Actually the controversy exists largely among gentile believers. Most people familiar with the Jewish religion and culture figured it out long ago. But to gentiles who don’t know about these things, the phrase in John 19:31 identifying the day after the Crucifixion as a special Sabbath leads them to believe that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, because even gentiles know that the Jewish Sabbath is Saturday. Many otherwise competent resources (such as the Study Bible I use) make that mistake. And everyone agrees that He rose again on Sunday. There isn’t any way you can put three days and three nights between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. Hence the controversy.
So let’s get it straight. Sabbath means holy day. There is one every Saturday in Israel, but there are also several during the year that are date specific. That means they are always observed on a specific calendar date, regardless of the day. They’re like our Christmas. It always comes on the 25th of December no matter what day of the week that happens to be.
The special Sabbath John referred to is the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and it’s a date specific holy day; always observed on the 15th of the month they call Nisan, which corresponds to March/April on our calendar. So the first thing we learn is that the special Sabbath mentioned in John 19:31 wasn’t a Saturday.
In fact there are three special Sabbaths (or Holy Days, if you prefer) in the month of Nisan alone; Passover on the 14th, the Feast of Unleavened Bread which begins on the 15th and runs through the 22nd, and the Feast of First Fruits on the Sunday morning following Passover. Of the three, only Unleavened Bread prohibits work like the weekly Sabbath, but all have both a historical and prophetic purpose and like all days in the Jewish calendar they begin at sundown, following the pattern of Genesis 1. (This also confuses Gentiles since our day begins at midnight.)
The Passover Lamb
The next issue we have to address is the sequence of events in the week we call Holy Week. In Exodus 12, where the Passover was ordained, we learn what that sequence was. God told the Israelites to select a lamb on the 10th day of the month and inspect it for defects until the 14th. This means through the end of the 13th. Then at twilight they were to slaughter and roast it, eating it that same evening. Using some of its blood they were to paint their door posts red to protect them from the plague coming upon Egypt at midnight.
Jesus came to fulfill the prophecy of the Passover Lamb, to save from death everyone who applies His shed blood to their lives. The only day He ever allowed the people to hail Him as King was on the day we call Palm Sunday, and as we’ll see it was the 10th day of the month. He did this to fulfill the selection process for the Passover Lamb. When the officials told Him to rebuke His disciples, He said that if they became quiet, the very stones would cry out (Luke 19:40). For this was a day ordained in history. It was the day He officially presented Himself as Israel’s Messiah and became the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. It was 483 years to the day from the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem, spoken of by Daniel the Prophet. (Daniel 9:25) A little while after the officials cautioned Him, He condemned Jerusalem to utter destruction because they did not recognize the day of His visitation (Luke 19:41-44).
The next three days were filled with the most aggressive debate and confrontation with the officials in His entire ministry. He was being inspected for any doctrinal spot or blemish that would disqualify Him as the Lamb of God. They found none, and finally no one dared ask Him any more questions. (Matt. 22:46)
Some years before the birth of Jesus, the Passover celebration had been changed and in the Lord’s time called for a brief ritual meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs (horseradish) to begin the 14th followed by a great and leisurely festival meal on the 15th, when the Feast of Unleavened Bread begins. This tradition is still followed today.
The 14th became known as Preparation Day (Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:31), because on it they made ready for the great feast day beginning at sundown, after which no work was permitted. Matthew identifies the day after the Crucifixion as the day after Preparation Day (Matt. 27:62) so all four Gospels agree. Jesus died on Preparation day, the 14th of their month Nisan, which is Passover. He ate the ritual meal with His disciples in the Upper Room, and then was arrested, tried, convicted, and put to death; all on Passover. He had to be, in order to fulfill the prophecies of the Passover Lamb.
So just like the Lord had commanded in Exodus 12, He was selected on the 10th, inspected on the 11th, 12th, and 13th, and executed on the 14th of Nisan.
