Heart of the Earth
For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40)
There has been much heated discussion, debate and speculation about the meaning of these words of Jesus. What did He intend to convey here? Was He saying that He was going to die and be dead for a full three days and three nights? One of the arguments many theologians use is that so long as any part of a day was involved it could be counted as a full day. But even if we take that popular view and include Friday afternoon, all day Sabbath and Sunday morning as three days, how do we account for the specific reference here to also three nights? Why was Jesus so specific as to make it difficult to fit what happened to Jesus during His last hours here on earth into this prediction?
Another explanation is to insist that Jesus did not die on Friday but on Wednesday afternoon. This is theorized to fit this prophecy of Jesus and makes it the primary factor to override what seems to be strong evidence otherwise from the accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection story. This theory insists that Passover, which was itself considered a Sabbath, came a couple days before the seventh day Sabbath making Wednesday a preparation day for this feast Sabbath. This has Jesus lying in the tomb Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights. But that still leaves Sabbath night as well making His death last four nights with Thursday, Friday and Sabbath days making up three days.
As one can see the arguments can go on endlessly with various opinions being asserted that their explanation provides the most evidence. I am not going to attempt to address all the various ways put forward for explaining this, but I would like to offer an alternative approach that you may or may not have considered up to this point.
What if all these arguments are predicated on a faulty presumption about other parts of this prediction of Jesus? What if the number of days and nights is not the problem to solve as most arguments presume but something else is being overlooked here? That is where I would like to start.
I want to take some time to carefully examine what Jesus might have meant by 'the heart of the earth.' As with many things in Scripture, we need to be sensitive to the fact that words and phrases should not be presumed to mean what we first assume by a surface reading. Even as I came back to revisit this passage again today, I decided to look for any other texts I might find, at least in the New Testament for now, that might contain both of the Greek words translated heart and earth. What I found caught my attention. But first I want to start by laying out what I believe is a foundation for unpacking what I think I might be seeing here.
Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)
I find a very close relationship in Scripture between human beings and the ground or earth from which they were originally formed. Eve was somewhat of an exception since she was crafted from more refined material, i.e. the side of Adam, including both bone and flesh. But even that had very recently been molded by God from dirt to shape the first human being into which the life of God was then breathed after which the first movements of a living being were observed by all looking on.
It was not long after that that another encounter involving that same dirt raised serious issues related to the stuff from which we had been created. Take notice of what happened right after the first infection of sin in humans was diagnosed by the Creator involving the curse that sin would produce.
The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life." (Genesis 3:14)
Within minutes God explained to Adam that sin would also bring about a de-creation of his body, that after a life of unpleasantness and hard labor he would return to once again becoming the very dust from which he had been originally derived. But remember that this same dust had just been noted as becoming food for the serpent, which itself has interesting implications given that this prediction must be symbolic since snakes are not known to actually eat dust.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)
Now let me return to what I found in my search for verses containing both these two key words in the light of what I have just reviewed and see if something interesting starts to emerge. Other than in this prophecy of Jesus that uses the phrase heart of the earth, I found only two other verses in the New Testament that contain both these words. But they have interesting implications for what I am starting to sense concerning the meaning of this prophecy by Jesus.
But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance. (Luke 8:15)
You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. (James 5:5)
What might be seen as something significant when comparing these two texts? What I see is one text referring to a group of people the text says are good and the other to a group of people who are very selfish which we would assume are bad. But both of these groups contain the two words for earth and heart found in the prophecy of Jesus.
Now let me go back and look at the original story that Jesus used as the backdrop for what He was predicting would happen to Him. Where did Jesus derive the idea of three days and three nights and what did that time frame originally involve?
But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17)
Now let me ask a question here. What happened to Jonah while he spent that time in the stomach of a big fish? Was he dead for three days and nights and then resurrected after the third night after being puked out on a beach somewhere? I don't think so. Jonah was not dead for three days and three nights but was in an extremely uncomfortable condition physically as well as emotionally.
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, "I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. (Jonah 2:1-2)
I agree that normally the definition of Sheol is the grave. But Jonah was not dead, maybe feeling very close to it or possibly even wishing he could. But God allowed this extreme situation to happen in Jonah's life for a reason, in his case to give him a wakeup call to get him to let go of his resistance to doing what God wanted him to do. During three days of extreme distress, Jonah had a conversion and was ready to change directions and cooperate with God's desire to deliver a much needed warning to some very wicked people before He allowed disaster and judgments to fall on them.
