Matthew 27.51–53 tells about people who came out of the graves after Christ’s death and witnessed to others. Did this actually happen? Who were these people, and what happened to them later?
We have no reason to doubt what the Bible records about people coming out of graves. But before we look at this specific event, let’s summarize the reality of resurrection. Keep in mind that you will be resurrected someday! We all will, unless, of course, we are still living when the Lord Jesus takes the believers out of this world in the event we commonly call the Rapture. John 5:28 and 29 record the words of Jesus on this subject: “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” Hebrews 9:27 promises, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” Even though we will die, that’s not our end. We will rise.
The Bible also teaches us that not everyone will be resurrected at the same time. The believer differs from the unbeliever when it comes to resurrection. Unbelievers will be resurrected after the thousand-year (millennial) reign of Christ, according to Revelation 20:5. The last sentence of verse 5 can confuse us, but it need not. It reads, “This is the first resurrection.” The resurrection of unbelievers, often called the resurrection of damnation, is the final or “second” resurrection. At that time unbelievers will face God at the Great White Throne Judgment, where He will sentence them to the Lake of Fire. In the meantime, the souls of unbelievers will remain in Hades (torments) awaiting judgment (see Luke 16:19–31).
When Revelation 20:5 states, “This is the first resurrection,” it actually refers to the preceding verse, which pictures certain believers that were resurrected before the thousand-year reign of Christ. “First Resurrection” people, then, are believers. Not one unsaved individual will have been raised at this point. All the unsaved will be raised after the thousand-year reign of Christ.
When it comes to believers, we note several resurrections. Paul discussed this fact in 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 23: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.” To help you see these resurrections of believers more clearly, I’ll list them as follows:
1. First Resurrection Group A: The people in this resurrection included the Lord Jesus Christ and the ones to whom you refer. These people went to Heaven after their appearance. The Bible records nothing about their dying again.
2. First Resurrection Group B: Believers of the Church Age who died before the Rapture form this group. First Thessalonians 4:16 and 17 describe their resurrection: “The dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
3. First Resurrection Group C: These people are the Old Testament believers, except for the ones resurrected in Group A.
4. First Resurrection Group D: These are the Tribulation believers, those who will become saints during the Tribulation and then will be martyred because they refuse to accept the mark of the beast. Both Groups C and D will be raised after the seven-year Tribulation period. They will have the joy of reigning with Christ and the believers of the Church Age. Revelation 20:4 sets forth this scene.
Now let’s examine the Group A resurrection. Verse 52 of Matthew 27 claims first of all that bodies came out of the graves. This resurrection was a bodily resurrection. Second, the resurrected ones were saints, but the word “many” indicates that this resurrection did not include all of the Old Testament believers. Many came forth from the grave, but obviously many did not. Third, we see the timing of this resurrection. The passage indicates that the graves opened when Christ died (vv. 50, 51). However, these saints did not appear unto many in the holy city until “after his resurrection” (v. 53).
To appreciate more of the beauty and significance of this event, we note once again 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 23: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.” Paul referred to Christ as the “firstfruits.” Why? We have to go back to the observation of various feasts during the period of the law. Leviticus 23:9–14 outlines one of the feasts, called the Feast of the First Fruits of the Harvest. The people would bring to the priest a handful of grain to demonstrate their belief that God would indeed give a harvest in the future. The grain was like a token of anticipation.
Paul, writing on this subject, explained that Christ demonstrated a similar picture in His resurrection. Those saints who rose immediately after Christ were like a sign of the First Fruits, indicating God’s promise of the future harvest when He would raise all saints from the dead. They pictured the greater “harvest” of resurrected ones later.
In the ceremony of the Feast of the First Fruits, the priest waved a sheaf from the upcoming harvest before the Lord. In a similar manner, Christ the firstfruits, after rising from the dead, “waved” a “sheaf’ (these resurrected saints) before God. This resurrection looked ahead to the time when the rest of the saints will be resurrected.
Undoubtedly God used the saints who rose immediately after Christ to show the greatness of His power. Remember that this period of the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord was a crisis, or pivotal, time in God’s program. If you look at Scripture, you will see that demonstrations of divine power marked pivotal periods in time. We see many miracles in the years of Christ’s life on earth and the birth and babyhood of the New Testament Church that followed. The miraculous events surrounding the birth of Christ; the miracles performed by Christ during His public ministry on earth; the miracles surrounding the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord; and the signs of tongues, healings, and other miracles in the early church and among its apostles all had the purpose of focusing people’s attention on what God was doing and what glory He should receive through such wonders. We must place our faith in the testimony of the Word of God concerning these things.
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