“The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.”-Matthew 27:52-53
These two verses are nestled into Matthew’s description of the crucifixion of Jesus. They are frustratingly brief. If you’re like me, you encounter them in your annual Bible reading or in a Passion week reading plan and think, “Wait, what?” Alas, time demands you read on. Well, not this time. It’s time to solve the curious case of the resurrected saints (or at least think about it a bit).
Matthew tells us that when Jesus died tombs were opened, probably by the earthquake referenced in verse 51, and many “saints” were raised from the dead. Two days later, after Jesus’ resurrection, those saints came out of their tombs and were walking around Jerusalem, appearing to many people. Let that sink in for a moment. “Did you hear Samuel was walking around town? I saw him in the market!”
A Few Observations
Matthew included this report out of chronological order. We know this because he relates, “they came out of the tombs after his resurrection…” Yet Matthew doesn’t relate the resurrection until chapter 28. In fact, Matthew includes this account right in the bullseye of his description of Jesus death (27:50).
After describing Jesus’ death, Matthew describes the veil in the temple being torn—a hugely important symbolic occurrence—and then these resurrections. Matthew views both of these events as effects caused by Jesus’ death with massive theological implications.
Who Were These Saints?
We don’t know. By “saints” Matthew either means pious Jews of days past, famous OT saints, or followers of Jesus who had recently died. The first may be the most likely, but we can’t know for sure. The important part is no matter who they were, they were known to be people of faith.
What’s the Point?
Matthew wants his readers to understand that Jesus’ death accomplishes the forgiveness of sins, thus he replaces the temple system (hence the torn veil), and also defeats death. These resurrected saints are a preview of coming attractions—Jesus’ death means death is defeated, and his resurrection guarantees the resurrection of the saints. Craig Keener put it this way:
“Matthew clearly intends this sign merely to prefigure the final resurrection, proleptically signified in Jesus’ death and resurrection.”-Craig Keener
As we remember Jesus’ death on this Good Friday, let’s remember that his death was the death of death. When Jesus died on the cross for us, the dead were literally raised to life. This means his sacrificial death secures our spiritual and physical resurrection. The first we receive upon regeneration, the second we look forward to with sure hope because Jesus didn’t just die, he also rose from the dead. One day dead saints walking around Jerusalem won’t be the exception, it’ll be the rule.