“Jonah was three days and three nights….” Quoted from Jonah 1:17.
“for as Jonah was.” Jonah was dead inside the big fish (or whale) for three days and three nights, and so is a perfect “type” of the Messiah. The common Christian teaching is that Jonah was alive inside the fish, but that is not what the Bible says. It does say that Jonah prayed from inside the fish, but that prayer is never recorded and would have been a very short prayer. The prayer that is recorded in Jonah 2 is a praise-prayer that he prayed after he was out of the fish. We can tell that just by reading it. For one thing, it is spoken in the past tense.
When we examine Jonah’s prayer it begins: “I cried out of my distress unto Yahweh, and he answered me” (Jon. 2:2). This is not a prayer, this is the memory of a prayer. A prayer of distress would be, “Yahweh, help me!” It certainly would not be prayed in the past tense. Furthermore, the reason Jonah knew that God “answered me” was that he was already out of the whale when he said it. This praise-prayer in Jonah 2:2-10 is placed as if it was spoken while in the whale’s belly, and surely it contains things that Jonah thought while still alive in the whale, but in its form and entirety it was spoken after he was out of the whale and alive, as we can see from the prayer itself.
The last half of Jonah 2:2 echoes the first: “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.” Here again we can see that Jonah has been answered by God and is alive again—he came out of Sheol, the grave. Jonah 2:3 continues the praise-prayer in the past tense. It was not what Jonah was experiencing, it was what he had experienced. In Jonah 2:4 Jonah recalls some of his final thoughts before he died, and they are very comforting. He thought he was going to die: “I am cast out of your sight;” but he knew that he would be in the resurrection: “yet I will look again upon your holy temple.” Jonah knew what we all should know: our sins and shortcomings will not keep us from being saved. We are saved by faith, and even in disobedience, Jonah had faith in God and assurance of his eventual salvation.
In Jonah 2:5 he continues his praise-prayer, recounting how deeply he had been in trouble. In Jonah 2:6-7, Jonah praises God, saying, “You brought up my life from the pit,” a way of saying that God got him up from the dead. In verse 7 he remembered: “When my soul was fainting away within me, I remembered Yahweh and my prayer came up to you, into your holy temple.” Here Jonah remembers praying in his dying moments and notes that his prayer reached God inside the Temple. In Jonah 2:8 he comments that prayer to Yahweh works, while people who pray to “lying vanities,” i.e. false gods, don’t get answers and thus forsake their own mercy, the help that they could have had. Again, this is clearly not a prayer from inside the fish. This is an after-he-was-raised reflection. In Jonah 2:9 he says he will be thankful and obedient; he will pay what he has vowed, which as a prophet of God was to obey God no matter what He asked. Jonah’s reflection ends with “salvation is of Yahweh,” and surely he was thinking of both his temporal salvation from death and his ultimate salvation from everlasting death.
That Jonah was dead in the fish for three days and three nights fits with Jonah being a type of Christ as well as the rest of the book of Jonah. That Jonah was dead and then raised from the dead was the great “sign of the prophet Jonah” mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 12:38-41. How could Jonah have foreshadowed the Messiah if he did not die in the fish, but Jesus Christ did die on the Cross? How can a living man be a “sign” for a dead man? The great “sign” of Jonah was that he was dead for three days and nights in the fish and then was raised from the dead, just as Jesus was dead for three days and three nights in the “heart of the earth,” the tomb, and then was raised from the dead. There are some well-respected Christian commentators who show from Scripture that Jonah was dead. A very good example is J. Vernon McGee, author of the book, Jonah: Dead or Alive? (The Church Press, Farson and Sons, Glendale, CA).
“three days and three nights.” Jesus was in the “heart of the earth,” the grave, for three days and three nights, from Wednesday just before sunset to Saturday evening just before sunset. Tradition teaches that Jesus died on Friday and was up Sunday morning, but that would not fulfill the words of Christ. Some commentators say that it is wrong to take Jesus’ words here too literally, but we assert that Jesus used words very precisely in his teachings, and the only reason to say they should not be taken literally in this case is to support tradition—a tradition that should be abandoned. Tradition acts as if Jesus said he would be “three days” in the grave, treating a “day” as any part of a day. But that is not what Jesus said! He specifically said he would be “three days and three nights” in the grave. Before we get into the specifics of the tradition and the truth, we need to remember that the Jewish day started at sunset, not midnight. Thus the Jewish day is a “night and day,” not, as we normally say in English, “day and night.” In that light, it is noteworthy that Jesus said “three days and three nights,” because historically he was placed in the grave during the day, just before sunset, basically right at sunset, then night fell quickly afterward. The traditional teaching about Jesus dying on Friday does not fulfill the prophecy of Jesus Christ, and there are other problems as well, which we will see below.
