By Dan Schaeffer
As I was re-reading the Easter story in the gospels a few years back, I noticed a phrase repeating over and over, a phrase I have read hundreds of times. It was the phrase “three days.” Over 11 times the phrase “three days” is mentioned. For example, in Mark 9:30-32, Jesus prophesied His coming death and the resurrection
“For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, the Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later…”
Three days! I began to ask myself; “What’s the big deal about three? Why couldn’t it have been two days, or two hours, or four days, or a week? Would it have made all that big a difference to the Easter story, to the resurrection account? But the more I thought about it, the more the scriptures began to reveal it was critical.
It wasn’t random. It wasn’t pointless. It was, in fact, absolutely essential. So much hinged on the three days. And I began to realize that the significance of those three days showed itself in four important ways. First…
It’s one thing to predict your death, another to predict your resurrection
In Mark 9:30-32, Jesus told His disciples He was going to be killed, and rise on the third day. Not one day later. Not two days later. Not a week later. On the third day! Why does this matter? Had Jesus been raised one day later, or a week later, truly raised from the dead—He would still have been a false prophet. It had to be three days later. After He had been killed He had to be raised on the third day.
Follow me: you can ostensibly plan your own murder, or even crucifixion if you are a fake and just want to create a great movement in your name. A martyr’s death is attractive to some. All you have to do is something so bad that crucifixion is a foregone conclusion. And it wasn’t all that hard to do in first century Rome.
So if you were a charlatan, you make the prediction general enough to give you wiggle room if it’s not spot on. Today Palm Readers and Fortune Tellers claim that they can foretell the future. They actually do a pretty good business as so many people are desperate to know their future. But you will find that all these predictions fall into one of two categories: (1) Predictions so vague as to be easily experienced. For example: “You will meet a stranger…you will have good fortune…you will have great heartbreak…you will be betrayed…you will fall in love.
All of these are simply descriptions of the human condition and given enough time most will come true in your life whether you predicted them or not, they are inevitable, a regular part of life on planet earth. (2) But the second category of predictions is those made when there is no real way to verify the claim. It seems a safe bet because the claim can’t really be verified. But this can lead to tragic consequences.
A young woman named Amanda Berry went missing on April 2, 2003 on the eve of her 17th birthday. No one ever heard from her, and she was presumed missing and probably dead, but there was no proof of that. Her mother Louwanna Miller was heartbroken and kept trying to find out what had happened to her daughter. About a year after her daughter’s disappearance, Louwanna went on the Montel Williams show where celebrity psychic Sylvia Browne told Louwanna that “she’s not alive, honey. Your daughter’s not the kind who wouldn’t call.” She told her that she would only see her daughter “in heaven, on the other side.”
Louwanna died only a few years later in grief. But almost 10 years later, Amanda Berry was found along with two other young women in the home of their abductor, Ariel Castro when Berry was finally able to escape. She had been alive all along. The psychic was wrong! (Celebrity psychic Sylvia Browne under fire… 5/8/2013, by Snejana Farberov).
It’s dangerous to make predictions at all, but it’s safer to make them when there is no real way to verify the claim. In Jesus’ case, to make very specific predictions that are unlikely to occur, and that will happen in a very short period of time, leaves you open for claims of fraud and deception. Three days. Think about it, three days.
Now someone could say, “Well, maybe that is actually what Jesus did after all, he saw things were going to go badly for him and projected forward what would happen: death, crucifixion. It’s unlikely, but hey it could have happened.” Maybe that’s what he did. But how can you predict or plan your own resurrection? You can plan to die; you can even kill yourself. But who first tells everyone who will listen, “I’m going to be killed and then be raised three days later?” You can plan death—but not a resurrection!
This is a very specific prophecy—an exact one. Precise and unalterable. Jesus was putting Himself and God the Father on the hook. He was writing in permanent ink. If it didn’t happen—who would later pay any attention to what He said? Three days is a hyper-precise prophecy. On the third day makes it much harder than “someday…”
Again in Mark 10:32-34 we read, “And again He took the twelve aside and began to tell them what was going to happen to Him, saying, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. “They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.”
