Does the Old Testament Teach Resurrection, as Jesus and Paul Claimed?



Excerpted from Milestones to Emmaus
Warren A. Gage


In spite of the clear teaching of both the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul, most evangelical scholarship today does not believe that the Old Testament expressly and pervasively teaches the resurrection of the Christ. Hardly anyone maintains that the entire Hebrew Bible teaches both the resurrection of Christ and that it was to occur on the “third day.” Regarding the larger question of the resurrection itself in the Hebrew Bible, N.T. Wright says:

It is all the more surprising, then, to discover that, within the Bible itself, the hope of resurrection makes rare appearances, so rare that some have considered them marginal. Though later exegesis, both Jewish and Christian, became skilled at discovering covert allusions which earlier readers had not seen – a skill shared, according to the gospels, by Jesus himself – there is general agreement that for much of the Old Testament the idea of resurrection is, to put it at its strongest, deeply asleep, only to be woken by echoes from later times and texts.

Gordon Fee makes a similar but yet more sweeping rejection of Paul’s claim that the resurrection, especially the “third day” resurrection, was “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). He writes about the “difficulty” of Paul’s claim, boldly saying, “… neither the tradition of the third day nor the Resurrection is well attested in the OT…”

A fair reading of Jesus’ teaching to the Emmaus disciples and to the eleven on resurrection day, however, demonstrates that Jesus not only taught that the Scriptures were replete with the suffering (cross) and glory (resurrection) of the Christ, but that the entire Hebrew canon, including the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms clearly taught the third day resurrection (Luke 24:13-21, 25-27, 44-47). Paul’s assertion in his first Corinthian letter adds his personal witness to the truth of Jesus’ claim, for he cites what was likely already a creedal confession of the early church in insisting that indeed the Scriptures taught the third day resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-4).

Can we not fairly ask, then, why such a broad consensus in evangelical scholarly opinion fails to see what Jesus so clearly taught? Would anyone dare to imagine that perhaps our scholarship is deficient in this most vital point that touches the heart of the gospel, according to both Jesus and Paul? Might it be that our established hermeneutical conventions have hindered us from understanding the Old Testament as Jesus did or teaching the Hebrew Bible in the manner of the apostles of the Lord?

Emmaus is a seven mile walk from Jerusalem (Luke 24:13). Assuming that Jesus joined Cleopas and his companion early on, the discussion Jesus held with them on the resurrection in the Old Testament lasted about two hours. It was a conversation certainly long enough to survey “Moses and all the prophets” (Luke 24:27). Christ expresses exasperation at the slowness of his disciples to believe, for he said it should have been evident to them from their Scriptures that “it was necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26).

But if “these things” are so evident to Jesus, what would happen if we asked our evangelical ministers and teachers to take a “walk” with us, that is to say, to explain the resurrection of the Christ from the Old Testament, and that it must occur on the third day? What would be the discussion if we proposed that we have the time right now for such a leisurely walk? Imagine that we set out, then, intending to be in a spirited discussion about these things for, say, about two hours! We would speak of Jonah, certainly, and Isaiah 53. Some of the more astute might mention Psalm 16, and Peter’s interpretation of David’s confidence. Daniel might deserve a brief mention, along perhaps with Job, but how far would we make it on our way without exhausting the received interpretations?

How should we approach this problem from the Scriptures? And how will we know if we have rightly reexamined the Old Testament and derived the gospel from these texts and not simply imposed our own interpretation on them? Luke tells us that Jesus “opened the Scriptures” to the disciples and that their hearts “burned within them” on the road (Luke 24:32). There! That’s it! We will know we have arrived at our destination when we come to the place where we believe the Scriptures have opened their very meaning up to us, and that our hearts burn within us as we see that the theme of the Old Testament is about the gospel, that all the Hebrew Scriptures are about our precious Savior, his suffering and glory and his third day triumph over death!

To accomplish this, however, we must do nothing less than turn evangelical hermeneutics inside out. But we will do so, as we shall see, completely within the sound boundaries of the grammatical-historical method, allowing Scripture alone to interpret Scripture.

