Did you know about the sign of Jonah?

A student asked about the parallel between Jesus on Jonah (3 days and 3 nights). Were there really three days and three nights?

Answer given by Pastor Christian Salcianu,
17th April 2024, Watford

Did you know about the sign of Jonah? Neither did I. Most likely we would not have known about this sign (or at least that it is a ‘sign’) if Jesus had not pointed it out to us. He takes the credit, and He will also explain and fulfil it. As such, only in retrospect can we now understand the parallel:

Jonah’s case

(1) Jonah was sent to preach repentance to the inhabitants of Nineveh, but (2) before that he was in the belly of a fish for three days and three nights, (3) being cast into the sea by heathen sailors;

Jesus’ case

In the same way, (1) heavenly salvation will be preached to men for repentance, but first (2) Jesus must be brought down to the heart of the earth, after (3) he has been put to death by the hands of the Gentiles.

The formula (like in a mirror) ‘three days and three nights’ is a generic, comprehensive form of expression, but not a calculation formula, not a statistic.

Why am I saying this? Because the expression itself appears only once (did you know?), and in all other biblical passages where the same event of the resurrection occurs, only the ‘days’ are mentioned while the ‘nights’ are not marked or counted.

I need to emphasise it: in all the other passages where the Lord’s resurrection is spoken of, both He and the disciples and even the enemies all speak of the ‘third day’, thus counting the days and not the nights. (I insist that this is not my argument, but an observation based on most of the texts of Scripture.)

Three days, or ‘the third day’

The concept of a time segment of ‘three days’ (not three nights) appears several times in Scripture, before Christ (I will also mention some texts from the Old Testament below).

  • When he was a child, he was lost and then found by his parents only after three days. Although He seemed lost (not yet ‘in the heart of the earth’) He was certainly found fulfilling His Father’s plan (Luke 2:41-50).
  • Another occasion is when he aroused the antipathy of the Jews who trusted in their temple. Jesus told them that if it was torn down, He would raise the temple in three days. Obviously, as John writes, He was talking to them about the temple of His body (John 2:18-22).
  • This metaphor of coming back to life after three days followed Him to the crucifixion. The charge that He would raise the temple in three days appears again at the time of the crucifixion in Matthew 26:61 and 27:40 or in Mark 14:58 and Mark 15:29.
  • The Lord Himself told the disciples repeatedly that He would die and rise ‘the third day’ (Matthew 16:21, 17:23, 20:19; Mark 9:31; Luke 9:22, 18:33, 24:7), or ‘after three days’ (Mark 8:31, 10:34). (It sounds strange to us to say that 3 days = the 3rd day, but I think you’ll agree with me that Jesus is not contradicting Himself.)
  • This was fully understood by the disciples, as evidenced in the dialogue on the road to Emmaus. The two disciples share with the Stranger that ‘We hoped that He was the One who would deliver Israel; but nevertheless, behold, today is the third day since these things happened . . . ’ (Luke 24:21). (Notice it was the third day, and Jesus had already risen. Ditto below).
  • The same idea was confirmed by Jesus, after the resurrection, when he told them that ‘Thus it is written, and thus Christ should suffer, and rise the third day from the dead’ (Luke 24:46).
  • The disciples further preached the same thing to the world, that Jesus ‘was buried and rose again the third day according to the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:4), or ‘God raised Him the third day’ (Acts 10:40).

So we see the repeated idea that Jesus rose during the ‘third day’.

And His enemies knew the same

It is amazing that His enemies knew the same thing, and even went to great lengths to prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled. Coming to Pilate, the next day (Saturday), which follows the Day of Preparation (Friday), they said: ‘Lord, we remembered that that deceiver, while he was still alive, said: “After three days I will rise” ’ (Matthew 27:62-63).

It is obvious that the days are the ones numbered. It had been the Day of Preparation when Jesus died (John 19:14, 19:31, 19:42). The order is emphasised in Luke 23:54 ‘It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath day began.’ Then came the Sabbath, which on that year coincided with the Passover (‘that Sabbath was a great day’). So they expected that on the day after the Sabbath, the third day (Friday-Saturday-Sunday), something would happen.

They said to Pilate: ‘Give command, then, that the tomb be well guarded until the third day, lest His disciples come at night and steal His body, and say to the people: “He has risen from the dead!” Then the latter deception would be worse than the former.’ (Matthew 27:64)

Let me write all this down now

1. Jesus died on Friday toward evening, before the end of the (day)light. (You know that the biblical day ends at sunset and then another begins at the same sunset: ‘there was an evening and there was a morning,’ says Genesis 1). So, on Friday at sundown Jesus was already dead and buried. That night he stayed in the grave.

2. He remained in the tomb throughout the Sabbath (Saturday). The next night he was also in the tomb.

3. And on Sunday morning he rose again.

Yes, it’s not a three days + three nights!

It’s only two nights. There is nothing to prove or force here.

But the three days are – in a calculation that includes the part as a whole.

If you want it to be 72 hours, then it must be said clearly: it’s not 72. And it shouldn’t be either. . . Why? Because in inclusive counting, any portion of Friday counts as a full day, any portion of Sunday counts as a full day.

Let me illustrate: if a baby is born on a certain date in the year (in July, for example), there is nothing wrong if we say that it is his first year of life, even though he has not yet completed his first year. It’s the same at a funeral, all years are counted, including any part of the last one, even if the deceased hasn’t reached his birthday. Not as a formula, not as a statistic. . . .

I have found several commentators who illustrate more richly that the expressions ‘after three days’ / ‘three days and three nights’ and ‘the third day’ are interchangeable. See here for a wider study:




Three days in the Old Testament

Some biblical examples from the Old Testament (you can find them in the links above) regarding three days = the third day:

  • When Joseph arrested his brothers, Scripture says that ‘he threw them all into prison for three days’ (Genesis 42:17). And yet, when he liberated them from the prison, the Bible calls it ‘the third day’ (v. 18).
  • We find the same pattern in Rehoboam’s experience, where ‘after three days’ equates to ‘the third day’ (2 Chronicles 10:5-12).


Some biblical examples regarding the equivalence of ‘x days + x nights’ = x days

  • Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights according to the text in Matthew 4:2, while Mark 1:13 only says ’40 days’.
  • The ideal example, with ‘three days and three nights,’ is found in Esther’s fasting (4:16–5:1), which ends ‘on the third day,’ not after the third night, not on the fourth day …

Four? (Never!)

Let me end with this:

If Jesus had been in the grave for exactly ‘three days’ and exactly ‘three nights’, then approximately on what day would he have been resurrected? Obviously, on the ‘fourth day’. It’s mathematical, logic, common sense. But nowhere in Scripture will we find this expression, ‘and he rose again on the fourth day, according to the Scriptures’! Not even once 🙂

The Bible says:

’He was buried and rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:4), because ‘God raised Him the third day’ (Acts 10:40).

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