Jesus wasn't the only person raised from the dead on Easter Sunday!2
In the aftermath of Easter Sunday one of the ladies in my church asked about the meaning of Matthew 27:51-53. When did this event happen and who were these people and what happened to them after they were raised? Continue reading . . .
In the aftermath of Easter Sunday one of the ladies in my church asked about the meaning of Matthew 27:51-53. When did this event happen and who were these people and what happened to them after they were raised? Well, let’s first read the text:
“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27:51-53).
This event is not mentioned in the other three gospel accounts and many find it so strange that they dismiss it as fiction. A few argue that it is some sort of non-historical literary creation by Matthew designed to serve as an apocalyptic symbol of the final resurrection and life in the New Jerusalem at the end of time. N. T. Wright, on the other hand, says that “some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 636).
Personally, I see no reason to doubt the historicity of this event, even if I can’t fully explain it or make sense of its purpose. If indeed this literally occurred as recorded, as I believe it did, there are at least three possible ways of making sense of the text, each of which yields a different sequence of events.
(1) One view argues that the saints are raised when Christ dies (on Good Friday) but remain in the tombs until after he is raised (on Easter Sunday) and only then depart from the tombs and enter the city. This is certainly possible, but strikes me as unlikely. If this were true, what were they doing in the tombs during the time between Christ’s death and resurrection? Why would they have remained there? And would it not be theologically problematic that they experienced bodily resurrection before Jesus did? On this latter point, see below.
(2) Another view is that the saints are raised when Christ dies, leave their tombs at that time, and go somewhere else in the vicinity of Jerusalem until after Jesus is raised, then appear in the city. Again, this is unlikely for the same reasons noted above.
(3) The most likely interpretation is that the saints are raised only after and because of Christ’s resurrection (on Easter Sunday). They enter into the city at that time, i.e., on Easter Sunday. Lest it seem strange that the tombs are opened on Good Friday when Jesus dies but the saints are not raised until Sunday after Jesus is raised, remember this: the breaking open of the tombs was designed to signify Christ’s conquering the power of sin and death by his atoning sacrifice. It wasn’t to let the resurrected saints out. If these saints were raised in supernatural, glorified bodies, as I believe they were, “there is no more reason to think they were impeded by material substance than was the resurrected Lord, the covering rock of whose grave was removed to let the witnesses in, not to let him out” (D. A. Carson, Matthew, 582).
Therefore, the graves were opened at the moment of Christ’s death to witness to the power of his sacrifice over the tyranny of sin. As John Wenham explains, “the later appearance of the saints in the city then demonstrates the power of his resurrection, by which God fulfills his promises to the saints of old and through which he promises resurrection to all who fall asleep in Jesus” (“When Were the Saints Raised?” JTS 32, 152).
So, with what kind of bodies were they raised? If they were raised like Lazarus, with bodies the same as before death, they most likely died yet again (or, they could have been immediately translated like Elijah was, bypassing physical death altogether). Most likely they were raised with glorified and supernatural bodies, identical to the body of Jesus. If so, they were either translated to heaven very soon after their resurrection, or possibly constituted a glorious retinue for Jesus at his ascension some 40 days later (Acts 1:9-11).
Some object to the idea that they received glorified bodies based on 1 Corinthians 15:20. There we read that Christ is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” In other words, he is the first to be raised and to receive a glorified body. But this objection is valid only if we assume that the saints were raised on Friday when Jesus died but before he was himself raised. If, however, these saints were raised and entered the city only after Christ’s resurrection, then he is himself the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
So, here is how we should read Matthew 27:51-53, with short parenthetical explanations inserted:
“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened [on Good Friday, immediately after Jesus died]. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised [on Easter Sunday morning, immediately after Jesus was raised], and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
As for the identity of these “saints”, they remain anonymous. However, they may have been certain well-known OT and inter-testamental Jewish believers, spiritual heroes and martyrs, or people such as Joseph (the adoptive father of Jesus) or even John the Baptist. In any case, it indicates that Jesus wasn't the only person raised from the dead on Easter Sunday!