As we saw in the last post in this series, Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ’s death and resurrection on the third day is the basic substance of the Christian gospel. Everything that had happened to Jesus was, Paul argued, “in accordance with the scriptures.”
But where in the pages of the Old Testament do we find prophecies of Christ’s resurrection or, more specifically, that Christ would be raised on the third day?
I think the first place to look is Isaiah 53. We don’t know whether this is one of the texts that the framers of this early creed had in mind, but it surely it is one of the best candidates among various options. Starting at verse 9 we read:
Is. 53:9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.
That last verse is really interesting. “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.” Who is doing the seeing here? There are really only two options: the LORD or the messianic servant. Which of these two is it?
The English text of the ESV translation is rooted in the Masoretic text, which is a collection of Hebrew scrolls that were meticulously copied by Jewish scribes between the 7th and the 10th centuries. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1948, scholars were able to compare them to an amazingly complete scroll of Isaiah dating back to about 200 BC. Apart from a few spelling updates, it was virtually identical to the Masoretic text. In other words, the Qumran discovery proved the overwhelming reliability of the process of transmission through the centuries.
Apart from the few spelling variations, there was one significant difference. It is found here in verse 11 of Is. 53, which now reads, “out of the anguish of his soul, he shall see light, and be satisfied.” This reading also matches what we find in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which the apostles frequently quoted from in their day. We’re not sure why this particular word “light” dropped out of the Masoretic text. Based on the fact that it appears in the earliest manuscript that we have of Isaiah, and that it matches was we find in the LXX, it is something that I recommend you pencil into the margins of Is 53:11.
So if you accept this new reading, it says, “Out of the anguish of his soul, he shall see light and be satisfied.” In verse 9 we learned that the anguish of the messianic servant resulted in death. Yet here in verse 11, it is this same servant who sees light. I believe this is a prophecy of Christ’s resurrection.
We also see the apostles at various places in the New Testament interacting with Ps. 16 in which God promises not to let his Holy One see corruption. But our text from 1 Corinthians 15 does not merely say that the messiah will die as a substitute for sin and be raised again. It specifically mentions that he will be raised on the third day. Many see here an allusion to the words of the prophet Hosea, who in chapter 6 writes:
“Come let us return to the Lord, 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” (6:1-2)
Others here point to the parallel that Jesus frequently made between himself and the prophet Jonah. Just as the annual Yom Kippur sacrifices were pictures of the once-for-all eternal sacrifice of the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, so too the temporal prophets point to the true and ultimate prophet, Christ himself. In this light, the events in the life of Jonah—such as that he was swallowed by a whale and entombed for three days—was a kind of foreshadowing of Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate prophet. His life was swallowed up by his own people but he conquered death by his resurrection on the third day.
So as we’ve seen from 1 Corinthians 15, the gospel that Paul reminds these Christians of is Christ-centered, cross-centered, and rooted in the Old Testament scriptures. But in verses 5-6 we find something more:
He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time.
Here we see that the gospel is not some kind of eternal principle, like the idea that no matter how dark things get in the middle of winter, spring is always just around the corner. No, the gospel is not a principle that is always true, but rather an event attested to by eyewitnesses at a particular point in time. This is why it is called “good news.” Moses taught that only on the basis of two or three witnesses could something be established by law. And here, in this creed, a host of witnesses are brought forth and to testify to the risen Christ.
Many throughout the past few centuries have argued that the first Christians are not describing actual historical events but rather their own internal Easter experiences. In other words, it’s about something going on inside their hearts. Those who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, the story goes, finally understood the object lesson of his death. They might also argue that the texts that mention his resurrection should never be taken literally but are figuratively presented.
The problem is that this theory does not fit the facts of the case. All the apostles tell the same story. Talk of the resurrection was not a symbol for something that was going on in their hearts. It wasn’t even some kind of a vision or hallucination. Here’s how John and Peter put it:
1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have felt in our hearts… No, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this we proclaim to you…”
2Pet. 1:16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we ourselves experienced warm feelings when we thought about his teaching.
No. Peter says, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
So according to 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and on the third day rose from the dead.
An old hymn goes, “And if you ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart!” But this is not exactly how Paul puts it, is it? We find that “he rose again on the third day” not according to my heart, but according to the scriptures, and according to Cephas, the twelve, and more than 500 brothers at one time. In other words, there are two kinds of witnesses being cited here. One is the witness testimony of the prophets who wrote of these events before they happened. The other is of the apostles who wrote about those same events after they occurred.
In the next post we’ll take some time to evaluate the claims of the first century apostles along with the significance of those claims.