The argument is that an idiomatic reference can count any part of a day as a full day, even if it is only a minor portion of a whole 24-hour period. This rationale is advanced to make the Friday cruciﬁxion and interment of Jesus’ body, and a Sunday morning resurrection, count for the full three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40). We reject the idea that Jesus’ statement of “three days and three nights” is an idiomatic expression of an uncertain time fulﬁllment. Instead, we believe biblical evidence supports “three days and three nights” as a literal statement of time, referring to three 24-hour periods. That is the only manner by which Jesus’ prediction about the duration of His entombment can be measured and recognized as fulﬁlled.
We believe the context in which Jesus gave the prophecy of three days and three nights as a miraculous sign rules out the plausibility that it is an idiom. Jesus spoke in precise and measurable terms when He discussed His relationship to the Law and Prophets in Matthew 5:17, 18. He said that not the “smallest letter” or “the least stroke of a pen” would disappear until it was all fulﬁlled. This meant that no perceptible or measurable part of the law would pass away until the smallest detail of it had been fulﬁlled. That would make its fulﬁllment discernible. Luke also reports how Jesus used prophecy to identify Himself as the risen Christ when He appeared to a group of disbelieving disciples.
He said, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulﬁlled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. This is what is written: ‘The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day”’ (Luke 24:44, 46).
Undoubtedly, Jesus’ precise revelation of Himself began with Genesis and included every prophecy of His life, passion, and redemptive work on the cross throughout the books of the entire Old Testament. If Jesus referred to deﬁnite, measurable, recognizable events and times concerning Himself to describe His ministry and identity, then it seems unreasonable to believe that the only sign He gave to the unbelieving crowd would be an indeﬁnite, immeasurable, idiomatic expression. A sign so deﬁnite in time cannot be construed in such a way that no one could recognize the exact time of its fulﬁllment. We afﬁrm that expressing Himself in deﬁnite terms was Jesus’ man- ner of teaching. Therefore, when Jesus spoke of the duration of His entombment as “three days and three nights,” He meant a literal period that consisted of three 24-hour days. We have the statement of Jesus that the “Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew l2:4()).
He compared this time to the three days and three nights Jonah spent in the belly of the ﬁsh (Jonah 1:17). In both instances, these statements are not idioms because they state both the number of days and the number of nights. When a statement consists of the number of days and nights, it can hardly be an idiomatic expression denoting a duration of less time. Jesus’ expression is similar to those found in Genesis 1:5. In the creation account, a full 24-hour day is described as “there was evening, and there was moming - the ﬁrst day.” The same expression is repeated for the ﬁrst six days of creation week, thus indicating that a 24-hour day consists of a night and a day. Jesus’ statement parallels this concept as He describes the duration of His entombment as “three days and three nights.”
We conclude that He is referring to a span of three 24-hour days. The problem we have with the popular teaching of Jesus being cruciﬁed on Friday, placed in the tomb late on Friday evening, and raised from the dead very early Sunday morning is that it renders meaning- less to Jesus’ statement regarding the duration of His entombment. It takes for granted that Jesus used an idiom, and as such, the duration of His entombment becomes insigniﬁcant because no one could tell just how long the supposed idiom of “three days and three nights” was to last.
One proponent of this idea has Written, . . the expression ‘three days and three nights’ of Matthew 12:40 does not require that Jesus be entombed for 72 hours, but for a full day and two partial days.” We know of no reliable biblical source that substantiates this supposition. Two common phrases regarding the time between His interment and resurrection are “after three days” (Mark 8:31; 9:31) and “on the third day” (Luke 9:22). In each of these, Jesus describes the lapse of time between His burial and His resurrection. Note the parallel phrases and where they are found:
The phrase meta tretis hemeras (“after three days”) in Mark 8:31; 9:31 requires the resurrection of Jesus to occur three days after His burial. This phrase conﬁrms the literal meaning of “three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40). These are the most deﬁnite references de- scribing the duration of Jesus’ entombment. These deﬁnite statements must determine the meaning of the indeﬁnite phrase re rete hemera (“on the third day”) in Luke 9:22. There is no way to avoid this explanation. A cardinal rule of hermeneutics is to let deﬁnite texts interpret indeﬁnite references.