Why Did Jesus Rise on the Third Day?
For centuries, the Christian Church has celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ on a Sunday—three days after remembering his death on Good Friday. This timeline of three days is based on numerous references in the New Testament. Jesus predicted it many times, and the apostles include it in their announcement of the Gospel (e.g., Matt. 12:40; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; John 2:19-20; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15).
But why did Jesus’ resurrection take place three days after his death? He could have risen one day, two days, or even four days after his death and the resurrection would still be historically valid according to eyewitnesses. Is the third day merely a random, inconsequential detail tacked on to the resurrection? Or is there significance to this timeline?
The Third Day Matters
For Jesus and the apostles, the timing of his resurrection has strong theological implications. The three-day timeline matters to the biblical narrative because it is the special day on which God creates new life and activates his covenant with humanity. How did the New Testament authors arrive at this understanding?
Jesus and the New Testament authors are drawing from a consistent third-day design pattern found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Exploring this pattern for ourselves can enrich our understanding of Jesus’ resurrection and the significance of the third day.
The Third-Day Pattern in the Hebrew Bible
Perhaps the most clear examples of third-day resurrection in the Hebrew Scriptures are found in Jonah 1:17 and Hosea 6:1-2. Jesus referenced Jonah’s three days in the belly of the great fish as a metaphor for his resurrection. Hosea spoke of God’s resurrecting work for Israel as occurring on the third day. While these are important texts to consider, this pattern of resurrection on the third day begins even earlier in the Hebrew Bible.
There are three passages that begin to develop a pattern of new life emerging on the third day: the creation narrative of Genesis 1, Abraham’s test in Genesis 22, and the Israelites at Sinai in Exodus 19.
The First Resurrection
Where do we find the first glimpse into the three-day significance? Page one of the Bible. The creation account in Genesis 1 is written like a poem with repetitive statements and parallels. Within the rhythm of these repetitions, two events in the creation narrative stand out as significant, each happening at three-day intervals. On the first “third day,” God makes dry land appear and causes vegetation to come up out of the earth—plants yielding seeds and trees bearing fruit (Gen. 1:11-13). The picture here is of new life sprouting or rising up from the ground—a place of non-existence or death.
The second “third day” event happens on the sixth day when God creates animals and human beings (Gen. 1:24). Reminiscent of the first “third day,” the passage says that the earth will bring forth living creatures (Gen. 1:24-27). Later we read that God formed humans from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7). Again, here we see new life created out of the ground. Notice as well the connection between humans and trees: both are newly created from the ground (Gen. 2:7, 9), both bear seeds and fruit (Gen. 1:11, 28; 3:15), and both are created in this way on a third day. Yet two things are unique to humans. Humans are made in God’s image, and God enters into a covenant with human beings, blessing them and giving them instructions.
A Pattern Emerges
In the “third day” events of Genesis 1, there are three important aspects which become a design pattern. God creates new life where there once was death (Gen. 1:11-13; 26-27; 2:7). God establishes his covenant with the creatures he has newly created—in this case, humans (Gen. 1:28-29). The event takes place in Eden, which we understand as a high place from which a river flows out (Gen. 2:10-14).
The importance of this imagery and pattern cannot be overstated because it becomes the prototype for future resurrection.
Abraham’s Test on the Third Day
Where else does this pattern appear? Later in Genesis, Abraham is tested by God in one of the most intriguing narratives in all of Scripture (Gen. 22:1-19). When God calls Abraham to offer his only son Isaac as a burnt offering on a mountain, the text says that on the third day, Abraham saw the place from afar and proceeded to go through with the test (Gen. 22:4). In this scene, God wants Abraham to learn to trust him with the covenant and blessing of children. Ultimately, it is God who provides the sacrifice and brings about the purposes of his covenant.
