The expression “three days and three nights” is mentioned three times in the Bible:
An Egyptian was fed with bread and water, a piece of cake of dry figs and two clusters of raisins, and with this his strength came back to him after spending “three days and three nights” without eating bread or drinking water. After that he guided David and his men until they found an army of Amalekites, allowing them a great victory and the recovery of everything that they had plundered from them, and their two women who they had led captive (1 Samuel 30:11 - 19).
Jonah the prophet was in the belly of a great fish prepared by the LORD for “three days and three nights”, giving him a chance to repent of his disobedience, so that he might later submit and take the word of warning from the LORD to the inhabitants of Nineveh. As a result, there was repentance, and the LORD had compassion of that people who were ignorant of the ways of God, and the lives of one hundred and twenty thousand persons were saved and much livestock (Jonah 4:11).
The Lord Jesus was “three days and three nights” in the heart of the earth, having beforehand cited what happened with Jonah as an example. God rose Him again on the third day and showed Him openly to His disciples, so that they could testify that it is He who God ordained to be judge of the living and of the dead (Acts 10:40 - 42).
We find a parallel in the days of creation: after God created the heavens and the earth, there were three days from the afternoon of that day until the afternoon of the third, or three days and three nights, after which He made the stars, the sun and moon (Gen. 1:1-19).
Another parallel, even more illuminating, is found in Hosea 6:1-3: after being torn apart, there will be two days before Isael is resurrected, a picture of what happened with the Lord Jesus: three days and three nights between death and resurrection.
We will not detain ourselves in considering these remarkable parallels, but will proceed to discover what we can on what has raised most curiosity, and even controversy, and that is the “three days and three nights” during which the Son of God was in the heart of the earth.
Beside the prophecy of “three days and three nights” pronounced by the Lord Jesus himself, we also have the statement of the two disciples who went back to Emmaus on the first day of the week, our Sunday, when the resurrection took place “…today is the third day since these things happened” (Luke 24:21). Let us now see how this happened.
All the four Evangelists contribute with a few different details on what happened in the interval between the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. None of them appears to have been personally present at the tomb during that time. Putting together what they wrote (Matthew 28:1 to 15, Mark 16:2 to 11, Luke 24:1 to 12 and John 20:1 to 10), we arrive at the conclusion that, having delivered His spirit in the afternoon about 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, Christ was buried at dusk before 6 p.m. Seventy two hours later, just after 6 p.m. on Saturday, He rose again, being the first day of the week, our Sunday; the exact time is not revealed to us.
That the crucifixion took place on a Wednesday can be proved by the events since the previous Friday until the Sunday of the resurrection, as they are told in the Gospels, and this is confirmed by writings in the early days of the church. This was the “Day of Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14). At twilight of this day the Jewish Passover meal was eaten (Leviticus 23:5).
After His victorious loud cry “It is finished!” and the delivery of His spirit to the Father, the soul of Jesus Christ went to the “Sheol”, as prophesied by king David (Psalm 16:10). This region, called “Hades” in the New Testament, which is its equivalent in Greek, is where the spirits of deceased went, as mentioned four times in the Gospels, all by the Lord Jesus (Matthew 11:23, 16:18, Luke 10:15, 16:23). The only description of the state of those that went there is found in Luke 16:23 - 31. The Word of God does not disclose to us what Christ did while He was in Sheol.
His body was placed in a new tomb where nobody had yet been placed (Luke 23:53), pertaining to Joseph of Arimathea. The Jewish “day” was counted from sundown to sundown, thus this “Preparation Day” was ending, giving place to the first day of Passover, a special Sabbath (“rest from work”), called a “high day” (John 19:31), on which work was not allowed (Exodus 12:16, Leviticus 23:7). As it was already late, coming close to 6.00 p.m. when that Sabbath began, the body was deposited in the tomb hurriedly and a great round stone closed the opening at sundown.
The women from Galilee had followed Joseph and Nicodemus, and saw the tomb, and how His body was laid. Among the women were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph, and they sat opposite of the tomb, thus being witnesses of the fact.
On the following day, our Thursday, the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate, and asked that the tomb be made secure until the third day. These enemies of Christ, responsible for His arrest, conviction and crucifixion, remembered that He said “After three days I will rise” (Matthew 12:40), and they feared that the disciples of Christ would come by night and steal Him away, and tell everyone that He had risen from the dead.
Pilate gave them permission to take their guard and to make the tomb as secure as they knew how. So they hurried over, and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard, judging that they had ensured that the body would stay there untouched for more than three days. However, all indicates that the disciples were in hiding from fear of being seized as accomplices of the Lord. They were not at least remembering, even less giving credit to what Lord Jesus had prophesied concerning His resurrection.
