Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Heart of the Earth

There are many bible believing Christians that have a high view of scripture that have come to believe that Jesus did not die on Friday and also was not raised on Sunday morning. There are a few texts that they use to support this belief but the most often cited text is Matthew 12:40. The reason for this is that Matthew 12:40 clearly uses the phrase three days and three nights. If this time period began on Friday there is no way that a person could logically come to the conclusion that there are three days and three nights between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. When we take the phrase three days and three nights in Matthew 12:40 at face value we are presented with a challenge to the traditional understanding of the Friday crucifixion. How do Christians reconcile this phrase and other phrases in Matthew 12:40 that seem to indicate a different time period between Jesus' death and resurrection? To answer this question we must first look at the the different types of texts in the bible that deal with this time period. 

There are three other phrases used in the gospels that are used to describe the time period between Jesus' death and resurrection. An example of the first expression can be found in John 2:19-21. The bible says:

19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20   Then the Jews said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21   But He was speaking of the temple of His body. John 2:19-21

The phrase used here is “in three days.” An example of a second type expression that describes this time period is found in Mark 8:31. The bible says:

And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. Mark 8:31

Here the bible says that “after three days” Jesus would rise again. The third type of expression can be found in Matthew 16:21:  

From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.  Matthew 16:21

The expression here is the third day. However in the original language the phrase is actually on the third day. There is another use of this phrase outside of the gospels in 1 Corinthians 15:3,4. Paul says:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,  and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 1 Corinthians 15:3,4.

Again the phrase is translated the third day while in the original Greek, just as it was in Matthew 16:21, the phrase is actually on the third day. So far we have seen three time phrases that describe the time period of the passion of Jesus. They are: in three days, after three days, and on the third day. 

When we examine the example given in each of the three types or expressions that describe the time period between Jesus' death and resurrection we can see that if we apply a strict chronology to these expressions it is impossible to reconcile them. This is because the first expression “in three days” if applied strictly would mean that Jesus would be raised within the time period of three days. However the next expression “after three days” would strictly mean sometime after three days or on the fourth day Jesus would be raised. Lastly  the expression “on the third day” would mean anytime during the third day. It is clear that when a strict chronology is applied to these texts and expressions they become impossible to reconcile. 

How then do we resolve the apparent discrepancy between the aforementioned texts? The answer to this comes when we understand that ancient peoples did not always calculate the chronology of days in the strict way that we often do. We can find examples of this from scripture. First let’s go to Genesis 7:6. It says there “Noah was six hundred years old when the flood waters were on the earth.” But he was not fully six hundred years old. Verse 11 says: “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life.” According to the ancients reckoning a person was considered to be in the next year after they had their birthday. For example on the day immediately after Noah had his 599th birthday he began his six hundredth year of life. So in biblical thinking on the day after Noah’s 599th birthday he was in his six hundredth year. This is why Noah was reckoned to be 600 in Genesis 7:6 even though he was actually still only 599. This is an example of how the bible uses inclusive reckoning.

Let’s go to Leviticus 12:3. It says: “And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” Let's compare this with Luke 2:21 which says: “And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called JESUS, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.” Leviticus says on the eighth day and Luke says when eight days were completed. The only way to explain this is if any portion of the eighth day counts as a full day. 

Notice that Jesus Himself used the idea that “three days” means the “day after tomorrow.” Luke 13:32,33 says:

32 “And He said to them, “Go, tell that fox, (This refers to Herod Antipas) ’Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.’ (This refers to Christ’s death.) 33 Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow, and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.” Luke 13:32,33

According to Jesus the third day does not refer to exactly 72 hours. Jesus was speaking on a certain day and He said today, tomorrow and then the next day would be the third day. Jesus was not referring to a literal 72 hours. There is the portion of the day when Jesus was speaking. Then you have the full next day and finally you have a portion of the day following which would be the third day. Jesus used inclusive reckoning when He used the expression the third day. 

There is another interesting expression we find in Luke 24:13,21 that deals with the time period between Jesus' death and resurrection. Before we look at this text let’s ask the question “What day did Jesus resurrect?” The bible says He resurrected very early on the first day of the week. This was the third day since He was crucified. With this in mind let’s look at Luke 24:13 which says:

Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem. Luke 24:13

This even took place the afternoon of the resurrection. The bible says that when these two disciples arrived with Jesus in Emmaus Jesus raised His hands and showed them the wounds in His hands. They saw the wounds on His hands and immediately they turned around and went back to Jerusalem and when they came to Jerusalem it was night time. This means that the conversation described in the next verse took place on the afternoon following the resurrection. Let’s look now at verse 21.

But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened. Luke 24:21

 This text is important because it shows that an actual 72 hour period for Jesus death would be impossible because the disciples on the road to Emmaus placed their conversation within the third day. According to the bible the afternoon of the resurrection was still the third day. The only way to reconcile the expressions used in John 2:20, Mark 8:31, Matthew 16:21 and Luke 24:21 is to use inclusive reckoning. 

Now let’s look at the more difficult passage in Matthew 12:39,4: specifically the phrase three days and three nights. The bible says: 

39 “But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For 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 12:39,40

The words as and so illustrate that this passage references a biblical type that pointed to Christ. So how do we explain this passage? There are two possible options to explain this passage. First we could place the time of Jesus’ crucifixion on a different day. For example the World Wide Church of God taught that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday. It is true that if Jesus was crucified on Wednesday He would have been in the grave three days and three nights. However it is important to note that Jesus did not actually say that He would be in the “grave” three days and three nights. To illustrate this we need to understand that Jesus did in fact use the term “the grave.” In John 5:28 Jesus said: 

“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice.” John 5:28.

