Have you ever read through Matthew and reached the point of Jesus’s crucifixion and wondered about the signs that occur? Most of them are plausible: the darkness lifted, the curtain of the temple is torn, the earth quakes, rocks split, and tombs open and then one final sign occurs where most people scoff or write it off as creative fiction. The Bible says in Matthew 27.52-53,
“52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
I have always been afraid to teach on this passage, or to even talk about it because, truly, I had no explanation. I of course affirm its veracity and historicity, but there are a few loose ends when one reads these two verses, the most glaring would have to be, “what happened to them all?”. One commentator affirms that this event really did occur, he writes,
“It is not helpful to take this as a nonhistorical literary-theological creation. If this resurrection is intended to preview the ultimate resurrection of humanity, it is to be as genuine as that of Jesus.” (Turner, 670).
There are many other Christian scholars and teachers who affirm that this account took place in history, and I hope you as well believe that what the Bible says is true.
So, what is the meaning of the resurrected saints and where did they go? The meaning is put forth quite well, once again, by Dr. Turner,
“Only a historical resurrection can be an effect of Jesus’s resurrection and an omen of the final resurrection. For Matthew, the association of the saints’ resurrection with that of Jesus marks the decisive turning of the ages. Jesus’s resurrection means that the gates of hades cannot prevail against Jesus’s church and that his enemies will answer to his authority.” (670).
Jesus upon the cross, not only crying out in his final moments, but giving up his spirit has the power to shift the world. It is as though a concussive force spread out from the death of the Son causing signs and miracles to occur. Do you remember when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? If not, go read John 11 then come back. If so, go read John 11 and come back. D.A. Carson, in his commentary on John notes that,
“Though it is not John’s point, it has often been remarked that the authority of Jesus is so great that, had he not specified Lazarus, all the tombs would have given up their dead to resurrection life.” (418).
This is not to say that all the tombs surrounding Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s death were opened and all the saints within them were resurrected, but it is just another glimpse into the force, the awesome power that the mere voice, the mere spoken word, from the lips of God truly has. So, do we doubt that the dead were really raised on this occasion? I don’t. Do I believe that this resurrection was a precursor, a sign pointing to the resurrection of the saints when Jesus comes in his glory riding on the clouds? I most certainly do. So, where did all these resurrected people go? To this answer we turn to another scholar favorite of mine. William Hendriksen writes,
“…everything seems to point to the fact that these saints did not again die. It must be that after they appeared to many for some small period of time, God took them–now body and soul–to himself in heaven, where their souls had been previously.” (976).
In my opinion and a general scholarship behind me, this is the most acceptable answer given what we know from the text. Of course debaters will debate, but the true significance of these signs is best said by Hendriksen,
“Summarizing the significance of these signs, it can be said that they indicate the meaning of Christ’s death for God’s children of every clime and nation: ready access to God’s throne and to his heavenly sanctuary through the death of Jesus; the inheritance of a marvelously rejuvenated universe; and a glorious resurrection, to a life never to be followed by death. Then, too, all of these signs emphasize the majesty of the Person who gave his life as a ransom for many. Particularly, they stress the rich significance of his death.” (976)
What once seemed a hard and difficult couple verses in the gospel account, are now an enlightening, faith enriching truth to share with those who believe. There are a couple reminders in this experience. 1) The Bible is truth, the things in it are explainable and are always for our benefit and teaching, read 2 Timothy 3.16-17. 2) The Bible, when earnestly studied and taught, will never cease to blow my mind, and 3) Jesus Christ truly is our only hope for forgiveness of sins and resurrection of the body to life everlasting.
The works cited in this post are Matthew by Dr. David L. Turner, John by D.A. Carson and Matthew by William Hendriksen. I understand the cost of good academic books and if you are in need of a good one-volume commentary on the Bible this is the one I recommend, New Bible Commentary.