It has long been held within the Christian Church that Christ was crucified on the sixth day of the week, the day that we now call Friday -- hence the term "Good Friday."
This is a misunderstanding: Christ was in fact crucified on the fifth day of the week, the day that we now call Thursday. Proof of this assertion will follow below, but that proof is not the critical point of this essay: no one will be admitted into the kingdom of heaven, nor will anyone be denied admittance because of his or her belief or teaching on this point. What is more critical is misunderstanding regarding the one day of God's calendar on which Christ absolutely must have been crucified. We will deal first with the misconception regarding the day of the week on which the Lord was crucified, and will then go on to the greater significance of the overall timing of His crucifixion.
How was it decided by the early Church fathers that Jesus must have been crucified on a Friday? This misunderstanding arises from the following passages (and related passages from the other gospels): when Jesus was brought before Pilate, the gospel of Mark reports: "And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus" (Mark 15:42, 43).
What is "the sabbath" but the seventh day of the week, and what then would be "the day before the sabbath" but Friday? It is therefore easy to conclude that Jesus was crucified on Friday. This is an incorrect conclusion, however -- but only the gospel account of John provides the information necessary to reach the correct conclusion. But before we read the clarifying passage in John, we must have a better understanding of the term "sabbath." For this we turn to the 23rd chapter of the book of Leviticus.
First, in Leviticus 23:3 we read, "Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings." This, of course, is the meaning that is usually intended and understood by the term "sabbath" -- the seventh day of the week, the day which the Lord commanded the Israelites to observe each week as a day of holy rest. But the term encompasses much more. Let us read further in this chapter.
In Leviticus 23:5-8 we read, "In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the LORD's passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the LORD: seven days ye must eat unleavened bread. In the first day ye shall have an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein. But ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD seven days: in the seventh day is an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein." Compare the language from verse three (regarding the weekly seventh day sabbath) with the language of verse 7 (regarding the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread). Both are "an holy convocation"; on both the Israelites are commanded to "do no (servile) work therein." We see then that the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread fits the definition of the word "sabbath," although there is no specific definition of this day as a "sabbath." But let's explore further in the chapter.
Regarding the Feast of Weeks, today commonly called Pentecost, we read, "And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering [this was the day of the feast of firstfruits]; seven sabbaths shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the LORD" (Leviticus 23:15, 16). Skipping over verses 17-20, which describe the offerings to be made on this feast day, we read in verse 21, "And ye shall proclaim on the selfsame day, that it may be an holy convocation unto you: ye shall do no servile work therein: it shall be a statute for ever in all your dwellings throughout your generations." Note again that this day is defined as "an holy convocation," and the Israelites are commanded to "do no servile work therein" -- again the definition of a "sabbath." But we still haven't seen the actual word "sabbath" used in connection with any day other than the seventh day of each week. We will now close that gap by examining the instructions for the Feast of Trumpets.
In verses 24 and 25 we read, "Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall ye have a sabbath, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation. Ye shall do no servile work therein: but ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD." Here we have a clear connection beyond any doubt: the Lord is instructing the Israelites to observe each of these feast days as a "sabbath" -- a word which He here defines Himself as "an holy convocation," a day in which the Israelites are to "do no (servile) work." (I put the word "servile" in parentheses because it appears in some of these passages but not in others.)
We will not cite the descriptions of the Day of Atonement and the feast of Tabernacles, but by reading the remainder of the 23rd chapter of Leviticus, one can easily confirm that these days were also sabbaths in the very strictest sense of the word. So we see that when the term "sabbath" is used in the gospels, as well as elsewhere, it can refer to a weekly seventh day sabbath or to any of the seven high feast days which the Lord instructed the Israelites to observe throughout the year.
