Agape Bible Study

THE SYMOBLIC SIGNIFICANCE OF THE THIRD DAY
IN SCRIPTURE

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.
Matthew 12:40 (Catholic RSV translation)

The Scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a "sign" which would validate his claim that His authority to teach the people came from God and that He was indeed the Messiah.  In response to their request, Jesus told 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 (Matthew 12:39-40).  The problem with Jesus' statement is that Jesus was in the "heart of the earth" for three days as the ancients counted (with Friday counting as day #1), but not three days and three nights from Friday to dawn Sunday morning.(1)  Was Jesus speaking literally or was He speaking symbolically?

In Scripture the number three is one of the so called "perfect numbers." The other "perfect numbers" are seven, ten, and twelve.  In Scripture the number three signifies completeness or perfection and points to what is solid, real, and substantial.  As a number which indicates completeness, the number three always identifies some important event in Salvation History. 

In the Old Testament:

In the New Testament:

In the symbolic language of the Bible, a three day period points to an act of divine intervention which impacts Salvation History.  Genesis 22:4 records that Abraham's journey to Mt. Moriah to offer his son in sacrifice, as commanded by Yahweh, was a three day journey.  In the Matthew passage Jesus refers to three days, applying the significance of the three day period to His resurrection and man's redemption.  In the Gospels Jesus often spoke of a three day period prophesying His sacrifice and resurrection. (2)

 

Examining other cases in Scripture where three days are significant in God's plan of salvation is helpful in understanding Jesus' reference to three days in Matthew 12:40, where He compared His prophesied "release from the earth" to Jonah's experience of imprisonment and release from the great fish.  For example, in Genesis chapter 22, in the significant event which the Jews call the Akeidah, the "binding of Isaac," Yahweh tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to the land of Moriah where he is to offer his son in sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-4): It happened some time later that God put Abraham to the test.  'Abraham, Abraham!' he called.  'Here I am,' he replied.  God said, 'Take your son, your only son, your beloved Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, where you are to offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall point out to you.'  Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac.  He chopped wood for the burnt offering and started on his journey to the place which Gods had indicated to him.  On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  It is On the third day that Abraham arrived and saw the place in the distanceInstead of permitting the sacrifice of Isaac, God intervenes and commands Abraham to sacrifice a ram in the place of his son.  Isaac is redeemed, and he who was as good as dead was raised up and restored to his father on the third day.  The "three days" imagery in this event prefigures the sacrifice and resurrection of Isaac's descendant Jesus the Messiah.

Sometimes this symbolic expression for divine intervention and restoration after a time of trial is expressed as "on the third day" and at other times as "after three days."  It was after the third day that the Pharaoh's cupbearer was restored to his former position as Joseph had prophesied in Genesis 40:12-23.  Another reference to restoration on the third day is found in Hosea 6:1-2 where Yahweh tells His prophet a time will come when His covenant people will acknowledge their sins and seek redemption and restoration, as they cry out 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. 

While the prophetic reference to "the third day" in Joseph's prophecy in Genesis 40:12-23 may have been literal as well as symbolic, the prophet Hosea promised a third day restoration that is understood by the Old Testament faithful to be symbolic of God's plan of salvation and redemption.  The Hosea passage was not concerned with a literal three day period but with a short period of intense trial followed by God's divine intervention to bring about the restoration of God's people in God's own time.  Jesus' reference to the three days and three nights in Matthew 12:40 is a reference in biblical language to the promise of divine intervention in God's plan of salvation, linking Jonah's mission to the lost souls of Nineveh and Jesus' mission to the lost sheep of Israel.

Saint Paul wrote about the significant "third day" event of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, and the witnesses who testified to it.  Paul testified that the timing of the resurrection event was not according to man's time but "according to the Scriptures":  For I delivered to you as of first importance which I also received, that Christ died for our sins and in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, then he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.  When Paul writes that the "timing" of the event of the Resurrection was "in accordance with the Scriptures," it is the Old Testament Scriptures to which he is referring.  Paul also makes the symbolic "third day" reference in the language of the Scriptures, linking it to God's intervention at the climactic moment of man's promised restoration of fellowship with God as promised to the Prophet Hosea in Hosea 6:1-2.  It is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ which occurred, as Paul writes, "on the third day," an event which occurred literally but at the same time was full of symbolic significance, and through which all who believe will also be raised up to eternal life.

Footnotes:

  1. When referring to His three days in the grave in the literal sense, Jesus is counting as the ancients counted without the concept of a zero-place value, with Friday being day #1, Saturday day #2, and Sunday day #3.
  2. Jesus referred to three days in reference to His crucifixion and resurrection in Matt 12:40; 17:22-23; 20:19; Mk 9:31; 10:34; Lk 9:22; 13:32-33; 24:46 (teaching after His resurrection); and Jn 2:19.  In these passages Jesus is speaking of the three day period both literally and symbolically.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2008 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Ash Wednesday 2008