Matthew 12:40 – Heart of the Earth

Matthew 12:38 Then certain of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
Matthew 12:39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and there will no sign be given it but the sign of Jonah, the prophet.
Matthew 12:40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Matthew 12:41 The men of Nineveh will stand up in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, someone greater than Jonah is here.
Matthew 12:42 The queen of the south will rise up in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, someone greater than Solomon is here.

Luke 11:29 When the multitudes were gathering together to him, he began to say, “This is an evil generation. It seeks after a sign. No sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah, the prophet.
Luke 11:30 For even as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will also the Son of Man be to this generation.

Jonah 1:17 – Yahweh prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah 2:2 – He said, “I called because of my affliction to Yahweh. He answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried. You heard my voice.”

World English Bible translation

Some claim that there is a discrepancy in the Bible’s account, that if Jesus was buried at sundown on Friday and raised Sunday morning near sunrise he would have been in the tomb over only two nighttime periods (Friday and Saturday) and one daytime period (Saturday) for a total of approximately 36 to 38 hours, not the three days and three nights that Jesus spoke as the “sign of Jonah”.

There are two things to note here: (1) Jesus did not say that he would be dead for three days and three nights; this is simply the general assumption placed on his words. What he said is that he, the Son of the man, David, would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. (2) Even if Jesus meant “heart of the earth” to mean in death, we need to note that this terminology could be viewed as purely idiomatic, and implied that he would be in the heart of the earth “till the third day.” The proof of this is to be found in Esther 4:16; 5:1; Genesis 42:17,18; 2 Chronicles 10:5,12.

Nevertheless, we should note that the elders and chief priests had demanded of our Lord a sign of his authority. However, we should also note that that their motive was evil, not sincere. Indeed, they already had many “signs” but chose to ignore them. Jesus, evidently while in Galilee (Matthew 13:1), had just healed a withered hand, and cast out a devil, but their reaction had been to hold a “council against him. how they might destroy him, and to accuse him of casting out devils ‘by Beelzebub.'” (Matthew 12:10-14, 22-24) While in Jerusalem, Jesus had healed one who had been blind from birth (John 9:14,16), as well as one who could not walk. (John 5:9-13) These religious leaders had the testimony of these, but what was their response? They came up with a plot to “put Lazarus also to death; because that by reason of him many of the Jews … believed on Jesus.” (John 12:10, 11) Jesus rebuked that wicked generation of Jewish leaders, calling them “vipers. hypocrites, whited sepulchres.” — Matthew 23:1,33.

Nevertheless, we do well to not read into Jesus’ statement recorded in Matthew 12:40 something that is not there. Jesus used the event of Jonah’s being in the belly of the whale as a sign concerning the time when he would be, not in death, but in the heart of the earth. Jonah was literally “dead” while in the belly of the whale, nor was he literally in sheol. The term “in the heart of the earth” is not a literal expression. The heart gives the power of movement to the body. If our heart stops beating we no longer have any power to move. Nor should we necessarily look for parallels to every event of Jonah while in the belly’s fish to have a corresponding fulfillment in the three days and three nights in which Jesus was in the heart of the earth. For instance, Jonah repented while in the belly of fish and prayed concerning his repentance; Jesus had nothing to repent of. Jesus was not buried in any literal “heart” of the earth but was laid in a cave tomb dug into the face of a hill. Nor did he actually stay in that tomb for three days and three nights, but he was there for parts of three days and two nights.

When Jonah was in “the belly of the fish” he was not dead. The scripture says that he was in the belly of sheol; yet he was not literally in sheol, the realm of death. What was true of Jonah is that he was no longer in control of his own movements. Where the fish went, Jonah went. The normal free functions of Jonah’s life was taken away, and he was as good as dead, and had no miracle occurred, he would have indeed died, and gone into the oblivious condition of sheol. Similarly, on the Thursday before his death, we read that:

Matthew 26:7 A woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table.
Matthew 26:8 But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste?
Matthew 26:9 For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.”
Matthew 26:10 But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me.
Matthew 26:11 For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always.
Matthew 26:12 For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial.”

John recorded that it was actually the one named Judas Iscariot who incited the objection to this usage of the oil on Jesus’ feet. Nevertheless, Jesus stated that there was a significance to this anointing of oil, that is was for his burial. It is at this point that Jesus willfully was subjecting himself to the heart of the earth. This subjection to the heart of the earth can then be seen in Judas’ actions as recorded in Matthew 26:14. From this point on, Jesus could already be counted as good as dead, as Jonah was so counted in the belly of fish.

While Jesus participated in passover meal, even this, as related to the bread and the cup, was signifying his death, for he said:

Luke 22:19 He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in memory of me.”
Luke 22:20 He took the cup in like manner after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, that which is poured out for you.”

Jesus was already considering himself as good as dead, and thus was already in the figurative heart of the earth.

