Matthew 27:50-53 records, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
The events described in Mathew 27:50-53 are a testimony to the power of Jesus Christ alone (1 Timothy 6:14-16). Only the Lord has the power of life and death, which is why the resurrection of Jesus Christ is at the heart of biblical Christianity.
All the other world’s religions and their leaders do not have a risen Lord like Christians do in Jesus. By overcoming death, the Lord Jesus received precedence over all the world religions because He came back to life when every other religious leader did not.
The Importance of the Resurrection
The resurrection gives Christians a reason to tell others about the finished and sufficient work of Jesus and how they can place their trust in Him (1 Corinthians 15:14). The resurrection gives the people of God assurance that their sins are forgiven (1 Corinthians 15:17). Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:17, demonstrates that no resurrection equals zero forgiveness of sins.
The resurrection of Jesus gives Christians today hope (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). If Christ was not raised from the dead, then the people of God are no better off than non-Christians since God did raise “Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:24-25).
The Gospel of Matthew and the Resurrection
The raising of the people of God by the Risen Lord Jesus fits Matthew’s use of the same term in Matthew 27:50-53. When we zoom out from Matthew and look at Ezekiel 37 and the bones raised to life in connection with this story, it reveals that that prophecy was fulfilled in the raising of these Christians. The raising of saints also relates to the coming fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.
The raising of a few and not all the saints in Matthew 27:50-53 shows that the Lord Jesus alone has the power to resurrect people. Additionally, it points forward to the Second Coming and Judgment of the Lord Jesus, because such a time will include all whose names are written in the Book of Life by faith in Christ alone.
Matthew’s Theological and Thematic Goal
It is possible to take Matthew 27:52-53 to mean that the dead rose when Jesus died, then waited in the tombs until Easter morning. It’s hard to see why the Lord would subject these people to that many hours in the dark. As we consider Matthew’s thematical and theological style, though, the intent of his meaning becomes clear. Matthew is working thematically and theologically here as he does throughout his gospel.
Thematically, the death of Jesus leads to the resurrection of the saints. The only direct claim here, chronologically, is “they came out of the tombs after Jesus” (Matthew 27:53), so the resurrection of the saints follows the resurrection of Jesus both in causation and sequence.
Matthew reports on the thematic reasons because it is most likely they rose on Easter. Matthew here shows that the death of Jesus defeats the powers of sin and death. The death of Jesus triggers the resurrection of Christians, because Jesus’ death wins their resurrection, for death and resurrection go together as Ezekiel 37:13-14 says, “When I open your graves, you will live.” Jesus’ descent into hell was to break its bars, for He entered the grave to destroy its powers.
The story in Matthew 27:50-53 invites many questions such as, “Who are these people, great saints of the past or recent times?” and, “Did they rise to the age they had at death or were they restored to perfect youth and vigor?” Many people ask, “Did they die again, soon perhaps, or did they ascend to heaven?” or “What if anything, did they say to people they met?” Matthew doesn’t answer these questions, but he does make one point, which is Jesus’ death crushes the power of death.
The Focus of Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew’s focus in his gospel is on how Jesus fulfills the old covenant (Matthew 5:17; 12:15-21; 26:47-56), which is why the hour of the death of Jesus is significant to him. The Lord Jesus died at the ninth hour (Matthew 27:45-50), which is 3 p.m., the same hour at which the daily sacrifices began in the Jerusalem temple.
Christ fulfills all of the old covenant sacrifices, and after His atonement, there is no need to offer the blood of bulls or goats, since sin has been dealt with and the temple rituals are then passed away (Hebrews 10:1-18). The earthquake following the death of Jesus (Matthew 27:51) is significant, because as Matthew Henry writes that it signified “the mighty shock, indeed, the fatal blow now given to the devil’s kingdom.”
The people of God, now by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, can defeat temptation for sin can no longer slave them (Hebrews 2:14-15). The Lord Jesus came to destroy the works of the Devil (1 John 3:8) by vanquishing the evil one on the Cross. In the New Covenant era, Satan’s kingdom is crumbling, and the nations are granted obedience of faith by the finished and sufficient work of the Lord Jesus (Romans 1:1-6).
The Promise of the Resurrection
Matthew 27:52-53 reports that the earthquake mentioned previously opened several tombs from which many resurrected saints appeared after our Lord rose from the dead. We cannot be sure about who they were, but we can be sure that they died before Jesus inaugurated the new covenant and were raised only after He was resurrected.
What Matthew 27:50-53 shows us is that whether the people of God live under the Old Covenant or the New, the only way sinners can find salvation is through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection here is a sign that Jesus’ death has begun the last days, for this raising to life is the signal event of judgment day (Daniel 12:1-2). Jesus died and rose again not only for Himself, but to restore life to the people of God.
The Jewish leaders would not ironically believe in Jesus even after these signs (Matthew 27:62-66; 28:11-15). To the soldiers guarding the Lord Jesus, these supernatural events proved to them that they killed a divine man (Matthew 27:54), which was not saving faith but did reveal their hearts were not so hard to miss the obvious.
As Christians, we need to be clear that Scripture teaches that human beings are not complete persons without a body. Instead, we look forward to the resurrection of the body on the last day and to the final state of life forever, body and spirit, in the presence of God. Whether we have physical problems, defects, or disease, they will all be gone in the new heaven and new earth. The only proper response to these biblical truths is to fill our hearts with praise to God and to sing in praise to the God of all grace.
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Dave Jenkins is the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, and the Host of the Equipping You in Grace Podcast and Warriors of Grace Podcast. He received his MAR and M.Div. through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @davejjenkins, find him on Facebook at Dave Jenkins SOG, Instagram, read more of his writing at Servants of Grace, or sign to receive his newsletter. When Dave isn’t busy with ministry, he loves spending time with his wife, Sarah, reading the latest from Christian publishers, the Reformers, and the Puritans, playing golf, watching movies, sports, and spending time with his family.