MATTHEW 12: 40
Scriptures are cited from the King James (Authorized) Version, unless stated otherwise.
Question: Matthew 12: 40 reads, “For as Jonas [Jonah] 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.” Does this refer to the time that Jesus was in the tomb, because the Scriptures teach that our Lord was to be raised from the dead the third day of His death (Matthew 16: 21; 17: 23; 20: 19) (Luke 24: 7, 21, 46) (Acts 10: 40) (1 Corinthians 15: 3, 4)?
Answer: The verses cited above do not say that Jesus would be in the grave three full days and three full nights, as some misapply Matthew 12: 40 to mean. Rather, they show that on His third death day He would arise from the dead. Jesus’ first death day was Friday, the day that He died; for He was dead about three hours of that day before it ended at 6:00 p.m. His second death day, the Sabbath, from the nature of the case, had to be a full 24-hour period, which ended at 6:00 p.m. of His second death day; and His third death day, Sunday, beginning at His second death’s day’s 6:00 p.m., ended at the next 6:00 p.m. So any time between them would be the third day.
The expression “three days and three nights” need not mean a 72-hour period, but may also mean a shorter period. The Hebrews would call three days any period touching on three days, even if the period were but 39 hours. Hence we find that the period of Jesus’ being in the death state, that is, from Friday about 3:00 p.m. to Sunday about 6:00 a.m., as we have proven above, about 39 hours, is covered by the expression, “after three days” (Matthew 27: 63) (Mark 8: 31). The reason is that they spoke of any part of the first and of the last days as though they were full days.
Our Lord doubtless used the expression “three days and three nights” in Matthew 12: 40 because He was quoting from Jonah 1: 17, where the same expression occurs. We therefore rightly conclude that the expression Jesus used in Matthew 12: 40 does not necessarily mean 72 hours, or three full days and nights.
Interpretation of Matthew 12: 40
The usual interpretation of Matthew 12: 40 applies it exclusively to Jesus’ stay in the tomb, but that would imply the falsehood that Jesus’ body was in the heart of the literal earth. Jesus’ body was not buried in the center of the earth, nor under the ground at all, but in a rock-hewn sepulcher above the ground. Therefore the word earth here does not mean the literal earth.
Accordingly, we are warranted in considering that the word earth in Matthew 12: 40 means society, its regular figurative meaning in the Bible (Genesis 4: 14; 6: 11; 11: 1) (Matthew 5: 13) (2 Peter 3: 13). So we understand that Jesus by the word earth in Matthew 12: 40 meant Jewish society. Its leaders and their followers inflicted its desire (heart) upon Jesus. This inflicting of its desire upon Him began in His arrest Thursday night. He then entered “the heart of the earth” – became subject to the ill will of the main leaders and their followers of Jewish society – and remained therein until His resurrection Sunday morning. Thus He was during parts of three days – Friday, Saturday and Sunday – and parts of three nights – Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights “in the heart of the earth” – subject to the power of His enemies.
So viewed, the “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12: 40) refer to a longer period than Jesus’ stay in the tomb. They refer specifically to the time period from His capture in the garden until His resurrection. It means that for a period touching on three days and three nights the enemies of Jesus, as representatives of Jewish society, would triumph over Him, accomplishing upon Him their wishes, and that He would be subject to these wishes for that period of time. Accordingly, Jesus in Matthew 12: 40 does not refer exclusively to the time during which Jesus was in the tomb, but while including that time, it covers a much longer period – the whole period during which He was subject to His enemies’ malice and violence.