The After-Effects of Jesus’ Death: Matthew 27:50-53
It is understandable for the authors to only briefly mention these miraculous events as they point towards, support, and otherwise affirm and magnify the singular person of which each of the gospels is about—Jesus.
One of the strangest few verses in all of the Bible, describes the circumstances around the death of Christ. Matthew, in the midst of a relatively unbroken flow of narrative on the crucifixion of Jesus, interrupts the flow to describe the after-effects of Jesus’ death.
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
(NIV Matthew 27:50-53)
There is quite a lot here to unpack, but there is (maybe somewhat surprisingly) very little detail given. I’ve preached on the resurrection power of Jesus in the past, but have not preached on these few verses specifically. The power of the resurrection is often thought of in terms of spiritual power, or in terms of life-giving power. While these are all aspects of the power of the resurrection that are rightly thought of, the first effect of the death of Jesus that the gospel of Matthew brings up is the tremendous visible signs which accompanied that moment.
Below are a few terrific Christian thinkers, theologians, martyrs, and commenters on this passage. At the end I’ll add a few of my own comments.
“Verse 52. And the graves were opened. Graves, or sepulchers, were most commonly made, among the Jews, in solid rocks, or in caves of rocks. The rending of the rocks, therefore, would lay them open. The graves were opened by this earthquake, but the dead in them did not rise till after his resurrection.
And many bodies of the saints—arose. Of course, it is not known who these were, nor what became of them. It is probable that they were persons who had recently died, and they appear to have been known in Jerusalem. At least, had the ancient saints risen, they would not have been known, and would not so soon have been credited as those who had recently died.
Which slept. Which had died. The death of saints is often called sleep, Da 12:2; 1 Co 15:18; 1 Th 4:15.”
The graves were opened. This matter is not related so fully as our curiosity would wish; for the scripture was not intended to gratify that; it should seem, that same earthquake that rent the rocks, opened the graves, and many bodies of saints which slept, arose. Death to the saints is but the sleep of the body, and the grave the bed it sleeps in; they awoke by the power of the Lord Jesus, and (v. 53) came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into Jerusalem, the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now here
(1.) We may raise many enquiries concerning it, which we cannot resolve: as, [1.] Who these saints were, that did arise. Some think, the ancient patriarchs, that were in such care to be buried in the land of Canaan, perhaps in the believing foresight of the advantage of this early resurrection. Christ had lately proved the doctrine of the resurrection from the instance of the patriarchs (ch. xxii. 32), and here was a speedy confirmation of his argument. Others think, these that arose were modern saints, such as had been Christ in the flesh, but died before him; as his father Joseph, Zecharias, Simeon, John Baptist, and others, that had been known to the disciples, while they lived, and therefore were the fitter to be witnesses to them in an apparition after. What if we should suppose that they were the martyrs, who in the Old-Testament times had sealed the truths of God with their blood, that were thus dignified and distinguished? Christ particularly points at them as his forerunners, ch. xxiii. 35. And we find (Rev. xx. 4, 5), that those who were beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, arose before the rest of the dead. Sufferers with Christ shall first reign with him. [2.] It is uncertain whether (as some think) they arose to life, now at the death of Christ, and disposed of themselves elsewhere, but did not go into the city till after his resurrection; or whether (as others think), though their sepulchres (which the Pharisees had built and varnished, ch. xxiii. 29), and so made remarkable, were shattered now by the earthquake (so little did God regard that hypocritical respect), yet they did not revive and rise till after the resurrection; only, for brevity-sake, it is mentioned here, upon the mention of the opening of the graves, which seems more probable. [3.] Some think that they arose only to bear witness of Christ’s resurrection to those to whom they appeared, and, having finished their testimony, retired to their graves again. But it is more agreeable, both to Christ’s honour and theirs, to suppose, though we cannot prove, that they arose as Christ did, to die no more, and therefore ascended with him to glory. Surely on them who did partake of his first resurrection, a second death had no power. [4.] To whom they appeared (not to all the people it is certain, but to many), whether enemies or friends, in what manner they appeared, how often, what they said and did, and how they disappeared, are secret things which belong not to us; we must not covet to be wise above what is written. The relating of this matter so briefly, is a plain intimation to us, that we must not look that way for a confirmation of our faith; we have a more sure word of prophecy.
(2.) Yet we may learn many good lessons from it. [1.] That even those who lived and died before the death and resurrection of Christ, had saving benefit thereby, as well as those who have lived since; for he was the same yesterday that he is to-day, and will be for ever, Heb. xiii. 8. [2.] That Jesus Christ, by dying, conquered, disarmed, and disabled, death. These saints that arose, were the present trophies of the victory of Christ’s cross over the powers of death, which he thus made a show of openly. Having by death destroyed him that had the power of death, he thus led captivity captive, and gloried in these re-taken prizes, in them fulfilling that scripture, I will ransom them from the power of the grave. [3.] That, in virtue of Christ’s resurrection, the bodies of all the saints shall, in the fulness of time, rise again. This was an earnest of the general resurrection at the last day, when all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God. And perhaps Jerusalem is therefore called here the holy city, because the saints, at the general resurrection, shall enter into the new Jerusalem; which will be indeed what the other was in name and type only, the holy city, Rev. xxi. 2. [4.] That all the saints do, by the influence of Christ’s death, and in conformity to it, rise from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. They are raised up with him to a divine and spiritual life; they go into the holy city, become citizens of it, have their conversation in it, and appear to many, as persons not of this world.