Every year, billions rejoice at the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet most do not realize that the Bible tells a very different story than they usually hear from the pulpit. What is the truth about Jesus' resurrection?
Millions of professing Christians gather for Easter sunrise services every year. Even many who rarely go to church at any other time will attend worship services at the church of their choice on Easter Sunday. But did you know that the Good Friday-Easter tradition actually denies the only sign that Jesus offered the religious leaders of His day to prove His Messiahship? Incredible as that statement may seem, it is true—and you can prove it!
Did you know that the Bible nowhere makes the claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Sunday morning? In fact, it teaches something else entirely! How, then, did Easter observance become almost universal among professing Christians? When did Christ's resurrection really occur?
What do Easter eggs, chocolate bunnies, and little girls in frilly dresses have to do with Jesus of Nazareth? What is the connection between an Easter egg hunt and Christ's resurrection?
Read on for the answer to these and other vital questions!
For those who sincerely wanted to understand the truth, there were many proofs that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. When the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus following John's arrest and imprisonment by Herod, notice what He told them: "And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, 'Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me'" (Matthew 11:2–6).
John's gospel records that Jesus performed a number of remarkable signs, beginning with the marriage feast at Cana where He turned water into wine (John 2:11). Notice why He performed these miracles: "And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:30–31). Jesus' disciples witnessed these signs, which confirmed their faith that He was, indeed, the promised Messiah.
From the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, the religious leaders were aware of His message and the signs that confirmed His authority. John wrote: "There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, 'Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him'" (John 3:1–2). This was during the first Passover season of Jesus' ministry, in 28ad. Over the next three years, these leaders had many opportunities to grow familiar with Jesus' message, and to hear about and witness many miraculous signs. None of this satisfied them.
In fact, they came to Him several times to demand a sign that would establish once and for all that He was the Messiah. On each of these occasions, Jesus told them that only one such sign would be given to them. John records that the first such exchange occurred during the Passover season of 28ad, when Jesus cleansed the temple by chasing out the moneychangers. Upon being accosted by the religious leaders, who demanded that He show another sign in addition to the miraculous healings He had performed in the temple, "Jesus answered and said to them, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up'.… But He was speaking of the temple of His body" (John 2:19–21). Matthew records a similar exchange: "Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, 'Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.' But He answered and said to them, 'An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth'" (Matthew 12:38–40).
There you have it! The only sign Jesus offered to the skeptical religious leaders of His day was that He would spend exactly three days and three nights in the tomb. Did that sign come to pass? Absolutely! Notice the testimony of an angel, spoken to the women who came early Sunday morning to embalm the body. "He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay" (Matthew 28:6). Jesus had promised that He would be exactly three days and three nights in the tomb and He rose just exactly as He said He would.
How is it possible to equate three days and three nights with the time between "Good Friday" and "Easter Sunday"? Count it yourself; it simply will not work! Some assert that "three days and three nights" is a Greek idiom and can mean any portion of three days and three nights. But this theory fails when we allow the Bible to define its own terms.
Note that Jesus was referring to Hebrew usage, not Greek. He specifically connected His stay in the tomb with that of Jonah in the fish's belly. "Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" (Jonah 1:17). This same expression was used when Queen Esther told her cousin Mordecai: "Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me, neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day" (Esther 4:16). Each of these accounts was clearly describing a period of 72 hours—three days and three nights. This is exactly what Jesus meant, and the Pharisees knew it. Notice how they quoted his statement to Pilate, the Roman governor: "Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise'" (Matthew 27:63). They knew that Jesus was not talking about a mere day-and-a-half, but rather indicating three full days.
"But," many will respond, "doesn't the Bible say that Jesus was crucified and buried on Friday and that the tomb was empty on Sunday morning?" It is true that the tomb was already empty on Sunday morning, but the Bible nowhere speaks of a Friday crucifixion. It does say that He was crucified on the "preparation day" (Mark 15:42–45), but we must recognize which preparation day this was. Remember, the Bible speaks of annual Sabbaths—"Holy Days"—in addition to the weekly Sabbath (cf., Leviticus 23:4, 7, 24, 27–32). Jesus was crucified on the preparation day before an annual Sabbath, during the daylight portion of the Passover—Abib 14 on the Hebrew calendar. The following day—Abib 15—is an annual Holy Day, the first Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Passover fell on a Wednesday in 31ad, the year of Jesus' crucifixion. Thursday was an annual Sabbath, the first Holy Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Jesus was buried just before sunset on Wednesday afternoon, and was in the tomb Wednesday night, Thursday, Thursday night, Friday, Friday night, and Saturday—three days and three nights, just as He promised. He was resurrected just before sunset on Saturday afternoon, exactly 72 hours after His burial. On Sunday morning, when the women came at dawn to embalm His body, He was already gone. They did not see the resurrection; they saw an empty tomb, and were told by an angel that He had risen just as He said He would.