Notice it says He was “going to be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes first.” Now this is very interesting because the chief priests and scribes had no power to crucify anyone. Only Rome had the authority to do executions, they did not allow Israel to perform them. This statement alone would make no sense to the disciples; it would have been non-sensical. Even if He had been arrested by the Jewish authorities, crucifixion was extremely unlikely.
But the chief priests would condemn Jesus to death, but since they couldn’t kill Jesus themselves—they had to convince the Romans to kill someone over a Jewish religious dispute—which was even more unlikely. Rome was a pagan empire; they worshipped tons of different gods. Add one more to the mix and stir—not a problem! And furthermore, the Romans did not like Israel or their leaders, they were notoriously difficult to rule and caused them lots of grief. Pilate detested them. Yet, that’s what had to happen. They had to kill Him and three days later He had to rise again.
But the next thing I noticed that is significant about the three days is…
Resurrection on the third day was God’s great sign!
Most people who question the existence of God always wants a sign from God to prove He’s real. It’s our default setting when we doubt the existence of God. Since we assume it won’t happen, it’s a risk-free challenge. Show me a sign!!! Ironically, in 1999 someone set out to do just that. A Florida resident, insisting on anonymity, paid an ad agency, The Smith Agency in Fort Lauderdale, $150,000 to produce a spiritual but non-denominational ad campaign, that “people could relate to in a 90’s kind of way,” said the agency’s president, Andrew Smith.
The result was bold faced one liners on large billboards, purportedly from God, but conceived by a very mortal ad executive, Charlie Robb. These billboards proved so successful that many other states took notice, in fact, they won the Smith Agency an Obie, outdoor advertising’s Oscar. They appeared in over 10,000 locations.
Some of the signs read: “Let’s meet at my house Sunday before the game!” – God. “C’mon over and bring the kids—God!” “What part of “Thou Shalt Not…” didn’t you understand?—God. “Loved the wedding—Invite Me to the Marriage.—God” “That “Love Thy Neighbor” thing—I meant it—God. “You think it’s hot here?” – God! “Have you read my No. 1 Best-seller? (There will be a test)—God. “I don’t question your existence”—God. And my favorite—“Don’t make me come down there”—God!
Everyone wants a sign. So we read in Matthew 12:38-41 “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. “The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”
There it is again. Three days. The Jewish leaders wanted a sign, and Jesus said, “OK, you’ll get a sign. It will be the greatest sign ever. But it will be a very specific sign.” Resurrection on the third day was going to be God’s great sign to the world!
The Jewish leaders knew the story. Jonah, the disobedient prophet trying to escape from God’s call upon his life, goes sailing on a ship that experiences a great storm. The sailors cry out for deliverance and Jonah admits he is the reason for the storm and he is promptly thrown overboard and eventually swallowed by a great sea monster. He survives in the belly of the sea monster for three days after which he is spit up safely on land. There it is again. Three days!
Was Jesus just fixated on this story of Jonah? Did He just see Himself as a modern Jonah and want to romantically go down in history so he made up His own Jonah story? Maybe He just borrowed mythology from Jonah and applied it to Himself. Well, maybe. But here is the same problem again—how do you make it happen--when you’re dead?
This sign was notoriously difficult to choreograph. In Matthew 26:59-61 we read, “Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, so they might put Him to death. See? It’s not that easy to convict an innocent man. Questions will be asked. Rules must be followed. Where is the smoking gun? “They did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward…” They were totally striking out until…
“… later on two came forward, and said, “This man stated, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.” Ah, there it is again. Three days! Now this was a misunderstanding of what Jesus had said in John 2:19 when He stated, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The problem was that when He spoke those words, He was literally standing inside the temple so they thought He was speaking of the building. He was actually speaking about His body. But what did they remember? Three days!