The connection to the third-day theme here resides in a powerfully vivid act of atonement by God, in which he substitutes a ram in the place of Isaac (Gen. 22:13-14). We come to find out this act is wrapped up within his larger covenant project to multiply Abraham’s family and bless the nations through them (Gen. 22:17-18). Here again, on the third day, we see a familiar pattern. God acts to bring new life to Isaac by sparing his life and to Abraham in receiving back his son (Gen. 22:11-14). God also reaffirms his covenant with Abraham, using language and themes consistent with Genesis 1:28 (Gen. 22:17-18). And in echoing the creation narrative, this event also takes place on a mountain (Gen. 22:2, 14).
Israel’s Third Day at Sinai
At a key juncture in the Bible’s story, we find yet another event happening on the third day. Having just rescued his people from centuries-long oppression in Egypt, Yahweh is on the cusp of entering into a covenant with Israel, again on a mountain (Exod. 19:2-3).
Here, God makes clear that on the third day, he will come down to Mount Sinai to be with the people. Like Abraham, this moment is a test for Israel. They are to prepare themselves to enter into a covenant with God and be ready on the third day (Exod. 19:9-16). The narrative mentions the phrase “third day” four times to ensure we don’t miss the fact that this momentous event will take place on this significant day.
Based on what we have seen already with “third day,” we should come to expect a certain pattern. And we do! God brings about new life for his people—a new identity for Israel—just like he did in the creation narrative and with Abraham and Isaac. God enters into a covenant with his people, Israel (Exod. 19:4-6), and God accomplishes all of this on a mountain (Exod. 19:2)!
Sadly, the rest of Israel’s story in the Hebrew Scriptures is marked by rebellion, unbelief, and inability to hold up their end of the covenant. This brings us to those passages in the prophets that mention the third day, found in the books of Hosea and Jonah.
Hosea’s Hope and Jonah’s Resurrection
Now we can turn to the prophets with a greater understanding of the third day and its powerful imagery of resurrection, along with its connection to God’s covenants. Hosea calls Israel to “return to Yahweh,” which is classic prophetic language for repentance toward covenant fidelity, and offers them hope using resurrection language (Hos. 6:1-2). In keeping with the pattern, this return to the covenant means a renewing of life, a resurrection as a people into the life of Yahweh, all of which will be brought about on the third day.
With Jonah, we find one of Israel’s own prophets failing to obey Yahweh, and therefore experiencing death in an unlikely tomb, a large fish. In many ways, Jonah and his failure represent Israel’s failures as a nation. But God does not give up on him or his people. He gives Jonah new life after three days in the fish by causing the fish to vomit him up—this might be the most unusual resurrection in the Bible.
Jesus Predicts a Third-Day Resurrection
When we arrive at the Gospels, we find Jesus speaking of a third-day resurrection when he talks about his death with his disciples. In fact, he mentions “three days” 21 times in the Gospel accounts! By now you can probably tell this emphasis was not random. Jesus was adamant about the third day because it represents God’s pattern of creating new life and establishing a covenant with humanity. Look at how the resurrection of Jesus maps onto our third-day design pattern.
God resurrects new life up from the ground (the tomb)—in this case, Jesus. God acts to bring about the new covenant through Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection for all who believe. And finally, Jesus’ act of atonement occurs on a hill (mountain).
The imagery in Genesis 1-2 of new life rising up from the ground on the third day, along with the connection to the divine covenant throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, provides a poignant picture of the theological significance of Jesus’ resurrection. On the third day, Jesus’ resurrection is made all the more paramount. It is the climactic day of God’s plan for new life and covenant faithfulness. We have seen this beautiful picture playing out since creation, and its finale will be found in the future resurrection of Jesus’ followers and the restoration of all of creation.
So What Does This Mean for Us?
When we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, we are not just following an historic tradition. We are engaging in a deeply meaningful theology centered around the third day and God’s redemptive work. The third-day design pattern is a reminder—God has initiated the process of resurrecting people to new life and bringing them into a covenant partnership.