Matters of Creed – The Third Day
The Apostle’s Creed specifies the timing of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, “the third day he rose from the dead.” The Nicene Creed expounds on this truth, “the third day he rose again according to the scriptures.” Paul says Christ was “raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Is the third day merely a random, inconsequential detail or does it hold significance? Would it have mattered if Jesus was raised on the second or fourth day? Why is the third day so important?
The timeline of three days is based on numerous references in the Old Testament. Three days matters to the biblical narrative because it is the special day God creates new life and activates his covenant with humanity. Jesus predicted the Messiah would be raised on the third day many times in the gospels and the apostles included the detail of three days in their preaching. The scriptures prophesy the Messiah will rise on the third day. Jesus said, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.”
The occurrence of the resurrection on the third day is an important detail. In the Genesis creation account the third day is the day biological life appears. On the third day God makes dry land appear, vegetation emerges from the earth, plants yield seeds and trees bear fruit. New life sprouts and rises from the darkness of the earth. (Genesis 1: 9-13). On the third day Abraham is tested by God when he goes to sacrifice his only Son Isaac as a burnt offering on the mountain. The scripture says on the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place far away (Genesis 22:4). This event points forward to God offering Jesus on Good Friday. Isaac is described as Abraham’s only son, whom he loved (Genesis 22:2). As Jesus carried the cross, Isaac carries the wood on which he was to be slain. God spared Abraham’s son by providing a ram as a substitute sacrifice, but God did not spare His own Son, but offered him freely as a sacrifice for us all (Romans 8:32).
God appears on the third day at Mount Sinai in full sight of the people. They just completed their journey through the wilderness and are given the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:2-3). When the people return from exile in Babylon, the prophet Hosea calls them to repent and return to the Lord. God promises to raise Israel up on the third day (Hosea 6: 1-2). Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17). Jesus indicates this as a sign of his resurrection. “No sign will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For 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” (Matthew 12: 39-40).
In the gospels Jesus mentions “three days” twenty-one times. The emphasis on three days is not a random unimportant detail, but bears significance. The third day represents God’s creation of new life and establishment of new covenant. (Matthew 12:40, 16:21, 17:23, 20:19, 26:61, 27:40, 27:63, Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34, 14:58, 15:29, Luke 9:22, 18:33, 24:7, 24:21). Jesus said to the people in the Temple, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” John explains that the temple he spoke of was his body (John 2:19-21). When the women arrive at the empty tomb, the angel reminds them that Jesus said he would rise on the third day (Luke 24:7). The two men walking on the road to Emmaus report it is the third day since all these things happened (Luke 24:21). In his speech, Peter emphasizes that God raised Jesus on the third day (Acts 10:40).
All of these third day sightings beautifully demonstrate the amazing symmetry in God’s Word. The revelation of Jesus Christ as the risen Messiah is evident as we see how God has woven this truth entirely throughout the Old and the New Testaments.
The Gospel Coalition, Bible & Theology, How the Old Testament Prepares Us for the Third Day, by Justin Dillehay.
Bible Project, Why Did Jesus Rise on the Third Day? by Derek Hiebert.