Of the sometimes-puzzling things that Jesus is recorded as saying, here’s one that has baffled many devout Christians:
“…Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, …” (Luke 24:46)
Now, even casual students of the Bible will point to Isaiah 53, with its images of the suffering Messiah (Christ) as an example of a “Christ should suffer” prophecy. But if you search the Old Testament for a place that specifically speaks of the Messiah being raised from the dead on the third day, you will come up empty. That literal prophecy doesn’t exist. So was Jesus misquoted here? Didn’t He know the scriptures? Was He quoting scriptures we don’t know about? Did Luke later manufacture that statement (as critics of the Bible sometimes accuse)? Just what is going on?
Of the above possibilities, we can eliminate most rather easily. The Hebrew scriptures that Jesus read were the same writings as our Old Testament today. And the Apostle Paul emphatically makes the same claim: “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 Corinthians 15:3-4) Now Paul was no Biblical novice – he was thoroughly schooled in the Hebrew scriptures and their traditional rabbinic interpretation, so for him to make such an assertion, he had to have been confident that it would stand scrutiny. For either Jesus or Paul to have fabricated an easily-disprovable prophetic claim would badly undermine their case that Jesus was truly the promised Messiah. So it seems very clear that both Jesus and His early followers were sure that His resurrection on the third day was anticipated in the same Jewish scriptures we know – but where?
To address this question we need to understand that ancient Jewish prophecy functioned in ways that aren’t always obvious to us today. The Jews read scripture looking for themes that spoke of God’s hand in their past history as hints to His plans for their future. As they did this over centuries, they noticed connections that may seem obscure to us. One of those observations was that there were a lot of times in the Bible where the third day was associated with deliverance or restoration. For example: “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”(Hosea 6:2) They saw the same theme in the familiar story of Abraham’s offering of his beloved son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19) who was delivered on the third day from a sure death (Hebrews 11:19). The story of Jonah, who was delivered from the belly of the fish on the third day was another recognized example of this pattern and Jesus explicitly referred to this precedent as foretelling what would transpire for Him (Matthew 12:39-40). And there are actually quite a number of other third-day-of- deliverance precedents in the Old Testament.
Now though the Jewish rabbis had developed an appreciation for a special significance of the third day, and may even have made some Messianic associations, they had no concept of a suffering Messiah who would die, much less be raised again. In fact, this was contrary to the common expectation that the Messiah was to be a triumphant king who would restore and rule over Israel. So this was not at all a case of Jesus referencing an “obvious” prediction of Old Testament prophecy. Rather, it was only when He later explained the connections – when He “opened their minds” – that the precedents became clear and the pieces fit together (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48).
Isn’t that also the way it works in our own lives? We struggle to understand what God has in mind for our future, and though we may pray earnestly for clarity, we usually aren’t able to discern in advance where we are being led. Yet, when we look at things in hindsight, we see the sure and loving hand of our Lord shaping events and carrying us on according to His plan.