If the Lord is pleased, our hearts, like those of Cleopas and his companion, should burn within us as Christ is set forth in glory, the glory that Moses and the prophets of Israel foresaw. It is my hope that this little book, which when it is finished after a leisurely reading (which ironically will take about two hours or so) should bring us to a place of greater love for the glory of the Lord and the Scriptures which testify of his gospel.

How shall we proceed? We begin where the Savior directed, namely, to identify the passages in the Old Testament that speak of the “third day.” As we shall see, that will mark out about forty key passages well distributed throughout the Hebrew canon of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Once we have identified these “red flag” passages, we will presuppose that they identify, like the X on a treasure map, some underlying account of suffering and glory, some passage that when rightly understood sets forth the gospel message of a wonderful deliverance from death on the third day. After we have examined these passages, if we see that “these things” are true, we will inevitably gain precious insight into the teaching of Christ and the apostles about the gospel in the Old Testament, and we will learn how to preach and teach the Hebrew Bible in a distinctly Christian way.
The Eschatological Third Day in Christ’s Gospel

The prominence of the “third day” in the Lord’s eschatological expectation is widely attested in the gospels. Jesus almost always associates his resurrection with the third day, and he begins by announcing the third day as the day of his triumph when he addresses the scribes and Pharisees about the prophetic significance of Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the great fish (Matt 12:40). More typical, however, and far more explicit is the Lord’s private teaching to the disciples that begins after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah. Characteristic of this teaching is Matthew’s account of all the suffering that Jesus was to endure before the glory of his third day resurrection, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Matt 16:21).

As the hour of Jesus’ suffering drew near, he added more detail to the things he was to suffer before his vindication on the third day. He taught that he was to be condemned to death, handed over to the Gentiles, mocked, scourged, and crucified, only to be raised on the third day (Matt 20:19; cf. also Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34; Luke 9:22, 18:33, 24:46; John 2:19-21). After his suffering, the angels reminded the perplexed women of Galilee who came to the tomb on resurrection morning that Jesus had taught previously that he would rise on the third day (Luke 24:7). Surprisingly, in spite of the disciples’ inability or unwillingness to believe the Savior, Christ’s enemies understood clearly that he claimed he would rise on the third day and so they sought to have the tomb guarded to prevent rumors that would arise after any theft of the Lord’s body (Matt 27:63).

When Cleopas and his companion mention all the things that had transpired concerning Jesus in Jerusalem, noting that it was now “the third day since all these things happened” (Luke 24:21), Jesus rebukes them for not understanding from the Scriptures that all “these things” were to be accomplished (Luke 24:25-26). What things? Jesus’ reproves his Emmaus disciples for not understanding that all of “these things” were to precede the “third day” resurrection, namely, as Cleopas recites them, Jesus was delivered up by the chief priests and rulers to be condemned to death and crucified (Luke 24:19-21). Jesus simply assumes that his disciples should have understood “these things” to be required before the “third day” to satisfy the prophetic Scriptures. This is all in addition to his own explicit teaching to the twelve about his own suffering which was to culminate in his third day triumph.

It seems apparent from all of this that the apostles came to understand that the suffering followed by the glory of Christ, like the darkness followed by the light of the original days of creation, had likewise characterized the “Day of the Lord” (Joel 2:28-32). Joel had described the “Day of the Lord” as commencing with “darkness and gloom, with clouds and thick darkness” (Joel 2:1-2). But according to the prophet, the great darkness of that day was to yield to a glorious dawn, “And in that day the mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with milk, and all the brooks of Judah will flow with water, and a spring will go out from the house of the Lord” (Joel 3:21). The day of judgment, with signs in the sky and with the sun turned to darkness (Joel 2:30-31; cf. Matt 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44) would give way to a day of gospel mercy, so that “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32; cf. Acts 2:37-40). It was by an appeal to the prophet Joel that Peter proclaimed the triumph of Christ to the Jews on Pentecost, arguing from Psalm 16 that the Lord’s anointed could not suffer corruption, signifying that Jesus should be raised by the third day (Acts 2:16-21 and 29-32). All of these events constituted the Day of the Lord, making the “third day” the eschatological day of the victory of God against his enemies, as foreseen by Moses and the Prophets of Israel.

