Matthew 27:52-53 – Good Friday: Prelude to Easter
… the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.Matthew 27:52, 53
Many people have a hard time placing Good Friday. What are we supposed to do? According to many, Good Friday should be determined more or less by a funeral mood, by sentiments reflecting a grieving about the events which happened on Golgotha. In many places in the world Good Friday Passion consists of plays acting out some of the sad events surrounding the "Calvary experience." These plays usually manifest little care for the scriptural facts. Accuracy about the true gospel of Christ, the Redeemer, is rare. We, too, usually come together on Good Friday, in a worship service. For what? For mourning? For remembering a dead Jesus? We come together to remember Jesus Christ, indeed, but not the dead Jesus; rather, Him who lives! We remember (no, not by acting out!) His death and resurrection, because it has been Pentecost, on which the doctrine of His resurrection went out into the world. Ever since, the preaching may only bring Jesus Christ and Him crucified, but never in isolation from His resurrection. Good Friday, therefore, too, is not a mournful day but a joyful day; it is not a remembrance in sadness but in gladness. This is so, especially when we learn from God's Word about the first fruits of Christ's victory over death which became evident on Good Friday already.
The Lord Jesus Christ has died. He just cried again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit. The Jews seem to have witnessed their victory over this "troubler of Israel." The spirits of hell seem to have sufficient reason for celebration. To Jesus' disciples, on the other hand, this moment rings with disillusion and tragedy: their Master's life has just come to an end in the most humiliating manner. Is it a victory for the leaders of the Jews? Have they come to the end of a long period of troubles? Far be it from them! The echo of His last cry still resounded, when some shocking events took place: the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, there was an earthquake and the rocks were split, yes, and we also read: the graves were opened and many bodies of deceased saints were raised.
God is very active in our text. The first thing that strikes us is the mood of the verbs in these verses, namely the passive mood: "the earth was shaken, the rocks were split …," by God! God Himself is showing that the case of His Son is not one of tragedy, but of victory. With the same cosmic-apocalyptic powers with which the darkness fell upon the land three hours earlier, God appears again to underline the greatness of this moment. The whole creation is involved in this moment in which the Son finishes His work of atonement. This creation had been groaning in travail, just as the saints had been inwardly, waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God, and now the moment of this manifestation has come, in principle! The new time has come. The sacrifice is sufficient. No more sprinkling of blood in atonement to Cod is needed. God opens the way to His throne. God opens the way to the Judgment from His throne. God also opens the graves. God opens the way to life. God does it all.
Why did this happen on that otherwise so tragic day? In order to answer that question, we have to go back to the beginning of that week. At that time the struggle between the leaders and the Lord Jesus Christ was at its worst. The immediate cause for this had been the miracle of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The commotion resulting from this had been great. The leaders had tried to calm down the emotions. The people should forget this miracle as soon as possible. But the Lord Jesus does not allow this to happen! In raising Lazarus He wanted to show beforehand the power of His own resurrection. Christ believed in His own resurrection. Every time He had announced His suffering He had added the fact that after three days He would rise from the dead. By the power of that faith He also had performed the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. It was with the power of the resurrection the same as with the fruit of His death: it worked in advance you could say. Just as the Old Testament believers received the forgiveness of their sins on the basis of the sacrifice that Christ would bring for their sins, so we see the power of His resurrection-to-come at work already. And no wonder, for Christ Himself had made this the main feature of His proclamation of the Kingdom of God. When at the time John the Baptist had sent out an inquiry about the true identity of the Lord Jesus, the answer had been: Tell your master John what you have seen, viz. the blind see, the deaf hear, the cripple walk, yes even the dead are raised: here is the glory of the Kingdom of God. This was true, indeed, for He had raised the daughter of Jairus and the son of the widow from Nain. And now He had also raised Lazarus from the dead. By that fact the anger and hatred was of the Jews aroused, and they were instigated to great envy. It brought the leaders together on that memorable day on which Caiaphas had said,
it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.
In other words, the miracle of the resurrection from the dead had to be forgotten as quickly as possible, and the Lord Jesus should be removed at their earliest convenience. But now we see that, although it seems as if Jesus' end has come, He still reveals Himself here at the cross as Victor! For the first fruits of His victory show in the power of His resurrection which the leaders had tried to remove!
The tombs also were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.
The expression for "the tombs" is very definite. Perhaps we have to understand it in this way that all the graves in the vicinity of Jerusalem were opened. Reading it thus, it is striking that it then says: "and many bodies were raised." Matthew wants us to know that after God opened the tombs by His great power, He made a selection among the dead in the tombs. For only certain graves appear to be empty: viz. of the saints! No, we do not know their names, in order that we should not be distracted from this One Name, who moved the depth of hell, the heart of the earth, and the height of heaven. But, when in the midst of all the consternation the investigators of the area made up the list of graves that were empty, it was striking that the graves were empty of those who had been known for their piety. They were the people who had been looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. People like Simeon and Anna (which is not to say that they were among them!) who had looked for the redemption of Israel, who had their righteousness in the promised Messiah, they are raised! No, not all the saints are raised. This is not the last resurrection yet, but many are raised. And in God's selecting we see already the first fruits of the glorious resurrection which will take place in the last days. Of this "(blessed) resurrection" of Revelation 20 we see the prelude here.
Thus we may also see that their raising is more glorious than the raising of Jairus' daughter, or of the widow's son in Nain, or of Lazarus. Those who take this resurrection to be the same as theirs run into all sorts of problems with respect to their stay during the time between their resurrection and their going into the holy city after Christ's resurrection. According to some they have hidden themselves during that time. Others have questions "why we do not read more about them," and "whether they died again," and "how long after?" However, we read that "these saints … appeared to many." This expression would not be used if their resurrection was the same as Lazarus' for instance. Also concerning the Lord Jesus we read about His many "appearances" after His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:5ff). Where He was during the intervals between His appearances, we do not know. When we read about these saints that they "appeared" after Christ's resurrection, we may conclude that they are raised immortal, with glorious bodies. Our text does not explain where they were from the moment when they were raised until they appeared to many in Jerusalem. They appeared after the risen Lord did, for He is the first-born from the dead that in everything He might be preeminent (Colossians 1:18). Nevertheless, they appeared too, saints who were raised gloriously as a testimony to Christ's victory over death for Him and for those who belong to Him.
Good Friday, therefore, is a day of rejoicing! The graves of many were opened already, on that day of the death of Christ. And on the day of His resurrection these many saints appeared as visible and tangible proof that Christ's death was not a failure. It was the prelude to Easter, when they rose! It was the prelude to the day of the resurrection as well, when not just many saints, but when all saints will be raised. I believe the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.