Jesus Christ came as "the Lamb of God" to pay the penalty for sin (John 1:29). "For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us," Paul declared (1 Corinthians 5:7). A careful study of the gospel accounts shows that Jesus and His disciples ate the Passover meal after sunset at the beginning of Abib 14 (Mark 14:16–18, Luke 22:13–15, cf. Exodus 12:1–8). Later that evening, after supper, they went to the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26), where soldiers, led by Judas Iscariot, found and arrested Him (vv. 43–46). Soon after dawn, the Sanhedrin met to formally charge Jesus and have Him delivered to Pontius Pilate (15:1). By 9 a.m. that morning—the "third hour" from daylight in Jewish usage (v. 25)—Christ, along with two criminals, had been led to a hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem and crucified in the characteristic Roman manner. From noon until Jesus' death at about 3 p.m., there was complete darkness over the entire area (vv. 33–37).
Shortly afterward, Joseph of Arimathea sought an audience with Pilate and requested that Jesus' dead body be released to him for burial (v. 43). After summoning the centurion in charge of the executions to ascertain that Jesus was really dead, Pilate gave Joseph permission to take and bury the body (vv. 44–45). Luke, in his gospel, emphasized that the burial was hurried and took place just before sunset (Luke 23:53–54, cf. John 19:41-42). This emphasis that Jesus was hurriedly buried shortly before the Sabbath began has confused many people into thinking that the crucifixion took place on a Friday. Many readers overlook John's explanation that this "Sabbath was a high day" (John 19:31). It was not a weekly Sabbath; it was an annual "high day" Sabbath. Remember, Abib 15—the day after the Passover—was the first Holy Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the first of seven annual Holy Days commanded to ancient Israel (Leviticus 23:5–7).
The various gospel accounts make it plain that there were actually two Sabbaths that week—an annual Holy Day on Thursday, and the regular weekly Sabbath on Saturday. Notice Mark's statement: "Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him" (Mark 16:1). Shops in Jerusalem would have been closed on both the weekly and annual Sabbaths. Jesus was buried right before the annual Holy Day Sabbath began, and the women were present for His burial (15:47). Their first opportunity to buy and prepare spices would have been on Friday, when the shops reopened after the Holy Day that began the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Note that Luke explains it was after the women prepared the spices and fragrant oils—a job that would have taken hours—that "they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment" (Luke 23:56).
How could they have waited until after the Sabbath to buy and prepare spices (as Mark clearly states), yet rest on the weekly Sabbath after they had prepared the spices (as Luke clearly states)—unless there were actually two Sabbaths in that week? Understanding this point is the key to understanding the duration of Jesus' time in the tomb.
Why, then, did the women come to the tomb on Sunday morning? Was it to celebrate the first Easter sunrise service? Of course not! They were coming at the first available opportunity to embalm a dead body (Luke 24:1). When they arrived, Jesus was already gone—and the tomb was open so that all could see it was empty.
Why was this a special sign, to the religious leaders, confirming Jesus' Messiahship? The religious leaders of Jesus' day had their own hand-picked witnesses to the events of Jesus' death and burial. Remember, Matthew explained that on the day after the crucifixion—early in the morning of the "high day" Sabbath—the Jewish leadership sent a delegation seeking Pilate's permission to post an armed guard to secure the tomb. Pilate authorized them to do so, and instructed: "You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how" (Matthew 27:65). These guards were witnesses to the events that followed, and were the ones who informed the religious leaders of what actually happened (28:11). From the mouths of the very guards that they themselves had posted, these leaders learned that Jesus had fulfilled the sign of the prophet Jonah—just as He said He would!
