Why would Jesus be so specific if He didn’t mean it literally?

Prior to the events of the Passion, Jesus repeated a number of times that He would be killed and rise again on the third day. There was enough knowledge of this, for the Romans to secure the tomb until the third day to ensure that no-one attempted to steal the body. Personally, I could never really get my head around how very early Sunday morning could be considered to be three days after Friday (and very late on Friday at that) – it just doesn’t add up. I remember hearing an  explanation saying that the Jews number days different to us and so Good Friday was the first day and Easter Sunday the third day, but I wasn’t really convinced. Especially every time I came across Matthew 12:40 in which Jesus said, “Just as Jonah was in the belly of a huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (God’s Word translation). Jesus is pretty specific there – three days and three nights. The only way to accommodate the Friday to Sunday narrative is to say that Jesus didn’t literally mean three days and three nights. But why would He be so specific, if He didn’t mean it literally? 

Western calendars may sometimes put Monday as the first day of the week, but that is not Biblical.

So is there a logical answer to this puzzle? Yes, there is! Let’s deal first with why it is generally believed that Jesus died on a Friday and rose on a Sunday. After Jesus had died and been laid in the tomb, Luke 23:54 says, “And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath drew on” – the logical conclusion on reading this would be to say that because the Sabbath is on a Saturday, the day prior to the Sabbath must have been a Friday. Regarding the third day being a Sunday, Luke 24 begins with these words, “Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them“. The first day of the week, is without doubt, Sunday. Western calendars may sometimes put Monday as the first day of the week, but that is not Biblical. We know that the first week, the seven days of Creation ended with God resting on what was later referred to as the Sabbath. So with the Sabbath being a Saturday, at the end of the week, the first day MUST be a Sunday.

Isn’t the Sabbath simply a Saturday, observed as a day of rest?

So is there anything we could have misunderstood here? It certainly doesn’t look like it. But there is an answer and it can be found by first understanding that God’s (and Jewish) days start at sunset, not at midnight and second by carefully examining John’s account of what happened. In John 19:31 it is recorded that, “It was Preparation Day, and the Judeans did not want the bodies to remain on the stake on Shabbat, since it was an especially important Shabbat. So they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies removed” (Complete Jewish Bible). What did John mean by, “an especially important Shabbat” or as the King James Version says, “a high sabbath”? unleavenIsn’t the Sabbath simply a Saturday, observed as a day of rest? The answer to that, is no. It may come as a surprise to learn that for the Jews, Saturday is not the only Sabbath. There are seven other Sabbaths that occur every year and these can fall on any day of the week – not just Saturday. The first of these annual Sabbaths is the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which begins on the day following the Passover. Let’s read from Leviticus 23:5-7: “In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the Lord‘s passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the Lord: seven days ye must eat unleavened bread. In the first day ye shall have an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein“. We know that Jesus died on the Passover and so the day following His death, beginning at sunset on the same day, was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread on which “ye shall do no servile work therein” – in other words, one of the seven annual Sabbaths and not necessarily a Saturday.

The Bible doesn’t actually say that Jesus was raised on a Sunday.

Rather than going into a long explanation, let’s suppose that the Passover on which Jesus died was a Wednesday and not a Friday. Let’s see if this fits better with what the Bible says, regarding Jesus being in the tomb three days and three nights:

  • Late Wednesday afternoon Jesus dies and is entombed before sunset
  • Wednesday night, Jesus is in the tomb = 1 night
  • Thursday (the high Sabbath), Jesus is in the tomb = 1 day & 1 night
  • Thursday night, Jesus is in the tomb = 1 day & 2 nights
  • Friday, Jesus is in the tomb = 2 days & 2 nights
  • Friday night, Jesus is in the tomb = 2 days & 3 nights
  • Saturday (the regular Sabbath), Jesus is in the tomb = 3 days & 3 nights
the-garden-tomb
The Garden Tomb – Jerusalem, Israel

Everything makes sense, we have the literal three days and nights that Jesus spoke of – except, wasn’t Jesus raised on a Sunday? What’s happened to Saturday night and Sunday morning? Saturday night would be one night too many. But…..the Bible doesn’t actually say that Jesus was raised on a Sunday. The Bible says that the empty tomb was discovered very early on a Sunday, before the sun had even come up, “Early on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb while it was still dark and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb” (John 20:1, Modern English Version). Traditionally, we’ve taken that to mean that Jesus was raised sometime after midnight on Saturday night, but before Mary arrived pre-sunrise on Sunday morning. But there is no reason that Jesus could not have been raised just after sunset on the Saturday evening, but then Mary Magdalene did not arrive until early on Sunday morning.

There is nothing wrong with remembering Jesus’ death on Good Friday.

Now, there is nothing wrong with remembering Jesus’ death on Good Friday – you’d be hard pressed finding a church service commemorating the Crucifixion on Wednesday. But do not cling tightly to religious traditions which are not supported by a careful analysis of the Bible. Tradition can get things wrong and we should be open for God to reveal to us when this is the case. If we can accept that Jesus was not actually born on Christmas Day without it causing any problems, then we should also be able to accept that He didn’t die on Good Friday either. And the narrative I have given you fits with what Jesus actually said, the traditional narrative does not – it requires explaining, “What Jesus really meant“. 

If you have any further questions or thoughts, please feel free to leave a comment.


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