We come to another of the great mysteries which surround the sacrifice of our Saviour. Unlike some of the other enigmas found in this chapter, the mystery doesn’t lay in the details. We aren’t the least surprised to read that graves were opened by the earthquake and the power of God. I am absolutely convinced that once again, very soon, graves and tombs around the world will be ripped open and the bodies of long-dead saints will once again be filled with vigor and life. Paul was expecting it in his day, and we have been taught to expect it in ours. “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and 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.” This church believes that a pre-tribulational translation of God’s saints is the Bible’s teaching. No, it’s not that Matthew 27 speaks about resurrections that surprises us.
The mystery lays hidden in the heart of Jehovah – why? Why, on that particular day – the 14th of Nissan – the day in which Jesus died? And why did it take three days – 72 hours – to complete, when the omnipotence of God could have accomplished it immediately? There are lessons for us to learn in these things, but what exactly are they? In a sense, the Lord has presented us with another of His famous parables. “And the disciples came, and said unto (Christ Jesus), Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” We need to pray that it is the Lord’s will that to us may be given the meaning of this cryptic message.
The facts surrounding the event are pretty straight-forward.
After Jesus cried out, “It is finished” followed by, “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit” – He died. He voluntarily “yielded up the ghost” – He passed His spirit on into the hands of His heavenly Father. And then as the scriptures say – the veil of the temple was ripped open from the top downward. And the ground under the city of Jerusalem shook so violently that a number of graves were opened. The language of Matthew 27 suggests that these four things occurred simultaneously.
How many times have you read the words of our text without the impact of that earthquake shaking you? Some of us have felt the ground move under our feet with small tremors, and we’ve been disturbed by it. And then we’ve seen pictures and heard accounts of the really large earthquakes in California and elsewhere. But because the Lord hasn’t provided us with video and newspaper records, we picture the quake at Jesus’ death as little more than a small tremor?
How prone is Israel to earthquakes? I have learned that Israel has a major seismographic event on average every 70 years. The last one of any significance occurred in 1927 and was centered under the Dead Sea. It registered 6.2, and it shook Jerusalem, killing more than 500 people throughout the area. Statistically-speaking Israel is overdue for a major event. In 1837 an earthquake took the lives of 5,000 people. But Josephus, the Jewish historian of Jesus’ day, wrote that in the year 31, a quake struck the region killing 30,000. Was the historian reporting the quake described in this scripture? Was God sharing a foretaste of His wrath – at the moment Jesus was giving His life a ransom for many? Did 30,000 people die IN judgment at the same time that Jesus died FOR judgment? AND did 30,000 additional graves, tombs and sepulchres open at that moment, or was it only 3,000 – 30? I think we may be making a mistake if we minimize the size and violence of this earthquake – just because we haven’t been given a full report.
And remember the words of centurion who was in charge that day – “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” We are told that “he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man.” As I said several weeks ago, I can’t tell you if this man became a child of God or not. We have no way of knowing what he meant by the words “righteous” or “Son of God.” But I’d like to believe that the Lord gave that man a new heart and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. One scripture suggests that his declaration come out of watching the grace of God in Jesus’ passing. But Matthew tells us that it was the culmination of every aspect of that day – the darkness, the earthquake, the demeanor of the Lord – His words. Of course that man knew nothing of the tearing of the veil. Verse 54 – “Now when the centurion and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.”
So some graves were opened and their occupants were resurrected – what are the lessons?
Among other things – we can’t but stand in awe at the omnipotence of our God. And I don’t confine myself to the earthquake or to the tearing of the veil. Those things are almost child’s play in comparison to the greater events. As every child knows, destruction is far easier than creation. And at least in my mind, some aspects of creation are more difficult than other aspects. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” Look at the omnipotence of Jehovah. But then there is Genesis 2:7 – “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” I know that part of the definition of divine omnipotence is that nothing is difficult for God, so that no part of creation was harder for God than any other part. But in my prejudice, the impartation of life is greater than the formation of a body in which to place it.
On the 14th of Nissan, God shook the ground around Jerusalem so violently that the doors to tombs toppled over and dirt over graves was pushed aside. That was a mighty earthquake. But in my mind far more power was necessary for the bodies in those tombs to be restored to life.
Not only do we see God’s omnipotence – but also His sovereignty. How many graves were forced open that afternoon? We have no answer. There may have been a thousand or perhaps only twenty-five – we are told that it was “many.” But if there were fifty graves, were the occupants of those particular graves all saints of God? Again, we have no answer, but that is possible. Even if a thousand tombs were exposed, the only people to be resurrected were saints of God. There could have been a thousand graves opened, but only a dozen souls were resurrected. II Tim. 2:19 – “The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his.” I can’t say with assurance that God selectively opened only graves of His saints. But I can say that only saints were resurrected on the day that Jesus arose from His grave. As I say, I see in this the sovereign and highly selective power of God.
Is there significance in this timing? The graves were opened on one day, but it was three days later that the bodies arose. And it wasn’t just that 72 hours passed – they arose when Christ arose.
