Matthew 27:50-54 - Attendant Prodigies
It comes as no surprise to discover that the death of Christ is attended by several events which can be regarded as nothing other than miraculous signs throwing light on his ministry. That this is the purpose of these occurrences is demonstrated conclusively by the confession which they drew from the centurion who cried out, 'Truly this was the Son of God!' (Matthew 27:54). The 'attendant prodigies' (the phrase belongs to last century) which accompanied the self-giving of our Lord on the cross all bear testimony to him as the Son of God and our Saviour.
These may be divided into two categories: occurrences which were of significance for the passion of Christ, and events significant for the actual death of our Lord. To the former of these categories belongs the three-hour darkness of Calvary, pierced and interpreted for us by the cry of our Lord: 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' Three phenomena, however, belong to the latter category: the tearing of the veil of the Temple, the earthquake and the resurrection of some saints at the point of the death of Christ. It is to these we turn in this study, and since Matthew's is the only gospel which records all these events for us, our study will be based on his record. Here, surely, Matthew reminds us of a three-fold significance in the death of Jesus on the cross.
1. The Cross of Significance for the Religious World
The first of these events is the rending of the veil of the Temple in two pieces from the top to the bottom (Matthew 27:51a). This was the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place, and is described for us in Exodus 26:31-33. It was of white fabric, into which was woven a most beautiful and intricate picture of the cherubim in blue, purple and scarlet thread. The very presence of the curtain, together with the image woven on to it, symbolised the unapproachableness of the God of the Most Holy Place.
Before asking the meaning of the tearing of the curtain, several points may be noted. First, the curtain was very costly. This is implied, among other things, by the very colours of the threads, colours which are associated with sovereignty and majesty. What was done, therefore, when the veil was torn, was not done lightly. Again, the sheer weight of threads interwoven in the white fabric, tells us that the curtain would not tear easily. It is difficult enough to tear some fabrics, but when a fabric has been interwoven with intricate thread-patterns, it becomes almost impossible to tear. Thirdly, Matthew stresses the direction of the tear — it was from top to bottom. That is to say, the tear was supernatural. And fourthly, it is emphasised that the tear left the curtain in two pieces; it was not partly torn. Thus the action symbolised in the phenomenon was a completed and finished one.
What, then, was the significance of this event? I think that the meaning of the occurrence can best be summarised in the following way.
The tearing of the veil of the Temple was first and foremost a sign that the old order had come to an end. In Christ, all the ritual connected with the sacrificial system, and particularly with the all-important annual Day of Atonement, was rendered defunct. Christ had made an end of all ritual as the way to approach God. This is the whole teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews: 'Christ', says the writer, has 'entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us' (9:12). He has fulfilled the office of High Priest in entering into the presence of God to make atonement for the sins of his people; but what he has done within the Holy Place has rendered every subsequent sacrifice unnecessary and void. This is the meaning of Paul's great phrase in Romans 10:4, where he says that 'Christ is the end of the law for righteousness...' He is the end of the law because he has fulfilled its demands and abrogated its ceremonial and cultic rituals. He is the way; and the tearing of the veil shows that every other way but his is invalid.
This is extremely significant for the whole of the religious experience of mankind. The phenomenon of the tearing of the veil teaches us the futility of every attempt to approach the Almighty apart from the cross. It is simply not true that every religious path leads to God. The death of our Lord has demonstrated the folly and emptiness of every man-made effort to enter the dwelling-place of God apart from the gospel of Christ.
Now, for the first time, the ordinary Jew was able to see into the Most Holy Place, as that dwelling-place was revealed. It is difficult, I think, for us to capture the horror which must have accompanied that moment, as the place held in such awe and high regard was forever now exposed before the eyes of men. The God of the Holy Place dwelt in light unapproachable and in thick darkness (1 Kings 8:12 and 1 Timothy 6:16). The mystery surrounding the Most Holy Place was reinforced by the ritual that allowed only the High Priest into it, and that but once a year. Now, however, the curtain hangs lifeless in two pieces, the fiery cherubim no longer preventing access into or a vision of the Holy of Holies.
The New Testament makes it clear that the cross is a manifestation of the nature and character of God. For example, in Romans 3:25, the propitiation, we are told, declares the righteousness of God. Again, in 5:8, Christ's dying for us while we were yet sinners, commends to us the love of God. In other words, the death of Christ reveals something of the nature of God. Our God is not the dumb idol of other religions, but the God who dwells with his people, and whose dwelling-place has been disclosed.
