In Matthew 12:40, Jesus says that he will be buried “three days and three nights.” Some people teach 1) that this is not a figure of speech, 2) that Jesus therefore had to be in the tomb exactly 72 hours, 3) that since he was put in the tomb at evening, he came out at evening and 4) that this necessitates a Wednesday crucifixion. Further, this was supposedly the only sign Jesus gave that he was the Christ. Jesus had to be in the tomb exactly 72 hours or else he was not our Savior.
However, our salvation does not depend on the exact length of time Jesus spent in the tomb. The apostles did not teach that. They most often used the phrase “on the third day,” which makes no attempt at hourly precision. The phrase “on the third day” usually suggests less than 72 hours, but the apostles apparently were not concerned about the exact length of time Jesus was in the tomb. We do not teach that the 72-hour interpretation of Matthew 12:40 is the only possible interpretation, nor even that it is the “best” interpretation.
Within Christianity, there are three views as to the day of the crucifixion: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Although the Friday view is by far the most common, some Christians believe the Wednesday view, and a few the Thursday view. We do not believe it is necessary for the church to have an official position as to which interpretation of Matthew 12:40 is correct. The core issue is that Jesus was crucified, and resurrected on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
Let us look at the evidence from Luke, who wrote his Gospel to Theophilus, who apparently did not have the book of Matthew. Jesus predicted that he would be killed “and on the third day be raised to life” (Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 46). On Sunday afternoon, the apostles described the crucifixion (24:20) and said, “It is the third day since all this took place” (24:21). They understood Sunday afternoon to be on the third day since the crucifixion. But if the crucifixion had been on a Wednesday, Sunday afternoon would have been on the fourth or the fifth day, depending on how one counts.
Were those two disciples mistaken? Luke reports their comment as true, and Theophilus would certainly receive the impression that Jesus was killed on the day before the Sabbath (Luke 23:54). Verse 56 refers to the weekly Sabbath, and that is how Theophilus would have understood verse 54, too, since there is no hint in Luke that there may have been more than one Sabbath that week. The evidence from the book of Luke seems to point consistently to a Friday crucifixion, and Sunday is the third day from Friday. That is the way Theophilus would have counted it with the evidence available to him.
Jewish custom is to count inclusively, that is, counting the beginning as first. When counting Pentecost, for example, the 50th day is (according to the way we count) 49 days after the wavesheaf. Or when John said “after eight days” (John 20:26, NKJ), he meant “one week later” (John 20:26, NIV). In this customary way of counting days, Sunday would be considered the
third day from Friday. Luke tells us that Jesus rose on the third day after the crucifixion.
Another example of inclusive counting is seen in the book of Esther. She promised to not eat or drink “for three days, night or day” and after that go to the king (Esther 4:16) — yet she went to the king on the third day (5:1). Apparently any portion of the day was sufficient to count for
the day and the night. A biblical phrase that seems to us to be precise may not necessarily match modern ideas of exact time measurement.
Because Jews customarily counted inclusively, it is not appropriate to insist that “on the third day” means “exactly 72 hours later.” Where Luke uses the phrase “on the third day,” Mark uses the phrase “after three days” (Mark 9:31). Matthew also uses the phrase “after three days,” and
he equates it with “until the third day” (Matthew 27:63-64). Or they may say “three days later” or “in three days” (Mark 10:34; 14:58). We should not read hourly precision into this variety of phrases.
Although the apostles preached that Jesus was raised “on the third day” (Acts 10:40; 1 Corinthians 15:4), they never used that chronology as proof of Jesus’ authenticity. The inspired writers do not seem to be concerned about the exact length of time, nor about the exact description of the three days.
Similarly, the apostles made no effort to say exactly when Jesus was resurrected, although a reading of one Gospel would leave the reader with the impression that Jesus rose on a Sunday. This has been the understanding of the vast majority of Christians ever since.
If Matthew 12:40 is intended to be precise, then the other Gospel writers misled their readers. But if we recognize that Jewish culture did not expect precision of such chronological phrases, we find it easier to understand that Matthew 12:40 could be a figure of speech, not an otherwise unexplained detail that all other passages must be fitted around.