What does any of this have to do with Jesus? He certainly was not running away from God by any means. He was the only human who had consistently listened to the voice of God in His spirit and had always willingly obeyed Him His entire life. So how could the story of rebellious Jonah give us any useful clues as to what Jesus might have been thinking to convey in His words?
First of all I want to emphasize again that Jonah was not dead while he experienced that distressing experience of living inside a fish stomach for three full days and nights. So there is no reason to insist that this part of the prophecy should imply Jesus being in the tomb for that amount of time. I believe it is a mistake to make such an presumption when there are better ways of viewing this prediction of Jesus related to what would happen to Him during the last days of His mission on earth.
If I accept that Jesus specified three days and three nights carefully so as to not be ignored, I believe it is safe to say that He may have wanted us to take that part seriously. I also am willing to make the assumption that whatever the phrase in the heart of the earth means, it very likely ended with His resurrection. I don't see any reason to assert that anything happening after the resurrection could qualify as fitting into the meaning of this phrase.
So if I count backwards from Sunday morning, which seems to be rather certain as to the time and day of the resurrection of Christ, and count back three days and three nights, I arrive at the same time of day on Thursday morning. So if I use Jesus' time frame and calculate it back from His resurrection and say that this time period is what He was referring to in His prediction, then I need to look for significant clues in the gospels that might give insight as to what Jesus may have experienced during those days that might be similar in nature to what Jonah experienced starting on Thursday morning.
In fact I have found in recent years clues that I do find compelling for me. Some of them surfaced while doing a study of the word 'hour' where I discovered some fascinating concepts and patterns connected with applications to this passage. I took into account all the references to the word hour throughout Scripture and especially in the New Testament and found that most of them came from the writings of John. For a more complete study on this you can read my article on that study here.
What I noticed as significant from that study was when the record suddenly shifted from saying things like His hour had not yet come to Jesus announcing that now His hour had come.
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. (John 12:20-23)
After this point of transition there are significant references using the word hour. And nearly all of them seem to confirm that whatever was involved in this idea of hour, it correlates to what was happening to Jesus during the last few days of His life culminating in the tomb. So what I suggest is this, that this hour Jesus speaks about several times over the last couple days of His life involves the experience Jesus had in mind that He would endure during the period of three days and three nights preceding His resurrection.
Trying to locate in the gospels just when this event took place with the Greeks and the voice of God speaking publicly, I find that it may fit into the timeframe of maybe Wednesday afternoon or even Thursday. If the three days began on Thursday morning and the Greeks came to Jesus late in the day on Wednesday, Jesus could at that time have started to begin feeling the effects internally of whatever this experience was referred to as entering into the heart of the earth. And this seems to corroborate with John's comment about Jesus sudden feeling of trouble at that time.
Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say--' Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. (John 12:27)
This troubling of the soul of Jesus is repeated several times after this point in the story. This indicates to me that it parallels what Jesus meant when He spoke of being in the heart of the earth for the same period of time as Jonah was in the belly of the fish. Also, if you notice the language that Jonah used to describe his feelings inside the fish they align closely with the feelings Jesus experienced from around this first reference to His soul being troubled all the way to the point of His death.
For me this is a more satisfying explanation of this prophecy of Jesus concerning what would happen to Him at the end of His ministry on earth. When I compare this interpretation of the heart of the earth with the previous passages listed above indicating how intimately connected the literal earth is with humanity, I see an even stronger correlation. Humans could be considered the heart of this world, the part that was originally designed to reflect the heart of its Creator as well. Because sin first entered the heart of humans but extended to affect everything else on this planet including the ground from which humans originated, it can be seen that from heaven's viewpoint humanity itself is the heart of this planet.
Now link this with the possibility that during the last three days of His ministry Jesus was immersed not just in humanity but experienced at that time what is described in Isaiah 53 where we are told that the iniquities of us all were laid on Him as He absorbed into Himself the sins of all humanity. Thus Jesus entered into the very heart of this fallen planet overcome by evil by entering this earth not only by becoming human but going all the way down to the very center of the sin problem by taking into His own heart of divine love all of the pain, suffering and rebellion that sin has produced in every human being; He felt in full all those effects in His heart and emotions increasingly during those last three days and nights. No wonder He was sweating drops of blood and finally died of a broken heart on the cross.