Returning now to the gospel of John, we read in 19:31 the passage referring to the same point of time that was the subject of the passage cited above from Mark 15: "The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away." Only John tells us this important detail: the following day was not an ordinary 7th-day sabbath, but rather "an high day." "An high day" means that the approaching day was a sabbath because it was a feast day -- one of the seven high feast days ordained by God -- and not because it was the seventh day of the week. It could also have been a Saturday, because the Passover (14 Nisan) and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (15 Nisan) could fall on any two sequential days of the week -- they were scheduled according to the day of the month, not the day of the week. But by exploring further we will see how we can be certain that in this year the "high day," the sabbath of the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, did not fall on a Saturday, and that the day in question must actually have been the sixth day of the week, which we now call Friday -- meaning that Jesus was crucified on Thursday.
The strongest argument for a Thursday crucifixion is a statement made by the Lord Himself: "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" (Matthew 12:40). Note carefully the specificity, both of the passage in Jonah, " -- Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" (Jonah 1:17), and of Jesus' quotation of this passage, "so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40). The passage in Jonah could have said "three days," or even "three full days," and so Jesus would have quoted it. The Israelites reckoned days from sunset to sunset, so it was clear to them as well as to us that the term "day" can mean either the period of sunlight or the 24-hour period that includes both sunlight and darkness. But the specificity of the passage in Jonah, and of the Lord's quotation of that passage, shows clearly that God intended us to understand this not as some vague period of approximately 3 days, but as three periods of daylight and three periods of nighttime: "three days and three nights."
Note also how clearly Jonah's experience was intended by God as a vivid picture or type of Jesus' death, His time in the grave and his pending resurrection, though it was written hundreds of years in advance: "out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice" (Jonah 2:2); "Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple" (Jonah 2:4); "The waters compassed me about, even to the soul" (Jonah 2:5); "the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God" (Jonah 2:6).
We know from unambiguous statements in all four gospels that the Lord arose from the grave just before dawn on the first day of the week, which we call Sunday. (See Matthew 28:1-6, Mark 16:1-9, Luke 24:1-6, and John 20:1-8.) No one should take the position of contending with the Lord's own statement that He would spend exactly three days and three nights in the grave. So if we count backward three days and three nights from early Sunday morning, we can arrive at a crucifixion only on the fifth day of the week, our Thursday. The "three nights" can only be Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights; the "three days" can only be the portion of Thursday afternoon between the Lord's death and sunset, plus Friday and Saturday.
Confusion has been created on this point by a number of well-meaning scholars who have tried to reconcile the traditional Friday crucifixion with the required three days and three nights in the grave, but the arguments will not stand up to close scrutiny.
First there is the argument that the three days included a portion of Friday, all day Saturday, and a portion of Sunday. Careful reading of the passages cited above from all four gospels will show that Jesus arose and departed from the tomb before sunrise on Sunday, so He could not have intended that day to have been one of the three periods of daylight that He would spend in the grave. It is also impossible to reconcile "three nights" with a Friday crucifixion, because only two nights, Friday and Saturday, would have fallen between the crucifixion and the resurrection. Some have tried to overcome this obstacle by counting the three hours of darkness (see Matthew 27:45) as a "night." There are, of course, two problems with this argument, even if one were to accept that Jesus meant this period of darkness as a night. First, there still would be only two periods of daylight -- Friday afternoon and Saturday -- and second, Jesus was not in the grave during this period of darkness, but died following it.
Crucifixion on Wednesday has also been argued, chiefly by reckoning that Daniel's "threescore and two weeks" until the cutting off of Messiah (see Daniel 9:6) would result in a crucifixion date of 32 AD, in which year Rabbinic calculations indicate Passover falling on Tuesday. But we must give the Lord's precise statement more weight than such questionable calculations, and a Wednesday crucifixion would clearly require four periods of daylight and four periods of darkness prior to a Sunday morning resurrection.
