“The Third Day He Rose Again from the Dead”

posted by R. Fowler White

As we continue to work our way through the Apostles’ Creed, examining its articles in the light of Scripture, we come now to Article 5: The third day He rose again from the dead.

There is no doubt that this is what Scripture teaches. Moreover, this is what the church of Jesus Christ, following Scripture, has confessed throughout its history. That is, with Scripture, the true church continues to confess that Christ really and truly did rise from the dead, and in rising His soul was really and truly reunited with His body, inasmuch as the two had been separated at death. He really and truly did come out of His tomb in which He had been buried, despite the steps that the Roman guards had taken to make the tomb secure. He rose again the same Person, the same Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man—only now glorified! The same body, the one that had fallen victim to death and burial, rose again—only now it was a glorious body (Phil 3:21).

The particular phrase that the Creed uses to affirm Christ’s resurrection is noteworthy: He rose again. Elsewhere we read that He was raised again. What’s the difference? The Creed’s word choice puts an emphasis on Christ’s power to rise from the dead, to raise His body from the grave. In other words, the Creed bears witness that Christ rose again from the dead because Scripture teaches that, as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself (John 5:26). In this connection, we remember that Jesus had declared, speaking of His body: Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days (John 2:19). He had also proclaimed: I have authority to lay down My life, and I have authority to take it up again (John 10:18).

It’s equally noteworthy that the Creed specifies that Jesus Christ rose again on the third day. The Apostles’ gospel (e.g., 1 Cor 15:4), to which the Creed bears witness, was (and is) not a novelty. The resurrection that they preached and documented was the NT fulfillment of the promises of God in the OT Scriptures. Moses, the Prophets after him, and the Psalms testified that the Christ would suffer and rise again from death on the third day. Strikingly, Scripture provides many pictures (foreshadowings) of resurrection, including birth from barrenness, return from exile, release from a death sentence, release from prison, deliverance from the waters of death, deliverance from thirst, hunger, sickness; deliverance from the sting of the viper, and the raising up of a fallen tabernacle. In the places where we find these themes, we find that life comes from death after three days, on the third day. The Apostles’ gospel, then, was the OT gospel. 

So what difference does Christ’s resurrection make? How does it benefit us? First, by His resurrection He has overcome death, so that believers share in the righteousness that He obtained for them by His death. In other words, through faith, God reckons to sinners Christ’s righteousness in exchange for our sins. By Christ’s resurrection, God our Judge declares: “Debt paid in full!” And not only that. By Christ’s resurrection our Divine Judge declares to us who believe: “Accepted as righteous in Christ; in Him you have all the righteousness I require.” Second, by His power we are raised up to live a new life of obedience to God. United to the resurrected Christ by faith, we have been raised from death in sins to a new life of seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Third, Christ’s bodily resurrection is to us believers God’s sure pledge of our own glorious bodily resurrection. Christ is the firstfruits of those who have died (1 Cor 15:20), the first one to have been raised from the dead to die no more. Christ is God’s down payment in guarantee of more to come, the assurance of a full harvest. For believers, then, their resurrection is as sure as Christ’s resurrection. Particularly as believers get older, the more they appreciate God’s pledge of their own resurrection, a pledge that holds true because Christ is the firstfruits of the full resurrection-harvest to come.

Of course, our pagan culture is flooded with skepticism of the miraculous, particularly about the resurrection of Christ. Yet we forget that the original skeptics of His resurrection were His first disciples. Some folks like to portray them as a gullible, superstitious group that simply took resurrection as a given. But that portrait is fake news. For example, the NT Gospel writers make a considerable effort to show their readers that Jesus’ earliest followers did not go to His tomb believing in His resurrection or presuming His resurrection. No, they went to His tomb with spices because they expected to find a decaying dead body there. There was no hint that they anticipated His resurrection. In fact, it was a surprise to them. Now don’t get me wrong: the resurrection of Jesus should not have been the surprise to His disciples that it was. After all, what they found at His tomb was exactly what He had predicted on at least six different occasions. In fact, what they found at the sepulchre was exactly what they had been told they would find and what they could and should have remembered and expected. But they did neither of these things. In truth, so-called “Doubting Thomas” turned out to represent, to some degree, all of Jesus’ earliest followers when he said: Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.

The point is, Jesus’ initial followers became convinced of His resurrection as God bore witness to them in word and deed and as they saw Him, heard Him, and touched Him (1 John 1:1-3). The first followers of Jesus became what they were not at first. They became eyewitnesses of His resurrection. This is why the message of the Apostles, documented in the Scriptures, is what it is. Of the resurrected Christ, the Apostles all ended up confessing with Thomas, My Lord and my God! Readers and hearers of Scripture, then, are not expected to be gullible. No, they are expected to take seriously what the historic church of Christ persists in confessing forthrightly with the Apostles’ Creed, following the Scriptures of the Prophets and the Apostles: the third day Jesus Christ rose again from the dead.

Our meditations turn to Article 6 of the Creed here.