Please comment on Matthew 17:52 and 53, which says that people were coming out of their graves and seeing people upon Jesus’ death.
Verses 51–53 read,
Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
Here we have three signs given to people when Jesus died on the cross in our place. God never performs signs or miracles for no reason; each of these momentous events had significance.
First, the tearing of the veil of the temple “from top to bottom” indicated God’s doing; God was demonstrating that access to Him is now available to all; each believer is a priest and can go directly to the High Priest (Heb. 4:14–16; 10:19–23). Before this event, the veil had kept everyone except the human high priest from the Holy of Holies, where God dwelt. Incidentally, many Jews were in the temple area to witness the act of God’s rending the veil; remember that it happened during the bustling Passover week.
Second, earthquakes represented God’s visible judgment (see also Exod. 19:18; Judges 5:4; Rev. 6:12–17), so this case the earthquake showed divine displeasure with those who spurned Christ and gave proof that Jesus was and is God (Matt. 27:54).
Now we come to the sign that you asked about. This third demonstration showed that in His death, Christ triumphed over sin and the grave. We can dispel anything bizarre or mysterious about the happening by noting that in His earthly ministry, Jesus raised people from the dead. Examples include Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter, and the son of the widow at Nain. So we are not dealing with something strange here, especially when you think of the other miracles of the Bible.
When Jesus died, the bodies of many saints who had died (“had fallen asleep”) were raised. Notice the word “many,” because by no means did all of the saints get raised. There is some question who was raised: Some believe that the raised were recent believers who had died (e.g., Simeon, Anna, Zacharias). Others think that they were Old Testament believers who had been dead for centuries (e.g., the Patriarchs). We are simply not told. But when they came out of their graves, their spirits came from the compartment “Abraham’s bosom,” the abiding place of the righteous dead. That is, in contrast to those who inhabited the compartment known as Hades, the abiding place of the unrighteous dead.
Note that these resurrected believers didn’t come out of the tombs and appear to people until after Jesus was resurrected (“after His resurrection”; Matt. 27:53). First Corinthians 15:20 gives us the reason for this order: “Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” It was only right that Christ should be resurrected first, and it is significant that those risen saints demonstrated that Christ had indeed risen. The people who saw those risen saints were pointed to Jesus’ resurrection. The risen saints were living testimonies of God’s power, and God used them as special witnesses of that resurrection power. This is especially key as we think of the transition about to confront Israel as the nation moved from the dispensation of the Law to the dispensation of the Church Age.
Further, there is strong evidence that the resurrection of people in Matthew 27 constituted the fulfillment of the Feast of Firstfruits in the Old Testament (Lev. 23:9–14). For this feast the people under the law system brought a handful of grain to the priest, which indicated their assurance that God would give the needed harvest. So, after Christ’s resurrection, we see a reminder/picture of the trustworthiness of God’s promise of coming “harvest,” namely that all saints (all believers who have died) will be raised from the dead! It is a beautiful picture of reality to come.
Invariably the question comes up, Whatever happened to those “sleeping” saints who arose? The answer is that the Bible does not tell us whether they died again (like Lazarus and others) or if they went to Heaven with the Lord. It would seem likely that if they were a fulfillment of Firstfruits, they would have had new glorified bodies like Christ’s resurrection body. Then they may well have ascended at the same time that Jesus ascended back to Heaven.
Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to email@example.com or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.