Easter is never mentioned in the inspired text of the New Testament. While the King James translation does contain the word "Easter" in Acts 12:4, virtually every other translation says "Passover," which is the proper rendering of the Greek word pascha. You can easily verify this yourself by consulting almost any Bible commentary or Greek interlinear. The early first-century Church never observed Easter Sunday. Christians continued to observe the Passover, just as the original Apostles had done in Jesus' presence. But although the New Testament Church kept the Passover, just as God has commanded, Christians made special use of the symbols that Christ had instituted at His final Passover. These symbols, a small piece of broken unleavened bread and a sip of wine, pictured Christ's sacrifice—His body broken for our healing, and His blood shed for the remission of our sins.
Where, then, did Easter observance come from? There is no record of it in the Christian community until almost a full century after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Notice this striking statement by a scholar associated with the Pontifical Gregorian University Press in Rome: "There is a wide consensus of opinion among scholars that Rome is indeed the birthplace of Easter-Sunday. Some, in fact, rightly label it as 'Roman-Easter'" (From Sabbath to Sunday, Bacchiocchi, p. 201).
In his Ecclesiastical History, the early Catholic historian Eusebius provides insight on the introduction of Easter. A contemporary of the Roman emperor Constantine, Eusebius described the late second-century controversy between Victor, Bishop of Rome, and Polycrates, disputing over whether to celebrate Passover or Easter. Eusebius wrote: "The bishops, however, of Asia, persevering in observing the custom handed down to them from their fathers, were headed by Polycrates… 'We,' said he, 'observe the genuine day; neither adding thereto nor taking therefrom. For in Asia great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again in the day of our Lord's appearing… Phillip, one of the twelve apostles… John, who rested upon the bosom of our Lord… Polycarp of Smyrna… All these observed the fourteenth day of the Passover according to the gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith" (chapter xxiv). Eusebius then proceeded to quote from a letter of Irenaeus, a second century bishop of Lyons, which traced the observance of Easter as a substitute for Passover back to the days of Sixtus, bishop of Rome (c. 116–126ad).
In other words, Easter Sunday was not observed by the professing Christian community until almost 20 years after the death of the Apostle John, the last surviving eyewitness to the crucifixion and the resurrected Jesus. If God truly wanted His people to observe this holiday, why did it take so long to be established? If it really commemorated the events of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, surely it would have been observed from the beginning! Yet it was only introduced as a "Christian" holiday after all who had first-hand knowledge of the facts were dead. That alone should make us stand up and take notice.
Easter Sunday actually has its origins in the cult of ancient pagan sun worship. The very name "Easter" is derived from Ishtar or Astarte, names referring to the ancient Babylonian goddess who was worshiped as the mother of the sun god. Notice this admission: "The motif of the Sun was used not only by Christian artists to portray Christ [from the third century onward] but also by Christian teachers to proclaim Him to the pagan masses who were well acquainted with the rich Sun-symbology. Numerous Fathers abstracted and reinterpreted the pagan symbols and beliefs about the Sun and used them apologetically to teach the Christian message" (Bacchiocchi, p. 253).
Much of the symbolism associated with Easter, including rabbits and eggs, hearkens back to ancient practices that originated in Babylon and came down to us today by way of Rome. Roman emperor Constantine, a lifelong devotee of Sol Invictus, the sun god, forged an alliance with the Bishop of Rome in the early fourth century. It was from this alliance of church and state that most of the trappings that are associated with modern Christianity came to be forced upon the Christian-professing world.
Does it matter that the name "Easter," and many of the motifs associated with that holiday, can be traced back to ancient paganism? Many sincere professing Christians would protest that they attend Easter sunrise services to honor Jesus Christ and His resurrection from the dead, not to worship the sun god. Is it acceptable to take pagan customs and symbols and reinterpret them from a Christian perspective? No! God warned the ancient Israelites, as they prepared to enter the land of the Canaanites, to "take heed… that you do not inquire after their gods, saying 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.' You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way" (Deuteronomy 12:30–31). Rather, God told His people: "Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (v. 32).
Easter Sunday does not celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It actually obscures the very point that Jesus said was the defining sign of His Messiahship—the three days and three nights in the tomb. Easter, like most of the symbols associated with it, has its origin not in Scriptural commands, but in the practices of ancient sun worshipers. It is high time that those who profess to be the people of God come out of spiritual Babylon and worship the Creator as He commands—in spirit and in truth!