The Pharisees must have been smarting from their verbal defeat by Jesus. Jesus had shown that their evil explanation of His miracles – that He was casting out demons by the power of Satan – was both absurd and contradictory. His arguments should have moved them to reconsider their position, but they did not, of course. They hated Jesus, so rather than altering their views, they merely came at Hm from another direction, demanding a miraculous sign.
A sign? Whatever were they thinking? Some scholars try to explain their demand by suggesting that they were asking for a different kind of sign from those Jesus had already given, a sign produced on demand perhaps. But what sign could Jesus have given in addition to the miracles He had done? He told the disciples of John the Baptist, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” These were true messianic signs, and Jesus had performed them, which means that in light of His miracles the demand for a “sign” was both insulting and impudent. It was also hypocritical, for regardless of what Jesus might have done to meet their demand, these men would merely have dug their heels in deeper and refused to believe Him.
It is the same today, when many more signs than those seen by the men of that far distant day have been given. Today there is overpowering evidence for the claims of Jesus to be the unique Son of God and the Savior. People still will not believe, and it is an insult to God to claim that there is insufficient evidence. What kind of evidence would it take?
Yet Jesus did offer them a sign, at least one that would be given to the entire world in time. It was the sign of His death and resurrection. He called it the sign of the prophet Jonah, saying, “For just 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” (Mt.12.40).
No one can read that today without understanding at once that it is a prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection. In the traditional handling of the events of Passion Week, Jesus was crucified on a Friday and was raised from the dead on Sunday morning. All four Gospel writers placed the crucifixion on the day immediately preceding a Sabbath (Mt.27.62; Mk.15.42; Lk.23.54; Jn.19.31). Yet if that is a correct understanding of these events, how can it be said that Jesus spent “three days and three nights” in the earth?
According to Jewish idiom, the phrase “three days” does not necessarily mean a period of seventy-two hours. It can mean merely one whole day plus parts of two others. But while this observation helps us deal with texts that say “three days,” it does not help us deal with Matthew’s version of the prophecy, for here the phrase is not “three days” but rather “three days and three nights.”
It is possible that parts of one day and one night are involved, rather than three full days and three full nights; nevertheless, three periods of light and three periods of darkness must be accounted for. This requirement, regardless of anything else, is fatal to a Friday crucifixion theory. As one writer says, “Add to the indictment of Friday the statement of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, spoken on the afternoon of Sunday, ‘Today is the third day since these things were done,’ and the case looks black indeed against Friday. Sunday is not the third day since Friday.”
There is another difficulty too – anyone who has tried to sort out the events of the final Passover Week and assign them days. On an average, about one-third of the Gospels is taken up with the events of the last week of Christ’s life. This means that the events of this week are given to us in fairly complete detail. From the arrival of Jesus in Bethany, before the Passover, until the resurrection, every moment seems to be accounted for. Yet when the events of these days are pieced together into one connected whole, one entire day, and possibly two, is lacking. One of the missing days can be explained as the preceding Sabbath, a day in which Jesus rested in Bethany and received those who came to see Him and Lazarus. But what of the other day? Can it really be that in a week as full as this one was, one entire day is unaccounted for? How can we explain this omission?
All four Gospels provide explicit chronological markers with regard to Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem. The Jews (and the Greeks) reckoned the day from sunset to sunset, while the Romans began the day at midnight. For example, day 14 in the month of Nisan – the first month of the Jewish year—began on Thursday at sunset and ended on Friday at sunset, corresponding to the “Western” date of April 7, 6 pm–April 8, 6 pm.
What are we to do with these problems? Is there a solution? I believe there is and that it is obviously the solution, once we get over the idea that the crucifixion must have been on a Friday, as tradition says. The solution is simply that two Sabbaths were involved in this last week of Christ’s earthly ministry. One was the regular weekly Sabbath, which always fell on Saturday. The second was an extra Passover Sabbath (referred to as a “High Sabbath”), which, in this particular week, must have come on a Friday.