And he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem." Luke 24:46-47
When I served as a local Messianic congregational leader, I used to get lots of phone calls with questions during the Passover-Easter season. One of the most popular went like this: How can people claim that Jesus was crucified on a Friday and rose on Sunday morning when he said he'd be in the grave for three days and three nights? The caller was thinking of Yeshua's saying about the sign of Jonah: "An evil and adulterous generation ask for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth" (Matt. 12:39-40). This scenario seemed to mean that Yeshua was crucified and buried on Thursday, and spent Thursday night, Friday night, and Saturday night in the grave. But since that would actually only add up to three night and two days–Friday and Saturday–there was another theory that Yeshua died and was buried late on Wednesday, and spent Wednesday night, Thursday night, and Friday night, and all day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, in the tomb, rising just after dark on Saturday night.
Such callers were usually disappointed when I pointed out that Yeshua only mentioned "three days and three nights" once, but said several times that he'd rise "on the third day," as in the verse above, which is the theme for the first week of our UMJC prayer campaign this year. Peter uses the same phrase in Acts 10:40-"God raised him on the third day"-and so does Rav Shaul in the earliest report of the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15:4: "he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures."
The problem is that "on the third day" and "after three days and three nights" are incompatible. Yeshua himself makes this clear when he defines "on the third day." Some helpful Pharisees tell him "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you," and Yeshua responds, "Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem'" (Luke 13:31-33). In other words, today is day one, tomorrow is day two, and the day after is the third day. Counting backward, if Yeshua rose on the first day of the week (whether soon after nightfall or not long before daybreak), that's the third day. Day two would be Shabbat, and the first day, the day of his death and burial, would be Friday.
But what about "three days and three nights," the sign of Jonah? Two things: First, the Hebrew Bible uses "three days and three nights" figuratively sometimes, to refer to parts of three days and three nights. Esther, for example, calls all the Jews to fast and "neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king . . ." And then we read that Esther goes into the king "on the third day," which would be before a literal three days and three nights comes to pass (Esther 4:16 – 5:1). In a similar way, after the destruction of the town of Ziklag, David and his men come upon a young man who "had eaten no bread nor drunk water for three days and three nights. Then David said to him, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you from?' And he said, ‘I am a young man from Egypt, servant of an Amalekite; and my master left me behind, because three days ago I fell sick'" (1 Sam. 30:12-13). If he fell sick three days ago, he wouldn't have a whole three days and three nights in between to be abandoned. Three days and three nights is a figurative term that's not incompatible with the more precise phrase "on the third day."
The second problem with our interpretation of the sign of Jonah is that we're modern Westerners who want the Bible to describe time the way we would in every context. The Bible isn't inaccurate; it just isn't always seeking to give a precise, chronological sequence of events. If you want a precise sequence for the resurrection, go to the common descriptor "on the third day." The sign of Jonah isn't about the timing of the resurrection, but about its impact on those who witness and hear about it. Just as Jonah was returned or risen from the sea becomes a sign to the Ninevites, so Yeshua risen from the dead will be a sign to the "evil and adulterous generation" in which he served.
So, what's the point of "on the third day"? Is there a reason why Yeshua himself repeated this phrase a number of times? An ancient Jewish commentary notes that Abraham, on his way to sacrifice Isaac in the land of Moriah, looks up to see his destination "on the third day" (Gen. 22:4), and portrays this as the day of revelation, rescue, and redemption.
It is written, After two days He will revive us, on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His presence (Hos. 6:2). For example, on the third day of the tribal ancestors: And Joseph said unto them the third day: This do, and live (Gen. 42:18); on the third day of Revelation: And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning (Ex. 19:16); on the third day of the spies: And hide yourselves there three days (Josh. 2:16); on the third day of Jonah: And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (Jonah 2:1); on the third day of those returning from the Exile: And we abode there three days (Ezra 8:32); on the third day of resurrection: ‘After two days He will revive us, on the third day He will raise us up'; on the third day of Esther: Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel (Est. 5:1) . . . For whose sake [did relief come to all on the third day]? For the sake of the third day, when Revelation took place. (Genesis Rabbah 56:1)
Yeshua's resurrection really did take place on the third day after his death and burial. The Gospels note this historical fact, and Yeshua's prediction of it, to place his resurrection firmly in the context of God's work among the Jewish people. It is not some foreign import, or brand-new thing, but an intervention of Hashem in line with his many interventions recorded in the scriptures. This is what Rav Shaul means when he says "he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures."
The resurrection of Yeshua during Passover fulfilled Jewish expectations and Jewish readings of Scripture back then, and now as well, if we understand it properly. As we focus during our prayer campaign on spiritual breakthrough among our Jewish people, we're praying in line with the long history of divine revelation. Like the other third-day events, Messiah's resurrection is a sign of God's rescue and redemption amidst trial, even though it surpasses them all. That's true, not just as a memory of things past, but here and now as well. The Passover Haggadah reminds us, "In every generation, one must see oneself as personally coming forth from Egypt." We can add, of the great event during this season long ago, "In every generation, one must see oneself as personally sharing in the resurrection of Messiah."
Rabbi Russ Resnik [email protected]
All Scripture references are NRSV.