In view of the teaching of the Lord about the “third day,” our investigation of the Old Testament requires us to establish that the resurrection of Jesus on the third day is widely attested in Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (writings) of the Hebrew canon. Moreover, we should observe the pattern of suffering and glory, and that the suffering which precedes the third day deliverance from death through resurrection should foresee that Jesus was to be 1) rejected by the priests and rulers of Israel, 2) delivered up to the Gentiles, 3) condemned to death, 4) crucified, 5) buried in the earth, 6) and emerge from the earth in resurrection on the third day. Only if we can establish such a doctrine of the third day resurrection from the Old Testament may we justly claim to have read the Scriptures in the manner our Lord directs.
How Do We Identify the “Third Day” Passages in the Old Testament?

The terms “third day” and “three days” are lexically marked and quite easily identifiable. There are about forty such key texts, including several passages that are often rendered “previously” or “formerly,” which in the literal Hebrew is “yesterday three days.” The third day passages are widely distributed throughout Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Writings), a distribution which satisfies the canonical claim of Jesus. We can therefore be fairly certain that the Emmaus conversation targeted these passages in the Lord’s explanation of the necessity of his suffering prior to his glory (Luke 24:21, 46). Moreover, there is another class of third day passages where it is not stated that the event occurred on the third day, but the text is clear enough to reconstruct a three day sequence. Several of these have been identified, but we suspect there are many more not yet uncovered. Nonetheless, these forty or so significant “third day” passages metaphorically constitute our milestones to Emmaus.

We should set out some further parameters to this investigation before undertaking such a journey. First, we should consider the nature of the “third day” as it occurs in Scripture. Second, we should regard the idiom for “previously” or “formerly” (shilshom) which is not evident in translation but is nonetheless quite marked as “three days ago” in Hebrew. Third, we should set out the criteria of certainty regarding the reconstruction of “third day” passages not lexically marked. Finally, we should set reasonable limits to the study, including suggestions for further investigation.

First, we begin with identifying the relevant “third day” passages in Scripture. The first question is whether or not the expression refers to literal “three days.” The most inclusive term is “three days and three nights,” which would appear to be a bounded term referring to 72 hours. This expression occurs only twice in the Old Testament. It occurs in the David narrative in the context of the raid on Ziklag (1 Sam 30:12) and, most instructively, in the account of Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the great fish (Jon 1:17). The Jonah reference is appealed to by the Lord to establish the typological expectation of the time of his own descent into the grave of the earth: “For just 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” (Matt 12:40).

While the three days and three nights may have been literal in Jonah, the same expression in Jesus’ prophecy is clearly not. In fact Jesus spent two nights, one day, and a part of two other days in the grave. That being the case, the biblical understanding of the “three days” appears to be a period of time between 36 and 72 hours, so long as it is bounded by a part of three days. While occasionally some literalists may attempt to interpret the statement of the Lord to require a Thursday crucifixion during Passion Week, historically such a literal interpretation has been rejected. From our study of the “three days” from the Old Testament it is clear that the third day is the day of God’s intervention in power to deliver, but the deliverance most often occurs on the morning of the third day. So we will conclude that the “three days” can be literal, but generally are not.

Second, the Hebrew idiom usually translated “previously” or “formerly” is noteworthy because the original Hebrew expression is “three days ago” (most often, temol shilshom), and is heavily marked with “third day” association. Sometimes the phrase actually appears to speak of “three days ago” and not “formerly” or “previously.” The phrase is used in Joshua to describe the Jordan river returning to its banks “as before,” but in the context it is most likely that three literal days were associated with the actual time of the Jordan crossing of Israel (Josh 4:18, cf. Josh 1:11 and 3:2). Likewise, the account of David’s partaking of the sacred bread of the presence describes the ritual abstinence of his men from sexual contact for a period of “three days” (temol shilshom, 1 Sam 21:6), a passage apparently dependent on the ritual purity required of the camp of Israel at Sinai before the coming of the Lord in power, which was also after three days in the normal sense of the term (Exod 19:1-11, 15).

