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On Which Day of the Week Did Jesus Die?

On which day of the week did Jesus die?

The first thing that must be said about this question is that it is not a question of first importance, nor even of second importance. It is much more important to understand why Jesus died than to pinpoint when. So if today’s question doesn’t interest you, that’s fine.

Nevertheless, the question of when Jesus died has often been debated. And it becomes an important one if it threatens to either divide Christians or erode our trust in the Scriptures.

Three answers have been commonly given to my question: Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. According to Harold W. Hoehner, “the Friday crucifixion view has had the overwhelming support of scholars throughout the history of the church.”1 But the Thursday view and the Wednesday view (though to a lesser extent) have also been defended by some scholars. (Note: I will be relying heavily on Hoehner in this post, using his book Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, available on Kindle right now for only $2.99.)

According to Hoehner, “the primary support” for both the Wednesday and Thursday crucifixion views “is the literal interpretation of Matthew 12:40 where Jesus states: ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.'”2 But Hoehner believes that this piece of evidence for a Wednesday or Thursday crucifixion is not as strong as it first appears.

In this post I will build on Hoehner’s thoughts on this one specific argument. I acknowledge that there are other factors that should also be weighed to better answer my original question. But hopefully addressing this one factor will help strengthen our trust in the Scriptures.

The place to begin is to compare all the ways that Jesus spoke about how long after his death he would rise. There are at least five phrases that he and others used:

  1. “On the third day” (τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ). This is the most frequently used phrase, occurring nine times (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 46; Acts 10:40; 1Corinthians 15:4).
  2. “After three days” (μετὰ τρεῖς ἡμέρας). There are four times this phrase is used (Matthew 27:63; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34).
  3. “Three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ τῆς γῆς τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας). This phrase is used once, as cited above (Matthew 12:40).
  4. “In three days” (ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις). This occurs twice, where Jesus says “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” and the Jews discuss his saying. John clarifies that Jesus was speaking about his own body (John 2:19-20)).
  5. “In three days” (διὰ τριῶν ἡμερῶν). This similar phrase occurs twice, where Jesus’ accusers report his saying about rebuilding the temple (Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:58).

The first thing to note is that a very literalistic interpretation of all five phrases leads to direct contradictions. Phrase (3) “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” seems the most specific, so it is tempting to try to reconcile all the others to this one. Phrase (2) “after three days” could indeed be reconciled quite nicely with (3); the presence or absence of “nights” makes little difference. But there is no way to make a hyper-literal reading of phrase (1) “on the third day” mean the same as phrase (2) “after three days.” If I tell you to come to my house “on” Sunday, that is not the same as if I tell you to come “after” Sunday. So there is no way that phrases (1), (2), and (3) can all be synthesized if they are interpreted in a hyper-literalistic fashion.

Thankfully, parallel passages in the synoptic Gospels point to a solution. In three of the four occurrences of “after three days” (2), there are parallel passages where the phrase “on the third day” (1) is used instead (Mark 8:31 = Matthew 16:21 / Luke 9:22; Mark 9:31 = Matthew 17:23; Mark 10:34 = Matthew 20:19 / Luke 18:33). This shows that the Gospel writers understood the two expressions “on the third day” and “after three days” to mean the same thing. They did not have a hyper-literalistic understanding of time references as we often do.

The fourth occurrence of “after three days” (2) also points toward this understanding, for the response of the Jewish leaders to Jesus’ statement about rising “after three days” was to ask for a guard “until the third day” (ἕως τῆς τρίτης ἡμέρας), not “until after the third day” (Matthew 27:63-64). So the Jewish leaders, too, understood phrases (1) and (2) to be equivalent.

To my amateur mind, phrases (4) and (5) could naturally match either (1) or (2), especially since (1) and (2) are actually equivalent. If so, we have now found a biblical way to synthesize four of the five phrases. (Hoehner does not discuss the last two phrases on my list.)

This leaves phrase (3)—the Matthew 12:40 statement—as the only “three-day saying” that seems to point toward a Wednesday crucifixion. But an examination of OT and rabbinic Jewish ways of discussing the passage of time shows that this passage, too, should not be ready in a hyper-literalistic fashion. For example, in Esther 4:16 Esther tells the Jews, “Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day… Then I will go to the king.” But in Esther 5:1 we read that she went to the king “on the third day,” not “after three days and three nights.” (See also 1 Samuel 30:12-13; Hoehner mentions more passages.)

