The Third Day

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Today is Good Friday, when the church marks the crucifixion of Jesus. Two days later we celebrate Easter1, Resurrection Sunday, when Jesus rose from the dead. Yet, scripture clearly states that Jesus would rise on the third day.

Consider Mark 9:31, for example—“He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” Moreover, Jesus Himself said, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)

I’m sure that Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John could count to three, so why the discrepancy?

I’ve seen various supposed explanations over the years, but nothing that satisfied my logical mind. It wasn’t until our small group met this week that I finally got an answer that makes sense. This post summarizes what I learned Tuesday night. Thank you Billie Murch for your research and excellent presentation!

The first thing to remember is that the Hebrew day is reckoned differently than our western culture’s day. We count from midnight to midnight. They count from sundown (let’s say 6 pm) until sundown. Keep this fact in mind, as I’ll refer back to it in a moment.

Now we need to turn to Leviticus 23, which describe the festivals appointed by God. Verse 3 explains the Sabbath:

There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord.

In verses 5-8, God tells Moses:

The Lord’s Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month. On the fifteenth day of that month the Lord’s Festival of Unleavened Bread begins; for seven days you must eat bread made without yeast. On the first day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. For seven days present a food offering to the Lord. And on the seventh day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work.

The first month2 mentioned here is Nissan, the month in the Hebrew calendar that usually coincides with April. (Remember, the Hebrew calendar is lunar, based on the phase of the moon, so it doesn’t match the solar calendar we use.)

Being Jewish, Jesus would have celebrated these festivals—Passover, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and the two sacred assemblies that bookend that holy week. Additionally, he and his followers would have observed the Sabbath.

On a Jewish calendar, the days of the week are simply given numbers—first day, second day, etc., up to the seventh day, which is the Sabbath. Note that the Passover and  subsequent festival would have occurred on a different day of the week every year, just as does Christmas, Independence Day, Halloween, and other holidays tied to a date, rather than a day of the week. According to scholars, Jesus would have celebrated Passover on the fourth day of the week in the year he died—that is, our year AD 30. On our calendar, it was a Tuesday.

Now, let’s look at a timeline for the events of Jesus’ last supper, betrayal, trial, scourging, crucifixion, resurrection, and appearance to Mary:

Day 4
Tues. 6pm –
Wed. 6pm
Day 5
Wed. 6pm – Thurs. 6pm
Day 6
Thurs. 6pm –
Fri. 6pm
Day 7
Fri. 6pm –
Sat. 6pm
Day 1
Sat. 6pm – Sun. 6pm
Last supper, Gethsemane, arrest, trial Jesus in tomb, first night and day Jesus in tomb, second night and day Jesus in tomb, third night and day Jesus not in tomb
Crucifixion and death High Sabbath of Unleavened Bread Preparation day for weekly Sabbath Weekly Sabbath Jesus appears to Mary

4th Day, Tuesday night/Wednesday: Jesus celebrates the Passover Seder. Judas leaves to betray him. Meanwhile, Jesus goes to Gethsemane to pray. He is arrested and put on trial by the Sanhedrin. He was crucified around 9 am, and died around 3pm.

5th Day, Wednesday night/Thursday: Jesus is in the tomb (first night). The Feast of Unleavened Bread begins with a “high Sabbath”—there is a sacred assembly, but no work is to be done.

6th Day, Thursday night/Friday: Jesus in the tomb (second night). The high Sabbath ends, and the women rush to the market to procure spices for preserving Jesus’ body. Preparation for the upcoming (weekly) Sabbath uses up the rest of the day.

7th Day, Friday night/Saturday: Jesus is in the tomb (third night). This is the Sabbath, so it is a day of rest.

1st Day, Saturday night/Sunday: Jesus is not in the tomb—He has risen! The weekly Sabbath is over, the women go to the tomb, but they don’t find a body. Jesus greets Mary as a resurrected Savior.

Similarly, we can count the days Jesus was “in the heart of the earth”—Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, three days.

The problem comes from our use of different calendars, our insistence on having our Easter holidays on the same day of the week every year, and our habit of measuring time from midnight to midnight, rather than from evening to evening. As you can see, when we view things from a Jewish perspective, it all works out.

Of course, getting the exact day right isn’t that important. What matters is what we do about these historical events that form the basis for our faith.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” (Matthew 28:5-7)

Happy Easter, everyone!

1. The word Easter might simply mean “April” with no sinister pagan connotations, as is sometimes claimed. Click here for one explanation.

2. There are actually two “first” months in the Jewish calendar. Nissan is the Biblical first month, and the first day normally falls in April. Rosh Hashanah is the first day of Tishri, the Jewish New Year’s Day, and it falls in September.



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