But the most significant aspect of the tearing of the veil is, as Hebrews 10:19-22 informs us, that we have boldness to enter in to the place where God sits between the cherubim. There is a new and living way opened for us, and ours is the right to make use of it. The veil having been torn, and Christ having been set as High Priest over the house of God, the exhortation to us is 'Let us draw near.' How different are the attempts of the world's religions to aspire to God! Their every effort leads only to confused dreams and disappointed hopes! Our religion invites us to come, because the veil — 'that is to say, his flesh' — is torn for us. The torn curtain is a perpetual evangelist, because every wound of our Lord's says 'Come'.
2. The Cross of Significance for the Natural World
'The earth did quake, and the rocks rent...' (Matthew 27:51b-52). It is significant that in Matthew's record, two earthquakes are recorded, one in chapter 27 and the other in chapter 28. The first of these occurs in conjunction with the death of our Lord, and the other prior to the angel's removing the stone away from the door of the sepulchre. The redemptive event is thus accompanied by two convulsions within the natural world, one as Christ gives up his spirit and the other as he rises from the dead in newness of resurrection victory. Concerning the significance of these heralds of the work of Christ, three things are clear.
It is significant that the earthquake occurs either after or, perhaps, with the tearing of the veil, the significance of which has been discussed above. That is to say, the quaking of the earth attends upon the disclosing of the dwelling-place of Jehovah. It is this Jehovah that is described in the New Testament as 'a consuming fire' (Hebrew 12:29). Long ago the prophet asked: 'who may abide the day of His coming?' (Malachi 3:2). The earthquake bears testimony to the terribleness of the God whose glory is disclosed at Calvary.
Hendriksen, therefore, in his Commentary on Matthew 27:51, may be too quick to dismiss a similarity with Sinai here. At Sinai, God manifested his glory in the giving of the law, the same law which was housed in the Most Holy Place, inside the ark of the covenant. The law is the same, and the God of the law is the same. Calvary bears testimony to the same glory witnessed at Sinai. In both instances the response of the natural world is the same. The earthquake is a reminder that the justice of Sinai's law has been vindicated at Calvary.
It is significant also that Matthew records for us that Jesus cried again 'with a loud voice'. Death did not reduce his powers of speech to a whisper, as is so often the case. His death is unique. Death awaits his sovereign decree before exacting its tribute. He gives up his own spirit (Matthew 27:50, Luke 23:46). This is the voice of the Eternal, the voice of the Son of God. Death bows before the authority of the same voice when he cries in another place: 'Lazarus, come forth!' (John 11:43). It is the same voice that commands and orders all things in the sphere of nature: 'What manner of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?' The very tempestuous elements of nature themselves recognise, and pay the homage of obedience, to their Creator.
It should cause us no great wonder, then, that the world which stands in awe before the voice that tears the cedars asunder (Psalm 29:5) should quake when that voice cries aloud in death. The very movement of the created order is testimony to the authority and sovereignty of the Christ who yields up his spirit to the Father. The centurion's testimony is exactly right, therefore; no other voice but that of the Son of God could cause a convulsion of such magnitude. The world stands in awe before the 'passive obedience of Christ.'
We must also interpret the significance of the earthquake in the light of Paul's statement in Romans 8:22, that 'the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now', in anticipation of deliverance to come. Paul's teaching is that the vanity to which God has subjected the world is coupled with the hope of deliverance. There will be a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). The earthquake of Calvary is part of the groaning to which Paul refers, as the natural world itself now bears testimony to the paying of the redemptive and delivering price in the self-giving of Christ.
At Calvary, the very stones are crying out, testifying to the significance of the death that has taken place, and the work that has been completed. If the created and natural world bears testimony to the terrible majesty of God, to the authority of Jesus Christ, and to the redemptive significance of the cross, it is little wonder that Paul declares that the things that are made leave us without excuse (Romans 1:20).
3. The Significance of the Cross in the Spiritual World
Perhaps the most intriguing phenomenon which occurred at the moment of the death of Christ is that recorded for us in Matthew 27:52-53:
And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
This strange incident, which only Matthew records, has caused a great deal of discussion.
