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Reference: 1 Corinthians 15:3-4
Format: Article
Season: Easter

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On the Third Day

Whenever Jesus spoke in advance about his death and resurrection, he mentioned a specific time scale. He would be raised on the third day. Surprisingly, this time element was not a feature of the early sermons recorded in the book of Acts, or of the many New Testament letters which speak of the resurrection. With one exception. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul passes on, in words which sound very like an early Christian creed, the message that Christ “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Jesus too, in Luke 24:45-46, claims that his resurrection on the third day was written in the Scriptures.

The phrases “on the third day” or “after three days” are clearly meant to be symbolic. For one thing, Jesus uses both phrases even though they differ slightly in meaning. For another, the actual time between Jesus’s death (late afternoon Friday) and resurrection (pre-dawn Sunday) was only about one and a half days. But the significance of the third day is that it ties in the resurrection of Jesus with many incidents in the Old Testament.

Only once does Jesus make a specific link between his impending resurrection and a passage from the Old Testament. However, there are around thirty references to “three days” or “the third day” in the OT, and at least half of them (albeit with a stretch of the imagination) could be taken as veiled references to the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This article is therefore an attempt to suggest the kind of scriptural evidence Jesus and Paul may have had in mind when they said that the resurrection on the third day was foretold.

Genesis 22:4 – A father’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved son.
Although Isaac did not die literally, he was under sentence of death from the moment Abraham felt called to sacrifice him as a burnt offering until the dramatic moment three days later when God stepped in and prevented the sacrifice thereby effectively restoring Abraham’s only son to life once more.

Genesis 40:12-13 – A dream of restoration.
Whilst in prison, Joseph interpreted the dream of the chief cupbearer. Within three days Pharaoh would ‘lift up his head’ and restore him to his position of privilege and authority. Similarly, God would intervene to restore Jesus to a place of authority. (In fairness, it should be noted that Joseph also interpreted the dream of a baker. Pharaoh would again ‘lift up his head’ in three days, but this time in the sense of having him executed rather than restored. The second dream is not so applicable to the resurrection.)

Genesis 42:17-18 – A chance for prisoners to live.
When Joseph’s brothers came to him in Egypt to ask for food, he did not reveal who he was, but pretended that they were thieves and had them imprisoned for three days. They then were set free to return home and fetch their youngest brother as a sign of their honesty. The phrase “Do this and you will live” hints at the way Jesus too was liberated from the prison of death.

Exodus 5:3 – From slavery to freedom.
The repeated request of Moses to Pharaoh was that his people should be allowed a three day journey into the desert to offer worship to God. Both Moses and Pharaoh knew that this was a mere excuse and that once they had left Egypt, the Hebrew people would not be coming back. Three days represented the difference between life as slaves and life as free people.

Exodus 10:22-23 – A time of darkness.
One of the plagues suffered by the Egyptians was three days of darkness, maybe something like the darkness which fell on the land when Jesus hung on the cross. During that time no-one in Egypt could move. Between the death and resurrection of Jesus there was a similar pause from movement and activity.

Exodus 19:10-11 – Preparing for a major revelation.
The key moment of God’s revelation in the Old Testament was the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Such a tremendous event was not to be taken lightly and Moses commanded the people to spend three days in preparation. It was also on the third day that the great moment of God’s revelation in the New Testament occurred – the victory over death and sin which Jesus revealed by his resurrection.

Joshua 1:11 – A new beginning in the promised land.
Moses was dead. The old leader of the nation was gone. But God had raised up a new leader, Joshua, to continue his work. Under his leadership, and “in three days”, the people of Israel would cross the Jordan to enter the land God had promised them. The disciples were distraught when their master died, but in three days God raised him up again to lead them into a new phase of their life.

Joshua 2:22 – In hiding.
When two men had visited Jericho to spy it out, they were helped to escape by Rahab. On her advice they hid for three days in the hills until the pursuit had died down and they could report back to Joshua. Is it too much of a stretch to think of Jesus ‘lying low’ for a while?

1 Samuel 30:11-12 – A starving slave revived.
When King David was pursuing an Amalekite raiding party they found a slave who had been abandoned for three days. He had been left for dead and had had nothing to eat or drink until meeting the King, at which point food and water restored his life.

2 Samuel 24:13-14 – In the hands of God.
As a punishment for his pride, David is given three options. He chooses three days of plague because he would rather suffer at the hand of God, whose mercy is great, than at the hands of anyone else. This story raises lots of difficult questions about sin and punishment, but at least David shows the same trust in God as Jesus did when he began his own ‘three days’ by saying “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

2 Kings 2:17 – A prophet who cannot be found.
When told that Elijah had been taken up into heaven, the company of prophets in Jericho were determined to seek him out. At the end of a three-day search, they had to conclude that he was nowhere to be found. On the third day after Jesus died, women came to the tomb but failed to find him. Like Elijah, Jesus was alive in God.

2 Kings 20:5 – Recovery from death.
King Hezekiah was so ill that everyone, including Isaiah expected him to die. But God knew Hezekiah’s faithfulness and answered his prayer. He sent a message through Isaiah that on the third day he would be healthy enough to be able to go to the temple and worship God. Jesus was not just near death, but actually died. Yet because of his faithfulness God restored him to life on the third day.

Esther 5:1 – A new hope.
The whole Jewish nation was under threat of death because of the Persian king’s decree. Their one hope was that queen Esther would approach the king uninvited (an offence punishable by death) and plead her people’s case. She did this only after three days prayer and fasting. The third day marked a turning point in the fortunes of her people.

Hosea 6:1-2 – Restoration by the Lord.
Hosea appeals for Israel to return to God who has injured his people but will soon revive them. A typical feature of Hebrew poetic writing is that the same idea is repeated in slightly different words. So on the one hand, this passage contains a very ambiguous time scale because both two days and three days are mentioned. On the other hand, there is no clearer OT reference to the timing of the resurrection than in these words, “on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.”

Jonah 1:17 – In the bowels of a great fish.
Between being thrown in the destructive sea to drown and being miraculously vomited up alive onto safe dry land, Jonah spent three days and three nights inside a very large fish. Three days separated the ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ of this prophet.

This final reference is the only one Jesus specifically makes mention of. In Matthew 12:38-40, Jesus refuses to perform a miraculous sign, but says, “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Some have taken this to mean that between his death and resurrection, Jesus visited the deep places of Hell to set free all who were imprisoned there.

Notice the way that Jesus uses a leap of imagination to equate the experience of Jonah with his own experience (which was actually only one day and two nights). If Jesus can use symbolic language to interpret Scripture in this way, then perhaps many of the suggestions above are not too wildly speculative after all.

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