This illustrates that Jesus was familiar with the term “grave.” But He did not choose the term “grave” in Matthew 12:40. Notice that Jesus says that the Son of Man would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights when He could have used the term “grave.”

But even though Jesus did use the term grave elsewhere and did not use it in Matthew 12:40 for many the phrase “the heart of the earth” seems to imply that Jesus was resting in the tomb for three days and three nights. Is this actually what it means? The answer to this requires a study of the term “heart of the earth” as well as a study of both Jonah’s experience and Jesus’ experience. If we take the term “heart of the earth literally” we would have to conclude that Jesus was going deep into the earth. After all the term “heart” implies the core or center of something. Of course we know that if Jesus physically did go to the heart of the earth He would have to travel through thousands of miles of earth to get there. But when we compare the expression “heart of the earth” in Matthew 12:40 with a very similar expression in Ephesians we begin to understand more of the intent of Jesus’ words. In the book of Ephesians 4:8,9 Paul says:

8 Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. 9 (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? Ephesians 4:8,9

Here Paul contrasts how Jesus ascended up on high with the fact that He also descended in the lower parts of the earth. It is in the phrase “the lower parts of the earth” that we find a similar expression to the phrase that Jesus Himself used saying “the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The context dictates that both of these expressions in Matthew 12:40 and Ephesians 4:9 refer to the same event or experience. This helps us to understand more about the the “heart of the earth” and the “lower parts of the earth” because we know that they are contrasted with ascending up on high. As a result it is helpful to understand what Jesus means when He Himself refers to ascending. In John 3:12,13 Jesus tells Nicodemus:

12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? 13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. John 3:12,13

Jesus justifies His ability to tell Nicodemus about heavenly things because He has ascended up to heaven. However we know that Jesus had not yet physically ascended to the Father because He says this Himself to Mary later in the same gospel saying in John 20:17:

Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. John 20:17

This tell us that when Jesus tells Nicodemus that He had ascended to heaven in John 3:13 He was not talking about physically ascending. If this was true what then did He mean? The answer to this can be found in Jesus’ statement in John 14:6 when He says:

 I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. John 14:6

Jesus could say this because He had overcome the world. He says in John 16:33:

These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. John 16:33

Jesus said this before He was crucified. Jesus had been tempted by the devil and He had emerged victorious. He had already overcome the world and as a result He had access to heaven. Jesus explained this when He said in John 1:51:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. John 1:51


He had access to heaven because He had overcome the barrier of sin that separates sinners from God. However because human beings were enslaved to sin humanity was cut off from God. The bible says:

The wages of sin is death… Romans 6:23

This reality of the human condition meant that if Jesus was going to save fallen humanity He must take upon Himself the very thing that separates human beings from God. He must take upon Himself sin. The bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:21:

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. 2 Corinthians 5:21

Jesus became sin so that we could be made righteous. In doing this Jesus was cut off from God. Daniel 9:26 says:

And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off,..Daniel 9:26

It was this total separation from God that Jesus described in Matthew 12:40 when He said:

For 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

Just as Jesus had not yet ascended to heaven when He spoke to Nicodemus about ascending to heaven Jesus also did not actually go into the heart of the earth when He descended to the lower parts of the earth. Both the ascension mentioned in John 3:13  and the descending implied in Matthew 12:40 and clearly stated in Ephesians 4:9 refer to spiritual experiences. In John 3:13 Jesus was referring to His ability to access the throne of God: an ability that He bequeathed to us. And in the case of His experience in the heart of the earth or descending to the lower parts of the earth He is in fact referring to His experience of being cut off from God. This is why He referenced Jonah’s experience, which itself was a type of Christ’s experience. In both cases Jonah and Christ were cut off from God through their experiences. Jonah was cut off because of his own sin as he fled from God’s presence only to find himself in the belly of a great fish. Jesus was cut off from heaven because of the sins of the world. This separation began when He took the cup of the New Covenant. 

It was during the last supper when Jesus drank the actual cup of wine or grape juice that signified the shedding of His blood that Jesus began to experience separation from His Father. This is why Jesus just a short time later would cry out to God saying:

... O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. Matthew 26:39

It was the agony of separation from God when He began to take upon Himself our iniquities that was foreshadowed by the experience of Jonah in the belly of the great fish. Jonah’s like Christ prayed:

I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me;
Out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. Jonah 2:2

Both men, separated by hundreds of years, felt cut off from God and alone. It is clear that Jesus’ connection to Jonah began before He was buried in the grave. It is clear that Jesus was in the heart of the earth when He was separated by our sins in the garden of gethsemane. On that Thursday night so long ago Jesus cried out to God for some relief from the torture that His soul felt. But instead of relief Jesus chose to drink the cup and be separated from His heavenly Father. The choice to allow the weight of the world’s sins to separate Him from His Father was a choice that He began to make at the last supper and a choice that He firmly embraced in the garden of Gethsemane. Beginning on Thursday night Jesus was in the heart of the earth cut off from God so that one day you and I could follow Him to heaven. Three days and three nights later Jesus rose early on Sunday morning triumphant. He had broken the powers of darkness once for all and in doing so had given you and I eternity.