On the other hand, the same idiom can quite clearly be used figuratively to speak of former times contrasted with a new beginning. The cities of refuge were set apart to offer sanctuary to those who had committed accidental homicide with no previous (temol shilshom) history of enmity (Josh 20:5). Likewise, Boaz’ commendation of Ruth’s faith recognizes the willingness of the Moabite widow to join herself to a people she had not previously known (temol shilshom), a fact which clearly demonstrates the remarkable choice she had made in beginning an entirely new life (Ruth 2:11). In both cases, whether looking back to the lack of enmity of the manslayer seeking refuge or Ruth looking forward to the prospect of joining herself to the people of the Lord whom she had not known before, the “third day” language appears to be appropriate to demark a new beginning which commences a new life after a decisive appeal in faith to the Lord.

Third, sometimes the precise language of “three days” or “third day” is missing, but the text is explicit enough to allow a reconstruction of the three day pattern. We have chosen a few of these to survey in this study, although it is likely that there are a number of others not yet identified. We should frankly acknowledge that there is an element of uncertainty in making such identifications, although some are quite unmistakable. For example, the climactic fall of the broken idol of Dagon in the temple before the Ark of God is clearly enumerated by days (certain) to have been discovered on the morning of the third day (1 Sam 5:1-4). Likewise, a careful reconstruction of the days preceding the account of Daniel’s deliverance from the den of lions early in the morning shows that it is the (probable) third day after his prayer that brought him under a sentence of death (Dan 6:10-21). Moreover, a reconstruction of the pattern in the account of the budding of Aaron’s rod shows that it is (likely) to be on the third day after Korah’s rebellion (Num 16:1-17:8).

Sometimes the “third day” is figurative only, as in the emergence of the dry land out of the waters (of the flood of Noah, of the Red Sea, of the Jordan River). In each of these cases the emergence of the dry land from the sea is heavily marked with the third day association. This marking derives from the creation account, which tells us that the dry land first emerged from the deep on the third day (Gen 1:9-13). The creation account forever afterwards marks the emergence of the dry land out of the waters as a manifestation of the divine power that recalled the third day of creation.

Now there are other possibilities for further study that have been declined for our purposes, but should be noted nonetheless. For example, the biblical reckoning of eschatological time includes the possibility of heptads or “measures of time.” Daniel’s seventy heptads (typically rendered “weeks”) have been interpreted to depend upon an equivalence between the days of Daniel and the years of redemptive history (Dan 9:24-27). The same equivalence may be seen in the “third day” reckoning in the judgments offered to David for his sin in the matter of the census. David is given the choice of three years of famine, three months of defeat in battle, or three days of pestilence (2 Sam 24:11-13). In the event David was given the three days of pestilence and he was delivered from death on the third day. But the example allows for the possibility of triads or “measures of time” likewise becoming relevant to this discussion. But for the purpose of this study, such further investigation has been deferred.
The New Testament Figural Interpretation of “Suffering and Glory”

We have said that our method will be to identify the “third day” passages of the Old Testament and examine them to see if they mark a pattern foreshadowing the “suffering and glory” of the Christ. But we should say a word about what we are likely to see. The hermeneutic of the Lord and his apostles was largely figural in character, requiring a poetics that is not widely practiced today in Protestant interpretation. Modern evangelicals in general are much more comfortable with theological propositions and analysis of epistolary discourse. They are often far less secure in the parables of Jesus, for example, or in the typology of the apostles.

Now it should be conceded that the discursive parts of the New Testament are generally much clearer, and as such should control less clear parts of Scripture (Num 12:1-8). But we cannot concede that the more figurative parts of the Bible are any less authentically true if rightly understood. This is why we need a robust poetics when interpreting the Scriptures, and why apostolic interpretation of the Bible is so necessary.

An illustration of apostolic figural interpretation of the Old Testament will be helpful here to demonstrate that the death and resurrection pattern of the suffering and glory of the Savior may be found in passages that are taken to be analogies of salvation; namely, they are figures of death and resurrection that require nothing less than a complete rethinking of the customary way the Old Testament is read. That should not surprise us, for it is altogether possible to read the Old Testament and quite miss the resurrection entirely. Something like this was apparently characteristic of the sterile Torah hermeneutic of the Sadducee school (Matt 22:23), and this should give us much pause when we must likewise confess an inability to read the Old Testament to speak of the resurrection. But if we are to read the Bible like the apostles, we will need to respect the poetics of analogy which so richly “opens” the Scriptures and enables us to see our Savior’s suffering and glory in new and remarkable ways, ways that will cause our hearts to burn within us as we see his death and resurrection throughout Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.
The Apostolic Interpretation of the Creation of Woman (Genesis 2:18-24)

We begin with Paul’s magnificent reading of Moses’ account of the creation of Eve. In his Ephesian letter Paul describes the privilege of the Christian husband to imitate Christ’s own sacrificial love in his relationship to his wife. “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). The apostle derives his doctrine from the account of the creation of the woman given by Moses. He cites Moses and then comments, “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife and shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-32).

