A friend of mine recently sent me a text asking about Matthew 27:50-54. I promised him I would devote a blog post to the answer, and so here it is. I also told him that it’s always surprised me that more people don’t ask me about this particular passage. It is, after all, one of the most bizarre texts in the New Testament.
The passage deals with a certain event that happened in Jerusalem in the wake of Christ’s death and resurrection. What was that event? I’ll let the verses speak for themselves:
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. 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. So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (N.K.J.V.)
Okay, here are the questions that must be asked and answered if we want to rightly understand this resurrection of these saints:
- Who were these “saints” who had their bodies resurrected?
- Following this event, what became of these saints?
- Were these bodies resurrected at the moment of the earthquake or were they resurrected after Christ’s own resurrection?
- Are we right to assume that the souls that had inhabited these bodies rejoined the bodies for this event?
Question #1: Who were these saints who had their bodies resurrected? There are two primary options for the answer to this question. Option 1: These saints were a select group of believers from the Old Testament era. Option 2: These saints were New Testament believers who had believed in Jesus as Messiah/Savior during the three-and-a-half years of His earthly ministry and had died before He did.
I have to say that option 2 seems to be the correct interpretation because the Old Testament believers won’t have their bodies resurrected until Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the tribulation period (Daniel 12:1-3; Job 19:25-26). As a matter of fact, these saints could well have been the likes of Simeon (Luke 2:25-35), Anna (Luke 2:36-38), and John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12). Since it is generally believed that Joseph (the earthly father of Jesus) died before Jesus did, his body could have been one of those resurrected, too.
Question #2: Following this event, what became of these saints? The answer to this question hinges solely upon whether or not these bodies came out of the graves as merely resurrected or as resurrected and glorified. If they came out as merely resurrected, that meant that one day these people died again and were buried again. On the other hand, if they came out as resurrected and glorified, that meant that they ascended to heaven shortly thereafter.
To me, it seems much more likely that these bodies came out resurrected and glorified and ascended to heaven with Jesus shortly thereafter. I say this because there is no other New Testament example of a body that had been buried for a long time being resurrected (but not glorified) to get a second chance at life on earth. For example, all of the resurrections the New Testament specifically names from Jesus’ ministry — Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, the son of the widow of Nain — were very recent deaths of just a few days at most. Also, if these resurrected believers had taken up new residences in or around Jerusalem and lived for many years afterward, it seems likely that Matthew would have made some mention of that. The way the story reads, the appearances of these resurrected saints in Jerusalem were very widespread but not prolonged.
Question #3: Were these bodies resurrected at the moment of the earthquake or were they resurrected after Christ’s own resurrection? Frankly, the passage is written in a way that can be taken either way. Let me explain. Verses 50-52 say (in order):
- Jesus yielded up His spirit in dying.
- The veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
- The earth quaked.
- The rocks were split.
- The graves were opened.
- The bodies in question were raised.
Okay, so all that makes it sound like those resurrections occurred at the moment of the earthquake immediately following Christ’s death. But wait a minute. The next verse, verse 53, says: “and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
That, of course, makes it sound like these resurrections didn’t take place until after Christ’s resurrection. It’s either that or the bodies were resurrected immediately following Christ’s death, remained in their tombs from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning, and then left their tombs and went into Jerusalem after Jesus had arisen. By consulting the New Testament, we find no example of a resurrected body ever remaining in a tomb for any amount of time at all. Therefore, the answer to the question seems to be that, despite the fact that the earthquake opened the tombs immediately following Christ’s death, these bodies weren’t actually resurrected until after His resurrection.
In further support of this interpretation, 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 calls Jesus the “firstfruits” of resurrection, and both Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 1:5 call Him “the firstborn from the dead.” You see, there had been other resurrections before Christ’s, both in the Old Testament era (1 Kings 17:20-23; 2 Kings 4:33-37) and the New Testament era (Luke 7:11-15; 8:40-56; John 11:1-44), but all of those people eventually died again. Jesus, however, never died again after His resurrection. To the contrary, He arose in a body that wasn’t just resurrected but was also glorified. In this way, He was the “firstfruits” of that kind of resurrection, the “firstborn from the dead.”