Similarly, several passages in the rabbinic literature reportedly “combine” the Jonah time-table (“three days and three nights,” Jonah 1:17) with various “on the third day” passages such as Genesis 22:4 and Genesis 42:17-18. (I am not sure what Hoehner means by “combine.”) More clearly, Hoehner reports that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (c. A.D. 100) stated, “A day and night are an Onah [‘a portion of time’] and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it”3

There are other factors to discuss when determining which day of the week Jesus died, but this is how Hoehner summarizes this primary factor:

“When one examines all the evidence, it seems that the New Testament, the Old Testament, and Rabbinic literature all agree that a part of a day is counted as a whole day-and-night. Thus, the expressions: ‘the three days and three nights,’ ‘after three days,’ and ‘on the third day’ are all one and the same time span.4

Even when using an ancient Jewish approach to when a new day starts (at sundown), the above data could fit with either a Thursday or a Friday crucifixion—though it seems to me that by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s method Friday works somewhat better:

Thursday crucifixion:
1st day—Thursday afternoon
2nd day—Friday
3rd day—Saturday
(don’t count Sunday morning)

Friday crucifixion:
1st day—Friday afternoon
2nd day—Saturday
3rd day—Sunday morning

If the analysis in this post is correct, then there is little reason to argue for a Wednesday crucifixion and one of the primary reasons to argue for a Thursday crucifixion has been removed. Other factors would need to be discussed to explain why some scholars still prefer a Thursday crucifixion but most conclude that the traditional view, Friday, makes most sense of the biblical and historical data.

My goal in this post was not primarily to convince you about which day of the week Jesus died. Rather, it was an exercise in reading the Scriptures carefully. I admit I enjoy that sort of investigation for its own sake! But hopefully this post will also increase your confidence, as it did mine, that the Scriptures can be trusted to make sense when we read them on their own terms.

What do you think? I can’t promise to answer your further questions, but do ask or instruct as you wish in the comments below.

  1. Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1977), p. 74.
  2. Ibid., p. 65, cf. p. 68.
  3. Ibid., p. 74. Hoehner cites three passages in Midrash Rabbah and Midrash on the Psalms regarding the Jonah passage, and the Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbath ix. 3) and the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 4a) regarding Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s statement.
  4. Ibid., p. 74, emphasis added.

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What Is the Christian’s True Hope in Death?

My father-in-law, Albert Mast, is nearing death. At least, that’s the way it looks to those of us who are nearest to him. It sounds strange to say it, and stranger still to experience it, but we are waiting for him to die. I waited beside his bed for some four hours last night, then one of his brothers waited till morning. I think Albert’s been waiting longer than any of us.

While we wait, we think. My wife Zonya’s thoughts, along with the thoughts of many in her family, seem to be drawn mostly to the past, reflecting on memories of Albert from before his illness turned much worse about five years ago. Since I have fewer memories of Albert from before that time, and since I may have opportunity to speak publicly after his passing, my thoughts are wandering more to the future than to the past.

What will happen to Albert when he dies? What will he experience? What should he hope to experience? He’s lived in a crippled body for so long; what measure of relief will he experience immediately? What surprises might he experience? To what extent is his hope shaped according to the biblical revelation, and to what extent has it been shaped by gospel songs we sing and by that vast stock of traditional Christian phrases that reveal and drive our popular theologies?

Don’t worry. I’m not on a campaign to change my father-in-law’s theology at this point. I’ve read some Scriptures to him (1 Cor. 15) and prayed with him, but this is not the time for theological education. His hope is fixed on Jesus, and that’s more than sufficient for his journey ahead! But for those of us who will remain, I think a better understanding can lead to a fuller hope, a more expansive vision of what lies ahead. So here are a few thoughts while I wait.

A question: When Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2), what was the joy that he was anticipating? What anticipated joy gave him such great endurance? Was Jesus anticipating “dying and going to heaven”? Was he eager to “spend eternity in heaven with God”?

I’m certain Jesus was indeed eager to return to the presence of his Father, but I think such phrases miss a crucial element of the joy that fueled his endurance. Hebrews summarizes Jesus’ reward by saying that he “is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” This phrase does not mean merely that Jesus is in the presence of God. Rather, it means that he is reigning with God. So, when did Jesus begin to reign? On Friday evening, immediately after he cried “It is finished” and gave up his spirit? Sometime on Saturday, while his body lay in the grave? Or on Sunday, after the stone was rolled from the tomb?

I think Paul summarizes the NT answer to this question well: “[God] raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:20). In other words, Jesus was granted authority to reign not on Friday, not on Saturday, but on Sunday morning–or maybe at his ascension about 40 days later.

