Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:38-40).
The Pharisees may have been concerned about loosing their reputation with the people. Earlier in this same chapter, they had failed to show that Jesus had broken any scriptural commandments, that He had profaned the Sabbath, or that He cast out demons by the power of Satan. Wanting to discredit Jesus, they asked for a sign. Although the specific sign requested is not mentioned, we do know that Jesus had already performed miracles of healing, casting out demons and raising the dead. Obviously the Pharisees were not looking for a sign for their own verification, but for a way to prove that Jesus wasn't the Messiah.(1)
Jonah was onboard a ship and the the boat was caught up in a violent storm. Jonah knew this storm was from God and volunteered to sacrifice himself by being thrown overboard so that the storm would subside and the people on the boat would be saved. As Jonah disappeared into the depths of the sea, the storm grew calm.(2)
And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17).
Jonah then cried out to the Lord in prayer. Please read The Prayer Of Jonah. The most interesting part of the entire prayer is Jonah's declaration at the end that that Salvation comes from the LORD. It can be seen that some of Jonah's prayer describes some similar events in our Messiahs life, death and resurrection. Jonah's prayer is considered by some to be prophetic along with other parts of the story of Jonah.
Jonah did not need to actually die to fulfill the prophetic sign that would later relate to the Messiah. Remember: this was a sign, a type, a symbol of something greater. He only needed to be in a place of death, figuratively speaking, in which he was miraculously saved. It was the same with Isaac. Abraham did not have to actually kill his son Isaac to fulfill the type and shadow of Messiah's sacrifice. Hebrews 11:19 confirms this.(2)
God offered the supernatural signs of both the death and resurrection of the Messiah which are really two signs in one linked together forever.
The fulfillment of this period of time is where some who do not believe Jesus is the Messiah claim that this prophecy is a failed prophecy.
Only a portion of a day or night is needed to count as 1 day or 1 night. There are a number of instances in the Old Testament where portions of days are seen as whole days. Examples of these include Esther 4:16-5:1 and 1 Samuel 30: 11-13.
In Aramaic, there is an idiom "three days and three nights" which means three days or parts of days. It's like our saying, "I worked day and night to finish this project." We don't mean we literally worked 24 hours without stopping. "Three days and three nights" is not meant to be taken to mean literally 72 hours.(3)
There is scriptural support for this idea.
In Jewish thinking, a part of a day is equivalent to a whole day. Genesis 42:17 states that Joseph held his brothers in prison for three days and in verse 18 states he spoke to them on the third day and released them. 1 Kings 20:29 says Israel and Syria camped for 7 days and then on the seventh day the began battle. Other passages--Esther 5;1, 1 Samuel 30:12--show similar thought. So Old Testament language shows the expression "three days," "third day," and "three days and three nights" are used to express the same period of time. Rabbinic literature shows the same thing. Rabbi Eleazr ben Azariah wrote in 100 A.D., "A day and night are an Onah (period of time) and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it."(4)
So we conclude the expression "after three days," "on the third day," and the "three days and three nights" are all one and indicate the same time span.
It has to be said that the death of Jesus and His entombment has to be included in this phrase, but is it the full meaning? Jesus did not actually say ...in the tomb or ...in death, He said ...in the heart of the earth. It is possible that the heart of the earth includes the suffering Jesus experienced before His crucifixion. It may include the time He was betrayed into the hands of men until His resurrection.
This idea finds some support in the following passage:
From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffermany things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day (Matthew 16:21). (Also see Matthew 17:22-23 and 20:17-19 for scriptural support).
This would make the first night of the three days and three nights Thursday night, the night that Jesus was betrayed, arrested and had His trial. The first day would then be the following day, friday, His crucifixion day, death and entombment. Friday night would be the second night and Saturday would be the second day also known as the Special Sabbath. Sat. night would be the third night and a Sunday morning resurrection would be the third day. This would be consistent with those seeking to find a timeline that includes three full nights.(2)
Interestingly, Isaiah may also have foretold about this short period of time. For more on this prophecy please read Isaiah 53.
There has been more than one timeline proposed for the death and resurrection of our Messiah. The range is over a period of a few days, with the difference being literally a matter of hours. What's more important than trying to define an exact timeline is understanding purpose and the power of Messiah's death and resurrection.
It is through the death of our perfect Messiah that atonement can be made for those who put their faith in Him.
It is through His resurrection that we know He conquered death and that we can also through faith in him.
Learn more about The Power Of The Resurrection.
Even though Israel was looking to be delivered from Rome's control, Jesus did not come to conquer the land like Joshua, but to call the people to repentance like Jonah.
There is no doubt that Jonah would have died if not saved by God. As far as the rest of the word was concerned he was dead, due to disobedience (his own). It was through his resurrection (being spit out by the fish) that Jonah was able to go to Nineveh, as though alive from the dead, and deliver Gods message of a coming destruction. This prophetic message followed by true repentance, helped save Nineveh.
As far as the world was concerned Jesus was dead once He was crucified on the cross. Like Jonah, Jesus also died due to disobedience (ours not His). It was through His resurrection that Jesus is able to verify for us that faith in Him accompanied with our repentance is enough to save us from the coming destruction we deserve for being sinners.
To see another area of the Old Testament that foretold of Messiahs death please read Daniel 9:24-27.
To see another area of the Old Testament that foretold of the Messiah's resurrection please read Psalm 16.
Feeling of Separation from God:
Jonah cried out "I have been banished from your sight" (Jonah 2:4).
Jesus cried out "My God my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34).
Because of the events that followed these feelings of abandonment, we know that through God's grace, neither Jonah nor Jesus was permanently abandoned by God.
For more on this please read Psalm 22.
God is the Source of Salvation:
Jonah cried out "Salvation is from the LORD" (Jonah 2:9).
Jesus, who claimed to be one with the Father said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me (John 14:6).
For more on this please read Jesus Claimed To Be God.
What did Paul mean when he claimed that the Hebrew Scriptures prophesied the resurrection of the Messiah On The Third Day? (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
1). The MacArthur New Testament Commentary on Matthew 8-15 (12:38).
2). Gerry Watts (http://www.purposeoflife.org.uk/sign_of_jonah.htm)
4). Probe Ministries http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/e-3days.html