What Does the Number 3 Mean in the Bible?
The number 3 in the bible means Growth, harmony (balance), and completion.
Before delving into the details of any particular number, it bears mentioning that the language of Hebrew uses its letters as numbers, and also that the letters are words and concepts (pictographs) that can be used either in the literal sense, or as symbol(s).
A pictograph is a symbol or an image that represents a concept or an idea. For example, a graphic of a cigarette with a red circle around it and a slash through it is a pictograph; it commonly means ‘No smoking’.
The third Hebrew letter is gimel. It has a numerical value of three. The pictograph of three is a foot, or a man walking, specifically interpreted to be a rich man running after a poor man (dalet, the next letter) to give him charity. Three’s pictograph can also mean camel because of gimel’s long ‘neck’. In Hebrew, gimel has several meanings. One meaning is to nourish until ripe.Another meaning of gimel is “to be weaned”. At first glance, the concepts of ‘being weaned’ and ‘nourished until ripe’ seem contradictory. However, they are consistent, because if you nourish until ripe, you no longer have to give. There is harmony in these two, initially contradictory meanings.As mentioned, the gimel is also called gamal, or camel. The camel itself embodies the process of nourishing and weaning; after being satisfactorily fed and watered, a camel can sustain itself on journeys of great distances. A little deeper exploration of Hebrew reveals the connection between a poor man and a wealthy man running after him in order to give: the money belongs to God and if He wishes the poor man to have it, the rich man is obliged to run after him to ensure he gets it. Thus, there is harmony between apparent opposites (rich and poor).
What Does Three Mean?
The Bible has so many instances of the number three in a context of growth or harmony that those are dominant themes of the number three. There are some arguments that would also support the meaning of completion. Here is a partial list of Biblical uses of the number three:
- There are three primary manifestations of the Godhead: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
- God is described as a being “which is, and which was, and which is to come” (Revelation 1:4)
- Waters are gathered and dry land appears on day three (Gen 1)
- Three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
- Abraham was visited by three angels following his circumcision at the age of 99
- Joseph says, “It wasn’t you, it was God” three times (Gen 45)
- Moses was the third child in his family (Num 26:57-59, Ex 2)
- Moses received the Law in month three (Ex 19)
- God gave the Israelites three days to prepare themselves to receive the Torah (Ex 19)
- There are three great periods of God’s annual feast days of worship (Lev 23)
- God’s tabernacle/temple has three primary sections (Ex 25-40)
- Within the Holy Place, there are three pieces of furniture: the Menorah, the Table of Shewbread (presence), and the Altar of Incense
- The tribes of Israel were encamped in groups of three around the tabernacle
- God says to Moses three times, “Be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1)
- God called the prophet Samuel three times (1 Samuel 3:8)
- “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecc 4:12)
- Three men were thrown into a fiery furnace (Dan 3:23-25)
- Jonah spent three days and nights in the belly of the great fish (Jonah 1:17)
- There are 27 books in the New Testament
- The Magi gave baby Jesus three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Mt 2:11)
- Three disciples, Peter, John, and James, witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Hermon (Mt 17:1-2)
- Jesus prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane and three times, He asked the three disciples that came with Him to pray as well (Matthew 26:36-46)
- Jesus was placed on the cross at the third hour of the day (9 AM) and died at the ninth hour (3 PM). There were three hours of darkness that covered the land while Jesus was on the cross from the sixth hour to the ninth hour
- Jesus was in the grave for three days and three nights after dying on a tree, a product of God’s creation on day three
- Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him three times, and repeated “feed my sheep” three times (Jn 21:15-17)
- Peter sees a vision of a sheet that descends from heaven three times (Acts 10)
- There were three primary missionary journeys of the apostle, Paul
- Paul was temporarily taken to the third heaven, the location of God’s throne (2 Corinthians 12:2-4)
- The Bible only mentions the name of three angels: Michael (Rev 12), Gabriel (Dan 8-9) and Lucifer (Ez 28:11-19).
