I spent Easter Day with my family at my brother's house. My sister in law, Ann, had a great question about this verse. She had read this to her kids on Good Friday and of course the kids wanted to know about the "zombie part", that is the dead coming to life. So when I came home today, I did a Bible study on this chapter.
Here we go. We will start with reading the verse in different Gospels. First the original in Matthew.
50. And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
51. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split.
52. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.
53. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
54. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, "Surely he was the Son of God!"
Here is the same story as told in the Gospel of Mark.
Mark 15:33-39 33.
At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.
34. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"--which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
35. When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah."
36. One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down," he said.
37. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
38. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
39. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"
And this is Luke's version.
44. It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour,
45. for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
46. Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.
Let us start our study with Matthew Henry’s commentary on this verse:
51-56 The rending of the veil signified that Christ, by his death, opened a way to God. We have an open way through Christ to the throne of grace, or mercy-seat now, and to the throne of glory hereafter. When we duly consider Christ's death, our hard and rocky hearts should be rent; the heart, and not the garments. That heart is harder than a rock that will not yield, that will not melt, where Jesus Christ is plainly set forth crucified. The graves were opened, and many bodies of saints which slept, arose. To whom they appeared, in what manner, and how they disappeared, we are not told; and we must not desire to be wise above what is written.
The dreadful appearances of God in his providence, sometimes work strangely for the conviction and awakening of sinners. This was expressed in the terror that fell upon the centurion and the Roman soldiers. We may reflect with comfort on the abundant testimonies given to the character of Jesus; and, seeking to give no just cause of offence, we may leave it to the Lord to clear our characters, if we live to Him. Let us, with an eye of faith, behold Christ and him crucified, and be affected with that great love wherewith he loved us. But his friends could give no more than a look; they beheld him, but could not help him. Never were the horrid nature and effects of sin so tremendously displayed, as on that day when the beloved Son of the Father hung upon the cross, suffering for sin, the Just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God. Let us yield ourselves willingly to his service.
This is the commentary from the Jewish New Testament Commentary by Rabbi David Stern.
The Parohket in the Temple, Exodus 21:31-35 describes the curtain as it existed in the desert Tabernacle. It separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Only the Cohen hagadol (high Priest) was allowed to pass through the Parohket into the Holy of Holies and he could only do it once a year on Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), to make a sacrifice for his sins and the sins of the Jewish people. When it was ripped in two from top to bottom, it symbolized the fact that God was giving everyone access to the most holy place of all in Heaven, as taught explicitly in Hebrews 9:3-9, 10:19-22
The Talmud (commentary on Torah) bears an amazing witness to the work of Jesus in altering the system of atonement. The background is that on Yom Kippur, when the Cohen hagadol sacrificed a bull (Leviticus 16), a piece of scarlet cloth was tied between it’s horns. If it later turned white, it meant that God had forgiven Israel’s sin in accordance with Isaiah 1:18, “though your sins be scarlet, they will be white as snow”
“Our Rabbis taught that throughout the forty years that Shim’on HaTzaddik served (Simon the Teacher)...the scarlet cloth would become white. From then on sometimes it would become white and sometimes not...Throughout the forty years before the Temple was destroyed...the scarlet cloth never turned white.
From Yoma 39a-39b The Talmud
Thus in the days of Shim’on HaTzakkik the sacrificial system established by God in the Tanahk (The whole Hebrew Bible) was observed, and it was effective. But afterwards Israel’s spirituality declined so that the sacrificial system was effective only sometimes. Finally after Jesus’ death, forty years before the destruction of the Temple it was never effective. The Talmud does not say it, but what had become effective in forgiving Israel’s sin was the sacrificial death of Jesus the Messiah.
Rabbi Stern, a Messianic Jew, gives us a lot to think about and expounds on the ripping of the curtain from top to bottom. Let's think of the significance of that fact. God in Heaven caused the Parouhket, the curtain that separated His Essence from top (Heaven) to bottom (Earth). Another thought on that verse is that when Jews grieve over a death, they are commanded to tear their clothing as a sign of their grief. Most importantly we are now invited in to the Holy of Holies because of the sacrifice of Jesus.
However none of the above facts offer answers to my nieces questions about the dead being raised on this day. So let us move along.
The Life Application Study Bible points out that four miraculous events occurred on the day of Jesus’ death.
• The sky turned black
• An earthquake
• The curtain (parohket) in the Temple was ripped in two
• The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people
who had died were raised to life.
These events could not have gone unnoticed. Therefore everyone knew something significant had happened.
So know, for what they are worth, here are Marc’s thoughts on the raising of the dead.
We have no problem with the sequence of events in John 11:11-44. These verses are the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. So would it not be reasonable that we could accept that others too had arisen from the dead?
Though the events of Jesus’ death are recorded in all four Gospels, only the Gospel of Matthew includes the fact that the dead had been raised. Mark and Luke both make mention of the curtain of the Temple being torn in two. Luke makes mention of the sky becoming dark and the sun not shining.
So why does only Matthew make mention of this particular event?
Perhaps a clue lies in Matthew’s history. We do know a few things about him.
He was originally called Levi. See Mark 2:13-17 In the Gospel of Matthew he is called Levi and in the Gospel of Luke he is also referred to as Levi. It is only in the Gospel of Mark that he is referred to as Matthew. What else do we know?
