If Jesus died and laid in the tomb on Friday night, Saturday and rose Sunday morning before anyone arrived, why do believers say He was in the grave for three days and three nights? Answering this question is a good lesson on why we shouldn’t listen to Western assumptions about the Bible. There’s a gem buried in this element of Holy Week: a call to rest, not from something but in someone.
Our culture has forgotten how to rest. Social media gives us FOMO and the political environment is a wreck. Spending even the Lord’s day worked up over something in our newsfeed is tempting. These ideas somehow make our culture similar to the first Holy Week. Imagine how the people of Jerusalem eagerly welcomed Jesus as King but demanded His crucifixion days later.
Impatient for a revolution, Peter cut off a servant’s ear in Gethsemane. Pilate caved to a mob crying for the blood of an innocent man in all of this restlessness. The disciples still asked when Jesus would return to Israel, even after Jesus’ resurrection. Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Jesus prompted them and us to rest.
From Friday night to Sunday morning.
The Gospels describe this time in various ways. One description says, “Jesus was three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Matthew, Mark, John and Luke say that Jesus’ resurrection happened on the first day of the week, which would be Sunday for the Jews. Though there’s some dispute, most scholars believe that Jesus died on Friday, meaning He wasn’t in the grave for 72 hours, no matter how you look at it. The only full day Jesus spent in the tomb was the Sabbath, Saturday, which is also the day God commanded the Israeli people to rest. God also rested after the world’s creation in Genesis 2.
In those times, days weren’t divided at midnight like in modern times, but at sundown. In the first-century Jewish mind, part of a day counted as an entire day. Because Jesus was buried Friday evening and rose again on Sunday morning, He was in the grave for three days and three nights by Jewish standards. However, in modern times, He was in the tomb for one full day, the Sabbath or Saturday.
All four Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified on the Day of Preparation. John, Luke, and Mark say the next day was the Sabbath. So if Jesus was killed on the Day of Preparation, why did He already observe Passover with His disciples? Preparations had to be made for the Sabbath every week. Food had to be made beforehand, leading to the Day of Preparation becoming the standard term for Friday.
The Mosaic Law specified the day the Passover lamb was eaten, which was Nissan 14. We should assume that Jesus kept the law and observed Passover at the proper time. After Passover, which was Thursday, came Friday, the Day of Preparation, when Jesus was killed. Saturday, the Sabbath, followed, then came the first day of the week, Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead and the third day after His crucifixion.
The significance of Jesus being dead for three days.
There are numerous reasons why it’s significant that Jesus was dead for three days prior to His resurrection. Resurrecting after three days proved to Jesus’ rivals that He rose from the dead. According to Jewish tradition, a person’s spirit stays with their dead body for three days. After that time, the soul departed. If Jesus’ resurrection happened the same day or the following day, it would’ve been easier for His rivals to say He wasn’t truly dead. Jesus also waited days after Lazarus died before He resurrected him so people couldn’t deny the miracle, as detailed in John 11:38-44.
Another reason why Jesus needed to be dead for three days was to satisfy a biblical prophecy. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus claimed He would be dead in three days. Hosea 6:1-3 also speaks to a prediction of the Messiah’s resurrection after three days. The three days were influential in other ways. Jesus died on a Friday, Nisan 14, when the Passover lamb was sacrificed. Jesus’ death symbolized the death of an unblemished, perfect sacrifice for His believers. His resurrection on the third day happened on the first day of the week, providing a new life and beginning to all who believe and trust Him.
So why is it essential for Jesus to be dead three days before the resurrection? So the nonbelievers couldn’t deny that He was dead and because three days were what Jesus prophesized. Other than those reasons, the Bible doesn’t give a reason for the necessity of three days between His death and resurrection.
Why is Jesus’ resurrection important?
Jesus’ resurrection is vital for numerous reasons. The resurrection is a witness to God’s immense power. If you believe in the resurrection, you believe in God. If He exists, created the universe and reigns over it, then He can raise people from the dead. He isn’t worthy of our worship and faith if He doesn’t have this power. He created life and can resurrect it after death, reversing the dreadfulness of death, and only He can take away the sting of death, gaining victory over the grave. God reminds us of His sovereignty over life and death by resurrecting Jesus from the grave.
The resurrection of Jesus is also vital because it confirms who Jesus said he was, the Messiah and the Son of God. According to Jesus, His resurrection was a sign from heaven that verified His ministry. His resurrection, seen by hundreds of witnesses, proves He’s the world’s Savior. Another reason why Jesus’ resurrection is essential is that it confirms Jesus’ divine nature and sinless character. The Bible said God’s Holy One wouldn’t see corruption, and Jesus never did, even after His death.
Based on Jesus’ resurrection, Paul preached that everyone who believes in Jesus is set free from their sins. Through Jesus, our sins are forgiven. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we live to praise Him another day. We may not be perfect, but His sacrifice gives us a second chance.