On the second day after the burial, our Friday, that Sabbath having ended, Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James, and Salome, went out and bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him (Mark 16:1). Then they returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils. And they rested on the next day according to the commandment (Luke 23:56) because it was the Sabbath (the weekly Sabbath, our Saturday).
At the end of the weekly Sabbath, the “three days and three nights” of the burial of the body of the Lord Jesus were completed. His body did not suffer corruption, as foreseen in the prophecy of David (Psalm 16:10). After twilight, on the first day of the week, long before dawn, the spirit of the Lord Jesus came back to His body and this was transformed, acquiring new glorious characteristics (see 1 Corinthians 15:35 - 52). This new body could not be contained within matter, and with it He left the tomb. When the angel came down from heaven with a great earthquake, and moved away the stone closing the entrance to the tomb where the body had laid, scaring the soldiers tremendously, the tomb was already empty (Matthew 28:2).
The soldiers of the guard fainted with fright, then rose and ran away, but the women were still on the way there (Matthew 28:11). Some of the soldiers went into the city and told the chief priests what had happened. These called a meeting and decided to give a large bribe to the soldiers for them to say that they had slept, and while they slept the disciples had entered into the sepulchre and stole the body. They promised the soldiers that they would not be punished. This incredible version invented by the priests was spread around in the first century. Other equally improbable versions were proposed through the centuries since then, but none can undo the Biblical reality of the facts.
Mary Magdalene, Salome and the other Mary (mother of James) had left their home in Bethany before sundown on Saturday to go to the tomb, taking the spices and fragrant oils to anoint the body of the Lord. When they got there, they found the stone removed, and a young man dressed in white clothes (the angel) who told them that Jesus who was crucified was not there anymore, because He had risen as He had said. He entered with them to show the place, now empty, where the body had been placed, and asked them to tell this to the disciples and to inform them that the Lord was going ahead of them to Galilee, and they would find Him there.
The three women left the tomb quickly, shaking and scared, and two of them said nothing to anybody, because they were frightened (Mark 16:8). But Mary Magdalene went to Peter and John and said that the Lord had been taken away from the tomb and they didn’t know where He had been laid (John 20:2); they ran over there, entered and saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. They then went away again to their own homes, and by means of this evidence John believed in the resurrection (John 20:1 - 10).
Mary Magdalene also went again to the tomb, looked inside, and saw two angels in white who asked her why she was weeping. As soon as she replied she turned and had a moving and surprising meeting with the risen Lord. He had not yet gone up to the Father. After that, Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples what had happened. But they did not believe her (John 20:11 - 17).
As dawn came, other women from Galilee also came up from Jerusalem, taking the spices that they had prepared, and they joined Salome and the mother of James. They found the stone rolled over but did not find the body of the Lord Jesus, but two men in shining garments stood by them and asked: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.' “ (Luke 12:1 - 7)
The women left the tomb quickly, frightened yet full of joy. As they ran to announce to the disciples what had happened, suddenly the Lord Jesus met them and greeted them. They approached Him, embraced His feet and worshipped. It is noticeable that this time He allowed them to touch Him. So, in the interval, He may have gone to the Father and back.
Again they were ordered to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where they would see Him - note that He now calls them “My brethren”. He also did this when He said to Mary Magdalene “go to My brethren and say to them, 'I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’”
As to “Hades”, we understand that the “captivity” in “Hades” containing the souls of the righteous, called “Abraham’s bosom” or paradise, was led by the Lord Jesus with Him to heaven on the occasion of His ascension (Ephesians 4:8 - 10, Hebrews 2:14,15). Only the souls of lost deceased are imprisoned in “Hades” since then, and Jesus Christ has its key (Revelation 1:18). On the day of the final judgment, after the millennium, “Hades” will deliver the dead within it, and it will be thrown into the lake of fire which burns with sulphur (Revelation 20:13, 14).
Sadly the majority of commentators follow the Roman-catholic tradition, which comes since the times of Emperor Constantine, who assumed the leadership of this institution. He detested Jews, and created a “Christian Passover” based on the phases of the moon, having always a Friday as the day of the week to celebrate the death of the Lord Jesus. It was convenient to combine and to substitute an important heathen festival held on this day.
The explanation given by these commentators for the shorter interval is that we need only count the day of death and the day of resurrection (a fraction of each), and a Saturday in between. But in this way there are only two nights. They then explain that “three days and three nights” is only a way of speaking, common (?) at the time. It is not convincing, and it is better to abide with the literal Biblical narrative, which is infallible, contrary to traditions.