Eventually, against all odds, they got Jesus on the cross. The worst they should have been able to convict Him off was a bad case of hyperbole. So in Matthew 27:40 we read them mocking Jesus on the cross with their own ignorance, “ “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” They said these things as Jesus was dying a slow torturous death.
Again, three days. Everyone remembers that something was going to happen in three days. At least that’s what Jesus had promised. But notice something critical here: In v. 42 of that same passage we read them say “let Him come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him…” They were, in effect, saying, “If Jesus survives this—why we’ll all believe in Him!” They had asked for a sign, and Jesus had promised one! This was why Jesus said, “This will be the great sign you all asked for.”
Why am I making a big deal about this? So He makes a prediction, so what? It’s the difference between a mere man making a wild guess about what might happen to Him, and the eternal God making sure what He had promised would really happen. It’s the difference between fate and divine providence, between someone’s best guess and the direct act of God!
If you claim to be the Son of God, who existed from eternity past, and then entered humanity with a plan—then you really do know what is going to happen precisely—because you are going to make sure it happens precisely. Resurrection on the third day was God’s great sign! But furthermore…
It gave Jesus enemies three days to thwart the prophecy!
Though many Jews misunderstood what Jesus was saying in His Jonah comparison, there were some who did not. The sharper tools in the shed knew what Jesus was prophesying. And here is what’s really important and fascinating—they understood how dangerous it would be for their portrayal of Jesus as a fraud and criminal if He somehow was seen to come back to life three days later.
We read in Matthew 27:63-64ff when the Jews came before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, “After three days I am to rise again…” Even Jesus enemies—accomplices to His murder—remembered that Jesus had promised He would rise again on the third day. Not eventually, not after a while, not in a week or so, not someday. Three days. Exactly.
So they asked Pilate to “give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, “He has risen from the dead,” and the last deception be worse than the first.” Now I want you to consider this: three days was a divine dare! God was saying you have three days to stop this—three days to make sure a resurrection isn’t even a plausible idea for His closest disciples. It was a divine challenge! Stop it if you can.
So they set a Roman guard at the tomb, and made it secure. Now remember they didn’t have to do this indefinitely. These guys weren’t going to have to be there forever. They only had to be at DEFCON five for three days. The prophecy was only valid for three days after His death. Then they would be done with the Jesus problem forever. The thing the Jewish leaders of the day were concerned about with Jesus was His disciples starting a story that Jesus had risen from the dead. But what were the disciples doing?
The leaders were thinking, in light of Jesus predicting His own resurrection, we have three days to make sure (1) He is not just mostly dead—but all dead (2) We control His body—not His disciples and (3) We guard that tomb day and night for three days. After that, we’re in the clear. After three days, all danger will have passed. Three days.
Sadly, His disciples had no such plan—they were in hiding, afraid that what had happened to Jesus might happen to them as well since they were His closest known accomplices. And it wasn’t an unrealistic fear. They had been promoting a false Messiah in the Jewish leader’s eyes. The disciples spent three days in hiding, not in planning. It’s safe to say that the Jewish authorities feared a resurrection a good deal more than the disciples expected one. The thought haunted the authorities, but didn’t even occur to the disciples. The thought of Jesus rising from the dead only occurred to the disciples after the event, and they remembered what He had said about rising three days later.
But lastly we see…
Without the resurrection—Jesus’ death was meaningless
Wait! Are you saying to me that the Son of God’s death on the cross was meaningless? Without the resurrection—yes! And God the Father felt the same way. The Easter story is Jesus risen from the dead—without that there is no story to tell. Jesus’ death on the cross was crucial to our salvation and our desire for eternal life—but it, by itself, did not fulfill the whole purpose of God. The resurrection was what made sense of the sacrificial crucifixion of Christ.