- Another trinity existing in the Bible is body, spirit and soul (1 Thess 5:23)
- The number three in the book of Revelation has its own section below
God’s three, seemingly contradictory characteristics – was, is, and is to come – are actually in harmony with each other due to the nature of God, that He is eternal.With the dry land, seeds, trees, and fruit spring forth. Thus, the dividing and separating of day two is ideally to promote gathering, stability, and growth. In the Bible, the concept of seeds, sowing and reaping is applied to our words as well. The outflow of our mouths (and pens and keyboards) can contribute to growth and harmony or to tearing down and division.
Joseph’s amazing grace towards his brothers who sold him into a life of slavery illustrates his personal growth and being in harmony with his brothers, despite their betrayal.
The Law was a means for human beings to be in harmony with God and to grow personally and in its relationship to Him. (Due to mankind’s sinfulness, the Law could not be kept and, hence, our need for Jesus, but that doesn’t negate that harmony with God was one of the Law’s intents).
God’s annual feast days of worship are: the Spring festivals (Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread); the summer festival (Pentecost); and the Fall festivals (Feast of Trumpets, Atonement and Feast of Tabernacles). It takes all three feasts to perfect a man with the fullness of the Spirit. Each feast is an aspect of salvation for man’s threefold nature: spirit, soul, and body (1 Thess. 5:23).
The three primary sections of God’s tabernacle/temple are the outer court, the Holy Place, and the Most Holy Place. One way this could be viewed is three levels of holiness in which God dwells among His people (tabernacle), each more intimate than the other, and each requiring personal growth to be in harmony with God.
Within the Holy Place, notice that the rituals pertaining to all three of the Menorah, the Table of Shewbread (presence), and the Altar of Incense require food items or fuel that are provided by plant life created on the third day of creation.
Jonah’s days in the belly of the great fish can be viewed as a time of personal growth and returning to relational harmony with God.
The number of New Testament books – 27 – is 3 x 3 x 3 which can be interpreted as completeness or a prescription for growth and divine harmony to the third power.The obvious outcome of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross was mankind being brought into harmony with God as well as experiencing the personal growth and interpersonal harmony that results (assuming we continue to walk in submission to Him).
The outcome of Peter’s vision of a sheet descending is his personal growth to comprehend that the gospel message is for everyone, not just Jews. Shortly afterwards, he would meet three gentile men and accompany them, providing proof of that growth. Peter’s sharing the gospel with the gentiles resulted in the further growth of the early church and addressed the historical Jewish aversion to gentiles…harmony between people groups.
Three in Revelation
After the number seven, three is the most common number in the book of Revelation.
- An angel is directed to cry three woes to those who live on earth, a warning of more trials to come (Revelation 8:13).
- The evil trinity is evident in Rev 12-13: the Antichrist, Satan, and the False prophet.
- Three angels are mentioned in Rev 14:6-16. The first angel issues a call to all those on earth to revere God and worship Him. The fall of Babylon is declared by the second angel. The third angel warns those who “worship the beast and its image…or receive its mark on their forehead or on their hand” that they will experience the wrath of God.
- It will be forbidden to bury the murdered bodies of the two witnesses in Jerusalem, instead they will lie openly for three days before they are resurrected.
- Three unclean spirits will come out of the beast whose purpose is to deceive the entire world to fight against the returning Jesus; this is called the battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16:13-16).
- The New Jerusalem that God will create and plant on the new earth will be a square and will have three gates on each side (Revelation 21:13).
The number three in relation to sex sins
Committing any sin works against growth and harmony, at the personal and/or community level. It’s interesting to note that there are three places in the New Testament where sex sins are specifically mentioned.
In Romans 1:20-32, certain people who reject God are given over to “defile themselves” in a variety of ways and through overall sexual immorality.
In 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, the apostle Paul addresses the problem of the local church behaving permissively towards a member who is openly committing incest.
Revelation 2:19-25 is the third sex issue specifically noted in the New Testament. In the church at Thyatira, there’s a woman who considers herself a prophetess and, in the demonic spirit of Jezebel, she was teaching believers to commit sexual immorality and spiritual adultery.
As you look to understand what three means in the context that you have encountered it, you might wonder, “Does it mean ‘growth’…or ‘harmony’… maybe ‘completion’?” As you seek to understand what God might be communicating to you, and/or seeking to discern the times and seasons we are in, no conclusion can be complete without inviting the Holy Spirit’s voice into your research and reflections.