A Study By
Gary Ray Branscome

    Since the Bible plainly tells us that “Christ died for our sins” and “rose again the third day,” we can be certain that He did not rise from the dead on the fourth or fifth day (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Furthermore, the fact that He left the tomb on “the third day” tells us that He did not spend three complete days in the tomb. Therefore, those who assume that He did spend three complete days in the tomb are contradicting what the Bible plainly says.

    Furthermore, while they interpret what he said about Jonah to support the idea that He spent three days and three nights in the grave, that is not what He actually said. What He said was, “as [or in the same way] 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” (Matthew 12:40). Those who miss that detail wind up interpreting the phrase “three days and three nights” or the phrase “after three days” to contradict the fact that Christ “rose again the third day.” It is bad enough when the enemies of our faith interpret  statements of Scripture to contradict what the Bible says, but when Christians do the same thing and then make up ridiculous explanations to smooth it over they wind up helping the enemy. Therefore, if you will allow me, I will show you how the plain statements of Scripture affirm the fact that Christ “rose again the third day.”

    Whenever we are trying to understand what the Bible is saying on a particular topic, we should always begin with what we can know for certain, while eliminating opinions and assumptions. Once that is done, the following facts become evident:

1- Jesus was buried just prior to the Sabbath day.
    According to the Jewish way of reckoning, the new day began at about six in the evening. For that reason, the Jews specifically asked Pilate to break the legs of the prisoners so they would die quickly and could be removed from their crosses before the Sabbath day began (John 19:31). We are also told that that particular Sabbath day was a “high day” (because Passover fell on it that year), and that Joseph of Arimathæa asked Pilate for the body of Jesus so he could bury it before the Sabbath day began (Mark 15:42-43). Had he waited, he would not have been allowed to bury Jesus until after the Sabbath. We are also told that certain women who witnessed Jesus' burial prepared spices and ointments just prior to the Sabbath (Luke 23:56).
2- Jesus rose from the dead before dawn on the day after the Sabbath.
    Because the women that were planning to anoint His body with spices could not do so on the Sabbath day, they rested for one day [“the Sabbath day”] and went to His grave early in the morning on the first day of the week. However, when they arrived at the tomb it was empty, because He had already risen from the dead (Mark 16:1-2, Luke 23:56 and 24:1-2). In that regard, Matthew tells us that they came at, “the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week;” and John tells us that they came while “it was yet dark” (Matthew 28:1-6, John 20:1).
3- Jesus rose from the dead on the “third day”.
    Prior to His crucifixion, Christ told His disciples that He would be killed and rise again the “third day” (mark 9:31). After He did just that, He explained to them that He had “to suffer, and rise from the dead the third day” in order to fulfill what was written by the prophets (Luke 24:46). Moreover, the two disciples that he met on the road to Emmaus testified to the fact that He talked to them on “the third day” after His trial (Luke 24:21). Finally, when telling of Christ's death burial and resurrection, none of the Apostles ever said that He had been in the grave for “three days and three nights.” On the contrary, both Peter and Paul taught that He rose again “the third day” (Acts 10:40, 1Corinthians 15:4).

    Those facts prove conclusively that Christ was not in the grave for three twenty-four hour periods. In fact, the words, “To day is the third day since these things were done” settles the matter (Luke 24:21). There is no way that Christ could have risen from the dead on “the third day” if He was in the grave during the third day. And He would have had to be in the grave the third day if He had spent three days and three nights in the grave. Therefore, when the commentaries of both Lenski, and Keil & Delitzsch tell us that the Hebrew phrase “three days and three nights” is figurative, the Bible supports what they say.

Concerning Jonah 1:17 Keil & Delitzsch tell us that:

“The three days and three nights are not to be regarded as fully three times twenty-four hours, but are to be interpreted according to Hebrew usage, as signifying that Jonah was vomited up again on the third day after he had been swallowed.” (Compare Ester 4:16 with 5:1)

Lenski's commentary on the New Testament, which is also highly regarded for its insight into the original language, says that:

“ ‘Three days and three nights' is, therefore, not proverbial for ‘a brief time,' nor can we say that Jesus is concerned only to obtain a parallel experience to that of Jonah as far as the number of days is concerned. The manner of numbering nights with the days is an idiomatic Jewish usage. As Jonah escaped on the third day, so Jesus arose on the third day.”

    I might also point out that those who insist that Christ was in the grave for seventy-two hours have Him rising on the fifth day rather than the third day. Therefore, in their zeal for a “literal” interpretation of the phrase “three days and three nights,” they wind up contradicting what the Bible plainly says.

First day (crucified), second day (first in grave), third day (second in grave), fourth day (third in grave), fifth day (resurrection).

First day (crucified), second day (“the Sabbath Day”), third day (resurrection).

    If you have ever read the argument they put forth in support of their viewpoint, you will find that it is based on speculation about Hebrew culture and the meaning of “Sabbath,” not on the Bible. In fact, instead of looking at what the Bible says they spend much of their effort trying to get around the passages of Scripture which tell us that the women rested only one day (the Sabbath day) before finding that He had risen. And, that the Emmaus disciples spoke to Him on the third day after His crucifixion (Luke 23:56 and 24:21). That is certainly not a God-fearing approach to Bible interpretation. [A comparison of verses 63 and 64 of Matthew 27, reveals that the phrase “After three days” means “the third day,” not the fourth or fifth day.]

[Note: A Greek author reported that in the fourth year after the 202nd Olympiad [i.e., 33 AD] “it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i.e., noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens.” The Passover lamb would have been sacrificed on Friday evening that year (Exodus 12:6). See “Pontius Pilate” by Paul L. Maier, historical notes to chapters 18-21]


    Prior to the Reformation theologians virtually ignored the literal meaning of God's Word, while seeking to impress each other with their ability to find the other meanings. The practical result of that approach was to turn the Bible into a Book that could be interpreted to say just about anything you wanted it to say, while leaving the people in the dark as to what it actually said. In the end, Scripture came to be viewed as a dark book that needed to be interpreted by the “Church”.

In order to restore the truth of God’s Word Martin Luther emphasized the clarity of Scripture and the literal meaning of the words. However, many people now confuse the literal [i.e. grammatical] meaning with the surface meaning. The literal meaning is not opposed to figures of speech, but is instead, the same meaning that words have when used in ordinary conversation (2Corinthians 1:13). Those who insist on confusing the literal meaning with the surface meaning only help to obscure the truth.