Prickly Passages: Dead People Roaming Jerusalem? – A Preview of Coming Attractions

Programming Note: This post is a part of a series on problem passages in the Bible. Frequently, pastors receive thoughtful questions from those who are interested to know more about God and His book, the Bible. Prickly Passages will be devoted to Scripture texts that have caused good people to scratch their heads in perplexed wonder. Check back here from time to time as I’ll prayerfully respond to some of the best questions I’ve received.

Recently I was asked: “I am working on a question that I’ve been studying since 1979. The question is from Matthew 27:52-54. What is the meaning of those saints rising from the dead?”

Here’s the Scripture text:

“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. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’ (Matthew 27:52-54)

There are three unusual events tied to Good Friday and Easter Sunday and each marks the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection: darkness covered the land, an earthquake erupted so as to make rocks split, and dead people arose from the grave. All three events call attention to just how special Jesus Christ’s death really was. So the natural events surrounding Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection caught the average person’s attention. The culmination of the three events cause the centurion to proclaim “Truly this was the Son of God!”

What are we to make of these rising corpses? No other gospel writer mentions these saints rising from the dead. Plus, we find no other mention of this incident anywhere else in recorded history. The mere allusion to the event tantalizes us – we would love to know more! For example, we would love to know who was raised from the dead. Were they Old Testament saints such as Malachi or Esther risen from the grave? Or were they anonymous and faithful believers from around the time of Jesus’ day? We simply don’t know.

Because there is so little mentioned about this incident in the Bible, a few have dismissed it as fiction. This is an unfortunate response as we have no more reason to doubt these saints rising from the dead than we do Jesus’ resurrection. I don’t make a practice of calling biblical events into question simply because I don’t have additional proof of their authenticity. I’ve seen enough proof of the Bible’s truthfulness to suspend my personal doubts on the parts I’ve yet to prove.

Apocryphal accounts throughout time have speculated on what happened to these risen saints. One account tells how they rose with Jesus at His ascension while another reports that these saints were still roaming the earth a thousand years after the events of Good Friday and Easter. Some accounts suggest that Simeon, Anna, Zechariah, and Joseph (all were significant characters surrounding Jesus’ birth) were among those raised from the grave, but we have no way to verify this.

What Actually Happened?

“Fallen asleep” is a metaphor for death as you’ll encounter this metaphor throughout the New Testament. “Saints” isn’t a word for people who were exceptionally spiritual while they were alive and are now dead. No, saints is the Bible’s way of describing an ordinary believer.

Matthew reports that cemetery tombs were opened (perhaps because of the earthquake?) and dead believers arose from the tombs and appeared in time to many. There is some conjecture to the sequence of the events and Pastor Sam Storms has a helpful post on this aspect. Lastly, we are not told how many people were raised from the dead but that they simply rose from graves surrounding Jerusalem and then entered the city following Jesus’ resurrection.

In some ways, I wish Matthew would have told us more about this event. Is this a resurrection like Lazarus’ resurrection where he eventually died again (John 11)? Or did their bodies transform like Jesus’ did after his resurrection where they never tasted death again? We don’t know and Matthew leaves us with few details intentionally. This event is recorded in the middle of the narrative of Jesus’ resurrection. And because of this, Matthew doesn’t want to move our focus away from the importance of Jesus being alive. Matthew places Jesus’ resurrection in a category by itself as Jesus’ resurrection is unique. Therefore he doesn’t clutter up the text with questions to satisfy our curiosity about these other saints.

Why Did This Happen?

Matthew includes the resurrection of certain saints because he wants believers to know that Jesus’ death triggers the resurrection of all Christ-followers. When Jesus rose from the grave, it was the beginning step toward God’s final acts in history. God started the clock on the last days at Jesus’ resurrection and we confidently wait to see the next events. Jesus’ resurrection acts like the engine of a train for when He rose, everyone of Jesus’ followers will be pulled along with the train’s engine. We confidently connect the meaning of this resurrection to Paul’s words to the people in Corinth:

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).

Matthew is giving us a preview of how history will one day unfold where every Christ-following believers will one day be resurrected from their graves. He’s whetting our appetite for the real and final resurrection to come by telling us of how Christ’s death defeated death. We are told of how Christ’s resurrection has already impacted the lives of some faithful believers. And this a preview of coming attractions.

Jesus is Special

What’s interesting to note is that history records no movement to worship these dead and risen saints. History doesn’t tell us their names, how long they roamed the earth, or even where they spent their additional days. While multiple people were reported back from the dead, only one man was worshipped. Jesus caused several other people to be raised from the dead during His lifetime. Yet, no one worshipped the twelve year old daughter whose father ruled the synagogue (Luke 8:40-56). No one worshipped the widow’s son at Nain when Jesus interrupted the funeral as the dead teenager sat straight up from his coffin (Luke 7:11-17). There’s no record of anyone worshipping Lazarus when he came out of the tombs after four days (John 11:1-44). And there’s no record of anyone starting a new religion to honor these anonymous risen saints.

There was only one new religion started because of the events of Easter. Jesus is special. Worship Him.

Series Note: Next in the series of Prickly Passages – Does Hebrews 6:4-6 Teach that the “Saved” Can Forfeit Their Salvation?

Following Jesus’ Final Week on Google Maps

passion-map3Palm Sunday begins what many have called Holy Week. During this week, the four gospels record for us the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, His crucifixion on Good Friday, and His eventual resurrection on Easter Sunday. Jesus does a great deal during His final week on earth and the gospels go to great length to record each of these events.

