Numbers are meaningful in the Bible. When one number seems to be repeated symbolically, that is no coincidence. “Three” is thematically significant, one of Scripture’s most important numbers.
Here are some ways one will find it represented and some reasons for the significance of the number three in the Bible.
Meaning of Three
“Typically,” commented Hope Bolinger in her article on the subject, “three means something complete and good.” The Hebrew is “shelosh.” No relationship or symbol in the Bible reflects this better than the Trinity itself.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together are “perfect and whole,” reflecting the self-sufficiency or “aseity” of God. This wholeness is critical to the faith itself, for it reminds us that Jesus is the Son of God and rose to be with him in Heaven.
By way of contrast, “in Revelation, we see an evil trinity: Satan, the Antichrist, and the False Prophet.” But Satan’s evil threesome is not equal to the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Sin will not undo the plans God has made and Satan is not as powerful as Jesus. The Lord is not relying on us to be perfect in our mortal lives in order for him to determine the proper time to send his Son back.
Every aspect of eternity rests on God’s shoulders alone because he is complete without us. This also speaks to God’s great love — to make us and redeem us, not because God needed to but because he wants us.
Repetition by Threes
Scripture emphasizes certain statements by repeating them three times. Jesus told Peter that the rooster would crow after he had denied Jesus three times (Luke 22:34). Peter did not believe his Savior; denied that he could ever reject the one whom he had followed so devotedly.
Repetition ensured Peter would remember Jesus’ statement. We can also find hope as Christians who sometimes deny Christ or hide our light. Jesus knew what Peter would do and he still loved his disciple right to the end.
And later, Jesus supplied Peter with the redemptive opportunity to cover each denial with a promise, also made three times and recorded in John: “Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’” (John 21:17).
Out of context, this sounds like nagging, but with the benefit of the full picture, one recognizes that each time Peter promised to feed Jesus’ sheep, the Messiah was redeeming his earlier denial; emphasizing that Peter could leave his guilt behind.
In Revelation 4:8, four creatures “never cease to say ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” The Apostle John is seeing a vision of the end of the corrupt world as we know it, to be replaced by one in which the Lord is praised ceaselessly.
Worship is a constant — we are all worshipping something all the time, be it health, looks, family, or money — but in the perfect Kingdom of God, worship will ceaselessly be devoted to God.
“When God repeats himself, pay attention. Repetition implies importance,” explains Jon Bloom. “Our delight-filled praise not only glorifies God and gives him pleasure, but also lovingly points others to the same glory we’re seeing and the same delight we’re feeling — because we always praise (to others) what delights us.”
When we are in Heaven, Jesus alone will delight us. We are going to praise Him all day long. “For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Revelation 15:4).
There will be no other object of praise but God. Threefold repetition stands in for an eternity of praise.
The Significance of Three Days
Jesus declared in John 2 that if the temple was destroyed, he would raise it again in three days. The Jews were incredulous because they took him literally. “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” (John 2:20).
As the day of his crucifixion loomed, Jesus told his disciples that he would “be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 17:22-23).
While it was not humanly possible to rebuild a structure such as the temple over a long weekend, Christ was about to do something more incredible — rise from the grave.
He created a bridge between ideas with the three-day motif — the temple as a building versus the temple as his body.
“Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish” (Matthew 12:40). To be in the belly of a whale for that length of time was a sure sign that Jonah could only have lived if God willed it so; otherwise, he really should have been dead.
In John 11:39, Martha warned Jesus that if he removed the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, there would be a “stench.” After all, three whole days had passed since his death.
Those were three long days in which Christ’s followers had time to weigh up his words; to search them for hope and for meaning. “In Jewish culture, three days past the time of death indicated they were truly dead.” Jonah, then Lazarus, and Jesus should have been dead. “Jesus truly conquered death by not rising until the third day.”
The number three was repeated to leave no confusion about how much time had passed and also, in a sense, the insignificance of time, which is a human concept, irrelevant to the Lord. He kindly and cleverly employs the motif of time in ways, which are meaningful to us.
More Significant Trios
While there is confusion about how many magi visited Jesus (Scripture does not say there were three), Jesus was presented with three lavish gifts. These were items one would present only to a king, not any ordinary baby.
“The 3 righteous patriarchs before the flood were Abel, Enoch, and Noah.” But after the flood had subsided and the world was repopulated, there were three more patriarchs: “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (later renamed Israel).”
These trios of men actually represent another form of repetition: God making a promise and emphasizing its importance by giving the promise to three generations of his people.
There were two other trios of note. Jesus, like Daniel, was fully man. He was closer to Peter, James, and John than he was to the other nine disciples. Daniel’s trio of friends — Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego — were the only ones mentioned in the Book of Daniel.
He was not their leader, but he came across as though he were, particularly when he spoke for them all in order to arrange a different diet from the other young men at court in Daniel 1.
His friends were not so much loyal to Daniel, however, as they were to their God. “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand” (Daniel 3:17).
After they emerged unscathed from the fiery furnace, “King Nebuchadnezzar [...] promoted them to a higher office, and decreed that the God of Israel be worshipped.”
This is an implied bridge between the Old and New Testaments: Friendship with our Father through Christ, always leading to worship of God. Even Jesus, who was One with the Father, continually redirected praise and glory to God in Heaven, just as Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego concentrated their devotion on the Lord.
Last Words on the Significance of the Number Three
If three stands for completeness, then 27, or three cubed, is even more so. This is the number of books in the New Testament.
Various Bible scholars have worked out mathematical formulae, which engage the number three — three times something was said or done; arithmetic related to various facets of Scripture.
There is plenty of material to dissect, all of which highlights how nothing — not even mathematics — is outside the purview of God and that the Word is not just full of stories and symbols.
His omniscience, his plan, is portrayed in his dominion over the most finite calculations involved in the world’s creation.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.