elders and the chief priests prior to being killed. I think if we’d read “in the heart of the earth” in view of the narrative we’d find there is more evidence that Jesus is referring to the totality of His sufferings and not His burial alone.
The things Jesus endured in Jerusalem, which scripturally can be considered the heart of the earth, was foretold by the prophets and is the sign that Jesus is giving that He was indeed the Messiah!
In closing, I recommend Ralph Woodrow’s Biblical studies into the meaning of “the heart of the earth” as it relates to Jerusalem. It is very insightful for those interested in further study along this line. Below is a link to his study.