Sunday, August 02, 2015

On the Third Day

Generally speaking, I don’t find fulfilled Bible prophecy a particularly useful tool in evangelism.

Some Christians disagree, of course. If it works for you, that’s great. Carry on. But it must be admitted that many of the Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in the life of Christ are a little on the obscure side. That is to say, when you look at them in their original context, it is not immediately apparent that they speak of Messiah.

We’re only sure of it because the Holy Spirit plainly states it to be so in the New Testament.

Out of Egypt

One famous example is Hosea’s declaration that, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”, a statement the Holy Spirit applies to Jesus Christ in Matthew’s gospel.

However, in its original Old Testament context, the prophet is speaking about the nation of Israel, not about any particular individual. He goes on to say, “They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.”

The Christian looks at a prophecy fulfilled in the life of Christ and sees a wonderful theological lesson here: Israel is the son that failed God. The Lord Jesus is the son that pleased him. He is the true Israel, the ultimate and comprehensive fulfillment of all the Father could ever have desired in a son. The parallel between Israel and Christ is sonship.

It is a deep, rich vein of Bible truth running through the history of Israel, one to be mined and meditated upon. Deeply confirming to the believing heart? Absolutely. A reminder of the unity of scripture? Sure. Fuel for worship? You bet.

But not a particularly compelling argument to bring to bear in the absence of saving faith.

Prophecy and Judaism

Now of course there are Old Testament prophecies that unequivocally speak of Messiah at length, but even these are much better understood by Jews than by a modern, secular Gentile audience. When David declares, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’ ”, it is evident he has Messiah in view. The Jews of Jesus’ day understood it that way. The Lord may have astonished them with his reasoning when he inquired, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord?”, but he didn’t have to convince them David spoke of the Christ. They agreed on that already.

In short, prophecy may have many uses for the modern believer, but evangelism is not among the best of them.

Hosea and Israel

Reading Hosea 6 this week, I came across another example of something that, like the “out of Egypt” line, anticipates the Christ without doing so obviously. Hosea says:

“… for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and 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 before him.”

We know it is the entire nation in view and not just Judah, because Hosea speaks of both “Ephraim” and “Judah”. And we can be sure that the time frame is not just future to Hosea but to us today, since neither Judah nor “Ephraim” (the ten tribes that constituted “Israel” in the divided kingdom) have yet to be fully “raised up” to “live before him”. Taken in context and literally, Hosea describes the way that God has dealt with unrepentant Israel and foretells how God will deal with them in the future.

(When I say “literally”, I am allowing for figures of speech, as all Bible literalists do. Any scenario in which might God “bind” and “revive” Israel on the third of three 24-hour days would have seemed staggeringly unlikely at the outset and, in any case, did not occur historically. The prophet is clearly using “day” in the sense of “era”, which, while a figure of speech, is not un-literal and occurs many times in scripture. We often speak of “in our day”, actually meaning “in our era”. And if we do not render our own more evocative expressions with perfect technical precision, why would we ask more of Jewish prophets?)

A Thousand Years

Some Christians are more specific than others about the time frame involved. The website Bible Believers, for instance, makes this comment on Hosea 6:

“Hosea was prophesying in about 780BC, and since one day is as a thousand years in God’s sight we are well into the third day.”

For these Christians, each day of Hosea’s prophecy is literally 1,000 years. Even if they’re wrong, it will take a while to demonstrate that conclusively since Day 4 doesn’t start for another 200+ years.

But the question that almost surely comes to mind for any regular reader of the New Testament is this: does this prophecy about the nation of Israel prefigure the death/resurrection of Christ? I mean, three days? Come on! What does that remind you of?

Thus It Is Written

No New Testament writer explicitly references the Hosea passage. The closest we might come is the apostle Paul, who says:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”

Here Paul is alluding to the Lord’s own words in Luke:

“Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.’ ”

As Paul Sumner puts it, “thus it is written” and “in accordance with the scriptures” are perplexing “because there is no explicit prediction in the Hebrew Bible about the Messiah dying and rising on the third day”.

Thus we must look for an Old Testament reference that originally was not literally and explicitly understood to be about Messiah, something for which we already have precedent in Hosea.

Tracking the Third Day

Paul Sumner provides an intriguing and lengthy list here of things that happened “on the third day” from the earth bringing forth vegetation in the first chapter of the Bible to Israelite purification rituals in the Law and on. He concludes with this:

“The third day is one of

  • emergence from circumstances of lifelessness (prison, captivity, famine, illness, or ocean fish)
  • testing situations when a life is put on the line but obedience wins unexpected reversal and deliverance
  • appearance of new life after concealment or death
  • sprouting life from the new earth
  • revival, healing, or entry into life

Thus the third day is a transition moment of release from realms of death or emergence of new life.”

I leave it to the reader to decide whether any of these points might apply to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Suffice it to say that the careful, godly reader of Old Testament prophecy would not find a resurrection on the third day odd. He would find it entirely in keeping with the work of God in ages past throughout the scripture.

Raising Up His Son

In the end, it all comes back to the “son” metaphor, doesn’t it? God called a son out of Egypt, and whether we think first of Israel or of the Lord Jesus, we find ourselves in the same place: God solemnly promising to raise his son/Son on “the third day”.

He did it once already. I can’t wait to see how he does it with Israel.

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