It is clear from Matthew's account that two things happened when Christ yielded up his spirit: the graves were opened, and the bodies of many of the saints who had died were resurrected to life. Then, after the resurrection of Christ, these same resurrected saints left their tombs, came into Jerusalem and appeared to many. It may seem strange at first that the bodies of these saints were resurrected and brought to life, but that was only three days later that they vacated their tombs. This has left some scholars arguing that in fact these saints left their tombs when Christ died. But Matthew explicitly says they did not. Perhaps the problem is a psychological one — we forget that graves in Palestine were different from our modern cemeteries. Christ's 'sepulchre' was hewn out of the rock: it was large and spacious. There is nothing improbable in these saints' being brought to life in their sepulchres and remaining there until the resurrection morning.
The extent of this resurrection of saints is not stated by Matthew. We are not told specifically how many graves were opened, nor are we told how many of the Lord's people were brought to life. What is clear is that no unbeliever was brought back to life to hear the gospel again, although the sepulchres of unbelievers may have opened. The strange phenomenon was probably this: when Christ died, all the sepulchres in Jerusalem opened. Some of these contained the bodies of unbelievers, and some the bodies of men and women who had died in Christ. Of these, no unbeliever was resurrected, but some, indeed many, of the Lord's people enjoyed the unique privilege of being brought back to life in resurrection newness. They remained in their graves until after the Lord had risen again.
Now, we come to ask, what was the significance of this occurrence? It was surely a token of events that were taking place in the very heartland of the curse, in the grave and in the world of spirits. It was a sign that Christ was engaging himself, successfully and victoriously, in the abolition of death and the destruction of the last enemy. It symbolised, in a marvellous way, the death of death itself.
The opening of the graves, together with the resurrection of many of the saints asleep in them, signified first the destruction of Satan. Hebrews 2:14 is explicit on the theme of the victory of Christ when it declares that Christ became a partaker of flesh and blood 'that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil'. The last enemy is now not only disarmed, he is also finally defeated, slain, like Goliath of old, with his own sword. That is why graves open when the Son of God gives up the ghost. He is bringing captive captivity, and at last all that is satanic and deathly is bound by the King-Priest of the cross.
Again, the phenomenon declares that the sting of death is removed. Saints are brought to life and are resurrected. This, in the thought of the writer to the Hebrews, follows from the victory that has been accomplished. Having destroyed the prince of darkness, Christ also delivers 'them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage' (Hebrews 2:15).
Part of the difficulty that surrounds this whole episode is the question of what these resurrected saints actually did in the grave from Friday to Sunday. Some evangelical scholars have expressed surprise that they could remain in the darkness and corruption of their tombs for such a period. But the whole episode is illustrative of one of the glorious declarations of our Shorter Catechism. At death the Lord's people 'rest in their graves, still united to Christ'. The Westminster Divines recognised not only the indissoluble nature of the union between saved sinner and Saviour, but also that this union is fully 'operative' even in the grave itself.
In his excellent commentary of 1884 on the Shorter Catechism, Alexander Paterson puts it like this:
Christ's descent into the gloomy mansions of the dead hath, as it were, perfumed this dreary abode; so that the saint may view it no longer loathsome, but as a place of sweet repose until the sound of the archangel and the trump of God.Comment on S.C. Question 27 on the Humiliation of Christ.
No doubt part of the reason why these resurrected saints remained in the grave, fully alive, until after the resurrection of our Lord, was to show that even in the grave there is full union between saint and Saviour. The sting is removed for the believer.
Thirdly, the phenomenon reminds us that 'the second Adam is a quickening spirit' (1 Corinthians 15:45). The first man was given life. This second man is the Lord from heaven, and he gives life. He is the resurrection and the life. If a man trust in him, 'though he were dead, yet shall he live' (John 11:25). And he still asks: 'Believest thou this?'
There is, therefore, a three-fold significance in the opening of the graves and the resurrection of the saints when Christ dies. It is symbolic of his victory, of the indissoluble union between Christ and his people, and of the hope of every child of God. But we cannot end without referring to the postscript. These same saints appeared in Jerusalem after the resurrection of Christ. They appeared 'to many'. Why? Because all that had taken place in the spiritual world when Christ finished the work given him to do was to be declared and preached. No unbeliever rose to hear the gospel a second time. But in the good providence of God, many believers were resurrected for this very purpose. And many of the Jews whose voices mingled with the chorus of hatred: 'Crucify him! Crucify him!' — now see for themselves the glory of what he has done. These saints brought back to life are the first post-resurrection heralds of the victory wrought by Christ. The church of today is only following them in proclaiming the changeless message of that same victory.