For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. —Matthew 12:40
One of the more frequently asked questions about the Bible has to do with the period of time between Jesus’ crucifixion and His resurrection. In other words, if Jesus was crucified during the afternoon of Good Friday and is resurrected before the dawn of Sunday morning – the first day of the week – how does this fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah would be in the grave three days and three nights “as Jonah was in the belly of a huge fish”?
The Bible repeatedly declares that Jesus was crucified on The Feast of the Passover which occurred on Friday. By Western calculations, the “three days and three nights” would require the passage of 72 hours, which would put the resurrection on Monday afternoon at the same time of day that the death and burial occurred.
However, the Bible clearly states in Matthew 16:21 that Jesus would be “raised again on the third day.”
If Jesus was in the grave for the 72 hours that Westerners assume, that would put the resurrection on Day 4, not Day 3. Count them: Day 1, Friday; Day 2, Saturday; Day 3, Sunday; Day 4, Monday. Obviously, then, there is a difference in the way we understand today the phrase “three days and three nights” and the way the Bible considered it back then.
The ancient Jews counted any part of a day as a whole day. It didn’t have to be a full 24-hour period of time. In other words, if Jesus died during the afternoon on Friday, Friday counted as the first day. Saturday would be the second day, and finally Sunday would be the third day (even though only a few hours had elapsed of the day).
The people in Jesus’ day would have understood that the period between late Friday and Sunday morning was a period of “three days and three nights.” When Scripture says of Jesus in Matthew 16 that “He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life,” they would have known that this did not contradict the earlier statement (as it might appear to us).
Bottom line: Scripture is to be interpreted in light of the times in which it was written.