What is very clear is that “the joy that was set before Jesus,” the joy that fueled his endurance, was not something that he anticipated would happen on Friday night or on Saturday. The joy that fueled Jesus’ endurance was the joy of his upcoming resurrection and all that would flow from it. 

We can see this, too, in Jesus’ repeated prophecies of his own suffering. Each time he told his disciples of his impending death, it was all bad news until the final line: “and he will be raised on the third day” (Matt. 17:23; 20:19; etc.). Never do we read anything like, “and he will go to heaven to be with God.” As true as that was, Jesus didn’t mention it. It wasn’t on his radar. The focus of his hope was his upcoming resurrection. I simply cannot imagine Jesus being satisfied with “going to heaven to be with God” on Friday without also being “raised on the third day”! The very idea is so strange that, if you’re like me, you’ve never even thought of that possibility before today.

If all that is true, then what about our own hope in death? I’d like to suggest that it is just as strange for us to focus our hopes on “going to heaven to be with God” when we die as it would have been for Jesus to do so. I’ll say that again: I think it is just as strange for us to focus our hopes on “going to heaven to be with God” when we die as it would have been for Jesus to do so.

Here’s a challenge: Do a word search in the NT for “heaven,” and see if you can find any passages that are anything like “go to heaven when you die.” See if you can find any passages that invite the Christian to set his hopes on going to heaven after death. Then do another search, a search for “resurrection,” “raised,” and all the other related words you can think of. See how many pages of passages you can find describing the hope that awaits the Christian in the coming resurrection, at Christ’s return. I did such searches several years ago, while preparing for Easter sermons, and I’ve never recovered. (Here is where I must also thank N.T. Wright and Randy Alcorn for starting me down this path and surprising me with new hope–see here and here.)

Millions of saints who have believed in purgatory have faced a pleasant surprise after death: They have found themselves immediately with Jesus, with no need to suffer long years in purgatory! But some of us who have rightly rejected purgatory have set ourselves up for a less pleasant surprise: If we think we are going straight to our full eternal reward immediately after death, we will suddenly discover that we need to “wait a little longer” (Rev. 6:11) for Christ’s return, bringing our resurrection and the final judgment. This is a less significant error than purgatory—but also a less pleasant surprise. Yes, it is “far better” to leave our bodies and be with Jesus (Phil 1:23). But let’s “set [our] hope fully on the grace that will be brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13) and “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).

Much should be said about why this clarification of our hope matters. Perhaps the most important thing to mention is that a hope fixed on “going to heaven when you die” tends to be more self-centered than a hope fixed on Christ’s return and the resurrection and the restoration of all things. The former focuses on personal salvation; the latter on cosmic salvation. The former focuses on us going to be with Jesus; the latter focuses on Jesus coming to be with us and with his entire creation. I’m sure many selfless saints have fixed their hopes on “crossing the river” to see Jesus face to face and meet their loved ones. But I think a hope fixed on Christ’s return helps us see much more of the glory of Christ!

A bigger vision of a bigger Christ, a greater hope that fuels a greater endurance. I’m sold. Where are you pinning your hopes?

I’ll end my polished thoughts here and invite you to respond in the comments below. But I’ll also post the Scriptures I was mediating on today, along with my observations about four things I think we can learn about from each passage: death, afterdeath, resurrection, and implications for us now. Many more passages could be cited, but these alone are enough, I think, to shift the focus of our hopes from after death to the resurrection to come.


Afterdeath and Resurrection – Scriptures Describing the Christian’s True Hope

 Note: I am using the term afterdeath rather than afterlife for the intermediate state (between our death and Christ’s return) because afterlife is potentially misleading. For the Christian, though death brings an end to the natural life of our bodies, our life continues and then blossoms into fullness after death. Eternal life is unending, so there is nothing that comes “after” life for the Christian.


2 Timothy 4:6-8

6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Death: Death is the time of departure, the end of the fight, the end of the race, the end of the fight/race of preserving the true faith from attack and corruption. (It could also be called an offering, at least if it involves the suffering accompanying a martyr’s death, as with Paul’s suffering and impending death.)

Afterdeath: No more fight, race, or faith-keeping. Time of waiting for final rewards.

Resurrection: Christ’s appearing on that Day, the day of judgment, is when the crown of righteousness will be given.

Now: We love and long for Christ’s appearing, willingly suffering for Christ as we pin our hopes on that Day.


Philippians 1:21-24:

21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.

