In the time between when they saw their Lord Jesus crucified and when they saw Him again as the resurrected Christ, the disciples must have felt so many emotions: despair, grief, anger, disbelief, fear and shock.
But what does the biblical text tell us about how Jesus’ disciples reacted?
There is very little written in the Bible about what happened the day immediately after Jesus was crucified. Church tradition points to the Hebrew observance of the weekly Sabbath that begins Friday evening and ends at sunset on Saturday. No work would be done during a Sabbath. Meals to be eaten that day were prepared the day before. Even servants, foreigners and animals rested during this weekly Sabbath.
On the day Jesus was crucified (and after His death by crucifixion was confirmed by the Roman soldiers-see John 19:31-37), Joseph of Arimathea asks to be able to take Jesus’ body in order to place it in a tomb. The women of Galilee who followed Joseph of Arimathea that day as he approached the tomb, made preparations to anoint His body during the day of preparation for the Sabbath. But then as evening fell, they stopped and began the Sabbath observance, “resting as required by the law” (Luke 23:50-56; cf: Exodus 20:8-11; Leviticus 23:3; Deuteronomy 5:12-15). They would return Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body to find the stone sealing His tomb rolled away, and the tomb empty (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10).
The book of John declares it was a special Sabbath (John 19:31) which could point to the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread that starts the day after Passover begins (Exodus 12:15-20; Leviticus 23:6-8; Numbers 28:17-25). This has led some to argue that Passover started Wednesday evening that year and Jesus was actually crucified on a Thursday, not on a Friday as church tradition observes. The Crucifixion would then be followed by two Sabbaths: a Sabbath in observance of the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread which fell on a Friday, followed by the regular weekly Sabbath held on the last day of the week, a Saturday. This argument allows for the three full days and three full nights in the tomb that Jesus spoke of when He said: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).
Whether it was one day of Sabbath or two between the Crucifixion and Christ’s Resurrection, God was silent and the disciples most likely rested in accordance with their observance of Jewish law. Even though Jesus had spoken to them of these events before they actually happened, I imagine the disciples were confused by what they had experienced and felt abandoned by their Lord. They had, after all, been in the very presence of God when with Jesus.
What Can We Learn From This?
New Testament scholars and theologians may debate finer points like how many days Jesus was in the tomb through in-depth study of historical texts in the Bible, extra-biblical texts, ancient languages and cultures, and the sciences. They seek to piece together the evidence we have in order to verify the historicity of these events described in the Bible. This research can help other Christians (like me) deepen their own faith as they think through and seek to understand why they believe what they believe.
The silence and stillness of what I’ve heard referred to as the “liminal space” or the “in between”- the time Jesus spent in the tomb- is perhaps what is of significance, not necessarily whether it was one day or two. Why was God silent? Was He angry at sin and quietly planning to smite those who had murdered His Son? Or had the world simply lost its ability to hear Him? The real question is if God was ready to judge the world, would anyone be able to withstand His perfect judgement on their own merit? In Romans 3:23, the Apostle Paul assures us that the answer is no, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This is why we are in need of a Savior.
Life may seemingly have gone on as usual during this period of in between for most. Even today, many hear the gospel, the Good News of what Jesus has done, and dismiss it out of hand or put off coming to terms with what this means for them, and go on about their daily lives. But this Jesus, both fully man and fully God, entered into our suffering and took the sin of the world upon Himself. He became sin even though He abhorred sin and He himself had never sinned. And in the ultimate act of perfect mercy and perfect justice, He interceded for you and for me, breaking the curse of sin and death and paying the price we ought to have paid, so that we might be made right with God. This is indeed Good News for us.
And that Easter, the disciples encountered the resurrected Christ as did many other witnesses during the forty days that followed (Matthew ch. 28; Mark ch. 16; Luke ch. 24; John ch. 20; Acts 1:3; 1 Cor 15:5-9) The early disciples understood the events they had witnessed were of utmost significance, not only for them but for the entire world, and they sought to share this news at great peril to themselves. Because of these miraculous events and the disciples obedience, people are still talking about Jesus and what happened at the cross almost two thousand years later.
Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection prove God’s great love for us as well as His great mercy. This God of the Bible, revealed in the flesh in Jesus Christ, is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:8-9).
Jesus is risen. He is risen indeed. And He is inviting you into relationship with Him. Would you consider accepting this gracious offer?