In an appearance of Christ to His disciples as recorded by Luke, Jesus stated, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (24:44). Luke’s next statement is revelatory: “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (24:45). We should be reminded of John’s parenthetical comment after he and Peter had raced to the tomb, only to find it abandoned by Christ: “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9). It was necessary, therefore, for the risen Christ to illuminate their understanding so that they could clearly comprehend what no one else had. “He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day . . . .’” (24:46). Paul echoed Christ’s words when he said in what appears to be an early church creed that “[Christ] was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4).
The question is this: To what Old Testament Scriptures do Jesus and Paul refer which prophesy that He would rise “on the third day”? Evidently no Old Testament Scripture was clearly seen by the Jews as a prophecy that the Messiah would rise from the dead, for even the disciples could not comprehend such a thing. It appears as if the only resurrection the Jews were sure of was the resurrection of the righteous dead at the end of the age, and only a few of them believed that (while the school of the Pharisees believed in a resurrection, the school of the Sadducees did not – Matt. 22:23; Acts 23:8). Martha’s response to Jesus’ statement that Lazarus would rise again may be indicative of the pervading Jewish belief: “Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’” (John 11:24).
Another vital question is this: Was the Old Testament Scriptures the basis for the disciples’ belief in the resurrection of Christ? In other words, did the disciples understand the Scriptures to signify a risen Messiah, therefore they believed He had arisen?
To begin with, we come up with meager results from the Old Testament to answer the first question. Hosea 6:2 says, “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.” This has been suggested because it mentions the “third day” motif found in the statement of Jesus and in the formula cited by Paul. But Hosea 6:2 is never cited by any New Testament author in reference to Jesus’ resurrection. The only reference given in the apostolic sermons in the book of Acts interpreted in terms of Jesus’ resurrection is Psalm 16:10: “. . . because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” The only principal Old Testament passage cited by Jesus concerning His resurrection is the story of Jonah and the whale. “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12.40).
The problem is that the first century Jews reading the story of Jonah and the whale would not think that this has anything whatsoever to do with Jesus’ burial and resurrection! Similarly, Psalm 16:10 has to do with David’s self-belief that God will not allow him to see defeat and death. And Hosea 6:2 has nothing to do with resurrection of the dead, but instead with the restoration of the nation of Israel.
The proof of the resurrection of Jesus for the disciples was not the Scriptures, but His personal appearances to them! They had seen Him crucified, knew He had died and was dead, and apparently had been told He had been buried. The sight of the empty tomb by John and Peter served to reinforce what Jesus had been declaring to them, but it was beholding of and experience with their resurrected Savior face to face that made the difference!
Armed with this knowledge, they could then search the Scriptures to find support for a risen Messiah. They could affirm Jesus’ use of Jonah in the belly of the fish as a type of the resurrection. They could locate Psalm 16:10 and note the hint of prophecy in its statement. The proclamation of Hosea in 6:2 could be seen as ultimately fulfilled in the risen Messiah. Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be “cut off from the land of the living” followed by the prophecy that God would “prolong his days” could then be grasped to designate a risen Messiah.
The types and prophecies are contained in the Old Testament Scriptures, but only after the resurrection of Jesus could they be fully understood. What a history lesson was taught to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus! Jesus said to them, “‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). Jesus apparently gave Scriptural reference not only for His suffering and death, but also for his resurrection and entry into glory. After having their eyes opened to recognize Jesus, these two reported asking each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
Jesus, therefore, may not have been referencing any one particular passage of Scripture, but instead was intimating that the truth to which all of these Scriptures refer had now been realized. Christ spoke of the Old Testament in its entirety, setting up a contextual precedent to His statement that his resurrection was “according to the Scriptures.” His entire life was a fulfillment of that to which the Old Testament itself pointed forward, both in type and in prophetic word.
John tells his readers that it was after the resurrection that realization would finally dawn upon the disciples. “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ The Jews replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:19-22).
So, the creed spoken by the Apostle Paul was obviously a result of the apostles’ search of and belief in the whole body of Old Testament Scriptures, declaring boldly that the death, burial, and resurrection was just as prophesied by God the Father to his people. Nothing was left out, but everything was fulfilled in its entirety. Was the resurrection of Jesus “according to the Scriptures”? The Old Testament prophets and the early church shout together a resounding “Yes!”