A: In Matthew 12:40 Christ makes the statement, “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Authorized Version throughout). In John 2:19 He said, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In John 2:21 it is noted: “But He spake of the Temple of His body.”
We will address in this section the following questions in relation to these verses:
1) Was Christ dead for exactly 72 hours?
2) Was Christ in the tomb for exactly 72 hours?
3) How can we reconcile these two Scriptures since they appear to be contradictory?
4) Was Christ not dead the whole time He was in the tomb?
In John 2:19, where Christ says, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” He is not speaking specifically of a time of exactly 72 hours counting from the time of His crucifixion. As we will review in this Q&A – by definition – the crucifixion occurred over several hours. It began about 9 am that Wednesday morning. Christ died about 3 pm that afternoon. He was placed into the tomb about 6 pm that evening. As Mr. Armstrong described this event in his booklet, “The Resurrection Was Not On Sunday” – Christ was “To be raised up in three days after being DESTROYED, or crucified AND buried…”
Christ, in making the statement in John 2:19 was addressing the very same issue He is discussing in Matthew 12:40, where He was specifically speaking of the only sign He would give these self-righteous Pharisees that He was the Messiah. In Matthew 12:40, Christ specifically states that He would be in the HEART OF THE EARTH for “three days and three nights” just as Jonah was in the BELLY OF THE BIG FISH, three days and three nights. That was the sign He gave to the Pharisees and the religious leaders – the only sign! (Please note that for His disciples — those who have ears to hear and eyes to see — Christ gave many signs that He was the Messiah, compare John 20:30-31).
In stating this in the manner He does, He is telling these doubters to observe what was about to happen. He would be in the ground, dead and buried, for the exact period of time of 72 hours. If He had not fulfilled that sign, He would have shown to the world He was NOT the Savior. Yet we are told by God’s angel, as recorded in Matthew 28:6, “He is not here; for He is risen AS HE SAID.”
Christ was placed on an upright stake on that Wednesday morning at the third hour (Mark 15:25), which was about 9 am. At about the sixth hour, 12 noon Wednesday, darkness covered the earth (Mark 15:33). At the ninth hour, 3 pm Wednesday, there was the expiring cry (Mark 15:34-37). At that point in time, Christ was dead. He would remain dead until the Father would call Him from the grave, just as Jonah was called from the belly of the great fish. The fish spewed Jonah from his grave of death in the fish’s belly – onto dry ground, i.e., back to life. Jonah was 72 hours in the fish’s belly, after he had been swallowed up. He did not stay in the fish’s belly for a longer period of time, before he was spewed onto dry land.
By analogy, a newly converted Christian, when he accepts Jesus Christ as his Savior, repents of his sins, is baptized into a watery grave, and being lifted straightway out of that grave, pictures this event of death, burial, and resurrection to a new life (Romans 6:5; Colossians 2:12). Compare these Scriptures with those relating to the resurrection of Lazarus (John 12:17), and to the resurrections to come (John 5:28-29, Revelation 20:13).
All these passages show that the dead are raised to life and leave the grave at the same time. They are not raised to life and still remain in the grave for a while, before they leave it.
We read (in Matthew 27:57-60) that Christ was buried in haste before sunset on Wednesday, the preparation day, about 6 pm (thus, before the high day, the first day of Unleavened Bread had begun). According to Jewish law in effect at that time, all dead bodies had to be buried before the beginning of a Sabbath or a high day. Therefore, Christ was laid in the tomb in time to meet that deadline.
Christ remained in the ground, dead, for a period of 72 hours from the time He was placed in the earth; and He arose from the dead on the third day, just prior to sunset. That would have been Saturday evening about 6 pm (Matthew 28:6). He was resurrected on the third day, “as He said,” — not 72 hours from the time He cried out from that stake and gave up the spirit; but 72 hours from the time He was placed in the tomb. He was literally dead 75 hours based on the Scriptural reckoning.
When the ladies came to the tomb “In the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week…” (Matthew 28:1), they found the stone door to the tomb rolled away. Christ was not there! He had already risen and the first day of the week was just about to dawn (Remember that the days — according to the Hebrew calendar — begin and end with sunset.). It is well to note here that the stone was rolled away by God’s angel so that the ladies could see that He was not there. Since He was now Spirit, there was no need to roll the stone away for His benefit. He came forth when the Father called Him, just as Jonah came forth from the belly of the fish and just as, at the time of the first resurrection of the saints, the Lord will shout, and the dead in Christ will rise. No one will need to open their graves for these “firstfruits” to come forth.