“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.” (Matthew 12:40 ESV)
Jesus draws an analogy from the experience of Jonah to predict His own miraculous deliverance from the grave. In so doing, Jesus tells us that He will be in the grave “three days and three nights.”
There is good reason to believe that Jesus was crucified and laid in the tomb on what we call Good Friday. We know He was raised on Sunday. So how does a Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection square with Jesus’ prediction of three days and three nights in the grave?
In the Jewish mind of those in Christ’s day, “three days and three nights” could mean a combination of any part of three days. It did not have to be a full 72 hours. In fact, it could refer to a period of much less time. The Jewish mind often counted a part of a day as a whole day.
Understanding that “three days and three nights” was an idiom for any portion of three days, we can square Jesus’ prediction with a Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection. Keep in mind that Jewish thought also counted their days from sundown to sundown. Thus the three days can be counted in the following way:
Jesus died and was placed in the tomb before sundown on Friday. This portion of Friday would be the first day.
Jesus was in the grave for all of Saturday from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. This would be the second day.
Jesus rose early Sunday morning. This portion of Sunday would be the third day.
Jesus said that he would be raised on the third day (Matt. 16:21). A Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection fits with His being raised on the third day and His prediction of “three days and three nights” according to Jewish understanding at that time.