It is often stated that Jesus was in the grave for “three days,” and that biblically any part of a day could be called a “day.” Thus, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday made three days. While it is true that biblically, and also according to the Rabbis, any part of a day could be called a “day,” Jesus did not say he would be in the heart of the earth “three days.” Jesus specifically said he would be “three days and three nights” in the heart of the earth. That is hugely significant because there are many times in Scripture that the term “three days” is used to indicate any part of the three days, even if they are not complete days, but again, Jesus did not say “three days” (examples include: Gen. 42:17; Exod. 10:22; 15:22; Num. 10:33; Josh. 1:11; 2:16, 22; Judg. 19:4; 2 Sam. 24:13; 2 Kings 20:5, 8; 1 Chron. 21:12; 2 Chron. 20:25; Hos. 6:2; Jonah 3:3; Matt. 15:32; Luke 2:46; Acts 9:9).
In stark contrast to the over 50 times that the phrase “three days,” referring to any part of those days, occurs in Scripture, the phrase “three days and three nights” only occurs three times in the Bible (1 Sam. 30:12; Jonah 1:17; and Matt. 12:40). The first time “three days and three nights” occurs in Scripture it refers to the Egyptian slave of an Amalekite. He got sick and was left behind while the Amalekite army continued on, and he had had no food or water for “three days and three nights” (1 Sam. 30:11-12). It is clear from the context that the Bible is not simply saying that he had had no food or water for just under 36 hours, which would have been the time Jesus was in the grave according to Christian tradition. Rather, the Bible is telling us that he was close to death, and only “revived” when given food and water because he had literally been three days and nights without food and water. Interestingly enough, in the common idiom of the day, the Egyptian said he had been left three days before (1 Sam. 30:13); it is the Divine Author who gives us the full story and tells us that he had been “three days and three nights” without food or water.
Jonah 1:17, speaking of the time that Jonah was in the belly of the sea creature (neither the Hebrew nor the Greek language allows us to tell whether it was a fish or whale), says he was there for “three days and three nights.” A couple of things are very important to know to properly understand the Jonah record. For one thing, it was common at that time to sail close enough to land to keep it in sight. The boats and navigation equipment were not well prepared for voyages across the Mediterranean, so most boats kept land in sight. Also, due to the Mediterranean climate in that part of the world, sea travel was generally very reliable during the “calm season,” and then people did not travel by boat during the stormy season (cp. Acts 27:9 for the stormy season). So when a huge storm came up, the sailors correctly discerned that it had a spiritual cause and that someone had angered a god (Jonah 1:7). However, when Jonah said that to stop the storm he would have to be thrown into the ocean, the sailors did not want to be responsible for his death and tried hard to row to land, which they could have seen in the distance (Jonah 1:13). They would have tried hard for hours, but eventually gave up, likely as darkness was coming on, and so they threw Jonah into the sea, which calmed down right away (Jonah 1:15). That would mean that Jonah was thrown into the sea and then swallowed by the fish at about the same time of day that Jesus’ body was placed in the grave.
Given all the times in the Bible that the phrase “three days” refers to any part of a day, there is no good reason the Bible would have used the phrase “three days and three nights” in Jonah 1:17 unless that actually was the amount of time Jonah was in the fish. Furthermore, the book of Jonah was written some 750 years before Jesus Christ, and no one at the time the book of Jonah was written, and in fact, no one at the time of Christ, knew that Jonah was a sign of the Messiah until Jesus himself said so. Only God, the Divine Author of Jonah, knew the connection between Jonah and Jesus, and knew Jesus would be in the grave for three days and three nights, and so created the connection between Jonah and Jesus. Jesus openly established the connection between himself and Jonah when he quoted Jonah 1:17 and said he would be “three days and three nights” in the heart of the earth.
A major principle in biblical interpretation is that the Bible should be taken literally unless there is a compelling reason not to do so. But in this case not only is there no compelling reason not to take the three days and three nights literally, instead, there are reasons it should be taken literally.
The major reason tradition says Jesus was crucified on Friday is the Bible says he was crucified the day before the Sabbath (Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:31). However, John 19:31 says that Sabbath was a “high day,” a special Sabbath. It was not Saturday, the regular Sabbath. The Passover Lamb was always killed before a Sabbath because sunset after the Passover Lamb was killed started the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread which was always a Sabbath (Ex. 12:16; Lev. 23:6-7). So just because Jesus was crucified the day before a Sabbath does not mean he was crucified on Friday, and we will see below he was not.
