The third day, He rose again from the dead.
It can only be one person the Apostles’ Creed speaks of with this sentence. It can’t be Mohammed, or Buddha, or even Moses. It can be no other religious leader who walked this earth. Only of Jesus Christ can it be said, The third day, He rose again from the dead. Later we will consider more of what it means that Jesus rose again from the dead. Right now, we will focus on why it is important to emphasize it happened the third day.
There are many different passages of Scripture that the Apostles’ Creed may be referring to. On many occasions, Jesus said He would rise again the third day (Matthew 16:21, Mark 9:31, Luke 9:22, John 2:19). However, the Creed may have in mind Paul’s stating of the essence of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, where he wrote, He rose again the third day. Click here for more on that important passage. The constant emphasis shows the fact that Jesus rose again the third day is part of the Gospel. It is important for at least three reasons.
First, it shows Jesus was a unique case. He did not or will not rise at some general resurrection of the dead. Instead, He rose the third day after His death. The resurrection of Jesus was a special, unique event.
Second, it confirms Jesus’ credibility, because He proclaimed He would rise three days after His death (see again passages such as Matthew 16:21, 17:23 or 20:19).
Third, it fulfills what Jesus called the sign of the prophet Jonah. In Matthew 12:40 He told some who sought a sign that this would be the only sign they would get – the sign of a resurrected Jesus. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Along those lines, it’s interesting to see the similarities between Jonah and Jesus. When he volunteered to be thrown into the sea from the ship, Jonah gave his life to appease the wrath of God coming upon others. So did Jesus. Death did not hold Jonah; after three days and nights of imprisonment, he was alive and free. It was the same with Jesus! In Jonah, we find a wonderful picture of Jesus in an unexpected place.
Because of the reference to the third day, and because in Matthew 12:40 Jesus refers to three days and three nights, some have thought that Jesus had to spend at least 72 hours in the grave. This upsets most chronologies of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and is unnecessary – because it doesn’t take into account the use of ancient figures of speech. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (around the year AD 100 and cited in Adam Clarke and others) explained this way of speaking when he wrote: “A day and a night make a whole day, and a portion of a whole day is reckoned as a whole day.” This demonstrates how among the Jews of Jesus’ time, the phrase “three days and three nights” did not necessarily mean a 72-hour period, but a period including at least the portions of three days and three nights.
If Jesus would have risen from the dead on the first day or on the fifth day, one could say, “Jesus was a liar and a false prophet. He said He would rise again on the third day, but He got it wrong.” But Jesus didn’t get it wrong. He never does. You can trust Him for anything and everything, because He always keeps His word.