How Do We Know This?
A little over 100 years ago a believer named Robert Anderson was head of Scotland Yard’s investigative division. He became intrigued by the three days and three nights issue and enlisted the help of the London Royal Observatory to investigate the problem since astronomers can locate the exact position of the planets and stars on any date in history. Since Passover always falls on the 14th, and since the Jewish calendar is lunar (moon) rather than solar (sun) oriented, there is always a full moon on Passover. This fulfills Genesis 1:14.
Plotting the course of the Sun and Moon they documented the day and date of every full moon. The Royal Observatory discovered that the first Palm Sunday was the 10th of Nisan, the day when Exodus 12 says to select the lamb. Therefore Passover, the 14th, was Thursday. The Feast of Unleavened bread began on Friday the 15th, Saturday the 16th was the weekly Sabbath, and Resurrection Morning was also a Sunday, the 17th. From Thursday to Sunday there are three days and three nights. Here’s how it works. It’s a little confusing to our way of thinking because the Hebrew day changes at sunset, which means that night precedes day. But read carefully and you’ll see that it makes sense.
As I’ve said, Jesus had to die on Passover to fulfill the prophecy. Early that Thursday morning the Jewish leadership had gotten permission to crucify Him. (Matt. 27:1-26) His fate was sealed and He was hanging on the cross by 9 AM, as good as dead. His actual time of death was about 3 PM and His body was laid in the tomb sometime later, since the officials wanted it off the cross before sundown brought the Feast of Unleavened Bread, after which no work was permitted. By then Jesus had been in Sheol for several hours. Thursday was day one.
Because in Jewish reckoning the night precedes the day, at sundown it became Friday the 15th, night one, and the special Sabbath John mentioned began (John 19:31). At sunrise it was Friday day, day two. The next sundown brought Saturday night the 16th, night two, and the regular Sabbath began. As of sunrise it was Saturday day, day three. At sundown on Saturday it became Sunday night the 17th, night three, and sometime before sunrise Jesus rose from the tomb. Three days and three nights. When the women arrived at sunrise to anoint His body, He was already gone.
So in the week Jesus died two Sabbaths that permitted no work were observed back to back: The Feast of Unleavened Bread on Friday the 15th, and the regular weekly Sabbath on Saturday the 16th. In Matthew 28:1 we read that at dawn on the first day of the week (Sunday the 17th) the women who were close to Jesus went to the tomb. Luke 24:1 tells us they were going to anoint His body for burial. The two Sabbaths had prevented them from doing so earlier. But He wasn’t there. He had risen. Being the Sunday after Passover, at the Jewish Temple it was Feast of First Fruits. At the Empty Tomb it was Resurrection Morning.
Some people try to equate his time of death with the burial of His body and say you can’t count Thursday as day one, because His body wasn’t laid in the tomb until sunset was upon them. But that doesn’t make sense. A person’s death always precedes his or her burial, sometimes by several days. In the Lord’s case it was several hours between the time He died the the time His body was lain in the tomb.
The two disciples who met the Lord on the road to Emmaus that Sunday (the day the Lord’s resurrection was discovered) help us to confirm this (Luke 24:13-35). At first they thought the Lord must have been a very recent visitor to the area when He asked them to explain why they were so sad. In the course of the discussion they indicated it was the third day since the crucifixion. “Since” is roughly equivalent to “after”. It being a Sunday, the previous day (Saturday) would have been the 2nd day since it happened , and Friday would have been the first day since it happened, making Thursday the day it happened.
Others argue that this view doesn’t permit three full days and three full nights in the tomb but that’s not what the Scripture says. It simply says three days and three nights. If you move his death up to Wednesday like some teach to get three full days you violate the Passover Lamb prophecies, and the disciples on the Emmaus road would have to have said it was the fourth day since the crucifixion. So the Thursday date is the only one that will accommodate both the Passover Lamb and the three day three night prophecies. Selah