My church teaches that Jesus died on a Friday and rose on Sunday and He was in the grave for three days. As I count the days, there are only two days between His death and resurrection...am I wrong?
The traditional teaching within the church is that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and churches commonly observe the Friday before Easter Sunday as the day of Jesus' death, but a Friday observance is a matter of church tradition rather than biblical truth.
Scripture says clearly that Jesus spent three days and three nights in the grave:
Matt. 12:40 for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
In Jewish reckoning, "day" and "night" refers to periods of light and dark in a 24-hour day, so any part of the daylight hours counts as a "day" and any part of the nighttime hours counts as "night." Therefore, "three days and three nights" requires counting at least part of three separate daytime and nighttime periods...but on which day of the week do we begin counting?
While Scripture never names the specific day of the week on which Jesus dies, it does tell us the day Jesus rose from the dead. Scripture says Jesus was raised before sunrise on the first day of the week:
Luke 24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.
Luke 24:2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
Luke 24:3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
The first day of the week in the Jewish calendar is Sunday, and the Bible says the tomb was discovered empty on a Sunday. So we can begin counting backward three days and three nights from Sunday to arrive at the day Jesus died. We cannot count Sunday daytime itself, however, because Scripture says Jesus was out of the grave before dawn on Sunday.
Therefore, we start counting with the Saturday nighttime period and move back three daytime periods and three nighttime periods:
- Saturday nighttime - 1 night
- Saturday daytime - 1 day
- Friday nighttime - 2 nights
- Friday daytime - 2 days
- Thursday nighttime - 3 nights
- Thursday daytime - 3 days
if Jesus was in the grave three days and three nights and rose before dawn on Sunday, then there is simply not enough time available for Jesus to have died on a Friday and risen before daybreak on a Sunday. Matthew 12:40 requires that Jesus be crucified on a Thursday.
But wasn't the day after Jesus died a Sabbath? Yes, but the Bible says the day after Jesus' death was not a normal Saturday Sabbath but rather a "high day" Sabbath:
John 19:31 Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.
A high day Sabbath refers to a special Sabbath day required by a feast observance regardless of the day of the week upon which it falls. Jesus died on Passover, and the Jewish feast of Passover is always followed the next day by another Jewish feast called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread is always a high day Sabbath according to scripture (Lev 23:6-8), which matches the Bible's testimony that the day after Jesus' death was a Sabbath.
Therefore, Jesus died and was buried on Passover, a Thursday, which was also the day of preparation (John 19:14) prior to the start of a high day Sabbath for the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Following that high holy day (Friday) Sabbath came the normal, weekly Sabbath observance on Saturday. So in the week Jesus died, there were two back-to-back Sabbath days observed (i.e., Friday and Saturday).
Furthermore, John says in chapter 12 that Jesus visited Martha, Mary and Lazarus six days before Passover and the next day (i.e., five days from Passover), Jesus entered Jerusalem:
John 12:1 Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
John 12:12 On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem,
John 12:13 took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, “Hosanna! BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD, even the King of Israel.”
So if Jesus entered the city on the fifth day before Passover, a Sunday (which is the day traditionally observed), then Passover occurred on a Thursday (counting Sunday to Thursday).
Finally, we find further evidence of a Thursday death by consulting lunar records for the second and third decades of the first century. Jewish feasts are timed according to lunar activity, and in the year Jesus died, the day of Passover began Wednesday night and ended Thursday at sundown, and the seven-day feast of Unleavened Bread began the next day on a Friday.
So the weekly Sabbath day ended at sundown on Saturday night, and then sometime before sunrise on Sunday morning, the women came to an empty tomb, which is why Scripture says Jesus resurrected before daybreak on the first day of the week. So if we count from Thursday daytime to Saturday night, we find three days and three nights, just as Scripture requires.
Also, please see our explanation for how the two Mary's were able to buy spices during this time.
For an in-depth explanation of the timing of the events during the week of Jesus' death, please watch our lesson from the Gospel of Matthew Bible study.