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The Good Friday-Easter Sunday Question

How do the biblical three days and three nights after Jesus Christ's crucifixion fit between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning? Or do they?

by Wilber Berg

In the northern hemisphere, the spring of each year brings several of Christianity’s most important religious observances. The Lenten period from Ash Wednesday to Easter is observed by some with fasting and penance. Good Friday, or Holy Friday, as it is sometimes called, is celebrated two days before Easter as a commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Easter Sunday is revered as the day of Jesus’ resurrection, sometimes by sunrise services.

These practices are so much an ingrained tradition in the church calendar that many would consider it heretical to question them. But most of the world is scarcely aware that the original apostles did not institute or keep these customs, nor were they observed by the early Christian Church. Try as you might to find them, Lent, Good Friday and Easter are not so much as mentioned in the original Greek wording of the New Testament. The word Easter appears only once in the King James Version of the Bible (Acts 12:4) in a flagrant mistranslation of the Greek word pascha, which should be translated "Passover," as most versions render it.

The justification for the Lenten 40-day preparation for Easter is traditionally based on Jesus’ 40-day wilderness fast before his temptation by Satan (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, "Lent"? Matthew 4:1-2; Mark 1:13). The problem with this explanation is that this incident is not connected in any way with Jesus’ supposed observance of Easter. The 40-day pre-Easter practice of fasting and penance did not originate in the Bible.

Pre-Christian practices adopted

Many people still follow such practices, assuming that such activities honor God and are approved by Him. But, we should ask, how does God regard such extrabiblical customs? Consider God’s instructions to those who would worship Him:

"Take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:30-32, emphasis added throughout).

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes: "The term Easter was derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Eostre,’ the name of the goddess of spring. In her honor sacrifices were offered at the time of the vernal (spring) equinox" (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1982, Vol. 2, "Easter").

Many battles were fought over its observance date, but the Council of Nicea finally fixed the date of Easter in A.D. 325 to fall on the first Sunday after the full moon on or after the vernal equinox (March 21).

Not generally known is that "the preparation for Easter season, beginning on Ash Wednesday and continuing for a week after Easter Day, was filled with pagan customs that had been revised in the light of Christianity. Germanic nations, for example, set bonfires in spring. This custom was frowned on by the Church, which tried to suppress it . . . In the sixth and seventh centuries (monks) came to Germany, (bringing) their earlier pagan rites(,) and would bless bonfires outside the church building on Holy Saturday. The custom spread to France, and eventually it was incorporated into the Easter liturgy of Rome in the ninth century. Even today the blessing of the new fire is part of the Vigil of Easter.

"Medieval celebrations of Easter began at dawn. According to one old legend, the sun dances on Easter morning, or makes three jumps at the moment of its rising, in honor of Christ’s resurrection. The rays of light penetrating the clouds were believed to be angels dancing for joy.

"Some Easter folk traditions that have survived today are the Easter egg, rabbit and lamb. During medieval times it was a tradition to give eggs at Easter to servants. King Edward I of England had 450 eggs boiled before Easter and dyed or covered with gold leaf. He then gave them to members of the royal household on Easter day. The egg was an earlier pagan symbol of rebirth and was presented at the spring equinox, the beginning of the pagan new year.

"The Easter rabbit is mentioned in a German book of 1572 and also was a pagan fertility symbol. The Easter lamb goes back to the Middle Ages; the lamb, holding a flag with a red cross on a white field, represented the resurrected Christ (rather than the sacrifice of His life, as a fulfillment of the Passover lamb, that paid for the sins of the world (John 1:29))" (Anthony S. Mercatante, Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, New York and Oxford, 1988, "Easter").

Passover out, Easter in

Easter traditions are embraced by many who profess Christianity. However, none of these practices are to be found in the Bible or the customs of the early Church. Jesus and His apostles did not establish or perpetuate such practices, which obscure the true biblical meanings and observances of this time of year. In fact, a 4th-century church historian, Socrates Scholasticus, wrote in his Ecclesiastical History that neither the apostles nor the Gospels taught the observance of Easter, nor did they or Jesus give a law requiring the keeping of this feast. Instead, "the observance originated not by legislation, but as a custom” (chapter 22, emphasis added).

