What is the meaning of people being resurrected with Jesus' death? What is significant about those raised to life when Jesus died? (Matthew 27:50-53)
A unique passage is recorded in Matthew 27:50-53 regarding dead people who returned to life again when Jesus died on the cross: "And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 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." What does this passage mean?
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While some skeptics and liberal scholars have suggested this account is nothing more than a folk tale, Matthew presents the events as literal. A split temple veil, earthquake, and the dead returning to life each confirmed the significance of Jesus' death. The temple veil revealed His power as equal with God the Father, as did His power over nature through the earthquake. The tearing of the veil also revealed the effect of Jesus' death in terms of our relationship with God. The raising of the dead showed power over death, perhaps reminding those in Jerusalem of Ezekiel's account of the dry bones coming to life (Ezekiel 37).
The purpose behind all of these events seems to be explained by Matthew himself in the following verse. Matthew 27:54 notes, "When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, 'Truly this was the Son of God!'" The only one who could perform such miracles would be the Son of God, a theme Matthew develops throughout his Gospel account.
This event was also a culmination of Jesus' power expressed over death in a much broader form than during His earthly ministry. While on earth, the Gospels record three previous occasions when Jesus resurrected people from death. Resurrection of the son of a widow from Nain (Luke 7:13-15) and that of the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:52-56) are both recorded in Luke. John also gives the account of Lazarus who was raised from the dead four days after his death (John 11:43-44). On each of these previous occasions, the purpose was to show to the people that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.
The same purpose was expressed in this resurrection of many people at the death of Jesus. Whether they appeared immediately or "after His resurrection" as some translations interpret the phrase, the impact of many dead people returning to life would have greatly strengthened the message of those who would believe in Jesus as the Messiah. The movement would quickly build, with 120 believers in the upper room in Acts 1—2 who would add 3,000 people to their number in one day (Acts 2:41) and grow daily after that time (Acts 2:47). Within 25 years, Paul was writing to the Romans who already had a growing group of Christians in the empire's capital city. This movement continues to grow as many come to hear and know the good news of Jesus expressed in the Gospel accounts.
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