By Wayne S. Walker
One of the arguments made by Sabbatarians against Christians’ worshiping on the first day of the week is their claim that the resurrection was not on Sunday. They place the historical occurrence of the resurrection on Saturday, the day they have chosen to revere as “God’s eternal sabbath.”Often when they assert that the seventh day of the week, the Old Testament sabbath, is the day Christians should assemble for worship, they run into some resistance. Most of so-called Christendom tends to regard the first day of the week, Sunday, as the day to which it attaches any religious significance. This practice has generally been a result of the belief that Christ rose from the dead on that day. Thus, any mention of Saturday worship turns many off. Sabbatarians have chosen to deny the Sunday resurrection in an attempt to persuade people to cease their recognition of Sunday as a “special day,” and to present a better case for sabbath observance. It is not the desire of this writer to deal with false teaching concerning the sabbath since there are many good scriptural refutations concerning it. I mention it here merely to give some background.
Three Days and Three Nights
The first passage to be considered in our study is Matthew 12:39-40. In this text, Jesus compared Jonah’s three day and three night’s stay in the belly of the sea creature to His own three day and three night’s rest in the grave. It is a mistake to conclude that the particular sign Jesus was giving here to prove His Messiahship is the three days and three nights in the sepulcher, no more and no less. One writer has declared that the evidence of Christ’s deity was not the fact of the resurrection itself, but the length of time He would repose in the grave before His resurrection.(1) However, this concept comes into conflict with the apostle Paul in Romans 1:1-4. The inspired writer did not say that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness” by the amount of time spent in the grave, but “by the resurrection from the dead” itself. Although if Jesus said He would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, He was of course; the language of Paul indicates that the length of time is not so important as the actual event.
It is also a mistake to define “three days and three nights” as seventy-two hours. Some have compared Genesis 1:13 where Moses said, “And the evening and the morning were the third day,” with John 11:9-10 where Jesus asked, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? . . . but if any man walk in the night, he stumbleth.” They erroneously conclude that since God “divided the light from the darkness . . . (and) called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night” (Genesis 1:4-5), that three days and three nights must include three twelve hour periods each of light and darkness, hence seventy two hours. This is clearly a mishandling of Scripture by joining two totally unrelated passages and using modern definitions to interpret them. I do not believe that the Bible writers nor the Holy Ghost who inspired them were too interested in our arithmetical method of figuring time. We do err when we try to force our own Western measurements into the Spirit breathed words of men of Oriental thought. What we must do instead is determine what was meant in First Century Palestine by “three days and three nights,” according to what the Scriptures reveal.
Comparing Matthew 12:39-40 with Mark 8:31, 9:31, and John 2:19-21, one must conclude that the terms “three days and three nights,” “after three days,” “(on) the third day,” and “(with) in three days,” all cover equivalent periods of time, or else Jesus openly contradicted Himself. It is accepted by practically all reputable authorities(2) who have a knowledge of the original languages of the Biblical text that the Jews in all periods of Bible history used the expressions “after three days” and “on the third day” as equivalent, even though in our parlance, they would mean different things. (See Gen. 42:17-18, 1 Kings 12:5-12, 2 Chron. 10:5-12, and compare Matt. 16:21 with Mark 8:31.) The same is true of the phrases “within three days” and “on the third day” (Gen. 10:13-20). Notice again that a feast lasting “three days, night and day” (equal to three days and three nights) ended “on the third day” (Esther 4:16, 5:1) not on the fourth, and that a period of “three days and three nights” began “three days ago” (1 Sam. 30:1213) not four. In addition, the Pharisees, recognizing that Jesus had said while alive, “After three days will I rise again,” asked Pilate to “Command therefore the sepulcher to be made sure until the third day” (Matt. 27:63-64). According to our terminology, if Jesus were to rise after three days, we would guard the tomb until the fourth day; but not so with the Jews. A final note on Hebrew time measuring is found in 1 Sam. 20:12., where Jonathan told David he would sound out his father “about tomorrow any time, or the third day,” making the third day equal to the day after tomorrow.
Sabbatarians say that expositors impose upon their credulity in arguing that the expression “three days and three nights” may include any part of a day or night.(3) Even some evangelical Protestants are not satisfied with this explanation and consider it a weak makeshift at best.(4) Besides the scriptural testimony in the paragraph above, please note the chronological time table in Acts 10 as corroborating evidence. In verses 1-8, Cornelius received a vision in which he was instructed to send for Peter. In verse 9, it was the morrow when the men journeyed to Joppa and when Peter had his vision. In verse 23, two days later, Peter accompanied the men to Caesarea, and in verse 24 they all arrived at Cornelius’ house three days after Cornelius’ vision. We would say Cornelius saw his vision three days prior. But Cornelius himself put it “four days ago” (verse 30). Why? First, in the expression, “four days,” any part of any day from the original day was included; and second, the ancients figured in the day on which an event occurred when counting time from that event. Thus, Cornelius’ vision was on the first day and Peter’s arrival on the fourth day-a total period of four days according to First Century reckoning, even though we would consider it “three days” in our way of thinking.
