For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. (1 Cor 15:3-4)
We know this phrase very well: “…on the third day…” We know it from the Apostles Creed and the Nicean Creed. We know it so well that, upon hearing the phrase, our minds immediately turn to the Resurrection. This Phrase of all phrases has its roots in the OT, as it should, where we see several examples of typology, pointing forward to Christ’s resurrection. Let’s look at them, starting with the most famous: that of the sacrifice of Isaac.
After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you." And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, "My father!" And he said, "Here am I, my son." He said, "Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham said, "God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place The LORD will provide; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided." (Gen 22:1-14)
This text is a marvelous study in typology. Abraham represents God the Father; Isaac, God the Son. Abraham’s son, his “only son, whom [he] love[s]” is to be sacrificed – the language exactly refers to the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. The mountain of sacrifice is in “the land of Moriah,” which is understood to be the future Temple Mount in Jerusalem. There is mention of “two of his young men… and his son Isaac;” we recall Jesus crucified between two others. We notice that Isaac must carry the wood of his sacrificial fire to the place of sacrifice on his back, even as Jesus carried the wood of the cross to His. Isaac was bound and laid upon the wood, as was Christ.
Very important: Isaac was, finally, not slain - he lived; however, a sacrifice occurred – that of a ram - but Isaac lived. In the same way, Jesus was sacrificed, yet He lives, because he rose from the dead “on the third day.” Note in the Isaac narrative here that from the time God placed Isaac under the death sentence, we see from the text that it was on “the third day” that the sacrifice occurred and the death sentence lifted. In the same way, Jesus was under death, from the time He died on the cross until He rose again on the third day. We see here a very clear use of “the third day" typology related to Jesus’ Resurrection.
Next, we turn to two examples from Exodus.
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand toward heaven that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt." So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days; they did not see one another, nor did any rise from his place for three days; but all the people of Israel had light where they dwelt. (Ex 10:21-23)
As Jesus suffered death for three days, then rose to life on the third day, so Egypt suffered darkness for three days, and then light returned on the third day. Here light and darkness play the role of life and death. Also from Exodus we read:
And the LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready by the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, 'Take heed that you do not go up into the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death; no hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.' When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain." So Moses went down from the mountain to the people, and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. And he said to the people, "Be ready by the third day; do not go near a woman." On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God; and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. (Ex 19:10-17)
In this narrative, the people of Israel ready themselves to meet God Himself. Their preparation is for “today and tomorrow” then they are to “be ready by the third day,” as it will be on that day that they meet God. So, in the same way, Jesus prepared His people to meet God through these Paschal Mysteries of His death and resurrection.
Next we see a similar motif in the book of Esther. At that time, Judah was a vassal state under the Medeo-Persian Empire. The story of Esther is a story of palace intrigue, where the Jews were to be exterminated for a trivial reason. Esther, a Jew, was a queen of the imperial king and she asked for, and received, a pardon for her people. Before asking, however, she called for all Judah to fast and pray for three days and nights. Then, she made her request on the third day.
On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king's palace, opposite the king's hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne inside the palace opposite the entrance to the palace; and when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she found favor in his sight and he held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the scepter. And the king said to her, "What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom." (Est 5:1-3)
Here, Judah was under a death sentence for three days and nights; “on the third day” the sentence was lifted.
Next, turn to Jonah. As noted elsewhere, Jonah was not merely in the belly of a whale for three day. Rather, he was in the belly of Sheol, the place of the dead.
And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, "I called to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, 'I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?' The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.” (Jon 1:17-2:6)
In ancient Hebrew cosmology, the sea or “the deep” (also “the Pit”) was the primordial chaos and the place of the dead. That was where Jonah was for three days and nights, until he was restored to the land of the living. As such, he was a perfect type of Jesus and His descent into death and resurrection to life on the third day.
Finally, let’s look at the prophet Hosea. He was a contemporary of Jonah, who preached repentance to Israel just prior to their assimilation into the Assyrian Empire. After the civil war in 930 BC, the northern kingdom of Israel suffered through several different royal dynasties, nearly all of whom were faithless and led Israel into continual idol worship. In Hosea’s prophecy, the Lord declares Israel’s guilt and necessary punishment, after which Israel will say:
“Come, let us return to the LORD, for he has torn, that he may heal us; he has stricken, 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. Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD; his going forth is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.” (Hos 6:1-3)
This prophecy implies Israel will be raised up on the third day. This did not actually happen to Israel, however; they were conquered by the Assyrians and assimilated into the empire, never to be raised up again (the southern kingdom of Judah continued on instead). But how can that be, as the Lord spoke these words through Hosea? The prophecy was fulfilled in Christ. Christ Himself was torn, stricken and bound; it was He who rose on the third day. He came back from the dead as sure as the dawn on that third day, His grace as baptismal waters to the earth. And by His redemptive work, all the earth knows redemption; all nations including those in which the Israelites were assimilated by the Assyrians, can know Jesus and share in His Resurrection.
One final consideration. Sometimes Scripture notes that Jesus was dead for three days and three nights, which seems chronologically different from rising on the third day.
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Mt 12:38-40)
If Jesus died on Good Friday and we count that as the first day, Holy Saturday as the second day, and Easter Sunday as the third day, then we have three days, but only two nights in between. Where is the third night? How can we reconcile these two seemingly different statements of Scripture? The answer is that a Hebrew day started at sundown the night before. So, Good Friday consisted of the Holy Thursday night plus Friday day; Holy Saturday consisted of Good Friday night plus Saturday day; Easter Sunday consisted of Holy Saturday night plus Easter day. This is theologically sound, as well, since the Paschal Mystery began on Holy Thursday at the Last Supper, where Jesus offered bread and wine as His Body and Blood, “which is given for you” (Lk 22:19). His death began, sacramentally, that very night.