Death: When we die we no longer remain in the flesh. We depart from fellow believers and our time of labor and serving others in gospel ministry ends.

Afterdeath: Christians are with Christ in a fuller way than we presently are. (Cf. Stephen in Acts 7:59: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and Jesus’ words to thief on cross in Luke 23:43: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”) They rest from their labors. Therefore, the afterdeath is far better than remaining in our corruptible flesh. Yet it is a time of separation from earthly saints.

Resurrection: Paul says nothing about the resurrection in this passage. Later in the same book he does (3:10-14, 20-21), and notice how he makes it the centerpiece of Christian hope:

“10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus… 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

Now: For us to live is Christ—we live Christ-shaped lives, imitating him in suffering service for his sake, laboring for the good of others.


Revelation 6:9-11:

9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Death: Can come through martyrdom, unjustly, because of our faithfulness to the word of God for the witness we have borne. Yet even this kind of death is “numbered” and overseen by God. Yes, death is our enemy. But every Christian dies under God’s watchful eye.

Afterdeath: At least for some (martyrs), a time of intense longing for God to bring final justice on the earth. Saints are crying, “How long?!” just as the ancient psalmists did. They are conscious. They can speak with God. They experience the passage of time. They remember their earthly lives and have a least some awareness of what is currently happening on earth (cf. 1 Sam. 28:16-19; Rev. 18:20; 19:1-5)—at least that suffering and wickedness is continuing. Tears are seemingly not all wiped away until the coming of the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21:4). Yet saints now in God’s presence also receive God’s comfort—purity (Rev. 3:4-5; 7:9-14; 19:8) and glory as symbolized by a white robe, and the assurance that it will be only “a little longer” until God judges evil and rescues his people. Note: these robes are clearly metaphorical in Revelation (“washed… and made white in the blood of the Lamb,” 7:14) and do not indicate that saints in the intermediate state possess bodies.

Resurrection: Not mentioned directly, but the joint-event of the final judgment is presented as the hope of the saints.

Now: Endure faithfully as witnesses for Christ.


2 Corinthians 5:1-10:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Death: Our tent (body) is destroyed; our time of being in the body and away from the Lord ends.

Afterdeath: We are “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Sight begins to replace faith. Yet it is still a time of waiting for our final clothing. (Vs. 3-4 are difficult. Perhaps they suggest that during afterdeath, as now, we will still experience something of the shameful nakedness of Adam as we wait for our final glorious bodies and the full restoration of all that was lost at the Fall; see Scott Hoffman NIVAC. But Murray Harris NIGTC thinks the “nakedness” comments are rather designed to refute the Corinthian doubts about bodily resurrection during the eternal state, as in 1 Cor. 15.)

Resurrection: We will put on our heavenly dwelling, our eternal bodies, our final and full clothing. This will happen at the judgment seat of Christ (which happens at Christ’s return) we each receive what is due for what we have done while in our bodies. All that is mortal will be swallowed up by life!

Now: We are only partially clothed, and we groan for our “overgarments”—our eternal bodies; we don’t yet see all we long for, but we are of good courage as we walk by faith, because we already have the Spirit as a guarantee of our eternal bodies to come.


1 Corinthians 15:20-26:

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Death: Experienced by all descendants of Adam; a result of the Fall, an enemy that has not yet been fully destroyed.

Afterdeath: A sleep. This was a common way of referring to death, used by pagans, Jews, and Christians alike, whether or not anyone believed in a coming resurrection (Green, Thessalonians, 217). Perhaps this term was used as a way of expressing the fact that we can’t communicate with the dead, just like we can’t communicate with people who are sleeping. Or maybe it was just a pleasant term to soften the ugliness of death. Most important: It does not indicate that those who are dead are unconscious (which would contradict other texts like Luke 16:19-31 or Rev. 6:9-11). Although it was used by all kinds of people, it is sometimes used in Scripture to insinuate that death isn’t the final end (Dan. 12:2; Mark 5:39). Therefore, even though the term in its original usage doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the afterlife, it is a doubly-fitting term for Christians: death, like sleep, is a temporary time of waiting that will be followed by an awakening on the resurrection morning.

Resurrection: All who are belong to Christ will be made alive at his coming—they will receive incorruptible, spirit-powered bodies. Then, at the end, death itself will be destroyed.


In Conclusion: Being with Christ is “Far Better,” But Sharing in Christ’s Resurrection is Our True Comfort and Hope

The message we use to comfort each other:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

The place where our hope is fixed:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ… 13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3-7, 13)


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