When did Jesus die?

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The Gospel is the story of Jesus. It’s tells of the Son of God who took on flesh and became a man. Who lived a righteous life without sin and became the sacrifice for sin. Jesus laid down His life for us. God loved us so much that He sent His Son to die in our place so that through His death we might have life. Through Jesus’s death and resurrection we have life.

Some of noticed a strange timeline to the story. We believe that Jesus was crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday. However the Bible says Jesus rose on the third day. If Jesus was crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday how was He dead for three days?

Jesus was arrested Thursday night. He was crucified at 9am and died at 3pm on Friday. He was then buried and remained in the tomb all day Saturday. Sunday morning at dawn, which would be around 6am Jesus rose from the dead. So Jesus was in the tomb for between 36-40 hours. He couldn’t have been dead for three days and three nights. That’s true. It’s a problem. Jews and Romans counted time different. Romans count like we do. Midnight was the middle of the night and the point at which a day ended and the next began. Jews however counted there days from sunset to sunset. So if it’s Thursday and the sun goes down, as soon as the sun is down, it’s Friday. When they describe the hours of the day they start counting at sunrise, which was around 6am. They didn’t count the night as part of the day. So when they describe the third hour they are referring to three hours after sunrise which would be 9am. This is important to understand but it doesn’t solve the problem. How was Jesus dead for three days and three nights if we are only talking about a 36 hour period?

Matthew 12:40 is the only time Jesus is said to be in the tomb 3 days and 3 nights. This has led some to believe that the crucifixion was on Wednesday and that the “Sabbath” being referred to was a special annual Sabbath not the regular weekly Sabbath that occurs on Saturday.

Here is the problem. In the eyes of the Jews if Jesus was dead for three days and three nights He couldn’t have risen on the third day. Even with our count, if He was dead for 72 hours. He didn’t rise on the third day. He rose on the fourth day. Therein lies the rub. If Jesus was in the tomb for three nights He would have risen on the fourth day not the third day. While Matthew 12 says three days and three nights we have twenty passages where Jesus notes He will rise on the third day (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:61; 27:40, 64; Mark 9:31; 10:34; 14:58; 15:29; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46; John 2:19, 20; Acts 10:40; 1 Corinthians 15:4).

This is an apparent contradiction. You may notice that some of these “on the third day” statements are in Matthew. Which means Matthew would be contradicting himself. Unlikely. The statement is more idiomatic than it is scientifically exact. How could Jesus rise on the third day if He was only dead for 36 hours? Stop thinking scientifically for a second and just think. If I came to visit you on Friday and stayed through Monday when I left, how many days was I there? Four. If I arrived Friday evening and left Monday morning I still visited you for four days. When the Jews counted time they counted the number of days involved not the number of hours included divided by 24 to get a literal day count.

At this time if you had a child born on December 31st. On January 1st your little bundle of joy would be considered two years old. Not scientifically, but practically. Your child had been alive in two separate years.Jesus died on Friday, day one. He was dead Saturday, day two. He rose on Sunday, day three. Thus Jesus died on Friday and rose on Sunday the third day. The way Jews, you know the guys who wrote the Bible, counted was simple: any part of a day could be considered a day.

Some will not be satisfied with this. They demand Matthew 12 be explained literally. In so doing they create a huge problem with the rest of the gospel. Skeptics would see this and say: “AHA! I knew it! Your Bible is flawed and riddled with contradictions. It clearly must be false! J’accuse!” To which I would quote the great Ralph Waldo Emerson: “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Seriously, the contradiction is not in the meaning but in our interpretation.

Those who hold that Matthew 12 should be taken literally to mean 72 hours and only 72 hours and anything else is wrong so we have to move the crucifixion, change holy week, and ignore numerous other Scriptures make several significant mistakes. They assume that we can read our modern mindset into an ancient text. They ignore culture. They ignore history. They ignore interpretation and they assume that this passage can only mean what they, 21st century Americans, think that it should mean based on their culture paradigm. This is little more than intellectual arrogance.

What’s more, it’s not even consistent. If I told you I ate a burrito three days ago. Does that mean that exactly 72 hours ago I consumed a delicious tortilla filled with meat, cheese, rice, and jalapenos? Or is it possible that when I say three days ago I mean that at some point three days prior to today, I ate a burrito?

Consider this: the assumption that creates the problem is that when Jesus says: “in the heart of the earth” He means in the tomb. What if that isn’t what He means at all? If you look through Scripture you will find that “the earth” is rarely a description of ground and regularly a description of the people who live on it. If “the heart of the earth” means the more accurately “the hands of men” then the counter starts Thursday night when Jesus was arrested. Then you have Jesus suffering in the heart of the earth Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. Three nights. This fits with Scripture and solves the problem. Jesus suffering didn’t begin on the cross. It began in the garden. He was a captive “in the heart of the earth” i.e subject to the hearts of men, for three nights.

The issue was not contradiction. It was a flaw in our interpretation. We can take Matthew 12 literally if we interpret it correctly. With this interpretation Matthew 12 and the 20 some passages that say Jesus will rise on the third day are both be true.

The important thing to remember here is that while we might not fully understand how a group of people 2000 years ago used idioms and calendars with perfect accuracy, what we do know is the message around the timeline. Don’t let dates, times, and orders get in the way otherwise you are missing the fourth of july firework spectacle for a fizzled out sparkler. The important thing to remember is that Jesus died on the cross for our sins to give us a new life, to make us holy, to draw us back to God so that we could be His. Jesus redeemed. Jesus restored. That’s more important than what night of the week His restoration began.

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