We are attempting to understand how Jesus and Paul could say that the Old Testament prophesied a third day resurrection, when in fact there is not one direct statement in the Old Testament that says something like “the Messiah will die and rise on the third day.” Thankfully, we have the words of Jesus to shed light on the mystery.
A very interesting thing happened in this encounter with the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus took the book of Jonah, which had nothing to do with messianic prophecy, and He made it messianic. How could Jesus do such a thing? Isn’t that an incorrect way to interpret the Bible, to take Scripture out of context to prove a point?
The reason Jesus could say what He said is because He was speaking of “signs.” To use another word, Jesus was speaking of “patterns.” The scribes and Pharisees would certainly agree that Jonah was a prophet of God. And they would agree that Jonah was put into the sea monster for three days and three nights by the will of God, for that is what Jonah’s book clearly states.
So Jesus compared Himself to Jonah. Just as Jonah was God’s prophet, Jesus was too. Just as Jonah was appointed by God to be in the fish, so too will God appoint Jesus to be in the earth. And just as Jonah came out of the fish on the third day, so too will Jesus come out of the earth on the third day. Jesus used Jonah as a pattern to support the credibility of His own ministry. God established a pattern in Jonah, and God will culminate or fulfill the pattern in Jesus. This is what Jesus was communicating to the Pharisees and scribes, and it is what is being communicated to us by Matthew as we read what he recorded about Christ.
If we can understand how Jesus applied Jonah to Himself, then we are well on our way to understanding how other Old Testament passages can be applied to Christ and His third day resurrection.