Several years ago, the people behind the ESV Bible connected the locations and the events of Holy Week using the nifty technology of Google Maps. I invite you to click here to explore more. Once you’re there, click on each flag to see a summary of the events of Jesus’ Final Week.

 

Programming Note: Join the North Richland Hills and Cross Church church family in our journey with Jesus beginning Palm Sunday as well. We invite you to make the journey with us by clicking here: www.nrhbc.org/Holy Week. It’s the most important week in history.

Note: You’re invited to one of five worship celebrations on Easter Sunday with us. North Richland Hills offers three services at 8, 9:15, and 10:45 a.m. as well as one worship service en español at 11 a.m. Cross Church, NRHBC’s satellite location, is brand new and offers one worship service at 11 a.m. Visit nrhbc.org and crosschurchdfw.org for more details.

An Unfinished Letter and a Teenager’s Death

I began a letter yesterday that I did not complete. I plan on finishing it soon but I sensed I needed to let my thoughts and prayers percolate for a while. The letter was intended for a family whose mother passed away far too early. The family has been on my mind in recent days and I wanted to express my sympathy. I also wanted to offer some biblical answers in an effort to help this family deal with the pain of their loss. Then last night, my friend Pastor Craig Etheredge informed me of a teenager’s accidental death in our community. Some of the teen’s family attends North Richland Hills Baptist while others attended Craig’s church, First Baptist Church of Colleyville. I woke up this morning hurting for them. As a father of three, it is easy to feel some of their pain.

When tragedy strikes we often feel the pain in waves and as a community of believers we hurt, pray, and sympathize with those grieving. And while I don’t have all the answers in such times, for much of the pain we experience is a mystery, I do have a few of the answers so many desire. So, as an expression of love, allow me to point to several biblical answers why God allows His children to suffer. I have included numerous biblical references as I encourage you to go to mediate on these passages of Scripture and God’s goodness in the days to come.

1. Do not doubt that God is loving and gracious to His children (Ephesians 3:14-19). His love is powerful and His love is loyal (Psalm 36:5-6). Don’t ever think for a moment that God deserts His children. The Bible tells us that the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and He saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). Again, the Bible tells us that even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need not fear. Why? For God is with us to comfort and care for us (Psalm 23:4). The Bible also tells us that God comforts those who are in affliction (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). Despite our questions where we often doubt His love and goodness toward us, the Lord is gracious to His children. Despite the pain, I encourage you to never doubt God’s loving compassion and grace to those who follow Christ through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).

2. God has a purpose in permitting pain (Romans 5:3-5).  This is an odd statement for those who are in the midst of searing pain for very little of the hurt makes sense. Our perspective is not God’s perspective and we don’t have the sight he has.

As you consider God’s perspective I encourage you to reflect on an analogy from Corrie ten Boom, who suffered a great deal as Jewish young girl in Germany during World War II. She said suffering in this world is like looking at the bottom of a tapestry. God is weaving it from the top down, and he sees the picture developing. Yet, we see the tapestry from the bottom up, and we’re seeing all of these tangled threads. It doesn’t look like it’s making any sense at all, but it’s the same tapestry.

The Bible gives us enough evidence of God’s good wisdom to comprehend that He is making a bigger picture of the tapestry. God shares enough promises (Romans 8:28) to show He is making something stunning of our lives even when we see from the bottom up.

3. Through my experiences, I have learned to “press pause” on my doubting questions as I learned to wait on God to bring more clarity to my struggles. This is an act of faith and it’s tough to do. When we experience suffering that collides with our knowledge of God’s goodness and kindness, we must cling to God’s compassion and mercy as an act of faith despite the present troubling times. God rewards such faith and He will always, yes always, speak to those who patiently wait for Him.

Indeed, we can confidently say that God brings pain into our lives to promote our faith (2 Corinthians1:8-9) for there are dimensions of spiritual growth that happens during seasons of such pain that rarely happen in any other time of our lives. Most believers do not experience spiritual growth as a constant, steady, and progressive increase. Instead, spiritual growth happens in “spurts.” I am confident that in the future, I will see that God has pressed the “accelerator” on my spiritual growth during my most painful times. For it is then that I experience His comfort when I read about Him in the pages of Scripture. You will also experience a richer  breadth to your journey with Christ because of such pain (Philippians 4:11-13).

4. The Christian’s eternal hope is that we are continually in the presence of God Himself after our death (Romans 8:18). Thankfully, in the tragedies mentioned above, both individuals choose to follow Christ by faith and trust in His death on the cross (Colossians 1:3-5; Romans 10:9). The Bible teaches whenever a believer in Christ dies, she is immediately in the present of Christ Himself (2 Corinthians 5:8). This thought is infinitely precious and will keep us steady amidst the waves of emotion that come when tragedy strikes. Despite the protesting of secularists, the hope of glory is not the product of our vain imaginations, instead it is the well-attested hope of saints throughout the ages (Hebrews 11:39-40). In the midst of suffering, I encourage you to think often of God’s majesty and splendor, as it is being experienced by all the believers in heaven currently.

I pray that God is your refuge and fortress for He is able to work your future toward unspeakable joy. God is stronger than our most desolate feelings. He will soon vanquish all His foes including suffering. We live in expectant hope for that approaching day.