". . . and the graves were opened;
and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised . . ."
Jerusalem: AD 1944
My dad and my Uncle Albert were enjoying some leave after serving with the British Army in North Africa. As they were wandering around the so-called "Holy City," sightseeing, a powerful bomb exploded in one of the city's cemeteries. Some coffins were unearthed by the blast, and a few of them were broken open. My Uncle Albert liked to spice up the story by telling us that they found scratch marks on the insides of some of the coffin lids!
3:00 pm, Abib 14, AD 31
We read of a somewhat similar scenario in Matthew 27:46, 50-53:
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?" . . . Jesus, when He had cried out again with a loud voice, yielded up His spirit. And 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.
This was an amazing and, no doubt, frightening event, and one that raises many questions, some of which we do not have the answers to at this time:
» When did the earthquake take place: at Christ's death or shortly before His resurrection? Or were there two earthquakes (see Matthew 28:2)?
» Did these saints awake from the dead when Jesus died and stay in the tombs until after He rose? Or did they awake at His resurrection and come out immediately?
» Who were these "many" saints? How many of them were there?
» When did they live their original lives?
» Why did this event happen? What was its purpose?
» Were they made immortal sons of God at this time?
This article will answer the last two of these questions.
Two Main Types
The Bible reveals that, although the scriptures describe three great resurrections in addition to Jesus' resurrection, there are really only two main types of resurrection. Although only a few have witnessed it so far, the type we are most familiar with is the resurrection to immortal, spiritual life. This is the type of resurrection Jesus Christ experienced, and the one Christians look forward to experiencing. We commonly call it the "First Resurrection."
However, the Bible also has much to say about another type of resurrection—that to mortal, physical, temporary life, the same as the life humans enjoy or endure now. The Bible actually describes this physical resurrection in more detail than the process of resurrection to immortal, spiritual life. For example:
So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them. Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, 'Thus says the Lord God: "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live."'" So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army. Then He said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel." (Ezekiel 37:7-11)
This exciting scripture is just one scene from the event that we talk a lot about on the Last Great Day of the Feast. We call it the "Second Resurrection," and it describes the time when all of those billions, small and great, who never had an opportunity for salvation will be physically reconstructed (as only God knows how) to live again—to live a physical life, yes—but one with a difference: the opportunity for, and the great probability of, salvation and eternal, spiritual life.
Numerous Physical Resurrections
Physical resurrection is not exclusively restricted to the time of the future Second Resurrection. In fact, there are an astounding number of biblical cases of miraculous resurrections to physical life. For example:
» God used Elijah to resurrect the son of the widow of Zarephath:
Now it happened after these things that the son of the woman who owned the house became sick. And his sickness was so serious that there was no breath left in him. So she said to Elijah, "What have I to do with you, O man of God? Have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to kill my son?" . . . And he stretched himself out on the child three times, and cried out to the Lord and said, "O Lord my God, I pray, let this child's soul come back to him." Then the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back to him, and he revived. (I Kings 17:17-18, 21-22)
» Similarly, God used Elisha to raise a Shunammite boy:
When Elisha came into the house, there was the child, lying dead on his bed. He went in therefore, shut the door behind the two of them, and prayed to the Lord. And he went up and lay on the child, and put his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands; and he stretched himself out on the child, and the flesh of the child became warm. He returned and walked back and forth in the house, and again went up and stretched himself out on him; then the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. (II Kings 4:32-35)
» Jesus Himself raised Jairus' daughter:
While He was still speaking, some came from the ruler of the synagogue's house who said, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?" As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, He said to the ruler of the synagogue, "Do not be afraid; only believe." . . . Then He came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, . . . He said to them, "Why make this commotion and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping." And they ridiculed Him. But when He had put them all out, He took the father and the mother of the child, and those who were with Him, and entered where the child was lying. Then He took the child by the hand, and said to her, "Talitha, cumi," which is translated, "Little girl, I say to you, arise." Immediately the girl arose and walked. . . . (Mark 5:35-36, 38-42)
» Jesus also raised the son of the widow of Nain:
And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. . . . When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, "Young man, I say to you, arise." So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother. (Luke 7:12-15)
» There is, of course, the well-known account of the raising of Lazarus:
Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, "Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me." Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!" And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. (John 11:41-44)
» God worked through the apostle Paul to resurrect a lad named Eutychus:
And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said, "Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is in him." . . . And they brought the young man in alive, and they were not a little comforted. (Acts 20:9-10, 12)
» The apostle Peter raised a church member by the name of Tabitha:
At Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did. But it happened in those days that she became sick and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. . . . When [Peter] had come, they brought him to the upper room . . . and [he] knelt down and prayed. And turning to the body he said, "Tabitha, arise." And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. Then he gave her his hand and lifted her up; and when he had called the saints and widows, he presented her alive. (Acts 9:36-37, 39-41)
» Jesus commanded His disciples to raise the dead when He sent them out:
These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: . . . "And as you go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give." (Matthew 10:5-8)
» When John the Baptist sought confirmation that Jesus was the Messiah, the raising of the dead was part of Jesus' response:
Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them." (Matthew 11:4-5)
So, even though the saints' resurrection in AD 31 is the only recorded instance of a multiple physical resurrection, it certainly was not unique. Many others had taken place before it, and a few more took place after it.
A Physical Resurrection
Matthew 27:52 specifically states that the bodies of these saints were resurrected: "And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised." Notice that Matthew does not describe them as having any outstanding or remarkable appearance, as the spirit bodies of Jesus and various others are highlighted as having:
» Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:3)
» Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. (Matthew 13:43)
» [Jesus] was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. (Mark 9:2-3; see also Matthew 17:1-2)
» . . . and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, . . . and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. (Revelation 1:13-16)
Moreover, when these resurrected saints of AD 31 went into Jerusalem, they did not restrict their appearance to a comparative few as Jesus did after His spiritual resurrection. Rather, "they appeared to many."
Like Lazarus, and all the others who had been brought up in physical resurrections, these saints lived for a while longer—no one knows for how long—served the purpose for which they were raised, and then died once again. There is no record of them living eternally after this resurrection.
Only One Raised to Eternal Life
The members of God's church are His "firstfruits" (see James 1:18; Revelation 14:4), but Jesus Christ is the first of those firstfruits—His resurrection and initial ascension to His Father being represented by the Wavesheaf Offering (see Leviticus 23:9-14).
As is pictured by the Feast of Trumpets, the resurrection of the saints—all of them—comes later, at Christ's return. Notice that a five-and-a-half month period separates the Wavesheaf Offering from the Feast of Trumpets. This period represents the time (we believe about two thousand years) between Jesus' resurrection and the resurrection of the saints. The Bible makes no exceptions. This sequence is mentioned in I Thessalonians 4:14-17, but is more effectively explained in I Corinthians 15:20-23, 50-53:
But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming. . . . Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
Like all of their brothers and sisters from throughout the ages, these saints written of in Matthew 27 need to be resurrected and changed to spirit in order to be part of the Kingdom of God. As we have just read, there is a set time for this spiritual resurrection: "at His coming." No exceptions!
To What Purpose?
Finally, we should not leave this subject without looking into the reason for this special, multiple, physical resurrection of saints. Even though its purpose may not be formally stated in Scripture, it was not just some strange, inexplicable, supernatural happening.
By comparing this account with accounts of other physical resurrections in the Old and New Testaments, we can see that this was a powerful sign and witness to those living in the areas of Jerusalem and Judea of AD 31 that:
» Jesus is the Son of God (Matthew 27:54), despite the Jews' rejection of Him.
» Vital events were taking place at that juncture.
» A vast change was being made in the nature and irreversibility of death.
We do not yet know the answers to all of the questions we might come up with about this event. However, we do know that those saints are once again dead—peacefully sleeping, unconsciously waiting for the sounding of the seventh trumpet when Jesus Christ returns.
Dateline: Jerusalem AD 20??
Whatever the actual date may be, let us look forward to meeting those saints there and then!
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