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 (see footnote references).
Yet why did Jesus’ resurrection take place three days after his death? It would seem that 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 arrive at this understanding? It turns out Jesus himself and the New Testament authors are drawing from a consistent "third day" design pattern from the Hebrew Scriptures. Exploring this pattern for ourselves can enrich our understanding of the Easter event.
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 worthy texts to consider, this pattern of resurrection on the third day begins even earlier in the story.
There are three passages found earlier in the narrative of the Hebrew Bible 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 see the first peek 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 (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 (1:24). Reminiscent of the first “third day”, the passage says that the earth will bring forth living creatures (1:24-27). Later we read that God formed humans from the dust of the ground (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 (2:7, 9), both bear seeds and fruit (1:11, 28; 3:15) and both are created in this way on the third day. Yet two things are unique to only humans: 1) humans are made in God’s image; and 2) 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 (1:11-13; 26-27; 2:7)
God establishes his covenant with the creatures he has newly created, in this case humans (1:28-29)
The event takes place in Eden, which we understand as a high place from which a river flows out (2:10-14)
The importance of this imagery and pattern cannot be overstated, as it becomes the prototype for future resurrection.
Abraham’s Test on the Third Day
Where else does this pattern appear? In another “third day” event, Abraham is tested by God—one of the most intriguing narratives in all of Scripture (Genesis 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 (22:4). In this scene, God wants Abraham to learn to trust him with the covenant and blessing of offspring. Ultimately, it is God who provides the sacrifice and brings about the purposes of his covenant.
The connection to “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 (22:13-14). We come to find out this act is wrapped up within his larger covenant project to multiply Abraham’s offspring, and through them, bless the nations (22:17-18). Here again, on the third day we see the same pattern:
God acting to bring new life, in this case to Isaac in his life being spared, and to Abraham in receiving back his son (22:11-14)
God reaffirms his covenant with Abraham, using language and themes consistent with Genesis 1:28 (22:17-18)
This event takes place on a mountain (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 covenant with Israel, again on a mountain (Exodus 19:2-3). Here God makes clear that on the “third day” he will come down to Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. Like Abraham, this moment is a test for Israel. They are to prepare themselves to enter into covenant with God and be ready on the “third day” (Exodus 19:9-16). The narrative mentions “third day” four times to ensure we don’t miss the fact that this momentous event will take place on God’s special day.
Based on what we have seen already with “third day”, we should come to expect a certain pattern, which we see yet again:
God brings about new life for his people — in this case, new identity for Israel — just like he did at creation, and with Abraham and Isaac (19:4-6)
God enters into covenant with his people, namely Israel (19:4-6)
God accomplishes all this on a mountain (19:2)
And this is what we see in the narrative! Yet, sadly the rest of Israel’s story in the Hebrew Scriptures is marked by rebellion, unbelief and inability to sustain their end of the covenant. Which brings us again to those passages in the prophets that mention the third day: Hosea and Jonah.
Hosea’s Hope, Jonah’s ‘Resurrection’
When we return to these prophets, we have a greater backdrop for the “third day” and its powerful imagery of resurrection, along with its connection to God’s covenant. Hosea calls Israel to “return to Yahweh”, which is classic prophetic language for repentance toward covenant fidelity, and offers them hope using resurrection language (Hosea 6:1-2). In keeping with our pattern, this return to the covenant means a renewing of life, a resurrection as a people into the life of Yahweh, which he will bring 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 that of Israel. Yet, God does not give up on him nor his people. He gives Jonah new life after three days by vomiting him out of the fish — 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! By now you can probably tell this emphasis was not random. Jesus was adamant about the third day because it represents God’s initiative in creating new life and establishing covenant with humanity. Look at how the Easter event — the resurrection of Jesus — maps onto our third day design pattern:
God resurrects new life up from the ground (tomb), in this case Jesus
God acts to bring about the new covenant through Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection, in this case for all who believe
Jesus’ act of atonement occurs on a hill
The imagery in Genesis 1-2 of new life rising up from the ground on the third day, along with the connection to divine covenant throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, provides a poignant picture to 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 project of new life and covenant, beautifully pictured since creation, the finale of which will result in the future resurrection of Jesus’ followers, and the restoration of the whole universe.
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, with all its implications of God’s redemptive work. The third day design pattern is a reminder — God has initiated the process of resurrecting people to new life, bringing them into his covenant partnership. How will we take part in that today?