At Easter we think about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the central event in our redemption. It’s what all of history has pointed to, and it was foretold immediately after the first sin (Genesis 3:16). Jesus knew that He had come to die, and He taught His disciples not only that He would die and rise again, but specifically that He would rise on the third day. “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Matthew 16:21)
The apostle Paul indicates that the third-day resurrection was even indicated in the Old Testament. In 1 Corinthians 15:4 he claims that Jesus “was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” In Jonah we’re reminded that Jesus Himself pointed to the experience of the prophet Jonah as a sign that He would die and rise in three days (Matthew 12:40). If Jonah’s “resurrection” on the third day pointed to Christ’s resurrection, this prompts the question: Are there other “third day” references in the Old Testament that were also signs of Jesus’ resurrection?
One of the most detailed “signs” that comes to mind is Abraham’s attempt to offer Isaac, his son, as a sacrifice. The parallels to Jesus’ death and resurrection are remarkable – the father sacrifices his only son, but since this is on the human level, God provides a substitutionary sacrifice instead. The author of Hebrews shows that this event points to the resurrection. “17By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ 19He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Hebrews 11:17–19) It sometimes slips our notice that this “resurrection” of Isaac occurred on the “third day.” “4On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.” (Genesis 22:4)
So many other events happen specifically on the third day that it’s clear that God has set apart this day as different. The plague of darkness in Egypt was lifted on the third day (Exodus 10:22), God visited His people on Sinai on the third day (Exodus 19:11), and a sacrifice was complete on the third day. On the third day, the sacrifice was ended, finished, in the past (Leviticus 19:6-8). God’s people possessed the land on the third day (Joshua 1:11), manna ceased on the third day, and the people ate of the fruit of the promised land (Joshua 5:10-12). David was promised relief from pestilence on the third day (2 Samuel 24:13), the temple was finished and ready for worship on the third day (Ezra 6:15), and Esther was received by the King on the third day, sparing not only her life but the lives of all of God’s people as well (Esther 5:1-2). It seems that the third day was so well known as special that it came to be understood as the day for forgiveness, new life, and acceptance by God (Hosea 6:1-2).
In some of the most significant passages, the phrases “third day” or “three days” doesn’t occur, but if you’re paying attention to the narrative, you’ll see that the third day is clearly indicated. In Numbers 16, a descendant of Levi named Korah, gathered a group to challenge the very existence of the priesthood, claiming that all Israelites should be able to offer sacrifice, not just the priests. Would the God-designated priesthood survive such an assault? We see that it did! On day one, God judged the rebels by causing the earth to “open its mouth and swallow them up … and they [went] down alive into Sheol.” (Was this a foreshadowing of the death and burial of Jesus?) On the next day, the people grumbled because of these deaths and voiced their discontent (Numbers 16:41ff). So God instructed them to take twelve staffs, one for each of the heads of the tribes, and place them in the tabernacle. On the following day (the third day), Aaron’s rod, a dead piece of wood, sprouted buds: “8On the next day Moses went into the tent of the testimony, and behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds.” (Numbers 17:8) Surely this is a “sign” pointing to Jesus as much as the “sign” of Jonah the prophet. On that third day in the desert, by bringing life out of death, God selected His High Priest, as He would do on that third day centuries later when Christ came out of the tomb. Over a period of three days, both in the ancient desert and later when Christ died and rose again, there was judgment on sin, bewilderment of God’s people, and new life that ushered in a new priesthood that was able to cover the sins of God’s people.
These are just samples of “third day” references in the Old Testament that seem to be signs pointing to the resurrection of Jesus. I’ve included below a list of the ones I’ve found. I encourage you to study these and to look for others. Even in the New Testament, there are very significant “third day” references, such as Jesus’ attending the wedding in Cana (John 2:1) where He performed His first sign and “manifested His glory.” Saul, soon to be renamed “Paul,” received his sight on the third day after being blinded on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:8-9)
Where does this leave us? Why should we be interested in such signs, many of which seem to be very cryptic?
First, God wants us to know that the death and resurrection of His Son was planned from all eternity. This was no accident. No “Plan B.” He gave us “signs” from the very beginning that pointed not only to the fact of Jesus’ redemption but to many of the details as well, such as the resurrection on the third day.
Second, when we start to see things like these signs woven into the fabric of the message of Scripture, we become overwhelmed with the literary beauty of God’s Word. This isn’t simply cold doctrine presented in a dull framework. God reveals His character and His plans in a beautiful and complex work of literature that has no equal.
Third, this beauty and complexity teaches us that it is God, not man, who wrote the Bible. The consistency of this book, written over a period of about 1,500 years, by 40 authors, many from different cultures, is nothing less than supernatural. When you see the consistency of the message, even in these details that we often overlook, your faith in its message is strengthened. In addition, you see God’s power at work. When we tell a story, we use flannel graphs (or some of us older people did) or power point. God moves people and events to tell His story. He orders history not only to accomplish His desired end but even, simply, to produce “pictures” to illustrate His purposes.
Fourth, seeing these “signs” in the Old Testament helps us understand better the fullness of the atonement. On the third day, we see resurrection and new life, but we also see other themes developed. We see the end of judgment, but we also see severe judgment where God cleanses sin in the midst of His people (Judges 20:29-36) and exercises judgment on those who would corrupt His people (Genesis 34:25-31). We see the themes of the temple, the priesthood, and sacrifice all developed in the Old Testament as related to the third day. We see a new life in a new land sustained by a new and wonderful diet. In short, the study of signs in the Old Testament broadens and deepens our understanding and appreciation for the truths that are developed in the New Testament. In other words, if we pay attention to what God says in the Old Testament, we are better able to see the glory of Christ (John 12:41)
The Third Day in the Old Testament
A Sampling of Passages
Genesis 1:12-13 God creates seed-bearing plants.
Genesis 22:4 Abraham receives Isaac back alive.
Genesis 31:22 Jacob makes a safe escape from Laban.
Genesis 34:25 Simeon & Levi avenge the sin against their sister.
Genesis 40:20 Joseph’s dream, one dies; one lives.
Genesis 42:18 Joseph releases his brothers from prison in Egypt.
Exodus 10:22 Darkness plague in Egypt lifted on third day.
Exodus 19:11 The Lord met with His people on Sinai.
Leviticus 19:6-7, 7:17-18 Sacrifice completed on third day.
Numbers 17:8 Aaron’s staff sprouts buds, blossoms, & almonds.
Numbers 19:19; 31:19 Part of the process for purification.
Joshua 1:11; 3:2 God’s people possess the Land.
Joshua 2:22 The spies escape from enemies in Jericho.
Joshua 9:16 Treaty with the Gibeonites confirmed.
Judges 20:30 Israel cleanses sin in its midst. (cf. Sodom)
Ruth 2:11 “Before” (ESV) is literally “three days ago” in Hebrew.
On the third day, Ruth met her “redeemer.”
1 Samuel 20:19 David escapes Saul’s death plans.
1 Samuel 30:1, 11 David saves the life of the Amalekite slave.
2 Samuel 24:13 Relief from judgment of pestilence.
2 Kings 20:5-6 Extension of life for Hezekiah.
2 Chronicles 10:12 Bad news for those who serve an evil king.
Ezra 6:15 Temple was finished.
Esther 5:1 Esther, Israel’s advocate, is received by the King.
Hosea 6:2 Generally understood as time for forgiveness.
Jonah 1:17 Escape from death and life for prophet Jonah.
John 2:1 Wedding at Cana – Water turned to wine.