What Happened in the Graveyards Outside Jerusalem?
When Jesus let his spirit go (ἀφῆκεν τὸ πνεῦμα) and died (Matthew 27:50), seven results were set in motion which Matthew mentions in seven clauses, introduced with seven “ands” (καὶ). Including the first main statement that Jesus yielded up his spirit, it seems to me they come in four pairs:
Jesus, having cried out again with a loud voice, yielded up his spirit; and (καὶ) behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and (καὶ) the earth shook, and (καὶ) the rocks were split; and (καὶ) the tombs were opened, and (καὶ) many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and (καὶ) having come out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city, and (καὶ) they appeared to many. —Matthew 27:50–53, my translation
Entrance by the Curtain of Christ
Since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh . . . let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. (Hebrews 10:19–20, 22)
In other words, the tearing of the curtain that separated the sinful people from the holy presence of God signifies what happened when the flesh of Jesus was torn. The tearing of Jesus’s flesh secured the reconciliation between God and his sinful people. That is what the tearing of the curtain signified.
More Than Meets the Eye
In dying for us “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). God cancelled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands . . . nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). Therefore, God’s curse and our debts are removed.
God is 100% for us with no more redeeming work needed to support such a relationship. That work is finished. He ransomed his captives (Matthew 20:28), laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:15), gave himself up for his bride (Ephesians 5:25), and obtained the church with his blood (Acts 20:28). Finished. Price paid.
With the splitting of the temple curtain “from top to bottom” (by God), Matthew shows that events in the material world at this moment are signifying far more than meets the eye.
Split Curtain, Split Rocks
and (καὶ) the earth shook, and (καὶ) the rocks were split. (Matthew 27:51)
The fact that the same verb is used to describe the splitting of the curtain and the splitting of the rocks (ἐσχίσθη . . . ἐσχίσθησαν) signals that Matthew is not leaving behind his intention to show us more than meets the eye. The split curtain has meaning, and the split rocks have meaning.
The least we can say is that the death of Jesus has effects on more than spiritual relationships. It produces effects in the natural world, the world of earth and rocks — and as we will see, human bodies. What has just happened on the cross has to do with the one who holds the earth in his hand and can shake it. And the one who holds boulders between his fingers and can split them.
The earth was shaken and rocks split by a sovereign earth-controller and a powerful rock-ruler. Human deaths don’t shake the earth and split rocks. God does. Rocks don’t have a mind of their own. They do what God bids them do. And they shook and split.
Shaking, Collapsing, Removing, Replacing
This is what Hebrews says about the things that are shaken. The day is coming when we will live in a kingdom that cannot be shaken.
His voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken — that is, things that have been made — in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe. (Hebrews 12:26–28)
Rocks Split, Tombs Opened, Bodies Raised
and (καὶ) the tombs were opened, and (καὶ) many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised
The most important earthly change that the death of Christ secures is the resurrection of the bodies of God’s people, the saints. Matthew is very specific about this. He does not say, “Many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” He says, “Many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”
The issue is the material universe. The split curtain spoke immeasurable truth about the spiritual realm of sin and alienation and reconciliation. But shaking earth and splitting rocks and opening tombs and rising bodies — this is all about the material stuff of creation.
Death Is the Ground of Resurrection
But Matthew surprisingly (though not uniquely) puts the emphasis on the death of Jesus as opening the tombs and giving life to our mortal bodies. Not all bodies. But “many.” The resurrection of God’s people is future. But this was a foretaste. A trailer.
To be sure, Paul calls Jesus’s resurrection “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20) — meaning that Jesus’s resurrection is part of the final resurrection of all his people. So, ours is as sure to happen as his has surely happened. It is all one harvest.
But Matthew shows something different. Not contradictory, but different. He says that when Jesus died, and before the resurrection of Jesus, tombs were opened, and bodies of saints were raised. That is the most natural way to read the flow of his words:
Jesus, having cried out again with a loud voice, yielded up his spirit;
and behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom;
and the earth shook,
and the rocks were split;
and the tombs were opened,
and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised . . .
Even though it sounds very strange, Matthew locates the raising of the bodies of the saints at the death of Jesus, and their coming out of the tombs and entering Jerusalem after the resurrection. The phrase “after his resurrection” (μετὰ τὴν ἔγερσιν αὐτοῦ) does not naturally modify “many bodies of the saints were raised” — as if the bodies of the saints were raised only after Jesus’s body was raised. Rather, it most naturally modifies “having come out of the tombs . . . they entered the holy city” (καὶ ἐξελθόντες ἐκ τῶν μνημείων μετὰ τὴν ἔγερσιν αὐτοῦ εἰσῆλθον εἰς τὴν ἁγίαν πόλιν): “ . . . and having come out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city.”
It seems to me that Matthew is showing us the foundational and essential power of the death of Jesus as the cause of resurrection life in natural bodies, while affirming the Pauline truth that the resurrection of Jesus is also necessary for the full public experience of our physical resurrection — bodies raised at Jesus’s death, bodies out of the tombs and into the city at Jesus’s resurrection.
Raised by His Own Blood
In fact, Hebrews goes so far as to say the blood-shedding of Jesus secured the resurrection not just of our bodies, but also of Jesus’s body. The word order in Hebrews 13:20–21 is unmistakable: “May the God of peace who brought again from the dead . . . the great shepherd of the sheep by the blood of the eternal covenant, our Lord Jesus, equip you with everything good” (Ὁ δὲ θεὸς τῆς εἰρήνης, ὁ ἀναγαγὼν ἐκ νεκρῶν τὸν ποιμένα τῶν προβάτων τὸν μέγαν ἐν αἵματι διαθήκης αἰωνίου, τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦν, καταρτίσαι ὑμᾶς ἐν παντὶ ἀγαθῷ). God raised Jesus “by the blood of the eternal covenant.” As Henry Alford says, “By virtue of that blood also He was raised up as the great Shepherd.”
A Death-Defeating Death
The greatest obstacle to our resurrection was not physical death and dissolution. The greatest obstacle was our sin and God’s righteousness. God can put decayed bodies back together with the wave of his little finger. But the righteous removal of holy wrath cost the death of his Son.