When we discard the lies about appeasement as being the reason for the death of Jesus, we find room to make sense of what was experienced in the last hours of Jesus' life leading up to His death and that this is where the vitally important work of Jesus took place. Dying is nothing compared to the excruciating agony and suffering one can experience before the relief of death extinguishes awareness of pain. When facing torture and suffering many would prefer to die quickly, for they are not nearly so intimidated by death as they loathe the suffering that comes before their death.
Yet for Jesus there was much more involved than simply the dread of the physical suffering that would be unjustly inflicted on Him through all the scourgings and abuse He would experience. Exponentially worse than the physical suffering He had to endure was the mental and emotional torture that few could even detect from the outside. It was during those relatively silent hours on the cross where most of the agony that brought about His death took its toll inside His mind and body. But it was not God who was inflicting the pain that was hastening His death but was the rejection and spurning of His passionate love for all of us that broke the heart of God on that cross. This is something I explored recently as I examined the reason why there are only two references to the literal blood of Jesus in all of the gospels.
To close let me try to summarize what I am seeing from these passages. God created humanity using dirt on this planet to shape the first human who would become the father of every other human who would ever exist. The enemy of God used a serpent to exploit and deceive our first parents into abdicating their authority and privileges as the enemy behind the serpent usurped their position as rulers over this world and kidnaped all of humanity into becoming his slaves.
The effect of this according to God's words to Adam and Eve included the fact that the serpent would henceforth eat the dust, the same dust from which humans were formed. Does this have something to do with Satan's involvement in so much death and destruction on this planet that returns billions of people back into becoming dirt again? Quite possibly and likely much more. The poison of the serpent includes the lies that cause so much havoc at the heart level in all of humanity. Every human being would now be doomed to live under the curse of sin that would turn their body back into the dirt from which they came and which was also being licked by the evil one.
This was a tragic condition into which the human race had become trapped. But God was willing to just sit back and let Satan get his way as a ruthless abuser of God's children. So He arranged a way in which He could unravel the works of the devil and redeem as many children of humanity as would be willing to accept His rescue (1 John 3:8). But this plan involved the insertion of the godhead into humanity to become one with us in order to rescue us from inside our prison rather than launching some kind of assault from the outside. This was a surprise that caught the enemy off-balance and initiated an intense war to stop the plans of God by doing anything and everything possible to defeat Jesus from accomplishing His mission to break open the prison in which Satan wanted to keep humanity forever.
Since the earth is intimately involved with all humanity as the source of their substance, and since humans by design are supposed to reveal the truth about the heart of God, humanity as the heart of earth now became infected with lies about God that spread sin everywhere as they came to reflect more the attributes of the enemy of God more than the heart of the One who is pure love and truth. The only way in which this tragic condition could be reversed was for the Son of God who knew the Father's heart fully, to enter into the deepest parts of the heart of humanity to infuse a new power so that new access to life and love could be reconnected to provide a means of salvation to rescue all who would embrace and participate in it by believing the truth about God Jesus came to reveal.
For three days and three nights Jesus increasingly felt the heaviness of all the lies and despair, shame and guilt, fear and sin and pain that kept this world and its heart – humanity – hostages of Satan. For three days and three nights God pulled away His protection from around Jesus to allow enemies to close in on Him and push Him to extreme limits to see if they could get Jesus to act defensively or react in the slightest way selfishly. If they could only get Jesus to even for a moment feel resentment or desire for retaliation, or if they could even weaken His passionate love for every human being, Satan would have claimed that God indeed did have a dark side and the war over God's reputation would have turned to his favor. This was the battle taking place during those three days and nights.
His time spent in the tomb was simply the last few hours of those days and nights as Jesus rested after proving conclusively that God could not be tempted to act selfishly or defensively in the slightest. Jesus thus destroyed the lies of the enemy in those days leading up to the cross. Jesus did enter fully into the heart of the earth by absorbing into His own heart all the rejection and selfishness and hatred and evil that had infected the rest of humanity to neutralize all the power of evil and infuse new life into the human race. And Jesus also wrested away from Satan the title of representative for this earth by becoming a second Adam to replace the defeated first Adam who had failed and long since died.
After absorbing all of humanity into Himself and defeating sin (distrust of God) and the devil while earning the full right to become the new head of the human race, Jesus rested in the tomb over Sabbath before taking up His life again at His Father's bidding. He then introduced a new humanity to the watching universe when He raised up from death never to die again. Jesus not only defeated all the schemes of His enemies to destroy Him but He also won the right to resurrect every human being who ever dies to free everyone to embrace whatever destiny they decide to choose.
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:21-22)