A native or inhabitant of GreeceGreek Ματθαιος, Matthaios) is traditionally believed to be the author of the Gospel of Matthew. He was the son of Alphaeus, and was a publican or tax-collector at Capernaum. On one occasion Jesus, coming up from the side of the lake, passed the custom-house where Matthew was seated, and said to him, "Follow me." Matthew arose and followed him, and became his disciple
He is one of the original 12 disciples chosen by Christ to preach his Good News. Mark when recounting the story how the publican is called to be a disciple, he calls him Levi (2:14). Some explain this discrepancy by saying he formerly was known as Levi, but then he changed it, possibly in grateful memory of his call, to Matthew. The same day on which Jesus called him he made a "great feast" (Luke 5:29), a farewell feast, to which he invited Jesus and his disciples, and probably also many of his old associates.
He is one of the few disciples mentioned by name in the apocrypha or the 14 books of the Old Testament included in the Vulgate (except for II Esdras) but omitted in Jewish and Protestant versions of the Bible. Eastern Christian churches (except the Coptic church) accept all these books as canonical; the Russian Orthodox Gospel of Thomas, suggesting Matthew was of more importance in the early church than surviving evidence indicates. The time and manner of his death are unknown.
Some traditions say that Matthew was martyr and was martyred in Ethiopia, others say that he was martyred in Hierapolis of Parthia, an ancient country in Asia on the Caspian Sea that dominated southwestern Asia from about 100 BC to 200 AD. According Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus, Matthew the Evangelist was martyred in Hierapolis, and Matthew traditionally considered to be the author of the first Gospel..
Levi was a wealthy tax collector. His name also clues us in that he was a Levite. The Levites were the Israeli tribe of priests and he knew his heritage and he was no doubt educated as a priest. So he was aware of Torah, the first five books of Scripture and the oral Talmud, since there was nothing written at this time. He knew the importance of these events and based on that he recorded them. The Pharisees or P’rushim were the Temple leaders in Jesus’ day. These were learned men that were focused solely on the Law and keeping the Law. They had left out the Mercy, Compassion and the Love of God for His people that the original Levites that served as priests had been keenly aware of. Because of his profession, collecting taxes for the Roman government, Levi was disowned by other Jews and was outcast from practicing Judaism.
On consideration of the events that unfold, Jesus tells Levi, "Follow Me" and then a great feast is held wherein Jesus dines with tax collectors, Levi's friends and probably family (we see in Mark that there was another son of Alphaeus named John). He emerges as Matthew. Because of these three events, embracing a sect of Judaism, holding a feast and changing a name, this has all the outward appearances of a Covenant ritual. Levi now embraces Jesus as Messiah and joins this new sect of Judaism that believes Jesus has come to overthrow the immediate ruling class. Of course the disciples eyes get opened later on, but none of the followers of Jesus knew this until after His death and resurrection. We can assume that Levi/Matthew was a learned man and from his name determine his heritage. His father is mentioned several times in different Gospels, so we can glean from that his family held some importance at one time. Perhaps this shaped Matthew's attention to detail.
Let’s now look at the literal Greek translation of these verses. This is from the Strong’s Concordance.
50 And Jesus again crying with a voice loud released the spirit.
51. And look, the curtain of the temple was torn into two from above until below. And the earth was shaken, and the rocks were torn,
52. and the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the having fallen asleep saints were raised.
53. And coming forth out of the tombs after the rising of him entered into the holy city and were shown to many.
54. the And centurion and those with him guarding Jesus, seeing the earthquake and the happenings, were afraid tremendously, saying, Truly of God Son was this one!
Instead of saying Holy People, the Greek translation of Matthew uses the word “saints.”
Note especially in verse 53 that no one appeared until Jesus had risen from the dead. Afterwards they went into the “Holy City” or Jerusalem.
53. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
Let’s also look at Acts 2:16-36 These are the word Peter spoke to the crowds of Jerusalem.
“16. No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17. "`In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
18. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
19. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'
22. "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.
23. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
24. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
25. David said about him: "`I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
26. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope,
27. because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
28. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.'
29. "Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.
30. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne.
31. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.
32. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.
33. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
34. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, "`The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand
35. until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet." '
36. "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."
In fulfillment of the prophecies of Joel and David, Jesus the Holy One of God died but did not see decay and was resurrected.
By Jesus’ death and resurrection we now have salvation for all who die afterward. But what of those that had passed on prior to His death and resurrection?
Those that had died prior to these events had lived and died under God’s original Covenant, the 613 laws or Mitzvot that were given to Moses. They were judged under the Law. Perhaps because those that were raised had not just tried to keep the Law, but loved God and His Commandments. Because God does not break His Covenant these people were raised from the dead when God's Son died. The death of Jesus had freed them from their “sleep”. Because Jesus had now become the overall sacrifice for the sin of all those that believe in Him. He was the blood sacrifice to cover the sin of those who loved God and His Commandments, therefore those who were raised.
He will also raise us and we too will be resurrected.
Various commentaries and oral tradition and of course the writings of Matthew in 27:53 view this particular miracle as a reaffirmation to the families of these “holy people who had died were raised to life” that Jesus was the Messiah. Once again they were being greeted by and seeing departed loved ones.
Interestingly we are told that these people were raised from the dead and appeared to those in Jerusalem. We are not told anything else. So we know nothing of their fate after these events. We should heed the words of Matthew Henry, we must not desire to be wise above what is written.