What Happened on the Third Day?

Jesus knew that his resurrection would occur on the third day. He knew this detail not merely because he was the Son of God, but because he had read it in the Scriptures. Luke makes this plain:

And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” (Luke 18:31-33, emphasis mine)


Where in the Scriptures did Jesus learn that he would be raised on the third day? Two Old Testament references seem certain, the first of which is Jonah. Jesus had read that Jonah was in the belly of a great fish for three days and nights, and he understood this to be a prophetic type of his own death and resurrection (Jonah 1:17; cp. Matthew 12:40).

Secondly, Jesus had read Hosea’s prophecy: “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (Hosea 6:1-2; see also 13:14). At first glance this reference to Jesus’ resurrection on the third day seems far-fetched. The text is talking about Israel, not Jesus. Or is it? We know that when Matthew read Hosea, he understood Israel to be a type of Christ, speaking of events in Jesus’ life as being a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy (Hosea 11:1; cp. Matthew 2:15). Considering that Matthew learned how to interpret the Scriptures from Jesus, it’s easy to imagine Jesus himself having read Hosea’s prophecy of a third-day resurrection in reference to his own life as the Son of God.


There is perhaps a third place in the Scriptures that Jesus would have learned about resurrection on the third day. In his excellent book, Rejoicing in Christ, Michael Reeves notes that resurrection is suggested in the third day of creation. Reeves discerns this from the apostle Paul, who calls Jesus the “firstfruits” of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20), and who speaks of resurrection in terms of “seed” springing forth from death to life (15:35-38). It is rather startling to realize (at least it was for me) that Paul seems to be deliberately drawing this fruit and seed imagery from the third day of creation:

And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. (Genesis 1:11-13)

Michael Reeves makes the connection:

There on the third day of Genesis 1 we see the first fruits of creation (as Christ, raised on the third day, would be the first fruit of the new creation, of resurrection from the dead). These “firstfruits” each reproduce “according to their kinds” because they have seed—the next generation—within them. Thus what happens to the fruit happens to the seed. So it is, says Paul, with Adam and Christ. They are the firstfruits of two very different crops: one of death, the other of life.

Paul seems to understand the third day of creation as analogous to the resurrection of Jesus, which occurred on the third day. One can only wonder whether Jesus made the same connection. When speaking of his impending crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus used similar agricultural imagery: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus doesn’t mention the third day of creation in this statement, but his association between fruit-bearing grain and resurrection is apparent. Whether or not the third day of creation was in Jesus’ mind, the clear allusion is made by Paul, who draws on the third day of creation to describe the resurrection of Jesus.


What is the significance of this possible connection between the third day of creation and Jesus’ resurrection on the third day? Maybe it just gets filed away in the “things-that-make-you-go-hmm” category. You have to admit that the connection is at least plausible and incredibly interesting.

The connection also shines light on how Jesus and the apostles read the Scriptures. If they had a Bible like ours in hand, they would have drawn lines between the testaments in ways that we have been taught not to draw lines. They discerned prophecies and types and, in this case, analogies where our strict historical-grammatical approach often leads us to discern nothing of what they saw. Perhaps our approach is too wooden. I’m not suggesting that we throw off all hermeneutical restraint in response. But we should at least be willing to grant that Jesus and the apostles read the Hebrew Scriptures correctly, and that therefore we can sit at their feet and learn from them. Let us study their allusions, and chase down the cross-references, and see if we can’t learn how to read the Bible through their eyes.

Perhaps most importantly, the potential connection between creation and resurrection on the third day should lift up our hearts in wonder. God’s word is amazing! God’s design in creation is amazing! God’s orderly control of events is amazing! God is amazing! Every day there are wonders to behold in the Scriptures that cause our souls to sprout up in life … like a resurrection.

May God open our eyes to see.

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