Have you ever wondered why we celebrate Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday when the Bible tells us that Jesus was in the grave for “3 days and 3 nights” (Matthew 12:40, 17:22-23). Isn’t 36+/- hours (Friday afternoon through early Sunday morning) too short?
Maybe you have never thought about it but it is a good question. My dad is a pastor and for as long as I can remember he believed that Jesus was crucified on a Wednesday. He still believes that and has reasons for believing it. His main concern is that you cannot get 3 days and 3 nights between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. I am no math scholar but it sounds like he has a point, doesn't it? There are a variety of other opinions out there (Thursday crucifixion, etc.) and I am thankful that this is not, and does not ever need to be, a divisive issue.
However, there is a reason why Good Friday has been celebrated over the course of church history. As I grew older I began to ask “when DID Jesus die?” Several years ago, after some studying, I found the evidence to be very compelling that Jesus did indeed die on Friday.
First, I will offer a little bit of culture clarity then an attempt at a timeline.
D. A. Carson explains: "In rabbinical thought a day and a night make an onah, and a part of an onah is as the whole. . . . Thus according to Jewish tradition, ‘three days and three nights’ need mean no more than ‘three days’ or the combination of any part of three separate days" (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 8:296).
We also must remember that a Jewish day began at 6 PM. Jesus was crucified, died and was buried all on Friday. So Friday would be the first day; at sundown on Friday the second day would begin; then at sundown on Saturday the third day would begin. When Jesus rose to life on Sunday morning, he indeed was "raised on the third day" (Matt. 20:19).
If we were to trace the timeline, it would look something like this:
DAY 1: Friday, “the Day of Preparation” -- Jesus is crucified around 9 AM and dies around 3 PM. John calls this "the Day of Preparation” (for the Sabbath) and, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the Sabbath, in the early afternoon the Jews asked Pilate to break their legs to speed up the process (John 19:31). Mark tells us that Joseph of Arimathea then obtains Jesus’ body and buries it still on “the Day of Preparation” (Mark 15:42-43).
DAY 2: Saturday, “the Sabbath” -- Luke tells us that they rested “on the Sabbath” (Luke 23:56). Matthew says that on this Sabbath day, "that is, after the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate" and asked for a guard to be placed on the tomb (Matt. 27:62).
DAY 3: Sunday, “the first day of the week” -- Matthew writes “Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb" and found that Jesus had risen from the dead (Matt. 28:1-6).
I hope this helps you understand why we celebrate both Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday!