I hope you all enjoyed my previous blog The Thief on the Cross, and the explanation. I will now venture to explained another controversial passage of scripture, which sometimes causes arguments among Christians during Easter. The passage in question is Matthew 12:40:
"For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."
Why is this verse so controversial? It is controversial because the traditional timeline for Jesus' death and ressurrection is in direct conflict with the above timeline. In the traditional timeline, Jesus died on Good Friday evening, rested in the grave on the Sabbath, and was resurrected on Sunday, early in the morning before dawn. Based on the traditional timeline, Jesus would have spent 2 days and 2 nights in the grave, not three days and three nights! How could this be? Was this a gross miscalculation in scripture? An error? This is definitely a difficult saying of the Bible that is worthy of an explanation!
Let me first begin to say that apparent conflicts in scripture are usually due not to scripture itself but to the person who is interpreting the scripture. Our understanding of scripture is as good as our understanding of scripture! When there is something in scripture that we do not understand, the tendency is to fault the scripture rather than our own limited understanding. In order to understand, we must therefore first admit that we do not know or understand everything, and then allow God to lead us to truth.
In studying this scripture, I have found that the key to understanding this scripture lies with the often overlooked explanation Jesus gave Himself! In Matthew 12: 39-40, we find Jesus speaking about the sign of Jonas. He said:
"An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."
In Luke 11: 29-30, we find Jesus telling us to whom Jonas was a sign. He said:
"This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation."
When you put both these passages together you get something remarkable. Jonah being in the whale's belly three days and three nights was a sign to the Ninevites, while Jesus' three days and three nights in the heart of the earth was a sign to His generation.
Now we come to the next question. What is the heart of the earth? Is it the grave? Or is it something else? Let us take a close look at that phrase to see what it really means.
I must say when I started to examine this passage and study it, that I found a whole lot of material written by others to explain this passage. Some have tried to let this passage fit their ideas by proposing a Wednesday crucifixion instead of a Friday crucifixion to get three days and three nights to the resurrection; while others have denied that three days and three nights represented three 24-hr days. I am now going to declare to you that the expression heart of the earth does not mean the grave! Shocking, but I can prove it to you. Firstly, let me say that there is nowhere in scripture where the grave referred to as the heart of the earth. In scripture, the grave is called hell, Sheol, Hades, etc. but nowhere is it called the heart of the earth. Secondly, when I look in most modern translations of the Bible such as NLT, NASB, NIV, and ESV, nowhere is the phrase heart of the earth rendered as grave. What therefore does the phrase heart of the earth mean?
The only way therefore to find out what the phrase heart of the earth means is to look at the original Greek of the text. The Greek word translated heart in the passage is the word kardia. According to Strong's concordance, the word kardia means "heart (figuratively)," "thoughts," "feelings (mind)," and also by analogy "the middle." The Greek word translated earth in the passage is the word ghay. According to Strong's concordance the Greek word ghay means "soil; by extension a region, or the solid part or the whole of the terrene globe (incl. the occupants in each application):- country, earth (-ly), ground, land, world." If we should take the most basic literal rendering of the passage, which by way is not necessarily the true meaning, and conclude that heart of the earth means "the middle of the ground" we know that this cannot be true because in 1st Century Judah, the dead were not buried in the ground. Dead bodies were wrapped in spices and burial clothes, and laid in open graves, such as in a cave (John 19: 38-40). After the flesh had rotted off, the bones were then placed in a small family box called an ossuary ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ossuary ). In addition, where is the middle of the ground located? Is it somewhere on top of the ground, or is it somewhere deep below the ground? For example, if you plant a seed in the middle of a field, do you plant it in the center of the field, or do you plant it below the ground in a nondescript area of the field? The most correct and true translation of the phrase the heart of the earth must therefore be "the mind, feelings and emotions of the world." Here in this passage, "heart" is used figuratively to depict the inner soul. The word "earth" is used to depict the planet earth and all that is in it. Christ was here describing His Passion. His thoughts, feelings, and emotions for the world on the last three days and nights of His life. His betrayal, trial, public humiliation, crucifixion, and death was all done so that we could have eternal life. He gave His life, and suffered the shame, so that we could live, and have a hope for a future.
Christ spent the last three days and three nights of His life suffering at the hands of men so that we can avoid eternal damnation. He gave His life for the whole world so that all who call upon Him will be saved. He gave His life so that we might live.