Scripture Study: Matthew 27:51-53
As the Easter season approaches, I wanted to look at some of the strange and unusual events that are recorded in connection with the death and resurrection of Jesus. These events are only recorded in one or two verses of Scripture and they have a real significance for understanding the power of the death and resurrection of Christ. The specific passage I want to focus on in this study is this one:
Matthew 27:51b-53 (NIV)
[51b] The earth shook, the rocks split  and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.  They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
WHO ARE THE “HOLY PEOPLE”?
It’s possible that this refers to the great saints like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It’s possible but quite unlikely. The fact that the tombs are empty causes enough of a commotion–had it been that it was Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–well that would have caused an uproar in the city.
I get the impression that the ones who showed up were instantly recognized. It’s like a homecoming with many people in the city welcoming back loved ones who have recently passed away. The “holy people” we should have in mind are those who have died more recently who now go back to a city where they are recognized without introduction.
In John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible, it is said that they were some later saints, Zechariah the father of John the Baptist, John the Baptist himself, good old Simeon, Joseph the husband of Mary, and others, well-known to persons now alive. If ever you needed a good plot for a movie–this would be it!
Passages like this are easy to speculate about especially because it’s such a brief account.
But this passage wasn’t written to make us open Pandora’s box of speculation. These verses were written to tell us something about the nature of Jesus’ death. To see the significance, let’s have a closer look at the process because it happens in TWO STAGES.
The FIRST STAGE happens immediately at the death of Jesus.
You can guarantee that this event caused a big stir on Friday.
The people back then were not buried in the ground like we do today. People were buried in caves with rocks rolled in front…that’s how Jesus was buried. It would be easy to see open and empty tombs. With a little detective work of doing a missing body count, a trend would develop. Not all tombs are empty–not everyone has come to life. This was a difficult trend for the Jews to deal with because an event like this shouldn’t happen. Common belief by most Jews that there would be a resurrection. However, when that RESURRECTION did take place the Jews expected ALL Jews to rise, not a limited number.
The breaking open of these tombs has created a crisis.
For certain everyone would be asking, “Where are the bodies?”
They will have that answer on the day Jesus rises from the dead!
But the bigger crisis is a FAITH CRISIS–why is it that some were raised and others were not?
This brings us to the SECOND STAGE of the process.
After Jesus was raised from death, those people went into the holy city (Jerusalem), and many people saw them. (Matthew 27:53b. – NLT)
When Jesus died on the cross, everyone thought it was all over.
But looks can be deceiving.
That’s because DEATH isn’t a natural occurrence. It’s a result of SIN.
- The grave has every right to hold us unless our sin can be covered.
- Death has every right to keep us unless payment can be made.
- Satan has every right to make a claim on us unless a ransom has been given.
And when Jesus breathed His last that’s exactly what happened. SIN is covered. Payment is made. A ransom is given. And DEATH watches helplessly as Jesus claims what is rightfully His.
It’s the DEATH of Jesus that VICTORY is secured.
The RESURRECTION of Jesus is more like a victory lap. SIN has been covered. The payment has been fulfilled.
When these recently risen holy ones enter the city they do so as participants in the “victory lap” of Jesus. And that’s the reason why ALL weren’t raised.
All weren’t raised because, in their lifetime, they had their eyes focused on the wrong spot.
- The holy people were the ones who trusted that God had set them apart, not because they were Jewish, but because He was faithful!
- The holy people didn’t presume that they had a place in heaven just because they were born in Jerusalem, they trusted in the GRACE of God to bring them into His family.
- The holy people weren’t those who sacrificed at the Temple and went on with life as they pleased, they sacrificed their hearts as well.
- The holy people understood they couldn’t do it on their own and they needed God.
Each of those empty tombs represents a person who understands that real spiritual victory can’t be earned…but rather that spiritual victory can be found when we put our trust in God’s incredible GRACE!
So where does all of this leave us today?
I believe it leaves us with a challenge. What we are seeing here is a preview of what is going to happen in the future.
There will be a day when a RESURRECTION will happen–and it’s going to be a selective event.
Some will end up in the second death, to be banished from God’s grace forever. And like the people in the city of Jerusalem, none of us should presume which group we’re in.
Looking at the situation from one side of the fence.
- You may have been baptized in the church–but your baptism doesn’t save you.
- You may be one of the foundational members–but that doesn’t save you either.
- You could be a longstanding member–but that’s not what saves.
- You Mom & Dad, your spouse are believers–but that doesn’t make you any more saved.
And here’s looking from the other side of the fence.
- You may feel you have nothing to offer the King of Kings–that won’t stop you from being saved.
- You may be having doubts and questions–they can’t stop you from being saved.
- You may be carrying guilt, hurt, hidden secrets, regrets–they’re not stoppages.
Salvation is totally and solely linked to the Cross.
If we come on the basis of our own merits we are being presumptuous.
If we disqualify ourselves on the basis of something we’ve done in the past, we are presumptuous.
But if we come to the Cross trusting the GRACE OF GOD then we will never be presumptuous.
That is the challenge…but there is also much comfort. You see, at the end of the day, the HOLY PEOPLE are just like us.
Commentary: Verse-by-Verse Bible Commentary – Matthew 27:53; Studylight.org.
Bible Translations: New International Version (NIV); Amplified Bible (AMP); New Living Testament (NLT).
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