Even as early as the close of the 2nd century, the theologian Irenaeus bore witness in his letter to Victor, bishop of Rome, that some early Roman bishops forbade the observance of Passover on the 14th of Nisan. This was the date of the biblical observance practiced each spring by Jesus and the apostles. At the time that the Nisan 14 Passover observance was banned, ecclesiastical authorities introduced Lent and Easter into Christian practice.

Distorting Jesus’ words

A century later the Syriac Didascalia recorded the attempts of teachers in Rome to reconcile Jesus’ words that He would be entombed "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40) with a Friday-afternoon crucifixion and a Sunday-morning resurrection. According to their reasoning, Jesus’ sufferings were part of the three days and three nights of Scripture. Friday morning from 9 to noon was counted as the first day, and noon to 3 p.m. (which was darkened) was considered the first night. Three in the afternoon to sunset was reckoned as the second day, whereas Friday night to Saturday morning constituted the second night. The daylight part of Saturday was the third day, and the night portion to Sunday morning was the third night.

In other words, the three days and three nights in the grave that Jesus said would be the sign that He was indeed sent from God were transformed into a period of two days and two nights, or a total of no more than 48 hours. This has subsequently been reduced even further in modern times by figuring from late-afternoon Friday to early Sunday morning, which takes away another 12 hours or more. Such reasoning has to discount or somehow explain away Jesus’ clear promise that He would be entombed three days and three nights.

Easter and Lent are nonbiblical and were not observed by the apostles or the 1st-century Church. The biblical record shows, however, that the early Church diligently kept other observances, the New Testament Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, just as Jesus and the apostles had done (Matthew 26:17-19; Acts 20:6; 1Corinthians 5:8; 11:23-26). These were supplanted in later years by the customs and practices of Easter and Lent.

Passover is an annual reminder of Jesus’ sacrificial death to pay the penalty for our sins (Matthew 26:26-28). The Feast of Unleavened Bread is a celebration that focuses on a Christian’s need to live in sincerity, truth and purity (1Corinthians 5:8). The nonbiblical festivals of Lent and Easter, added decades after the time of Jesus Christ and the apostles, only cloud the true significance of Christ’s life, death and resurrection and the purpose of His coming.

The Passover was instituted in Exodus 12 and continues, by Jesus Christ’s example and command, but with a change of symbols. Jesus’ death fulfilled the symbolism of the sacrificial Passover lamb (Matthew 26:17-28; John 1:29), but the New Testament Passover has been improperly replaced as an annual memorial of the resurrection of Christ by Easter. We are commanded to commemorate Christ’s death, not His resurrection (1Corinthians 11:23-28).

Facts about Jesus’ last days

Jesus Christ’s promise was fulfilled exactly as He said, a fact that is made clear when we study and compare the Gospel accounts. These records give a clear, logical explanation that is perfectly consistent with Christ’s words. Let’s focus on Jesus’ last days on earth to gain the proper perspective and understanding of how and when these events occurred.

Jesus said that, like the prophet Jonah, He would be entombed three days and three nights and that He would be raised up the third day after His crucifixion and death (Matthew 12:39-40; 17:23; 20:19). Putting these scriptures together, we see that He was resurrected at the end of the third day after His death. Luke 23:44 shows that He died around the ninth hour (Jewish reckoning), or 3 p.m. He would have been buried within the next few hours so that His body could be entombed before the approaching Sabbath (John 19:31).

Jesus’ resurrection could not have been on a Sunday morning because John 20:1-2 shows that He had already risen before Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning, arriving “while it was still dark.” Therefore, neither could His death have occurred Friday afternoon, since that would not allow for His body to be in the grave three days and three nights. Clearly, the Good Friday–Easter Sunday explanation and tradition is without scriptural foundation.

Notice also that John 19:31 mentions that the Sabbath immediately after Jesus’ death was “a high day”—not the weekly seventh-day Sabbath (from Friday evening to Saturday evening), but one of the annual Sabbaths, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (see Leviticus 23:6-7), which can fall on any day of the week.