When Jesus was arrested in the garden, he exclaimed, “this is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). At this point, the fate of Jesus was fully in the hands of others, although it was still true that no one could do anything to Jesus that God did not permit. Nevertheless, having been arrested, he had go whereever they said for him to go. Thus Jesus told his disciples of how “that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders, and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised on the third day.” (Matthew 16:21) We believe Jesus died the next day, and was raised on the third day from the time of his death, counting what we know as Friday as the first day, Saturday as the second day, and then Sunday as the third day. Nevertheless, the “three days and three nights” in which Jesus is in the “heart of earth” appears to cover not only the time he was dead, but they began when the events began leading up to his actual death, wherein he could be counted as good as dead.

While the Jewish leaders did not fully understand Jesus’ words (Matthew 13:13-15; John 8:14,43), they did understand that Jesus claimed that he would be raised from the dead after three days, for they told Pilate “that deceiver said while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise again,'” and desired his tomb to be guarded allegedly to avoid his disciples from stealing the body to make the claim appear correct. Pilate replied, “You have a guard. Go, make it as secure as you can.” And then we read: “So they went, and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone, the guard being with them.” (Matthew 27:63-66) And the very ones assigned to insure there would be no fraud, observed that “the angel of [Jehovah] descended from the sky, and came and rolled away the stone from the door, and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him, the guards shook, and became like dead men.” (Matthew 28:2-4) This was reported to the chief priests and elders, who then bribed the guards with a “large amount of silver” to change their story and claim the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body, thus indicating the effect that this promised “sign” had upon their evil hearts. Therefore, the ones who falsely accused Jesus of being a deceiver proved themselves to be deceivers. — Matthew 28:11-15.

And, yet, for those whose hearts were not entrenched with evil motives, what a convincing evidence that the sign of Jonah had been fulfilled! The very guards which they had set to insure against fraud testified of the truthfulness of Jesus’ words! Rather than accept this “sign of Jonah”, however, the actions of that wicked generation of Jewish leaders actually made manifest the wickedness of their heart! Nevertheless, for those whose hearts could receive it, the sign of Jonah was truly convincing, and testimony of the disciples is still convincing to this day. And it could be reasoned on more deeply. Paul tells us, “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.” — 1 Corinthians 15:20.

Jesus paid the full price to buy back what was lost in Adam, that is, death (lack of sentiency), and, as far as his humanity is concerned, that death was eternal, even as the condemnation upon Adam was eternal death. The eternal condemnation upon Adam and through him upon the human race would have remained eternal, had it not been for the corresponding offsetting price paid by Jesus. — Romans 5:12-19; 1 Corinthians 15:21,22.

Which brings us the latter parts of Jesus’ statements pertaining to the condemnation of the evil generation during the day of judgment by the Ninevites. We remember that there are two resurrections in the “last day”: one is of the believer of this age, who is resurrected to life, and the other is of the unbelievers who are resurrected to judgment. (John 5:28,29; 6:39,40,44; 11:24; 12:47,48; Acts 24:15; Revelation 20:6,11-13) The people of heathen Nineveh in the Judgment Age, in the Millennial Age, he assured them, would rank higher than they, for the Ninevites did repent at the preaching of Jonah, while Jesus spoke of those who did not repent at the preaching of a greater than Jonah. The Queen of Sheba had journeyed afar to hear Solomon’s wisdom; yet these who were in the presence of a greater than Solomon failed to realize or, probably more correctly, did not appreciate who this was, and proclaimed his message to be a fraud.

The question is asked: Why was Jesus dead for parts of three days? This is one of those questions that are not directly answered in the Bible, except that there was to be a sign of three days in which Jesus was to be “in the heart of the earth” for three days and three nights. (Matthew 12:40) While we believe that these three days and three nights began many hours before Jesus died, the time period of his death is included in these three days and three nights. Jesus would have to be dead for a period long enough that his being raised would actually be a sign, else it may have been claimed that he was never dead to begin with. However, the only part of this that was a “sign” to the unbelievers was that of the empty tomb, since Jesus did not appear to unbelievers until sometime after his being raised. Nevertheless, for the vast majority of the unbelievers, it was not a “sign” that would lead to their belief, but rather it was a “sign” that would confirm their disbelief even in when faced with such a sign.

There may be also a symbolic significance to the number three, but, at present, we do not know of any place that the scriptures reveal such a significance in this case. Although we believe Bullinger is not fully correct in his summation of the symbolic meaning of the number three (there is nothing in the Bible about three persons in one God), and although he does not discuss the three days that Jesus was in the heart of the earth, one might read his study on the number three:

It is our thought that the number three does signify divine perfection, and as such the three days and three nights could signify the fact that Jesus’ perfect human being (having retained the divine nature — the godlike qualities — as a sinless human) had indeed been sacrificed; this, however, allows for the meaning of divine nature is different from the meaning that most Bible Students, by tradition, attribute to that term.

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