The resurrection of CHRIST testifies to several important things. For example, Paul tells us that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by (his) resurrection from the dead” – Romans 1:4. Christ’s resurrection shows us that our Saviour has conquered death and the sin-curse which produces death. “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.” – Acts 2:23-24. As Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” When John fell trembling before Christ in Revelation 1, Jesus said, “Fear not: I am the first and the last. I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” Christ’s resurrection tells us that the purpose for His incarnation was perfectly accomplished. “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” When Christ stepped out of His tomb, it was proof that God was satisfied with what He had done. Furthermore, when those few saints arose from their graves at the same time in which Jesus arose from His, we have a glimpse at the application of Christ’s great accomplishment. “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. I am the good shepherd, the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. The sheep hear his voice; and he calleth them by name, and leadeth them out.” On the day of Christ’s resurrection, He led a few of His sheep out of their graves. Those redeemed saints were fully accepted by God the Father.
And let’s not forget that at the moment of Jesus’ death the veil in the temple was ripped open. In that, the Lord was telling the priests who were in the holy place at the time that there was now access into the presence of God through the sacrifice of Christ. But I rather doubt that any of them went rushing in, putting their hands on the Ark of the Covenant. There was the testimony of access, but probably none of them took advantage of it. But you could say after a few hours more, the Lord Himself led those whom He had resurrected behind that veil. And since that day, there have been thousands of others – saved by the grace of God. One of these days, all the bodies, souls and spirits of just men made perfect by the grace of God will be invited into the throne room of Christ Jesus. Even if it be the will of God that we die, we have assurance through the testimony of these few saints, that we shall live again to worship our Saviour – behind the veil. “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.”
But digressing once again to the lessons of Matthew 27, think about these resurrected saints. As I say, we don’t know how many there were. We also don’t know WHO they were. There have been almost ridiculous suggestions – Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac. What are the bodies of Adam and Noah doing resting in the region of Jerusalem? I suppose that anything is possible, but would there be any special purpose in raising them at that point? Certainly no one would recognize them if they weren’t wearing name badges. Of far more practical importance would be the resurrections of John the Baptist, his father Zacharias, old Simeon and Anna. The man in Luke 16 suggests, “If I be permitted to return to talk to my wicked brothers, they would repent.” But that prayer was not granted. In fact, the man’s implication was denied – “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” But here we are told there “many bodies of the saints which slept arose… and when into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” To whom did they appear? To their wicked and unbelieving brothers and sisters? Or did they show themselves alive to some of the living saints? To whomever it was, we are not told of the impact of the testimony of these formerly dead saints.
And what became of these arisen people? They were entirely different from all those who had been resurrected in the Old Testament or during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Did that young man from Nain become a disciple of Christ, or did he die a second time still in his sins? We know that resurrected Lazarus was a child of God, but we don’t read of his great service for the Lord. Whatever became of the resurrected lives of Lazarus and the young man? They ended up just like King Hezekiah and his miraculously restored life. “And Hezekiah slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the chiefest of the sepulchres of the sons of David: and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem did him honour at his death.” Every one of the resurrected people prior to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection died a second time. But without a hint of scripture to lean upon, I am guessing that these who were raised with Christ, were translated into glory – probably at the time of Jesus’ ascension. I could be completely wrong in this, but these resurrections came after the sacrifice of Christ and were therefore different from the others.
What lessons do these people have for us – lessons which I don’t have time to fully explore? They were saved by the sovereign grace of God – as illustrated in their resurrections. They didn’t choose to be resurrected. They hadn’t recently been doing anything worthy of resurrection. It was by the sovereign choice of the Lord that they were so blessed. Then they were commissioned to go back into the city – the inappropriately named “holy city” – and there they testified to the salvation and grace of God. They weren’t given power to raise the dead themselves. We aren’t told that they performed mighty miracles, dazzling the eyes of the people. They, simply by their presence, and by the feeble words of their mouths, brought praise to the Creator/Saviour – the Lord Jesus Christ. That is our job – our responsibility as saints – “and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” And then when their very brief work was finished they were translated to glory. “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”
And another related sermon might come from Isaiah 26 where the prophet talks about the Millennial kingdom In the preceding chapter he describes God’s judgment, preparing the way for the arrival of the King. Then chapter 26 is a beautiful hymn of praise. “In that day shall this song be sung in the land of Judah. We have a strong city; salvation will God appoint for walls and bullwarks. Open ye the gates that the righteous man which keepth the truth may enter in.” Then in verse 19 – “Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust; for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.”
If you are a child of God today, it is because of God’s grace – not because of anything which you have done. You were dead in your sins and because of sin. But God in His sovereign grace has given you life – abundant life – spiritual life – eternal life. And as a result you put your faith in Christ and you repented before God. Now the purpose of your resurrected life is to bring glory to the Name of your Saviour. If you are not fulfilling God’s purpose then for what reason were you saved? Should you be considered a “saint”? Those who are indeed saints – children of God – will soon be translated into the presence of the Saviour. We may be here at this moment, and then by 12:32 this afternoon, most might be gone. Then what will happen to our “holy city”? It will be destroyed by the Romans under the authority of God Himself.
“To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation.” “Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Come join these resurrected saints. Humbly, repentantly, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”