When I was younger, I was troubled by the fact that Jesus said He would be in the tomb for three days and three nights and yet apparently spent something closer to a day and two nights in the grave.
When I was older, I learned that the way the Jews reckoned time, He would have been considered to be dead and buried for three days. They began reckoning for each day at sunset, not sunrise, so the day He died and was buried would be day one, the Sabbath would be day two, and the end of the Sabbath, at sunset the first day of the week would begin and that would be day three.
I’ll admit, ever since I heard that explanation, I thought it was cheating. Besides, it didn’t answer what Jesus said specifically:
for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matt. 12:40 – all caps indicates a quote of the Old Testament, boldface emphasis is mine)
Years and years ago, Pastor Charles Swindoll, who used to pastor my church, preached about Christ’s death and burial, postulating that perhaps we’ve figured His day of death incorrectly. Using the information from the gospels, it’s clear that Jesus was crucified the day before the Sabbath and that He was resurrected on the first day of the week, at or before sunrise after the Sabbath.
But there’s a very good possibility that He may have been crucified, not the day before the Sabbath, but before a Sabbath.
First, the crucifixion took place during Passover–not a one-day event, but an eight-day celebration. How the commemoration was to take place is explained in both Leviticus and Numbers. Here’s the description from the latter:
Then on the fourteenth day of the first month shall be the LORD’S Passover. On the fifteenth day of this month shall be a feast, unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days. On the first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work . . . On the seventh day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work. (Numbers 28:16-17, 25 – emphasis mine)
These days of “holy convocation,” which could fall on any day of the week, apparently were understood to be a type of Sabbath. Leviticus 23 lists the holy convocations, starting first with the weekly Sabbath, then Passover and finally the Day of Atonement. In describing the latter, the term Sabbath appears:
You shall do no work at all. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your sabbath. (Lev 23:31-32 – emphasis mine)
Now add in the information from the gospels. Mark and Luke say Jesus died on the day of preparation, the next day being the Sabbath (Matthew simply refers to it as the preparation), but John adds some information, clarifying the day of preparation:
Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold, your King!” (John 19:14)
Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. (John 19:31 – emphasis mine)
A High Day, one of those Holy Convocations, perhaps–treated as a Sabbath. And in this instance, perhaps falling in the middle of the week, a Wednesday, meaning that Jesus would have been buried on Wednesday night, and remained in the tomb all day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, just as He said.
How important is our celebration of Good Friday rather than Good Wednesday? Should we start a campaign to get it changed? Hold boycotts of Good Friday services? It’s not an issue that should divide churches and no one’s salvation hangs in the balance because of the day we choose to commemorate Christ’s crucifixion. And no one should do any of the above to try and sway others into believing something different from the traditional understanding..
For one thing, identifying the day of Christ’s death requires some speculation, one way or the other (on Friday, the speculation is how the time Jesus spent in the tomb adds up to three days, and on Wednesday, determining the relation to the Sabbaths mentioned). If we knew that the apostles instituted Good Friday services, we could resort to tradition, but I’m not sure when Good Friday first became the day of remembrance.
I have a hard time imagining the first century Church doing so. Since they had actually witnessed His death, they would likely center their celebration on His resurrection. Then, too, Jesus Himself instituted Communion with the specific instruction to do it in remembrance of His broken body and shed blood. Why add in a separate day of commemoration if the Church already regularly held such a remembrance?
Nevertheless, remembering Christ’s death on our behalf, whenever it takes place, is not a bad thing. It’s actually quite a good thing as long as we understand He is alive today, seated at the right hand of the Father.
But here’s the reason I like the idea of Good Wednesday. It counters the idea that the Bible erred or that Christians have to do fancy footwork to make the facts fit. Simply by interpreting Scripture with Scripture, and believing that Jesus meant what He said, we can discover that yes, it is possible, dare I say probable, that Jesus died earlier than is commonly thought.
This post first appeared here in March 2013.