In understanding the exegetical evidence for 3 days and 3 nights NOT being 72 hours, lets take a look at the ultimate prophecy of Jesus with whom He challenged the entire world …
“Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But He answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas 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 12:38-40). See also Matthew 16:21, 20:19, Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34, Luke 11:29-30 and John 2:19.
However, we read that Jesus was buried in Friday night (Mark 15:42-46) and the grave was discovered to be empty in Sunday dawn (Matthew 28:1-6 and John 20:1). So, He simply spent one day and two nights, not as He said! This is must be a false prophecy….or is it?
The following exegetical evidence will show exegetical evidence for 3 days and 3 nights NOT being 72 hours in light of its historical and cultural context “three days and three nights” refers to a period covering approximately three days. In other words, the expression does not refer to a literal 72 hour period, but rather to a time period that terminates on the third day:
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and ON THE THIRD DAY be raised to life.” Matthew 16:21
“When they came together in Galilee, He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and ON THE THIRD DAY He will be raised to life.’ And the disciples were filled with grief.” Matthew 17:22-23
“Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will turn Him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. ON THE THIRD DAY He will be raised to life!’” Matthew 20:17-19
“The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. ‘Sir,’ they said, “we remember that WHILE HE WAS STILL ALIVE that deceiver said, “AFTER THREE DAYS I will rise again.” So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, His disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that He has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’ ‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.” Matthew 27:62-66
Notice that Matthew records Jesus as using the expressions “3 days and 3 nights”, “on the third day” and “after three days” to describe the period of time that Christ would be entombed.
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and AFTER THREE DAYS rise again.” Mark 8:31
“Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus Himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing Him. He asked them, ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’ They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked Him, ‘Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ ‘What things?’ He asked. ‘About Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. ‘He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed Him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified Him; but we had hoped that He was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, IT IS THE THIRD DAY SINCE ALL THIS TOOK PLACE. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early THIS MORNING but didn’t find His body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said He was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but Him they did not see.’” Luke 24:13-24
According to Cleopas and his companion, it had already been three days (short of 72 hours) from the time of Christ’s entombment to His resurrection.
“He said to them, ‘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.’ Then He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead ON THE THIRD DAY, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.’” Luke 24:44-47
“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again IN THREE DAYS.’ The Jews replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple He had spoken of was His body. After He was raised from the dead, His disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” John 2:19-22
“We are witnesses of everything He did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed Him by hanging Him on a tree, but God raised Him from the dead ON THE THIRD DAY and caused Him to be seen.” Acts 10:39-40
Peter addressing Cornelius says that God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day and that he was an eyewitness of this. This exegetical evidence conclusively demonstrates that those following Jesus clearly understood that the expression “three days and three nights” wasn’t to be taken literally and therefore does not mean a complete 72 hours. Rather, they were aware that the expression referred to a time period that covered approximately three days.
In light of the preceding evidence the expressions “3 days and 3 nights”, “on the third day”, “after three days”, “in three days” are all interchangeable terms signifying a period of time lasting until the third day and not necessarily a complete 72 hours.
Additional exegetical evidence supporting the preceding conclusions and the NT data includes the following OT passages:
“Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the same prison where Joseph was confined. The captain of the guard assigned them to Joseph, and he attended them. After they had been in custody for some time, each of the two men-the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were being held in prison–had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own. When Joseph came to them the next morning, he saw that they were dejected. So he asked Pharaoh’s officials who were in custody with him in his master’s house, ‘Why are your faces so sad today?’ ‘We both had dreams,’ they answered, ‘but there is no one to interpret them.’ Then Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.’ So the chief cupbearer told Joseph his dream. He said to him, ‘In my dream I saw a vine in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed, and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup and put the cup in his hand.’ ‘This is what it means,’ Joseph said to him. ‘The three branches ARE THREE DAYS. WITHIN THREE DAYS Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer. But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.’ When the chief baker saw that Joseph had given a favorable interpretation, he said to Joseph, ‘I too had a dream: On my head were three baskets of bread. In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.’ ‘This is what it means,’ Joseph said. ‘The three baskets ARE THREE DAYS. WITHIN THREE DAYS Pharaoh will lift off your head and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat away your flesh.’ Now THE THIRD DAY was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand, but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had said to them in his interpretation.” Genesis 40:1-23
Joseph’s three days equates to the third day. If three days were literal this would imply that the fulfillment of these dreams should have occurred on either the evening of the third day or sometime on the fourth day. Yet the exegetical evidence demonstrates that the expressions “three days”, “within three days”, “the third day” refer to the same time period. The same holds to true with the following passage:
“Rehoboam answered, ‘Come back to me IN THREE DAYS.’ So the people went away… THREE DAYS LATER Jeroboam and all the people returned to Rehoboam, as the king had said, ‘Come back to me IN THREE DAYS.’” 2 Chronicles 10:5, 12
If the expression “three days later” were taken literally as 72 hours, this means that the people had returned on the fourth day. Yet the text clearly shows that the phrase is equivalent to saying “in three days.”
“For SEVEN DAYS they camped opposite each other, and ON THE SEVENTH DAY the battle was joined. The Israelites inflicted a hundred thousand casualties on the Armenian foot soldiers in one day.” 1 Kings 20:29
Again, the expressions “seven days” and “on the seventh day” are interchangeable terms referring to a period of time covering approximately seven days.
One final and conclusive example:
“‘Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink FOR THREE DAYS, NIGHT OR DAY. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish’… ON THE THIRD DAY Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance.” Esther 4:16, 5:1
The expression “night or day” implies that they were to fast without ceasing for three days. Yet, if three days were literal 72 hours, this would mean that Esther would have entered into the presence of the king on the evening of the third day, not on the third day. This once more proves that expressions such as “three days” and “on the third day” refer to the same period of time.
We, therefore, see that the problem is not with the exegetical evidence found in the Holy Bible, but rather with contemporary ignorance of biblical expressions and customs in the first century. We should be careful to not commit chronological fallacy by imposing our own modern understanding of these expressions upon an ancient document, as opposed to allowing the historical and cultural context define what these terms would have meant to those who first heard and read the biblical narratives.