The "three days" therefore must have been the portion of Thursday afternoon between Christ's death and sunset, all day Friday and all day Saturday. He arose before sunrise on Sunday. And the "three nights" must have been Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
So here is the proper timing of the Lord's crucifixion (using our modern English names for the days): He was nailed to the cross on Thursday morning. He died on Thursday afternoon. When Joseph of Arimathaea and the other Jews discussed the removal of His body from the cross with Pilate, their sense of urgency was that His body (and those of the two thieves crucified with Him) be taken down before sundown, which would mark the beginning of the High Sabbath (see John 19:31) which was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Note carefully then that the approaching sabbath which created the urgency for removing the bodies from the crosses and the sabbath following which the women went to the tomb were not the same sabbath: the first was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, "an high day," which in this particular year occurred on a Friday and was therefore followed immediately by the usual 7th-day sabbath on Saturday.
Again, however, the importance of establishing this timing lies not so much in which days of the week the events occurred, but rather in the significance of that one and only day on which God's plan absolutely required the Lord's crucifixion must take place. We will now examine this aspect carefully.
There actually is an apparent conflict between the synoptic gospels and the gospel of John with regard to the timing of the Lord's last supper with the disciples. As an example typical of the synoptic gospels, Matthew reports, "Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto him, Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the passover? And he said, Go into the city to such a man, and say unto him, The Master saith, My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at thy house with my disciples. And the disciples did as Jesus had appointed them; and they made ready the passover. Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve" (Matthew 26:17-20).
It is important to understand that the Jews generally treated the first three feasts of the religious year -- Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Firstfruits -- as one extended feast, which they referred to collectively as the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Therefore, this passage is intended to convey that the disciples made the upper room ready on "the first day of the feast of unleavened bread," which would be Passover day -- therefore the preparation to "eat the passover."
Between this account and the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke, it is widely believed and taught that Jesus and His disciples ate the passover meal on the day of the Passover feast, and that Jesus was crucified on the following day, which would have been the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Once again, however, the gospel of John shows us that this is not a correct understanding of the timing of these events.
Let us examine John's account of this last supper which the Lord celebrated with His disciples. "Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him; Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded" (John 13:1-5).
Note the language very carefully: even though the supper had already been eaten ("And supper being ended" v.2), the Passover feast had not yet arrived ("Now before the feast of the Passover" v.1). John here shows us that Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples the evening before the actual Passover feast day. As we saw above, John 19:14 shows us more precisely that this last supper was actually eaten on the day before Passover: when Jesus appeared before Pilate on the following day, it was "the preparation of the Passover" -- "preparation" was the killing of the lamb before sunset, so that the Passover meal could be eaten after sunset. This is also clear from John 18:28, where we see that the Jewish leaders would not enter into Pilate's judgment hall: "they themselves went not into the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover" -- which would take place that evening.
Why would Jesus eat the Passover meal with His disciples on the day before the feast was scheduled to be observed? His decision to do this arises directly from one of the most central and critical doctrines of the Bible, the most important aspect of the work that Christ accomplished on behalf of fallen man. In order to understand this doctrine and its importance in the timing of Jesus' crucifixion, we need to review some very important history.
When God sent Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, He found it necessary to inflict a series of plagues upon the Egyptians before Pharaoh would agree to release the Israelites from slavery. The last and decisive of these plagues was the visit of the death angel to every Egyptian household. God decreed that all the firstborn of Egypt would die, both man and beast.
When the first nine plagues were visited upon the Egyptians, the Israelites were automatically exempted. But with this tenth and final plague only, God required the Israelites to take a positive action in order to prevent the death of their own children. He instructed them to select a perfect lamb for each household, to slay it and apply its blood to the doorposts and lintels of their houses. When the death angel saw the blood on the door, he would "pass over" that house and not bring death to the firstborn.
