There were two earthquakes that took place within the span of three days. The epicenter of both was near Jerusalem. The first earthquake occurred late Friday afternoon (Matt. 27:51) and the second took place early the following Sunday morning (Matt. 28:2). The first marked the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God (Matt. 27:54), and the second announced his resurrection from the dead.
In this article, we would like to consider the first earthquake. Two very striking and miraculous events took place with this earthquake. First, the thirty-foot-high veil of the temple was torn into two pieces with the tear beginning at the top of the veil and going down to the bottom. Second, certain graves were opened, but the bodies remained in the opened graves until the second earthquake. When the second earthquake took place, the bodies in those opened graves arose from the dead.
We would like to focus our attention on the second result of the first earthquake: the opening of certain graves. First, let us consider six important details about this miracle. Second, we will consider five things which the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ bring to light about this most unusual event.
The first detail has to do with earthquakes in general. Earthquakes are very significant works of God. They express God’s judgment by destroying things of this earth. Earthquakes also announce God’s great renewal of things. Consider Hebrews 12: 26–27. Earthly things are removed (destroyed) by earthquakes, but also there are things which remain. We learn which things are lasting by looking at what remains after an earthquake. The greatest earthquake will accompany the great fire which ends this present world. By showing what remains, this final earthquake will announce what is eternal. All prior earthquakes proclaim that eternal life in Jesus Christ is coming.
The second detail we are to note is that this first earthquake that took place at Jesus’ death opened graves. We have to understand that in that day graves were different than they are today. Today’s graves are made out of holes in the ground. But these graves which were opened were often cut out of a stone wall. Imagine the face of a cliff with a hole cut into it, which led into a larger cut-out room. A human would enter by bending down low or by crawling into it. The entrances would be closed by large stones which were cut into the shape of wheels. This stone wheel would be set in front of the grave opening. When setting in front of the opening, the gravesite would be closed, but when rolled to the side, the grave would be open. The women who wanted to anoint Jesus’ body wondered who would roll the stone away from the door of the grave (Mark 16:1–4). When the first earthquake took place, the stones which had covered the grave entrances rolled to the side, resulting in several graves being opened.
A third detail is that only specific graves were opened! The graves which were opened were the graves of “saints.” When scripture identifies these dead people as saints, we are to believe that they were holy ones who had been living in the hope of the promised coming of the Messiah. They were fellow-saints of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25–38). That they lived in the hope of the Messiah is what set them apart. They had died and had been buried in graves.
Fourth, these dead saints experienced a real, bodily resurrection. Their souls, that had left their bodies when they died, had been immediately glorified at the moment of their death. Now those glorified souls were reunited with their raised, resurrected, heavenly, and glorified bodies. As a result, their bodies were like those of Moses and Elijah and not like that of Lazarus. Lazarus’ resurrection was a return to his earthly, humiliated body. He would die again. The resurrection of the bodies of these saints was to a heavenly glory. This is evident from the fact that they had to “appear” to be seen by people in Jerusalem. They “appeared” just as Moses and Elijah appeared on the mount of transfiguration. They “appeared” just as Jesus did ten times after his resurrection and prior to his ascension. Their bodies were so glorious and heavenly that they could not be seen by earthly humans unless they made appearances.
Fifth, note that “many” arose. We are not told how many. But it is likely that there were more saints raised than we might first think. So many were raised that it is likely they appeared to most of the residents of Jerusalem.
Sixth, these saints arose with a specific mission and purpose. They were to appear! They were recognized as those who had formerly died. And they were recognized as having been raised from the dead. Their mission and purpose were that their appearances would proclaim the powerful effect of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God.
There are five things about this unusual and marvelous miracle which we must consider in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
First, Jesus’ death and resurrection are inseparably connected to the opening of the graves, to the many bodies being raised, and to these resurrected saints appearing to many. When Jesus died, these graves opened. The opened graves show that the cross was victorious over death. Jesus had conquered the power of death. The Spirit inspired these events to be recorded at the time of Jesus’ death in order to show that it is a part of the power of Jesus’ death. The graves were opened by God when Jesus died. His death conquered death and the grave which is a part of death. The people around Jerusalem knew about these opened graves, but they were kept from closing them because of the nearness of the Sabbath (at sunset). If one would have looked into those opened graves on that Sabbath, they would have seen the bodies of these dead saints.
Second, Scripture records that the bodies “came out of the graves after his resurrection.” This clearly shows the inseparable connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the bodily resurrection of these saints (and the bodily resurrection of every child of God). Now is Christ risen from the dead and is the first-fruit of them that slept. Christ arose and after him those who are his (1 Cor. 15:23). Our resurrection is only possible because of Jesus’ resurrection (1 Cor. 15:13). Christ’s resurrection is the power of our justification (new life in regeneration), of our sanctification, and of our bodily resurrection.
Third, the open graves and the appearing saints vindicate the cause of God as represented in Jesus. The chief priests wanted Jesus dead and they had Pilate seal Jesus’ grave, thinking to end Jesus’ influence on the people. But God opened all these other graves. And when Jesus came out of his sealed tomb God raised from the dead the many saints out of the opened graves. This vindicated the cause of Jesus. This truly is the Son of God!
Fourth, this is a call for us to live holy lives. Only “saints” were raised. Not the unholy (Eph. 5:5). All the resurrected ones were known as saints. They had lived holy lives in anticipation of Jesus’ coming. Not a single, self-righteous Pharisee arose that morning. The general resurrection that will take place when Jesus comes again will be as discriminating as this resurrection was. John 5:29 declares that they that have done good will arise unto the resurrection of life and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation. Only the holy will know the resurrection to life—real life.
Fifth, great encouragements are given in the appearances of these resurrected saints, just as it was and is true with Jesus’ appearances. Presently, it often seems as if the cause of Christ in this world is defeated. Saints now experience afflictions, pain, sorrow, and death. But the appearances of these resurrected saints declared loudly that God’s work in them is victorious. The second encouragement is expressed in the word “slept.” The dead saints who arose had “slept.” The deaths of believers are to be viewed as though they are sleeping and they will awaken soon. So certain can believers be of the resurrection of the dead, that they consider the deaths of their believing loved ones as one who is sleeping. They will awaken. Do not despair at the grave of a believer. It will be opened and they shall arise to live forever. The third encouragement is found in the way scripture here identifies Jerusalem. It is called “the holy city.” The saints who arose at Jesus’ resurrection went into the earthly Jerusalem, identified as “the holy city.” So it is with every believer who dies. When Jesus comes again, then every saint will enter, not into the earthly Jerusalem, but into the “great city, the holy Jerusalem” (Rev. 21:10). They will live forever in the city of the great King. In this “city” they will experience the joy of a most wonderful fellowship with their Savior and Lord and with each other. The holy life and fellowship earned, established, and maintained by the Savior’s death and resurrection will be experienced by the holy ones in the new Jerusalem, the holy city.
Two great earthquakes! Two great miracles!
They are a proclamation of severe judgment on the unbelieving. And they are a declaration of a most wonderful hope for every believer.
*Rev. Van OverLoop is the pastor of Grace Protestant Reformed Church in Standale, Michigan