This means that if the resurrections described in Matthew 27:50-54 also included the glorification of those bodies, those resurrections could not have occurred before Christ’s resurrection. Such a thing would have eliminated Jesus from being the “firstfruits” and “the firstborn from the dead.” Therefore, the better understanding seems to be that even though the earthquake that immediately followed Christ’s death opened their graves, the bodies being resurrected and going into Jerusalem didn’t occur until after Christ’s resurrection.
Question #4: Are we right to assume that the souls that had inhabited these bodies rejoined the bodies for this event? This one is easy to answer. There is no Biblical example of a body ever being resurrected in any way to remain soulless. That might work in zombie movies, but God doesn’t roll that way. No, if those bodies resurrected, left their graves, and went into Jerusalem, they did so with the souls that had once inhabited them back inside them.
As for where those souls came from, it had to be the site that is known in the Greek as Hades and in the Hebrew as Sheol. That is where all souls, saved or lost, went at death before Christ’s ascension back to heaven. In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus provides the Bible’s most vivid description of this site as He talks about the site’s two sides: one side for the saved souls and another side for the lost souls. We might think of the “saved” side as the “Paradise” side (Luke 23:43) and the “lost” side as the “torment” side (Luke 16:24).
Just to finish out this part of the discussion, when Jesus ascended to heaven following His resurrection, He emptied all the souls from the “Paradise” side of Hades/Sheol and took them into heaven with Him (Ephesians 4:7-10). This officially closed for business that side of the site, and saved souls now immediately go straight to heaven (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:21-23). However, the “torment” side of the site is still very much open for business and is the “hell” that we think of when we use that word.
And so, by putting everything together, the interpretation I apply to Matthew 27:50-54 goes as follows:
- Those resurrected “saints” were New Testament believers who had believed in Jesus as Messiah/Savior during the three-and-a-half years of His earthly ministry and had died before He did.
- Those bodies were not only resurrected but also glorified, and following this event they ascended to heaven with Jesus sometime shortly afterward as He ascended in His own resurrected/glorified body and soul.
- Even though the grave sites were split open by the earthquake that immediately followed Christ’s death, those bodies weren’t resurrected and glorified until immediately following Christ’s resurrection.
- Simultaneously with those bodies being resurrected and glorified, the soul that had once inhabited each body was called forth from the “Paradise” side of Hades/Sheol to rejoin the body. Those souls were then taken on up to heaven as part of those resurrected/glorified bodies ascending into heaven.
Finally, in closing, let me mention that I believe that C.I. Scofield, the man who gave the world The Scofield Reference Bible, was in the right ballpark when he suggested that Matthew 27:50-54 ties in to the Old Testament law’s Feast of the Firstfruits (Leviticus 23:10-14). For that Feast, Israel’s priest would wave a single sheaf of barley before the Lord to commemorate Israel’s thankfulness for the coming harvest.
However, as Scofield pointed out, Jesus Himself said that if one grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it produces much grain (John 12: 24). As Scofield understood the application to Israel’s Feast of Firstfruits, Jesus’ death was one seed dying, a singular seed that in turn produced not just one sheaf of barley to represent the firstfruits but a larger harvest to represent them. Those saints from Matthew 27:50-54, who joined Jesus in entering into heaven with their resurrected/glorified bodies, were that larger harvest. Putting it another way, while Jesus was undoubtedly the “firstfruits” of God’s eventual total harvest of resurrected/glorified bodies, His death and resurrection were actually great enough to create what we might call a spillover abundance in regards to Him being those “firstfruits.” And those resurrected/glorified believers from Matthew 27:50-54 were that spillover abundance.