Clearly the apostle was reading the “mystery” of Jesus and his relationship to the church, as his bride, back into the account of the creation narrative of Genesis 2:18-24. Consequently, we should follow Paul in reading the passage to teach us about Christ giving himself (suffering) for his bride (glory).

Now we should say that a poetic reading does not compromise a historical reading of the creation narrative; rather, it attempts to discern the providence that directed the creation of the woman’s life out of the wounded side of the first Adam. This account, as Paul read it, and John’s too, as we shall see, foreshadows the “mystery” of the gospel of Jesus. How can that be?

The Lord God stated that it was not good for the man to be alone (Gen 2:18), so he purposed to make a companion for Adam. But he did not make the woman out of the dust of the ground. What was his wisdom, and what do we learn by the manner by which God gave a bride to Adam?

God took the perfect man he had made, who was so full of life, and brought a deep sleep upon him. Then God pierced his side, creating a bloody wound. What was he doing? Why was he marring this perfect man? What evil had he done? Adam was still innocent! Nonetheless, God wounded the man and took out of his side the substance with which he created his bride. Then God healed Adam’s wound and awakened him in the garden. And God brought to Adam the bride who fulfilled all his heart with her beauty and purity (Gen 2:21-22).

How does this account foretell the suffering and glory of the Christ? John the evangelist tells us that Jesus is the eternal word of God who became flesh and tabernacled among us (John 1:1, 14). Once the Lord became authentic man, however, he was born under the law so that even for him it was not good that he should be alone. John thus presents Jesus as the bridegroom who has come in search of his bride (John 3:29). But how did God provide a bride for Jesus, the new Adam?

Recalling Adam and the first garden, with its two trees of death and life in the midst (Gen 2:9), the evangelist poetically places Jesus’ cross in the midst (John 19:18) of his account of the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:1) and the Garden Tomb (John 19:41). It is upon the cross, then, that John presents Jesus as the new Adam, whose own tree of cursing and death becomes to us the tree of life in the midst of the paradise of God (Rev 2:7). Now on the cross God brought upon the new Adam the sleep of death. Although Jesus, like Adam, was innocent, nonetheless God wounded him, permitting his side to be pierced by a Roman spear (John 19:34). God took the substance out of the side of Jesus and created a bride for this new Adam, purchased with blood and washed with water. God then healed Jesus of his wound, and awakened him from the sleep of death in a garden (John 20:15), having given life to his bride, who will one day be presented to him in all the beauty and purity of her new creation in a redeemed garden (Rev 21:2). In other words, the narrative of the creation of Eve through the wounding of Adam proclaims the gospel from the foundations of the world, all in the good purposes of God. After suffering a pierced side, Adam was awakened to the glory of his reward, the bride of his heart’s desire.

If we are to read the Old Testament as the apostles did, we must be open to figural images of death and resurrection in the pattern of suffering and glory. This study, if successful, will suggest a method of reading the Old Testament to see such patterning, all within the “third day” contexts to which the Lord himself directed his Emmaus disciples. May the Lord open our hearts to read the Hebrew Bible and to see the gospel of our Lord. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about me” (John 5:39).


1 – N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) 85.

2 – Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 727

3 – Corruption began by the fourth day, according to the custom of the Jews (John 11:39).

4 – This pattern of suffering before glory, of Adam’s wounding for his bride, occurs before the fall of man into sin. We are given a preview of the suffering and glory of Christ before the necessity for the suffering of Christ occurs in the disobedience of Adam and Eve thereafter. Clearly the Lord purposed all these things pertaining to our redemption before the foundations of the earth. The Lamb was slain, in the saving purposes of God, before the world was (1 Pet 1:19-20).