The phrases “after three days” and “on the third day” are not contradictory—either to each other or with Matthew 12:40—but are simply idiomatic, interchangeable terms.
Jesus prophesied in Matthew 12:40 (NASB) that “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
The accounts of His death and resurrection as given in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John indicate that Jesus was crucified and buried on Friday, before sundown, which is the beginning of the next day for the Jews, and resurrected on the first day of the week, which is our Sunday, before sunrise.
This puts Jesus in the grave for part of Friday, the entire Sabbath, and part of Sunday. In other words, two full nights, one full day and part of two days, He was in the tomb. Since this is clearly not three full, twenty-four-hour days, do we have a problem of conflict with the prophecy of Jesus in Matthew 12:40?
In Mark 8:31 and Matthew 16:21, Jesus is recorded as saying, “The Son of man will rise again after three days,” and “He will be raised again on the third day”—expressions that are used interchangeably. This can be seen from the fact that the most references to the resurrection state that it occurred on the third day.
Also, Jesus, in addition to the Matthew 12:40 passage, spoke of His resurrection in John 2:19–22, stating that He would be raised up in three days (not the fourth day).
Matthew 27:63 (KJV) gives weight to this idiomatic usage. After the Pharisees tell Pilate of the prediction of Jesus, “After three days I will rise again,” they ask for a guard to secure the tomb until the third day.
If the phrase, “after three days,” was not interchangeable with the “third day,” the Pharisees would have asked for a guard for the fourth day.
That the expression “one day and one night” was an idiom employed by the Jews for indicating a day, even when only a part of a day was indicated, can be seen also in the Old Testament.
For example, I Samuel 30:12, 13 (KJV), “For he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights,” and in the next verse, “My master left me behind… three days ago.”
Just as clearly, Genesis 42:17 shows this idiomatic usage. Joseph imprisoned his brothers for three days; in verse 18, he speaks to them and releases them, all on the third day.
The phrases, “after three days” and “on the third day,” are not contradictory, either to each other or with Matthew 12:40, but simply idiomatic, interchangeable terms, clearly a common mode of Jewish expression.
This is an excerpt from Answers to Tough Questions.