Was Jesus in the tomb three literal days and nights? He said:
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)
How can this be true since Jesus was crucified on Friday (the Day of Preparation-John 19:14, 41) and arose on Sunday (Matthew 28:1)?
First of all, it is clear that “three days and nights” did not mean three literal days and nights. Jesus died at 3:00 pm (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). If Jesus were to spend three literal and days and nights in the tomb, He would have to have arisen at 3:00 pm 72 hours later. Yet all the Gospel writers record that He arose early in the morning, on the first day of the week (Sunday) after the Sabbath (Saturday) Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 23:56-24:1; John 20:1-10)!
Therefore, the inspired Apostles clearly did not understand “three days and nights” to be a literal 72 hours in the tomb.
Second, the phrase “three days and nights” was a Jewish expression to refer generally to three days.
“That’s right. But you have failed to recognize that the phrase “three days and three nights” is a Jewish idiom meaning a short period of time and does not necessarily have to include three days and three nights.[ 3] Today we might speak of a long task taking “forever.” We mean that it will take a long time. We do not mean that it will take an infinite amount of time and is incapable of being completed. Likewise, someone may say that something will take “only a minute.” This means a very short time, not sixty seconds. These are simply English idioms. Idioms exist in all languages. In the book of Esther, Esther tells her fellow Jews the following: Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.[ 4] Now, notice what happens two verses later: Now it came about on the third day[ 5] that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace in front of the king’s rooms, and the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room, opposite the entrance to the palace.[ 6] Esther did not wait a full three days and three nights. She went to the king on the third day. So that would be two days plus a number of hours. Let’s look at one other passage. Matthew 27: 63–64 reports that after Jesus’s crucifixion, the Jewish leaders approached Pilate and said: Sir, we remember that while living that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise.” Therefore, order the grave to be secured until the third day, lest his disciples come and steal him away and say to the people, “He was raised from the dead,” and the last deceit will be worse than the first. Matthew, the same author who reported the “three days and three nights” in the sign of Jonah, is later reporting the request of the Jewish leaders. Notice that they say that Jesus predicted he would rise after three days. So what do they do? They request that the grave be secured by guards until the third day. If the term “after three days” is a Jewish idiom that does not mean a full seventy-two hours, this passage has no conflict. But if by it Jesus meant he would be dead at least seventy-two hours before rising, then the Jewish leaders are foolish to request that the grave be secured “until the third day.” In other words, they intend to pull the guard just before Jesus said he would rise, which would leave nearly twenty-four hours for the disciples to steal his body. You see? Understanding “three days” in a literal sense does not make sense. Therefore, when we consider two Jewish writings, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament, the terms “after three days” and “three days and three nights” seem to be a Jewish idiom that is not in conflict with the earliest Christian claims that Jesus was raised “on the third day.” (Michael Licona, Paul Meets Muhammad: A Christian-Muslim Debate On The Resurrection, 1087-1112 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)
On Sunday (the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week), He arose. And thanks to Him, we can have salvation (Romans 6:3-4)!