The Miracle of the Third Day

But where is it found in the Old Testament Scriptures that Christ would arise on the third day?

Donald Mackintosh is a retired pastor living at College Place, Washington.


DURING His first visit with the disciples after His resurrection Jesus emphasized His role in fulfilling prophecy by stating: "Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day" (Luke 24:46). Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, also refers to this in these words, "He rose again the third day according to the scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:4). But where do we find this prophecy in the Old Testament?

It is there, beautifully and accurately portrayed, yet veiled in such a way the disciples failed to see it until Jesus, after His resurrection, patiently explained to them the things concerning himself (Luke 24:44). They were aware that Jesus had said He would rise again "the third day" (verses 6, 7). The two disciples talked about this with Jesus on their way to Emmaus, adding, "Be side all this, today is the third day." Notice that Luke emphasizes the veiled nature of the prophecy by his statement that Christ "opened" ("enlightened" Knox) the disciples' "understanding," that they might "understand the scriptures." But where is it found in the Old Testament Scriptures that Christ would arise on the third day? Before we can answer this directly, we need to consider in some depth what the New Testament actually tells us.

There is a difficult passage concerning the resurrection in the Gospel of Matthew that demands our attention. In Matthew 28:1 the King James Version reads, "In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre." The American Standard Version and some of the newer translations render this passage, "Now late on the Sabbath day . . ." Because of this, some sincere Christians believe Christ died on Wednesday evening, and that He rose late Sabbath afternoon. These point out, and correctly, that the words translated, "as it began to dawn toward the first day," can be translated, "as it was drawing toward (or approaching) the first day," (see Luke 23:54). However, the Revised Standard Version translates Matthew 28:1, "Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre."

In order that the reader may be able to appreciate more fully why the majority of scholars prefer the latter rendering of Matthew 28:1, a careful survey of the resurrection story in the four Gospels will first be made. Then the meaning of the Greek words translated, "In the end of the Sabbath," will be considered.

The Witness of Matthew. In reviewing Matthew 28:1-8, the reader is asked to take note of the following:

1. "There was a great earthquake."

2. An angel told the women Christ had risen and invited them to see where the Lord lay (the empty tomb).

3. The women were asked to "go quickly and tell his disciples."

4. They departed "quickly" and ran to tell His disciples.

The Witness of Mark. Those who teach that Christ died on Wednesday and was resurrected late on Sabbath afternoon claim the Sabbath mentioned in Mark 16:1 was the annual Passover sabbath, and that it came on Thursday. They point to the fact that according to Mark the women bought spices after the Sabbath, but that Luke says they prepared the spices before the Sabbath. Therefore, they conclude, two sabbaths were involved, one annual and the other the weekly Sabbath. In so doing they reject the possibility that the women could have prepared some spices Friday evening and then bought more after the Sabbath to add to what they had. Further, by placing the buying of the spices on Thursday evening they then have the women waiting, after they purchased the spices, all day Friday, as well as all day Sabbath, before going to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. This is unthinkable!

Mark informs us that the women came to the sepulchre "very early in the morning ... at the rising of the sun" (Mark 16:2). They were talking among themselves about who would roll away the stone from the sepulchre. Finding the stone rolled away when they arrived, they were "affrighted." The angel quieted their fears and told them to go "tell his disciples." If they had been to the sepulchre Saturday night and found the tomb empty would the angel be asking them to do this again Sunday morning?

The Witness of Luke. Luke tells his readers that the day Jesus died and was buried was "the preparation, and the sabbath drew on" (Luke 23:54). Mat thew and Mark also inform us that the day Jesus died was "the preparation." This was the Jewish name for Friday. In the famous Western-type manuscript, Codex Bezae, Luke 24:54 reads, "It was the day before the Sabbath."

Luke's statement, "And rested the sabbath day according to the commandment," corresponds with Mark's statement, "the sabbath was passed."

Luke also says the women came "very early in the morning" to the sepulchre, and that they "found" the stone rolled away. If they had already been there Saturday night, this experience on Sun day morning would have been no "find."

The Witness of John. According to John, the day Christ was crucified was "the preparation of the passover" (John 19:14). But he also tells his readers in verse 31 that it was the preparation day that preceded the Sabbath and that that Sabbath was "a high day." The word translated "high" is more often translated "great." The most important day of the feast was called "the great day." An example of this is found in John 7:37.

John's words (chap. 19:31) make it clear he is talking about the weekly Sabbath. If he had reference only to the yearly sabbath he would have probably just called it the great day of the feast, as he does in John 7:37. He could have called it the sabbath of the feast, but he would not have used both expressions.

John mentions only Mary Magdalene. He says Mary Magdalene went to the tomb "early, when it was yet dark." She found the stone "taken away from the sepulchre," and the tomb empty. She ran and came to Peter and "the other disciple, whom Jesus loved." (John him self!) There is no place here for a Saturday night visit to the empty tomb.

In Matthew 28:1, the Greek words translated "In the end of the sabbath" (see pdf for the greek) must be given more consideration. In most lexicons (see the pdf for the greek) is listed as an adverb meaning "late." Arndt and Gingrich also give examples where (see pdf for greek) is used as "an improper preposition" meaning "after," and other examples were (see pdf for greek) is used "almost like an indeclinable substantive." 1

Those who translate (see pdf for the greek) as "now late on the Sabbath" treat (see pdf for greek) as an adverb and (see pdf for the greek) as a partitive genitive. But this makes Matthew contradict the other gospel writers. Blass in his Greek Grammer of the New Testament tells us this expression means "after the sabbath." 2

The Greek word (see pdf for the greek) is found four times in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) and four times in the New Testament.3 It conveys the idea of "late," sometimes "late into the night" (Isa. 5:11; Jer. 2:23 Septuagint). In Matthew 28:1 it means "late from," as Moulton says,4 and therefore should be translated "after" or "long after." Spencer catches the thought in his translation "now far into the night of the Sabbath . . /' 5 Certainly being after the Sabbath and "towards the dawn of the first day," it would have to be far into the night. This is in perfect harmony with the other Gospels.

