When we recite the Apostles' Creed and say, "the third day he rose from the dead," we probably assume that "the third day" refers to Easter Sunday following Holy Saturday and Good Friday. Yet the meaning of "the third day" is not primarily chronological, but symbolic.
The background of the meaning of "the third day" is presented by Edward Schillebeeckx in Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (Vintage Books, 1981, Pp. 526-532).
Schillebeeckx notes that "the third day" appears as a creedal formula in Acts 10:40 and I Corinthians 15:4. The most important is I Corinthians 15:4, which is part of Paul's transmission of the apostolic tradition he had received from the original apostles in Jerusalem. Paul reports the tradition that "he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures."
The four Gospels do not use the formula "the third day" in their reports on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead, they use the phrase "the first day of the week" to describe when the risen Jesus appears. Their description gives rise to the idea of Sunday as "the Lord's Day," the day of Jesus' resurrection. But older than the phrase in the Gospels is the creedal formula in Acts and I Corinthians, which is repeated in both the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed.
The creedal formula "the third day" does not primarily refer to the chronology of Friday through Sunday. Anyway, even children recognize that the time between Jesus' death and resurrection does not comprise literally three complete days. The formula "the third day" comes from a Jewish figure of speech which acquires a rich symbolic meaning in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.
In first century Jewish culture a person was not considered to be truly dead until "after three days." Insofar as this cultural notion is connected to the creedal formula that Jesus was raised "on the third day," the meaning is that he was raised only after being truly dead. Even if there is a connection between this cultural notion of when one is dead and the creedal formula, it is not really what the creedal formula is all about.
What is very relevant to the creedal formula is that "the third day" was a figure of speech in Jewish rhetoric which has the meaning of "the decisive day." The phrase was a way of expressing the coming of a turning point when a time of unfavorable things would finally pass and a new time of favorable outcomes would arrive.
This common Jewish notion of "the third day" as the decisive day acquired a profound theological meaning in the Old Testament. There are 30 places in the Old Testament where "after three days" or "the third day," the decisive day, is when God acts and momentous events occur.
Schillebeeckx explains the meaning of "the third day" in its cumulative use in the Old Testament: "After three days of more or less troublesome, burdensome, deadly experiences the third day brings deliverance: that is the basic implication of the 'three day' motif. What in the end it is all about is the certitude of the decisive V-day." Or, to put it more succintly, in the Scriptures, " 'the third day' belongs to God."
This Scriptural tradition of the notion of "the third day" as God's day of victory helps us to understand how Jesus viewed his coming suffering and made predictions of his passion as in Matthew 16:21. As it became evident that forces were being arrayed against him, Jesus predicted the calamity that would befall him. Yet he had faith that he could rely on God's "third day." No matter what failure or suffering lay ahead, he trusted that God would have the last word on "the third day." (Mark's version of the prediction of the suffering includes the more general "after three days" scheme of the Scriptures whereas Matthew and Luke make an explicit connection to the Scriptural idea of God's V-day by using the creedal formula of "the third day.")
Following the resurrection of Jesus, the apostles remembered Jesus' own trust in God's action on "the third day." and they searched the Scriptures and found promises of God's ultimate victory "after three days" or on "the third day." This motif provided the means for them to perceive how the new event of Jesus' resurrection is anticipated in the Old Testament.
We have difficulty in our time understanding how the apostles believed that the Scriptures pointed to the resurrection of Jesus. When we read the Old Testament we cannot find many texts which seem to have much relation to what happened later--the astonishing new event of the raising of Jesus of Nazareth. We think that perhaps they turned to Hosea 6:2 as a proof text since it speaks explicitedly about how "on the third day he will raise us up." We have to always remember that the apostles were not proof-texting (and this convenient text from Hosea is never even used in the New Testament to refer to Jesus' resurrection). They were not scanning the Old Testament looking for superficial verbal similiarities to their message about Jesus. They were doing a deep reading of the Old Testament to discern how the God of Israel acts. They learned from their deep reading that God does not abandon his righteous ones but can be trusted to act on their behalf in the end, and that this confidence in God's ultimate deliverance and victory acquired a rhetorical form as a promise of God acting on "the third day." In this way, the formula appeared in the apostolic tradition that "he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures."
The Scriptural sense of "the third day" acquired its most astonishing meaning in the apostles' proclamation to the world: God raised Jesus of Nazareth on the third day in triumph over sin and death to vindicate him as the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of the world. As Peter proclaimed to some Gentiles in the home of a centurion, "They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear" (Acts 10:39-40).
When we recite the Apostles' Creed ("the third day he rose from the dead") or the Nicene Creed ("On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures") we are not remembering the prosaic fact that Jesus' resurrection was known on Sunday after his death on Friday. We are declaring our faith in the God revealed in the resurrection of Jesus. Our faith is in the God who has the ultimate last word, the God who is able to bring victory beyond the failures and sufferings of our world and our own lives.
Alleluia! Our God is the God of "the third day!"