In fact, two Sabbaths—first an annual Holy Day and then the regular weekly Sabbath—are mentioned in the Gospel accounts, a detail overlooked by most people. This can be proven by comparing Mark 16:1 with Luke 23:56.

Mark’s account tells us, "Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him" (Mark 16:1). However, Luke’s account describes how the women who followed Jesus saw how His body was laid in the tomb. "Then they returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils" for the final preparation of the body. “And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment" (Luke 23:56).

Mark tells us that the women bought the spices after the Sabbath, "when the Sabbath was past." Luke, however, tells us that they prepared the spices and oils, after which "they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment." How could the women have bought spices after the Sabbath, yet then prepared them and rested on the same Sabbath?

That is obviously impossible—unless two Sabbaths are involved, with a day between them. Once we realize this, the two accounts become clear (see "The Chronology of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection," p. 18). Christ died near 3 p.m. and was placed in the tomb near sunset that day—a Wednesday in 31. That evening began the "high day" Sabbath, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which fell on Thursday that year.

The women rested on that day, then on Friday purchased and prepared the spices and oils for Jesus’ body, which could not be done on either the Holy Day or the weekly Sabbath. They then rested again on the weekly Sabbath before going to the tomb before daybreak on Sunday morning, at which time they discovered that Christ had already been resurrected.

Two Sabbaths confirmed in text

The fact that two Sabbaths are involved is confirmed by Matthew 28:1, where the women went to the tomb "after the Sabbath." The Sabbath mentioned here is actually plural in the original Greek and should be translated "Sabbaths." Some Bible versions, including Alfred Marshall’s Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Ferrar Fenton’s translation, Green’s Literal Translation and Young’s Literal Translation, make this clear.

Once we realize that two Sabbaths were involved—first an annual Holy Day, which was observed from Wednesday evening until Thursday evening, and the normal weekly Sabbath from Friday evening to Saturday evening, the fulfillment of Christ’s words becomes clear.

The Savior of all humanity died near 3 p.m. on Wednesday and was buried shortly before sunset that day. From Wednesday sunset to Thursday sunset is one day and one night; from then until Friday sunset is two days and two nights; and from then until Saturday sunset is three days and three nights. Jesus Christ was resurrected at the end of this three-day and three-night period, near sunset on Saturday. Thus He was already risen long before the women came to the tomb before daylight on Sunday morning.

Jesus Christ’s words were thus perfectly fulfilled, as verified by the Gospel accounts. He was not crucified on Friday afternoon, nor was He resurrected on a Sunday morning. The biblical evidence shows the Good Friday–Easter Sunday tradition to be a fabrication.

A correct harmonization of all the facts demonstrates that Jesus died near 3 p.m. that Wednesday afternoon, was entombed near sunset and was resurrected near sunset on Saturday, exactly three days and three nights later—just as He had stated. These are the facts, the correct biblical chronology that verifies the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The biblical festivals

Actually, the principal festivals and holidays observed by mainstream Christendom are a poor and pale reflection of true biblical teachings. Easter and Lent are a poor substitute for the wondrous truths revealed by keeping God’s feasts.

The New Testament Church continued to observe the annual Passover to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ, but used the new symbols of bread and wine that He instituted (1Corinthians 11:23-28). Today some continue to commemorate this eminently important event in the same manner, in accordance with Christ’s instructions.

Again, the Bible contains no record of the Church observing Easter or Lent during the time of the apostles, nor any biblical command to observe Good Friday or Easter Sunday, especially since Christ did not die on Good Friday and was not resurrected on Easter Sunday. Instead, the apostles faithfully followed Christ’s instructions to observe the biblical Passover "in remembrance" of Him (Luke 22:19; 1Corinthians 11:24-25).

The marvelous plan of God has been obscured by theologians and religious leaders trying to merge nonbiblical practices with biblical events. To better understand why Jesus instructed His followers to observe Passover along with the other biblically defined festivals, request your free copy of God’s Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind. You may contact us at the phone numbers or addresses on our contact page.


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