But what about the statement of Christ concerning Jonah (Matthew 12: 40)? It is difficult to explain this without recognizing the fact that the Jews used the inclusive method of reckoning time. In recording the time it took an event to take place, they counted the day the event began, as well as the day it ended. The Japanese at times still use this inclusive method of reckoning time. Maurer, who wrote a tract supporting the Wednesday date for the crucifixion, says, "I have no use for the 'parts-of-three-days theory.'" 6 But is this sound and objective reasoning? There are a number of good examples of inclusive reckoning in the Bible. One such is found in the book of Esther. Esther asked the Jews to fast and pray for her three days, night and day. Then she would go in before the king (Esther 4: 16). But in the next chapter it says, "On the third day . . . Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king's house." (Other examples are found in such passages as Genesis 42: 17-19; 1 Kings 12:5, 6; 2 Chronicles 10:5, 6.)

However, the most convincing example is the fact that Jesus predicted He would rise "on the third day," not at the end of three whole days. This statement is recorded nine times in the Gospels.

Mark 8:31 does use the expression "after three days." It is also found in two other places in the Revised Standard Version. But in these cases the word translated "after" is from the Greek word that has a root meaning of "with" or "among," and in this case means after (with) the arrival of the third day. This is clearly demonstrated in Matthew 27: 63, 64, which states that the enemies of Jesus reported Jesus said, "After three days I will rise again." They then re quested that the sepulchre be made sure "until the third day."

Why did they not request that the sepulchre be made sure until the fourth day? Because they understood Jesus to mean that with the coming of the third day He would rise. This also explains that when Matthew wanted to say "after the Sabbath" (28:1) he did not use the word (see pdf for the greek). Instead he chose a word that really meant "after" or "long after"—towards dawn.

Thus It Is Written

Now we are ready to look again at the remarkable prophecy referred to at the beginning of this article. It was veiled in the symbolism of the religious services given to God's people when they left Egypt. The writer of the book of He brews speaks of these services as being a "shadow of heavenly things" (Heb. 8: 1-5). The writer of the book of Colossians says they were "a shadow of things to come" and adds, "but the body [casting the shadow] is of Christ" (Col. 2:17). These ceremonial services were indeed shadows of Christ and His death on the cross. Paul recognizes this when he writes, "Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed" (1 Cor. 5:7, R.S.V.).

The paschal lamb was always sacrificed on the fourteenth of the first month (Ex. 12; Lev. 23:5). The next day was the first great day of the feast. It was to be "an holy convocation" (Lev. 23:6, 7), a rest day, or sabbath. The day following, the sixteenth, the first fruits of the barley harvest were offered as a wave offering "before the Lord" (verses 10,11). This offering of the first fruits symbolized the resurrection of Christ presented before the Father after His resurrection (Ps. 24:7-10; Heb. 1:3; John 20:17, 25). Paul says, "But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. ... As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming" (1 Cor. 15:20-23).

The year our Saviour died the preparation day for the Passover and the preparation day for the weekly Sabbath came on the same day. As Christ uttered His last words the priest at the Temple was about to take the life of the paschal lamb. There was sudden terror and con fusion as the great "veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent" (Matt. 27:51). The paschal lamb escaped the hands of the priest. Type met antitype in the death of God's Son.

Any proper understanding of Christ's statement about Jonah, in Matthew 12:40, should take into consideration the facts presented above. When one finds that Christ indicated His acceptance of the inclusive method of reckoning by repeatedly saying He would rise "on the third day," the sign, which Christ called the "sign of the prophet Jonas," takes on greater significance. Christ's death and resurrection fulfilled a uniquely intriguing symbolic prophecy "veiled" for many centuries in the sequence of feast days associated with the Passover.

It is recorded in the Gospels that Christ rose on the first day of the week. Although the resurrection of Christ is mentioned sixty times in the rest of the New Testament, not once is the day of the week on which He rose mentioned. However, the fact that Christ rose "on the third day" is mentioned by both Peter and Paul. This fulfillment of the Scriptures was important to them (Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:1-5). As to which day of the week He arose, this was important only as it fitted in with the typical year of Old Testament feast days and sacrifices.


1 William F. Arndt and E. Wilbur Gingrieh, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (The University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 606.

2 F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, translated and revised by Robert W. Funk, 1961, par. 164 (4).

3 Gen. 24:11; Ex. 30:8; Isa. 5:11; Jer. 2:23; Mark 11:11, 19; 13:35; Matt. 28:1.

4 James Hope Moulton and T. T. Clark, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh, 1908), vol. 1, p. 72. A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, p. 517. (Robertson was professor of Interpretation of the New Testament, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.) See also: Edgar J. Goodspeed, Problems of New Testament Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 45; Alexander B. Bruce, The Expositor's Greek Testament, The Synoptic Gospels. (Bruce was professor of Apologetics, Free Church College, Glasgow.)

5 Francis A. Spencer, The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, translated from the Greek.

6 Henry B. Maurer, "Baptist Consistency on the Sabbath" (Atlanta, Georgia: The Bible Sabbath Association, P.O. Box 386).

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Donald Mackintosh is a retired pastor living at College Place, Washington.

April 1977

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