Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Matthew 27:52-53

My article from this week's newspapers answers a question about the resurrected saints in Matthew 27:52-53.

Q:  Can you explain the resurrection of the saints that occurs after Jesus death in Matthew 27:52-53?  Who were they, and what happened to them after they were raised?

This is one of those little-known details of the Gospels that is often overlooked and rarely understood.  Even Matthew, himself, who is the only Gospel writer to include this detail, gives us very few details, and no explanation about, the event. 

What we do know is that this occurs at the time of Jesus’ death.  This is a sign that accompanies an earthquake and the thick curtain that divided the Most Holy Place from the rest of the Temple being torn in half.  All of these events are more than coincidental. 

Earthquakes were commonly associated with God’s judgment in the Old Testament.  In this case, the earthquake signifies that God’s judgment has been poured out upon Jesus and now stands satisfied by His death. 

The temple veil marked the boundary which could not be crossed by humans, because God’s presence was dwelling on the other side, and unauthorized entry would bring certain death.  Even the high priest could only enter once a year and only after first making sacrifice for his own sins beforehand.  That it was torn indicated that the separation from God caused by sin had now been overcome and that the forgiven could now approach God directly with their prayers and requests. 

Resurrection of the dead was a sign commonly associated in Old Testament prophecy with the coming of the promised Messiah.  However, these prophecies often did not distinguish between Jesus first and second comings, and what remains to be completely fulfilled when Jesus returns was seen being fulfilled on a small scale during His life and ministry.

We see this as Jesus, for a number of people, gives sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, casts out demons, and overcomes all kinds of illness and disability during his ministry—all of which will be fulfilled completely when He comes again on the Last Day. 

These dead who are raised are similar.  On three occasions, Jesus did raise the dead during His ministry, and now in connection with His death, we see resurrection occurring again.  We know that there were not only a few who were raised, because Matthew calls them “many,” yet this is also short of all being raised. 

We also know that those who were raised were “saints,” that is, those who died trusting in Jesus.  These could be saints who witnessed a portion of the life of Jesus, but died prior to His crucifixion, or they could be Old Testament saints from prior eras who died trusting that He would come one day, or even both, but Matthew does not clarify. 

We also know that they rise in connection with Jesus’ death, which is actually quite appropriate.  Even though Jesus rises on the third day, prefiguring for us what awaits all  believers on the Last Day, these saints rise as Jesus dies, emphasizing that it is Jesus’ death which purchases God’s forgiveness and blessing for us, which result in Resurrection. 

However, they do not appear in Jerusalem until “after His resurrection,” leaving us to wonder where they remained in the meantime.  Matthew does not explain this detail either, but since we know Jesus remained on earth 40 days following His resurrection, which his whereabouts only occasionally being made known, we can conclude that God also made similar provision for these resurrected saints during these three days. 

The destiny of these resurrected saints in the time which follows is also a matter of uncertainty.  Since it seems that the three individuals raised by Jesus during His ministry later died again (as we do not see them walking among us today), along with the few resurrected by the Prophets before Jesus and the Apostles after Him, it seems reasonable that these saints also returned one day to their graves. 

However we also have a concrete example in Elijah, and perhaps a second in Enoch, that it is quite possible for a person to go to be with the Lord while remaining in the body.  So, perhaps these saints, like Elijah and Jesus Himself, dwell with the Lord in their body while the rest of the saints await the Last day for that privilege. 

Even in spite of these uncertainties the message of the resurrected saints is clear—Jesus death gives life to those who trust in Him—first restoring our souls for the remainder of earthly life, but ultimately for physical life which will continue without end. 

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