“Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” Jeremiah 32:27
This Easter article is one of the more intriguing ones I have ever written; it is based on a passage of Scripture that describes a very unusual event during Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. I have found very few pastors or bible teachers attempting to teach or explain Matthew 27:51-54 during Easter. Yet, this passage is deserving of not only mention but inclusion during this hallowed week, for it dramatically highlights the incredible victory Jesus had over death.
Earthquakes were quite frequent in Israel in Jesus’ day; many of them had varying magnitudes, much like Southern California, where I grew up. So, when an earthquake hit Jerusalem during His crucifixion and resurrection, this most likely did not take the Jews by surprise. The only ones that might have been caught off guard by such seismic activity were the Roman soldiers new to the region. But regardless of whether Jew, Roman, or otherwise, earthquakes did cause fear and got everyone’s attention.
I know this to be true because my family has been through several earthquakes that have hit California over the last few years. One of those was the Tehachapi earthquake near Bakersfield. This 1952 earthquake shook our house in Pasadena (117 miles away) at 5 am. I was only six years old, but I remember my parents being knocked out of their beds. It turned out to be a 7.7 earthquake on the Richter scale.
Although several other quakes hit California over the next several years, one of the worst was the Northridge quake in 1994, when my own little family was caught off guard early one morning. This quake killed seventy people or more, crushed freeways and buildings, and caused at least fifteen billion dollars worth of damage. Everything was shattered into pieces or broken in our house, which was close to the epicenter. We slept outside in our van for the rest of the week until the aftershocks subsided. It was scary!
As frightening as earthquakes can be, the one that hit Jerusalem 2000 years ago during Jesus’ crucifixion must have been very alarming, for they did not have the structures to handle such a disturbing event. Yet even though this quake caught everyone by surprise, this was nothing compared to what was about to happen, and I am not just talking about Jesus’ resurrection.
Matthew is the only one of the Gospel writers to record this astonishing event because he may have been the only one to see it firsthand. Regardless, it is in the Scripture and plays a significant part around the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As you read the following verses, take note that the first verse about the veil of the Temple was in each of the other Gospels, which gives context to what Matthew recorded.
“And behold, the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised and came out of their tombs. After His resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now the centurion and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said,’ Truly this was the Son of God!'” Matthew 27:51-54
Who were these saints who came out of the tombs? What was God’s purpose in raising them from the dead? Where were they before their bodies were raised from the dead? What did they do before entering Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection? How long did they live before returning to heaven? These are all challenging questions, but I will do my best to answer them according to my knowledge of the times and the Bible.
Who were these saints, and what was their purpose?
A few bible commentators purport that these saints were some of the earlier Patriarchs: men like Moses and Elijah. After all, these two showed up at the Mount of Transfiguration; why not again to accomplish God’s purpose? But I do not believe so, for no one in Jerusalem would have recognized them. There were no previous portraits or pictures to draw from to identify them.
Regarding God’s purpose in raising these saints from the dead, I construe they were believers in Christ who had recently died. They were men, women, and even children who would have been recognizable by all when they walked through Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection. This works well into God’s purpose, which was to give Jerusalem further evidence that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, just as those who stood before them.
Where were the saints before their bodies were raised from the dead?
The Scriptures are pretty clear about where believers and the faithful go when they die, whether, in Old Testament times, Jesus’ day, or today. All are immediately put in the presence of God. We use the term passed on or passed away for death to soften the blow in our culture. In Jesus’ time, they used the term fallen asleep. But no matter the term, when believers die, they go to be with God, just as Moses and Elijah proved when they appeared to Jesus, James, John, and Peter at the Mount of Transfiguration.
“Later, Jesus took Peter and James and John up on a high mountain by themselves. And while there, He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. Then behold, Moses and Elijah appeared, talking with Him. Peter said, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.'” Matthew 17:1-4
“Therefore, be always of good courage, and know that while we are at home in this body of ours, we are absent from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. So, be of good courage, for I personally prefer to be absent from my body and at home with the Lord.” II Corinthians 5:6 -8
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” II Thessalonians 4:13-14
What did the risen saints do before entering Jerusalem?
There is no way of knowing what these believers (saints) did between their old bodies being raised and resurrected from old graves to when they were in Jerusalem. They were to be there, though, right after Jesus’s resurrection, giving more evidence of His victory over death and sin.
On that day, anyone who saw them and then Christ, realized that He was the Son of God and true to everything He said. But aside from this, can you imagine if you were a mother, father, sister, or brother of one of these saints, thinking all had been lost when they had died, but now alive and well, proclaiming the resurrection of Christ.
How long did they live before returning to heaven?
There is no direct Scriptural reference regarding how long they stayed on earth after their role was completed in Jerusalem. Perhaps they were taken back to heaven when Christ ascended. Or maybe, God left them to remain on earth for a while to live out an extended life, as was the case with Lazareth in John 11. Whether it is one situation or the other, I surmise there were fewer tears the second time around before they departed again to heaven.
“Jesus said, ‘Remove the stone.’ Martha, the deceased’s sister, said, ‘Lord, by this time, there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?’ So, they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank You that You have heard Me.’ ‘I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around, I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.’ When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’ And the man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus then said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Therefore, many of the Jews who came to Mary, and saw what He had done, believed in Him.” John 11:39-45
As you celebrate Easter, God is still making miracles no matter the difficulties you may be going through. Two thousand years ago, the Jewish people had lost everything; the Roman occupation had wiped them out, and many were living from one meal to the next. Then Christ came, and things began to change. For the first time in years, they had hope, a renewed expectation that God would restore their lives and nation. But at the height of their hope, Jesus was crucified. All was lost! All was lost! All was lost!
After Jesus’ body was torn down from the cross, all returned to their homes, likely head down, broken, and downtrodden. Then, suddenly, for some, perhaps those who had held onto their faith, loved ones who had recently died began showing up in the streets of Jerusalem and even at their doorsteps. With tears joyously rolling down their cheeks, how many ways did they say, “How can this be? How can this be?” But it was because when God is in charge, anything is possible.
At the height of their despair, God sent two great miracles, one of the risen saints and the other of Jesus Himself. The saints brought more evidence of Jesus, and Jesus brought victory over death and sin and the promise of eternal life to all who believe.
All was restored, all was restored, and all was restored! Is He not still restoring today those who put their trust in Him? I think so.
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” I Corinthians 15:55-58
May God give you a blessed Easter, one filled with the peace of knowing Jesus as Lord, and one filled with a hope for His soon return. Kent