The sign of Jonah was not Jonah rotting away as a carcass in the belly of the great fish; it wasn’t even his selfless act to give his life so that others could live. The sign was Jonah alive again after being entombed in that dark nasty place for three days. Without the resurrection half of God’s sign is missing. It would be like a great billboard from God that read: “And here is the point of Me sending My beloved Son to die for your sins on the cross…” And then nothing else is written. It would have been a cruel teaser, not a sign.
There were many in Jesus’ day who did not believe in resurrection, period. They were the Sadducee’s, a religious party. One day they decided to try and trick to Jesus into showing the silliness of believing in resurrection, talking about the law that said that a man who died and had no children, his brothers were obligated to marry his wife and give the dead son children to carry on his name. So a man who had 7 brothers died and each married the woman and then died, but none gave him a son. Then they asked Jesus, “OK, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” And then I’m sure they laughed. But Jesus didn’t. His response was “you are greatly mistaken.”
Then Jesus took them to Moses and the burning bush where God introduced Himself to Moses as “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken.” (Mark 12:26). Jesus pointed out that God didn’t say, “I used to be the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, that is, you know, until they died.” He said, “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Nothingness can’t have a God. Only a living being can have a God to worship. God was teaching resurrection at the burning bush.
One of our great founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, did not believe in the resurrection, in fact he did not believe in any of the miraculous events of the Bible. He was enamored of Jesus as a person, and of the moral teachings of the New Testament, but could not accept the miraculous, and most importantly, the resurrection of Jesus. So he rewrote the New Testament privately, removing all miracles, and signs, and at the end the New Testament ends with Jesus in the tomb. And that’s all the story should end with…if Jesus did not rise from the dead.
When Jesus said to Martha in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in Me will live even if He dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die…” what would the phrase “I am the resurrection and the life” mean if He had remained dead? How could anyone ever take seriously the words of Jesus “He who believes in Me will live even if He dies…” if the last picture we had of Jesus was a tomb with a stone rolled in front?
If the person promising power of resurrection life can’t even resurrect himself—it’s all a lost cause. Smoke and mirrors. That’s why Jesus didn’t come just to die, but to rise again. Otherwise, nothing was really accomplished. If we say Jesus died for our sins, and then was put in a tomb and rotted…what are we saved from, and for? And how would we know?
How would Jesus’ death alone have taught us that? Paul Himself says in 1st Corinthians 15:17 “…and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins.” Sin’s great effect wasn’t completely vanquished until Jesus was risen from the dead.
Raising Jesus from the dead was not some stunt by God. “Hey look what I can do! Impressed? You should be!” No, the resurrection had deep meaning. Jesus’ resurrection is the divine proof that the cycle of sin and death has finally been broken. Jesus was the first to model what God had been promising—resurrection life—life after death.
It is the resurrection that proves that our sins have been fully dealt with by God, that death is not the end; that Jesus on the cross was not just a really sad story of a guy at the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s why someone wrote, “Death used to be an executioner, but the gospel has made him just a gardener.” (George Herbert)
The resurrection closed the deal! It proved the sacrifice for sin had been accepted! It was the heavenly Father signing on the dotted line to close the whole deal of salvation. It was Christ’s resurrection, not Christ’s death that converted Paul the apostle. The cross, the death of Christ for our sin, does not alone save us unless Jesus rose from the dead. And not just any time He wanted. Three days later.
Whenever anyone seriously talks about life after death—the best attested proof we have that this ever occurred—really occurred—was Jesus’ resurrection. He was proven dead physically on the cross by trained executioners, then lay in a tomb for three days before He was resurrected and greeted His disciples. All hope in, all talk of, all belief that there is life after death, relies solely on the historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead to be taken seriously.
Without this resurrection, why should anyone seriously believe there is life after death--and life after death in real human bodies? What evidence would there be? What hope? It’s all tied to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And those three days.
If you have any hope in life after death—what is it in? Why would you think you had any hope of life after death? There is a reason billions of people believe that Christ rose from the dead. And this is it. Talk is cheap. He proved it. It was the sign.