The Passover feast was ordained by God as an annual commemoration of this milestone event. Unfortunately, the Israelites may never have fully understood the full significance of this ceremony. But the New Testament Scriptures have revealed to us that all of the passover lambs that were sacrificed through the hundreds of years of this celebration were types of the One True Passover Lamb Who would be sacrificed on the cross for the sins of all mankind. This shedding of Christ's blood and the atonement covering it provides for sinful man is the central fact of the Bible, foretold in the Old Testament and recorded in the New. The Holy Spirit revealed through Paul that "Christ our passover is sacrificed for us." (I Corinthians 5:7).
Now, if Christ is our Passover, and if the Passover feast was instituted by God to point forward to this central fact in His covenant relationship with man, on what other day than Passover could Christ possibly have been sacrificed for the sins of man? Christ could have chosen any time of the year to push the antagonism of the Jewish leaders over the brink and force the decision to put Him to death. But He chose this exact time because it was critical that He establish Himself in this final act, as He had done in all His actions to this point, as The Passover Lamb.
So now we can return to Jesus' decision to celebrate the Passover feast with His disciples one day early. It was impossible for Him to observe the feast on the actual feast day of Passover, because on that day, He could not eat the Passover lamb: He would be the sacrificial Passover Lamb. On Passover He would be on the cross until just before sundown, and then in the grave. The Jews killed the Passover Lamb as was required, they shed His blood as was required on this day, but they did not receive the promised atonement because they did not recognize Him for Who He was: they did not apply His shed blood to the doorposts and lintels of their own hearts. Jesus said, "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life" On that one Passover to which all their history had pointed, the Jews ate the flesh of the wrong lamb, and therefore did not receive eternal life.
There remains one critical point to examine, and that is the timing of Jesus' resurrection -- again, not with regard to the day of the week, but with regard to God's calendar for Christ's work in redeeming fallen man.
Recall that Jesus was crucified on Thursday, which was Passover. The following day was a High Sabbath, because it was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was then followed by a weekly sabbath on Saturday. The next feast the Israelites were instructed to observe was the Feast of Firstfruits. This feast was to be celebrated on "the morrow after the sabbath." (Leviticus 23:11). From the context, the sabbath here referred to could be either the High Sabbath of the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread or the next following ordinary seventh day sabbath. But a careful reading of the following verses (which describe the timing of the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost) shows that it must have been the ordinary weekly sabbath to which reference was made. The importance of this is the relationship of Jesus' resurrection to the feasts ordained by the Lord. Why is this?
The importance here is the same as with Christ's crucifixion on Passover. All of the Israelite observances of the Passover feast were types pointing toward the one true Passover Lamb Who would be sacrificed on the one true Passover that would end the need for further observations of this feast. Just so, all of the Israelite observances of the Feast of the Firstfruits were types pointing toward the one true Firstfruits from the dead Whose resurrection would end the need for further observations of this feast as well. Just as "Christ our passover is sacrificed for us," (I Corinthians 5:7), so also "now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept" (I Corinthians 15:20); "in Christ shall all be made alive ... Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming (I Corinthians 14:22, 23).
Just as it was crucial to God's revelation of His plan of redemption that the true Passover Lamb be sacrificed on Passover, just so was it crucial that the Firstfruits be born the first of the kingdom of heaven on the Feast of Firstfruits.
So in summary, here is the correct timing for the events of the Passion Week, the Lord's crucifixion and resurrection:
Wednesday: Christ observes the Passover feast one day early with His disciples in the upper room.
Thursday/Passover: Christ is condemned and crucified, dying shortly before sunset.
Friday/First day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread -- a High Sabbath because it is one of the seven ordained feast days: Christ is in the grave.
Saturday/a second consecutive sabbath, this one an ordinary weekly sabbath day: The Lord is still in the tomb. It is "in the end" (Matthew 28:1) of this sabbath "as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week" that the women come to the Lord's tomb and find it empty.
Sunday/Feast of Firstfruits: Christ the Firstfruits arises from the dead to become the firstborn of many whose eternal lives will spring directly from Him, the Seed.