On the Third Day
The earliest creeds of the Christian church confess that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” It is then confessed, “On the third day, he rose again.”(1) While modern presuppositions may tempt us to interpret the death and resurrection of Jesus as symbolic or spiritual in nature, there was nothing abstract about the events and details confessed by those who first beheld them. Jesus’s suffering was an actual, datable event in history, his crucifixion a sentence inflicted on an actual body; the proclamation of both was the remembrance of a cold reality, something akin to remembering the Holocaust or the Trail of Tears. Likewise, “the third day” was a tangible, historical occasion—albeit an occasion of unfathomable proportions.
Yet the resurrection of Jesus was not viewed as merely a static fact on this particular third day, a fixed event to remain in this history alone. “We believe that Jesus died and rose again” wrote the apostle Paul, “and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”(2) For those who first beheld it, the resurrection was an event with inherent consequences for everything—for order and purpose, for what it means to be human itself. The earliest confessions of Christ’s death, burial, and third day rising from the dead are immediately followed by certain understood implications. As the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story observes of this resurrected one, Jesus went and “thrown everything off balance.”
In the eyes of Jesus’s contemporaries, the Misfit is exactly right. This rabbi who was accused of blasphemy for calling himself equal to God was immediately here shown by God to be speaking the truth. The resurrection verified Jesus’s ties with the Father and his claims to divine authority; the Sonship of Christ was visibly and unmistakably confirmed by the Father. “For God raised him from the dead” writes Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:10. This connection was clear.
And therefore, the resurrection was recognized as being far more than an event. For if “God raised Jesus from the dead,” as Paul, the unlikely Jewish believer, testified, then history is a display of God’s movement among us, a glimpse of the profound and ongoing invitation of God. The resurrection provides ground for seeing Christ’s life in light of each and every prior act and Word of God, vindicating and verifying the ministry and person of Jesus and his vicarious humanity among us. The prophets’ words, like the whole of Scripture, take on new dimensions in light of this truly human one before us: “On the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence” (Hosea 6:2). “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole” (Isaiah 53:4-5). Through the life of the risen Son, the resurrection directs us to the movement of the Father in all of history to nothing less than the uniting purpose of a redemptive God today.
For those who first confessed it, the identity of the risen Jesus was a pronouncement of divine authority, wisdom, messiahship, and humanity—in the present. As one New Testament scholar observes, “[F]or Paul and probably for most early Christians, it was precisely the resurrection of Jesus which declared that he was lord, saviour, and judge, and that Caesar was not.”(3) The risen Jesus is a pronouncement that it is God’s very Son who has come among us, bringing with him a very human means to the Father here and now. In the death and resurrection of the Son, humanity itself becomes the stuff of which God’s final assurance of life is once and for all established. The resurrection pours instant light on what it means to be fully human and what it means to truly live in the vicarious humanity of the Incarnate Son.
Thus, Paul is abundantly clear on the far-reaching, present significance of the third day. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”(4) With implications for both today and tomorrow—for bodies collective and individual, for lives and for deaths—the resurrected Christ has indeed “thrown it all off balance” in a world that may well prefer to “leave the dead lie,” as another O’Connor character suggests. In this mysterious space, Christians continue to discover what it means to live further into both the unfathomable and the real, the truly human and the gloriously divine:
We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. He was crucified, died, and was buried. And on the third day he rose again.
(1) Excerpts from the Apostles’ Creed. Similar wording is found in both the Nicene Creed and the Creed of Athanasius.
(2) 1 Thessalonians 4:14.
(3) N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 371.
(4) 1 Corinthians 15:19-20.