The truth of the situation is that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday, was buried just before sunset on Wednesday night, and got up Saturday evening just before sunset. Then when the women came to the tomb on Sunday morning they were told that he had already risen from the dead and was not there. To fulfill the prophecy Jesus gave, he had to be in the grave three days and three nights. Wednesday just before sunset to Thursday just before sunset is one full day and one full night. Thursday before sunset to Friday before sunset makes two full days and nights, and Friday before sunset to Saturday before sunset makes three full days and nights. So Jesus got up just before sunset Saturday night, three days and three nights after he was buried. Then, when Mary came to the tomb on Sunday morning while it was still dark, the tomb was open and Jesus was gone (John 20:1-2). Most people assume that Jesus had just gotten up a few minutes before the women arrived, but the Bible never says that. The Bible never says exactly when Jesus got up except by telling us that he would fulfill the sign of Jonah and be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights, a period that ended just before sunset on Saturday, the 17th of Nisan. On Sunday morning when Mary, Peter and John, and the other women arrived at the tomb, he was already up.
One of the keys to understanding the record of Jesus’ crucifixion is realizing that Jesus died on the cross on Golgotha as our true Passover Lamb at the same time the regular Passover Lamb was being slain in the Temple. Leviticus 23:5-7 and Exodus 12:6-16 set forth the regulations of Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread. According to the Hebrew text, the Passover Lamb was slain on the 14th of Nisan “between the evenings,” a phrase that has been interpreted to mean the time when it can be clearly seen the sun is starting to fall in sky, thus about 3 PM. The lamb is cooked before sunset, and the Passover meal is eaten after sunset, which, according to Jewish reckoning started the next day, the fifteenth of Nisan and the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was always a special Sabbath. Thus, the sunset after the Passover Lamb was killed began the special Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
The day the Passover Lamb was killed was known as “the preparation” or “the preparation day,” because preparations were being made for the special Sabbath that began at sunset. The Bible is clear that Jesus Christ was the true Passover Lamb who died for our sins (1 Corinthians 5:7), and all four Gospels testify that Jesus was killed on “the preparation day” (cp. Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:31, 42), so Jesus died on the cross at the same time the Passover Lamb was slain in the Temple. Then, the day after the “preparation” day is the first day of Unleavened Bread and always a Sabbath, and John 19:31 correctly differentiates that Sabbath from the regular weekly Saturday Sabbath by saying the Sabbath after Jesus died was “the High Day” (REV); “a special day” (HCSB), and thus not the weekly Sabbath.
To take all of the above information and find out what day Jesus was crucified and buried we have to fit together some basic facts. First, he had to be in the grave three days and three nights. Second, he was already up on Sunday morning when the women came to properly bury him. Third, just before sunset he was placed in the grave by Joseph of Arimathea, who closed the grave by rolling the stone over the door (Mark 15:46), so since he was three days and three nights in the grave he would have to get resurrected and out of the grave just before a sunset. Fourth, Luke tells us the women got and prepared the spices before a Sabbath Day, while Mark says they bought the spices after the Sabbath day.
Using these facts and working backwards in time from Sunday morning, we can see that Jesus got up Saturday evening just before sunset, and thus had to be crucified and buried on Wednesday. Thus, Wednesday was the “preparation” when the Passover Lamb and Jesus were slain, Thursday was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and a Special Sabbath, Friday was a regular work day so the women could buy the spices, Saturday was the regular weekly Sabbath, and by Sunday morning at dawn Jesus had already been raised.
We can now construct the chronology and make Jesus’ prophecy of being in the grave for three days and three nights work perfectly with him being the real Passover Lamb.
There is an important proof that there were two Sabbaths during the time Jesus was in the grave. The first of the two Sabbaths was Thursday the 15th of Nisan, the Special Sabbath that started the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The second Sabbath was Saturday the 17th of Nisan, which was the regular weekly Sabbath. The Bible tells us that the women went and bought and prepared spices to properly bury Jesus (Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56). But Mark says the women did this “when the Sabbath was over.” That in and of itself is problematic, because the Sabbath was not over until sundown Saturday and it is unlikely that the women would have been able to buy the spices after sunset on Saturday night so that they had them Sunday morning. The merchants were likely closed. But even if they could have bought the spices at night, Luke 23:56 contradicts Mark 16:1, and says the women bought the spices before the Sabbath, not after it. Luke says, “having returned, they prepared spices and perfumes. And on the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” So did the women buy the spices before the Sabbath, like Luke says, or after it, like Mark says? The answer is “both.” The women bought and prepared the spices on Friday, which was after the Special Sabbath on Thursday, but before the regular weekly Sabbath on Saturday. They could not take the spices to the tomb on Friday because of the guard, and they had to rest on Saturday which was the regular weekly Sabbath. They were able to take the spices to the tomb on Sunday, because it was the fourth day (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), and the soldiers were only going to guard the tomb for three days. Thus they thought the guard would be gone, and they went very early Sunday morning, only to find that Jesus did not need the spices because he had already risen from the dead.