The point to be understood is that it is folly to restrict the phrase “three days and three nights” to an exact period of seventy-two hours. This is simply not what the Holy Spirit meant to say. In their reasoning, Sabbatarians put their own meaning upon the construction. They usually assume the crucifixion was on Wednesday, then try to establish this assumption using either the modern Hebrew calendar or supposed astronomical observations, both of which are suspect and shaky evidence. Following this trend of thought, if “three days and three nights” were literally seventy-two hours, then this period would have ended on Saturday. This hypothesis fits amazingly well with their sabbath worship. But the whole theory is based solely on supposition, human wisdom, and perversion of Bible passages. There is not one shred of Scripture to substantiate it. We might pause here to state that if Sunday be the “third day” after the crucifixion, then Saturday was the second, and Friday was the “first day,” which would have been the day on which the crucifixion must have taken place according to the Jewish mode of calculation used by the Bible writers. This is the only tenable conclusion to be drawn from the Bible record.
The Bible indicates that Jesus was crucified on Friday, for the next day was called “the day that followed the day of preparation” (Matt. 27:62). It is not mere assumption to say that the day of preparation was Friday, because the term “preparation” was, and still is, the common method of referring to the sixth day of the week by both Jews and Greek speaking people. From what we have studied concerning the Hebrew expression “three days and three nights,” a Friday crucifixion would necessitate a Sunday resurrection. However, some invariably will ask, “Which preparation is Matthew speaking of?” as they try to devise a week with two preparations in it. Their attempted explanation is that Wednesday was the preparation for the Passover and Friday was the preparation for the regular sabbath. In this way, they can return to their idea of a Wednesday crucifixion, but it is merely a guess, and a poor one at that. Although it is admittedly difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct the exact chain of events according to day and time in the last week of Jesus’ life, there are certain statements which help us understand what did happen when. The Bible, in referring to the day following the crucifixion, explains, “That sabbath (regular term for seventh day) was an high day” (a special occasion or feast, John 19:31). This explains why the day of the crucifixion was “the preparation of the passover” (John 19:14), as well as the preparation of the weekly sabbath. What this means is that the passover feast that year fell on the seventh day of the week. Jesus was crucified the day before this occasion, on Friday, the preparation.
Furthermore, the Bible clearly reveals which day Jesus arose from the grave. In Mark 16:9 we read, “When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons” (NIV). Amazingly, we are told that this verse does not say the resurrection was on Sunday. It is argued that the verb is in the perfect tense, and that Jesus’ condition early on the first day of the week was “risen” because He arose the afternoon before.(5) This is admittedly the normal meaning of a perfect verb in the Greek New Testament. However, even if the information about the tense were correct, it would not uphold the argument because the perfect tense of that particular verb (anistemi) has the sense of a present.(6) But the tense of the verb is not perfect. The form of the verb is anastas, which is a second aorist active participle. If it were perfect, it would be anestekds. The verse literally reads, “Now having risen early on the first day of the week,”(7) or “Now after (or when) he had risen on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene.” There is no doubt what the verse says-it says that Jesus did rise on the first day of the week. The only doubt might be as to its canonicity since some of the more ancient manuscripts omit it. But I believe there is sufficient evidence to warrant accepting this passage as authentic scripture.
Another statement concerning the first day resurrection is Luke 24:21, “Today is the third day since these things were done.” The first day of the week is specified in verse 1; the events transpiring in this section of the chapter happened “that same day” (verse 13); and that day was the third day. An objection is raised to this that “these things” included the setting of the seal and the watch over the tomb which occurred “the next day” (Matt. 27:62). The desired conclusion is that Sunday was the third day since the day this was accomplished (which would be the day following the crucifixion) but not since the day of the crucifixion itself. But when we examine the speech of Cleopas in verses 18-20 of Luke 24, it is clear he did not include the events which transpired on the day after Jesus was crucified, but ended his account with “The chief priests and our rulers . . . have crucified him.” Besides, Cleopas was not intending to give a detailed chronological account of all the events surrounding Christ’s death. All he was saying was that Christ predicted that He would die, be buried, and arise the third day. And “Today (the first day of the week) is the third day.”
The Scriptures, written by the holy apostles and prophets who were inspired by the Holy Spirit, which reveal the very mind of God, plainly teach that the resurrection of Christ from the dead occurred on the first day of the week, the day we call Sunday. To deny this is to deny the Biblical record. Sabbatarians teach otherwise, however, in proclaiming that Christ arose on the sabbath, the day we call Saturday. They say, “The seventh day;” God says, “The first day;” the Bible says, “Yea, let God be true, but every man a liar” (Rom. 3:2). I shall let you draw your own conclusions.
Truth Magazine XXI: 18, pp. 279-281
May 5, 1977