Three (3) Days and Three (3) Nights

“For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Mt. 12:40This either means three full days or is an idiom for parts of three days. It must be the latter, for if it means 72 full hours (3 days and 3 nights) Christ could not rise till after the third day was over and would then have risen on the second day of the week. But we read (Mk 16:9) that He rose on the first day of the week.See also Mt. 16:21; 20:19; Mk. 9:31; 10:34; Lk. 9:22; 18:33; 24:6,7. The phrase therefore does not mean 72 full hours.It was a Jewish maxim that a part stood for the whole, and as Jesus was in the tomb part of the sixth day, all the seventh day, and part of the first day, the phrase “three days and three nights” is used to express this time.Christ was crucified on the day before the Sabbath and rose on the day after the Sabbath. (Lk. 24:21)  {H.M.S.Richards, Sr.}

NOTE: If, as some have said, Christ was speaking of the time period extending from Thursday night until Sunday morning, create another problem. Even though this now gives you your 3 literal nights, you now have removed the 3 days, because then you would only have the daylight hours of Friday & Sabbath.The following statement affirms the SDA position that Christ was in the “heart of the earth” from Friday evening until the dark hours of early Sunday morning.

Three Days & Three Nights

Death and Resurrection of Christ

Three questions present themselves in connection with the death of Christ: (1) On what day of the week did He die? (2) What was the connection between that day and the Feast of the Passover? (3) What was the year? This section deals with No. 1. No. 2 is examined in Additional Notes on Matt. 26, Note 1. No. 3 is examined in Section VII.Time Between Crucifixion and Resurrection.—Through the centuries Christendom has been quite agreed that Jesus died on the cross Friday afternoon and rose from the tomb early the next Sunday morning. However, in recent years some have contended that when Christ said He would be “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40), He meant He would be in the grave 72 hours. On this assumption is built the Wednesday crucifixion theory, which places the resurrection on Sabbath afternoon. (A more recent, less exact, Thursday proposal merely computes: “Thursday plus 3 days equals Sunday.”) Hence we should examine Christ’s statements regarding the matter.When Jesus spoke beforehand of His death and resurrection, He used several phrases concerning “three days,” and once “three days and three nights.” Of course, by modern Western reckoning, if we speak of three days after an event we mean three full days or more. Now three full 24-hour days after Friday afternoon would, strictly speaking, extend to Monday afternoon. But our problem is not what those phrases may mean to Westerners, but what Jesus meant by them and what His Near Eastern hearers understood by them.Meaning of “Day.”—There were various forms of speech used in Christ’s day that do not have the same meaning for us. Some examples of these have already been explained (“600 years old,” “son,” or “brother”; see Vol. I, pp. 181, 182; Vol. II, pp. 136, 137; see on 1 Chron. 2:7).What did Jesus mean by a “day”? He once spoke of the day having 12 hours (John 11:9, 10), referring obviously to the daytime as opposed to the night. This was literally true as Jesus meant it, for when He lived among men the time between sunrise and sunset was divided into 12 equal parts, or “hours,” which “hours” varied in length according to the season. The fact that today we use clock hours of uniform length, in which sunrise and sunset are more or less than 12 sixty-minute hours apart most of the time, does not make Jesus’ statement incorrect. Similarly His phrase “three days” must be interpreted according to what those words meant then to those people, not what they mean to us today.Although “day” was, and is, sometimes used to mean the daylight hours, nevertheless the word, when used in counting a series of days, means in both ancient and modern usage a period including a day and a night. The Greek language, in which the New Testament was written, had a word for “night-day,” nuchtheµmeron (see 2 Cor. 11:25); and Genesis enumerated each successive day of creation as composed of “evening” and “morning.” Jesus’ “three days and three nights” are merely “three [calendar] days,” as then understood.Different Phrases for Same Period.—This is clear from the fact that He refers at different times to the same period—the interval between His death and His resurrection—as “in three days,” “after three days,” on “the third day.” Once, because He is quoting from Jonah (ch. 1:17), He uses the phrase “three days and three nights.” Unless we accuse Jesus of contradicting Himself, we must accept all these phrases as meaning the same period of time. Even the priests and Pharisees who quoted Jesus as predicting His resurrection “after three days,” asked Pilate to have the tomb guarded “until the third day” (not “until after the third day”). Obviously, “after three days” meant “the third day".[1]The following texts mention this three-day period:

“In three days”

“After three days”

“The third day”

Matt. 26:61; 27:40

27:63; 12:40 (and 3 nights)

16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 27:64

Mark 14:58 (within)


  9:31; 10:34


 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46

John 2:19-21

What, then, did these various three-day expressions mean? We can find out easily by comparing other passages in the Bible that refer to time periods in similar ways.Three Days, Inclusive.—The question of how long Jesus was in the tomb rose from a modern misunderstanding of inclusive reckoning, the common ancient method of counting. It included both the day (or year) on which any period of time began and also that on which it ended, no matter how small a fraction of the beginning or ending day (or year) was involved. One example of this method is a period (when Shalmaneser besieged Samaria) beginning in the 4th year of Hezekiah and the 7th year of Hoshea, and ending in the 6th year of Hezekiah and the 9th of Hoshea, “at the end of three years” (2 Kings 18:9, 10; see Vol. II, p. 136). It was evidently counted thus: 4, 5, 6 (of Hezekiah’s reign), three years, inclusive.[2]Take another example. We say that a child is not one year old until after he has lived 12 full months from the date of his birth. He becomes one year old as he enters his second year of life, and becomes 2 years old after he completes his second year. Thus a child is called “10 years old” all through his 11th year, and becomes 11 only after he has reached the end of 11 full years. Not so in the Bible. Noah was, literally, “a son of 600 years” “in the six hundredth year” of his life (Gen. 7:6, 11); although his 600 years were not reckoned inclusively (see Vol. I, p. 181 and note), these verses show that in his 600th year his age was considered 600, not 599. A Hebrew baby was circumcised when he was “eight days old” (Gen. 17:12), “the eighth day” (Lev. 12:3; Luke 1:59), or “when eight days were accomplished” (Luke 2:21). The Bible lists several periods of “three days” that ended during, not after, the third day, and thus covered less than three full 24-hour days (see Gen. 42:17–19; cf. 1 Kings 12:5, 12 with 2 Chron. 10:5, 12).Not only among the Hebrews, but also among other ancient peoples, we have examples of inclusive reckoning. This was common in Egypt, Greece, and Rome (see Vol. II, p. 136). It is still found in the Far East today. Even in some countries of Europe a week’s interval is referred to as “eight days,” and a three-day round trip ticket bought on Sunday, for instance, is expected to be used on Tuesday. In modern Japan, until MacArthur’s government changed the system for the convenience of the compilers of vital statistics, a child born in December was a year old for the remainder of the month and became two years old on January 1; “two years old” meant having lived in two calendar years, regardless of how small a fraction of either year was involved.[3]Similarly, in Chinese reckoning a child born late last year is two years old this year (the second calendar year of his life) and will be three years old as soon as next year begins. Obviously, this is not a literal reckoning but is based on a concept of time that comes down from a long cultural usage. Similarly, we must bear in mind the cultural concepts of time that were held in Jesus’ time.Since the common custom of inclusive reckoning is well attested for the Hebrews, for other ancient nations, and in the East down to modern times, it seems wholly unreasonable to understand Jesus’ words about a three-day period in terms of our modern Western mathematical method of reckoning. By common usage His hearers would count the three days successively as:

1.  The day of the crucifixion.

2.  The day after that event.

3.  The “third” day after (by modern count, the second day after).

We cannot insist that when Jesus once said that He would rise after three days (Mark 8:31) He meant after the end of the third full day, or 72 hours. For that He would have said “on the fourth day.” (For the phrase “four days ago” meaning three full days, or at least 72 hours, see on Acts 10:30.)[4]But we are not left with merely an obvious deduction as to what Jesus meant by “third day.” We have it from His own lips. In speaking of Herod on one occasion He said, “Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:32, 33). Thus He equated the third day with the day after tomorrow—the third day counted inclusively.Crucifixion on Friday.—What day, we may inquire, was the day on which this three-day prophecy of Jesus was fulfilled? The answer is, “The first day of the week” (Mark 16:9; see on Matt. 28:1). Late “that same day” (Luke 24:1, 13), two disciples met Him on the road to Emmaus, and in talking of the crucifixion of their Master and their own deep disappointment, declared, “To day is the third day since these things were done” (Luke 24:21). Jesus Himself said, when He appeared to the Twelve in the upper room, “Thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day” (Luke 24:46). As Paul later said, “He rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4). Sunday, obviously, was the third day.[5]What, then, was the day of the crucifixion, seeing that Sunday was the third day, or the “day after tomorrow”? Obviously, the preceding Friday, the day before the Sabbath. This is in exact accord with Luke’s statement that the women left the embalming unfinished on the day of preparation as the Sabbath drew on, and rested the Sabbath day according to the commandment before returning on the first day of the week (Luke 23:54 to Luke 24:1). They would not have waited several days, as is supposed by those who put Jesus’ death on Wednesday and make the Sabbath here mentioned merely a festival, or ceremonial, sabbath. Besides, the phrase “an high day” is taken by many to indicate that in that year the festival sabbath fell on the weekly Sabbath (see on John 19:31).[6]

[1-6] Nichol, Francis D., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association) 1978.