There is another fact about the three days and nights that is worth mentioning. As the Passover Lamb, Jesus was killed on Nisan 14, and buried the same day before Sunset. He got up three days and nights later, before sunset on the 17th of Nisan. That is the same day Noah’s ark landed. Genesis 8:4 says the ark “came to rest” on the 17th day of the 7th month. Before the Exodus, Nisan was the 7th month and Tishri was the first month. At the Exodus, God changed the calendar by 6 months and Nisan became the first month and Tishri became the 7th (Exod. 12:2). So Noah’s ark landed and humanity was safe on Nisan 17. Similarly, when God raised Jesus from the dead on Nisan 17, humanity was safe. Christ was the firstfruits, and the living proof that God was going to raise the dead and save humanity. And just as there was a period of time after the ark landed when Noah had to stay on the ark before the earth was fit for human life, there is a period of time between the resurrection and when Jesus conquers the earth at Armageddon and makes it a wonderful place for humanity again. This fact about Noah’s Flood is not well known because tradition teaches that Jesus died as the Passover Lamb on Friday the 14th of Nisan and was raised on Sunday morning, which would have been the 16th of Nisan. According to tradition, the 17th of Nisan would occur on the Monday after Jesus was raised, and nothing significant happened on the Monday after the Passover. If traditional dates are followed, the great typological parallel between Noah’s Ark and Jesus’ resurrection is lost.
[For more information on the events from Jesus’ arrest to his death, see commentary on John 18:13 and 19:14. For more information on Nicodemus and that he came after Joseph of Arimathea left the tomb, see commentary on John 19:40].
“great fish.” For more on the exact identity of this sea creature, see commentary on Jonah 1:17.
“in the heart of the earth.” This phrase means in the grave, or, as the Hebrew text would say, in Sheol (#07585; the state of being dead). It is a unique phrase, and it is obvious that Jesus was being purposely unclear because he was speaking to his opponents, the experts in the Law and the Pharisees. When Jesus spoke with those religious leaders it was common for him to speak in veiled terms, and he did so in this case too. Jesus was very careful when he was around them not to state too plainly that he was the Messiah. He did all the things the Messiah was to do, and hinted to them he was the Messiah, but when they asked him to tell them plainly if he was the Messiah he only said that he had told them and that his works testified to who he was (John 10:24). One reason for that was that the testimony of one man about himself is not a legally binding testimony (he would wait until others testified to that truth), and another reason is likely that he knew they would try to kill him for saying it and he needed to fulfill his ministry. Only at his trial, when the time was clearly right and when the High Priest put him under oath before God to tell whether or not he was the Messiah did Jesus clearly say, “Yes” (Matt. 26:63-64). The result was predictable: they condemned him to die.
It is not hard to see the meaning of Jesus’ phrase “in the heart of the earth,” from the context and scope of Scripture. He said he would be “just as Jonah was,” and Jonah was dead (it is common to think Jonah was alive in the whale, but he only lived long enough to pray a quick prayer). Furthermore, it is clear from the scope of Scripture that Jesus was dead and in the grave for three days and nights. The Bible plainly teaches that he was dead. He died on the cross, and he was dead until God raised him from the dead. He was not alive anywhere; he was dead. Because the common teaching in Christianity is that dead people are not really dead, but alive somewhere (such as heaven, hell, or purgatory), and that similarly Jesus was not really dead, his soul was alive somewhere doing something, there is a lot of Christian speculation about where Jesus was. There is no need to speculate. Jesus was dead and his body was in the tomb.
The phrase “in the heart of the earth” is unique, but not so much so that we cannot discern what it means. Ephesians 4:9 says Jesus went into the lower parts of the earth. This is a simple phrase meaning into the grave. We know that because that is where Joseph of Arimathea put him: in a tomb. We can see that the “lower parts of the earth” means being dead in the grave from its use in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament: Psalm 63:9; Ezekiel 32:18, 24 (cp. Young’s Literal Translation). Many other clear scriptures testify that Jesus was dead while he was in the heart of the earth.
[For more information on the fact that dead people are dead see Appendix 4: “The Dead are Dead”].