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?