Saturday 7 April 2012

What a difference three days makes

In February, I was browsing through a huge collection of CDs at an American ‘Flea Market’. As far as I could see, the recordings were arranged in no particular order. Blues, Classical, Country, Easy Listening, Gospel and Jazz were all mixed together and although there were some real gems and classics to be found in the mix, you had to search long and hard for them. The stall owner was a good ol' boy called Judd and, seeing a number of books about the End Times, I assumed Judd was a Christian so I asked if he could recommend a local church.

Leaning forward on the counter, Jude adjusted his baseball cap and drawled, ‘What kinda church yew lookin fer?’

Being in the Bible Belt, I thought the culturally appropriate response was to say I was looking for a church that was faithful to the Word of God.

‘Yew Friday crucifixion an’ Sunday mornin’ resurrayction?’ Judd responded.

I wasn't quite sure what Judd meant but I said I believed Jesus died on Friday and rose on Sunday. Judd smiled one of those 'you poor sap' sort of smiles and proceeded to disabuse me of my paganism. Jesus, it turns out, was crucified on Thursday and raised on Monday. Without pausing, Judd then showed me that the British and Americans were the tribes of Ephraim and Manassah.

The cornerstone of Judd’s unorthodox opinion on the chronology of the resurrection was Matthew 12:40:

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.

Most Christians who insist on interpreting ‘three days and three nights’ literally believe Christ died in Wednesday and rose Sunday morning and even some who accept the traditional timescale have certain misgivings, inasmuch as Friday afternoon to Sunday morning is, strictly speaking, only about a day-and-a-half.

The simple answer is that in Hebrew and biblical thought, a part of the day is counted as the whole as, for example in Exodus 19:10,11:

The LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.

In Luke 13:32,33, Jesus predicts his impending death in Jerusalem in terms of three days:

And he said to them, 'Go and tell that fox, "Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course." Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.'

In the New Testament, great importance is attached to the resurrection taking place on‘the third day.' In 1 Corinthians 15:3,4, for example, Paul states that he delivered to the Corinthians ‘first’ that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.'

Although the Greek word translated ‘first’ in this verse can indicate nothing more than ‘first’ in a chronological sequence it often means much more than that, which is why a number of English Bible translations render it as ‘of first importance’.

That being so, Paul’s statement raises two important questions: first, where does it say in the Tanakh that Messiah would rise on ‘the third day’ and, secondly, why should ‘the third day’ be of ‘first importance’?

When Paul ‘reasoned’ from the Scriptures with the Jews in Corinth (Acts 18:4) that Messiah rose on the third day, it may well be that one of the main texts he had in mind was Hosea 6:1-2.

At the end of Hosea 5, God threatened a terrifying judgement on his people because of their unfaithfulness:

I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah. I, even I, will tear them and go away; I will take them away, and no one shall rescue.

Immediately following this prediction of judgement, chapter six begins:

Come, and let us return to the LORD; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but 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 in His sight.

But how does that relate to the resurrection of the Messiah? First of all, it sets resurrection in a framework of three days but, more than that, when we read the Gospels we see in the life of Jesus a kind of replay of Israel’s history. For example, like Israel, Jesus was God’s ‘firstborn’ and as Israel was called out of Egypt, so was Jesus. As the Israelites were tested in the wilderness for forty years, Jesus was tested in the desert for forty days.

Israel was ‘torn’ and ‘stricken’ but Isaiah assures them (63:9) that ‘in all their affliction He was afflicted’ and that ‘the Angel of His Presence saved them’. In the events surrounding the cross, Israel’s Saviour was ‘stricken’ for their transgressions (Isaiah 53:8). Little wonder then that the cross was of ‘first importance’ in Paul’s preaching but what is so significant about the third day?

The answer, I think, is to be found in the Fourth Gospel. John’s account of the life of the Messiah commences with the opening words of the Greek version of Genesis, En archee, ‘In the beginning…’ and explains that ‘the Word’ which created the world in Genesis 1 was the Son of God. According to John, the final word spoken by the Son, after he completed his earthly work was Tetelesthai! ‘It is finished!’ (19:30) the Greek word used in Genesis 2:1-2 when God ‘finished’ his creative work.

Just as the Word ‘finished’ creating the heaven and earth in six days and then rested, so also, he ‘finished’ his new creation toward the end of the sixth day. He then rested on the Sabbath day and rose from the dead on the first day of a new week as ‘the second Adam’, the head of God’s new creation.

This must surely be why Paul emphasises ‘the third day’. The Lord came into the world to recreate the cosmos, to give new birth to his people and bestow on them new and abundant life, and he did it within a framework reminiscent of the way in which he brought the first creation into being. To create the world, however, God had only to speak; to recreate it he had to suffer. Messiah’s resurrection after the Sabbath, at the commencement of a new week, announced a new creation, a new beginning for his people Israel.

Israel’s hope is inextricably bound up with Messiah’s rising from the dead, and their resurrection is through his resurrection. When Israel returns to their God through the Messiah who was ‘stricken’ for their transgressions (Isaiah 53:8), he will ‘revive’ them that they may ‘live in His sight’.

As you ponder the resurrection this Sunday, rejoice that Messiah’s death and resurrection are the source of your recreation.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).

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