Easter was about a week ago, and it’s great to recognize the resurrection of Christ. But what about why it took three days for this to happen? Why did Jesus have to die to later come back to life? People usually answer these questions with the broad strokes: he had to die for our sins, he had to because he loved us, he had to because it was the will of God the Father, or he had to do it to fulfill prophecy. John 3:16 comes to mind, a commonly known verse that describes all you’ll need to know about why Jesus had to die. Or is it? God gave us his son, but why to die? If Jesus was fulfilling the law in his death, where in the Old Testament does it say he had to be dead for three days? Where is the logical answer? I believe that the living Bible provides understanding that all types of people might be looking for. It has simple answers, like John 3:16. And it has detailed answers, very detailed answers that we can explore and investigate. So we’re going to look at the reason why Jesus had to die in such a specific way, and be dead for three days.
Prophecy and Signs
Jesus points to reasons why he had to die, and stay dead for three days. He points us to signs long ago, and prophesies what will happen. But what’s missing?
Here’s a sign:
For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. – Matthew 12:40
Here’s a prophecy:
Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” – Luke 18:31-33
What’s missing is a reason for the three days. The son of man would not be dead for three days because of Jonah, but Jonah would be a sign of something greater to come:
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here. – Matthew 12:38-42
Jonah’s experience is a result of Jesus’ experience to come. This was not the prophecy he’s talking about fulfilling in Luke 18, it’s just a sign. So besides in Jesus’ own words, where is it prophesied that he would be dead for three days? Where in the Old Testament is it ever said that he would die for three days?
The Old Testament contains no prophecy that Jesus would be dead for three days. What is does contain is prophecy about him dying, and a pattern of threes. But the Bible isn’t a puzzle, it’s alive and helps hammer down concepts. Here’s one about repentance when the Jews had rejected God:
After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. – Hosea 6:2
For three days Esther was dead to fasting, awaiting revival by her king (you can read more about this in one of my older posts here):
“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” – Esther 4:16
When God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son, for three days Abraham’s son was dead to him while they went up the mountain. His son was saved and returned to Abraham when God provided a substitute:
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. – Genesis 22:3-4
Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. – Hebrews 11:19
Decay in Jewish culture happens after something has been dead for three days. David says that God will not let his faithful one be dead longer than three days:
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. – Psalm 16:9-11
This adds more meaning to the resurrection of Lazarus, who was dead for four days, something no one believed Jesus could do. Anything less would be, funnily enough, plausible to everyone. This one gets close to our answer, but that still leaves one or two days as an option. We’re still not sure why it had to be specifically three days. In fact, why did the Jews believe three days was the magic number for decay?
We’re really close. The Jews were familiar with three, they were familiar with how special these number of days were. So what’s the answer? Let’s get this over with!
The Law of Moses
Putting all of these examples together, we know that three days relate to sacrifice, repentance, and deliverance. Leviticus has guidelines for exactly these things. It goes on and on about how to sacrifice properly in order to be delivered from sin. We often get lost in how seemingly repetitive or boring Leviticus is. But again, the Bible is a living book, and the boring parts aren’t so boring when the time is right. The next time you encounter a genealogy or a list of measurements, they might be trying to tell you something:
If, however, their offering is the result of a vow or is a freewill offering, the sacrifice shall be eaten on the day they offer it, but anything left over may be eaten on the next day. Any meat of the sacrifice left over till the third day must be burned up. If any meat of the fellowship offering is eaten on the third day, the one who offered it will not be accepted. It will not be reckoned to their credit, for it has become impure; the person who eats any of it will be held responsible. – Leviticus 7:16-18
Jesus gave himself freely to fulfill God’s vow to save us. He was a freewill offering. On the day his life was offered, the disciples had communion:
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” – Luke 22:19
His flesh was eaten on the day his life was offered. And what about the rest?
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. – Luke 23:43
And now if any meat is left over, the law said that it must be completely burned up, nothing left by the third day:
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. – Luke 24:1-2
It had to be three days. Jesus’ body had to be gone on the third day. Communion had to take place on the first day. This simple guideline in Leviticus reveals the reason why so many small details were absolutely necessary. It even explains why this warning exists:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. – 1 Corinthians 11:17
If Jesus’ body was still in the tomb by the third day, his sacrifice would have been meaningless. And partaking in communion against the guidelines of Leviticus counts against us.
So this is it, this is the exact law Jesus said he was fulfilling. The next time you think about Jesus dying on the cross, think about all the intricacies of the law he was following, all of the special guidelines he was following that went under everyone’s noses. He fulfilled EVERY law in Leviticus, this post is just scraping the surface:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. – Matthew 5:17-18
What about the food?
Since we’re finding the answer to everything around the three days question, let’s answer another. Why did Jesus use bread to symbolize his flesh? We know that he is the bread of life, we know that God used bread (mana) to show us that we cannot live on bread alone. But where is this bread in the law? How was using bread fulfilling his Levitical obligations?
If they offer it as an expression of thankfulness, then along with this thank offering they are to offer thick loaves made without yeast and with olive oil mixed in, thin loaves made without yeast and brushed with oil, and thick loaves of the finest flour well-kneaded and with oil mixed in. Along with their fellowship offering of thanksgiving they are to present an offering with thick loaves of bread made with yeast. They are to bring one of each kind as an offering, a contribution to the Lord; it belongs to the priest who splashes the blood of the fellowship offering against the altar. The meat of their fellowship offering of thanksgiving must be eaten on the day it is offered; they must leave none of it till morning. – Leviticus 7:12-15
It is a difficult concept to wrap our heads around, that is, eating Jesus’ flesh. But don’t worry, the disciple’s had the same problem. But they learned what it meant by taking part in the symbolism, they learned by being spiritually fed. The meaning behind the three days or communion are pointless unless you partake in the law Jesus fulfilled.
It’s not too late, we didn’t miss the sacrifice. There’s still time for you to eat and never grow hungry, to drink and never go thirsty. Jesus is alive and wants us to partake in communion, to give thanks for the bread of life, and live on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God:
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” – John 6 48:60