Who was resurrected when Jesus died on the cross?
Matthew 27:52-53 reports that when Jesus died on the cross, some tombs were opened and eventually these saints entered the city of Jerusalem. But who was resurrected from the tombs when Jesus died? When did they enter Jerusalem? Why is this important? Matthew 27:52-53 describes this event.
The tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. Matthew 27:52-53 (NASB)
The purpose of this article is to explain what happened in these verses.
What Happened When Jesus Died?
The book of Matthew is the only gospel that records the event described in Matthew 27:52-53. A quick reading of the passage can lead to the wrong conclusion as to what happened. There are two different views as to what happened. Both views recognize that the Greek grammar is such that additional punctuation is required to help the reader understand what actually happened. So, let’s review these two views.
View #1 — Saints Resurrected at Jesus’ Death
The first view says there should be a period after the word “tombs.” That is, the two verses should read as follows.
The tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised and coming out of the tombs.
After His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. Matthew 27:52-53
This change in the punctuation means the tombs were opened, and the bodies of these saints either stayed in the tombs or remained in the area until Jesus was resurrected. Then after Jesus was resurrected, these resurrected saints entered the city of Jerusalem.
However, there are problems with this view. The first problem is why would the resurrected people remain in their tombs or just stand around the tombs until Jesus is resurrected on Sunday morning? The second problem is that even though Jewish graveyards were outside the city, most likely people would have noticed the open tombs and investigated. In that process they would have seen these resurrected saints. The third reason this view is not acceptable is that 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 states that Jesus was the first-fruits of the saints. That is, He was the first to be resurrected from among the saints. Consequently, we conclude that this view has serious issues.
View #2 — Saints Resurrected at Jesus’ Resurrection
The second view states that tombs were opened when Jesus died, but their resurrection did not take place until Jesus was resurrected. That is, there should be a period after “tombs were opened.” This views says verses 52-53 should read as follows,
The tombs were opened.
And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised and coming out of the tombs, after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. Matthew 27:52-53
Unlike the first view, this view says the saints were not resurrected until after Jesus’ resurrection. It is clear that the rest of verse 52 through verse 53 occurred three days later when Jesus was resurrected. This is a more natural reading. The second view appears to be the best explanation.
Who Was Resurrected From the Grave?
Now who was resurrected? First we are told that “many” were resurrected but not all. Only a portion of those who had been buried in Jerusalem were raised. Second, the Greek tells us that the tombs of the hagios or the “holy ones” were opened. That is, these “holy ones” were saints.
But who were these saints? Were they Old Testament or New Testament saints? The answer is that they were Old Testament saints since the day of Pentecost is the day the church age began (Acts 1:1-21; 2:38-47; Ephesians 2:20-22). The day of Pentecost was the first day the church started.
Now let’s explore the timeline from Jesus’ resurrection to the day of Pentecost in order to demonstrate these “holy ones” were not New Testament saints from the church age. First, we must notice that Jesus died on the day that Passover is celebrated, which occurred on Friday, Nisan 14 in the year A.D. 33. Then He was resurrected on Sunday. Second, notice that Pentecost occurs fifty days after the Sabbath which follows Passover. This means Pentecost occurred fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection. That means the holy ones who came out of the tombs on the day Jesus died were Old Testament saints. They could not have been New Testament saints since the church age did not begin until the day of Pentecost or fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection.
Another timeline fact is found in Acts 1:3 which tells us that Jesus’ ascension occurred after He spent forty days with the disciples after His resurrection on Sunday. His ascension is described in Acts 1:9-11. This means the church began ten days after His ascension to heaven. Pentecost is the day Peter preached the first sermon and three thousand people became believers or the first New Testament saints. That is the day the church started.
Therefore, once again we learn that the holy ones who came out of the tombs on the day Jesus died were Old Testament saints, and not New Testament saints.
Who was resurrected from the tombs when Jesus died? They were Old Testament saints. Think about that fact that witnesses saw some tombs popped open on the day that Jesus died. They would have noticed these tombs and told other people. They should have connected this with the other miracles that occurred with Jesus’ death. Then when Jesus was resurrected and these resurrected “holy ones” walked around the city, people should have connected that with Jesus’ resurrection. Imagine the conversations that followed! All these signs must have caused previous unbelievers to realize Jesus must have been their God. Luke 24:18 tells that all in Jerusalem were talking about the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection. The city was a “buzzing” with excitement about these events. These signs may be one of the reasons why thousands of people believed Jesus, including many of the priests (Acts 6:7).
Did you know that this event was recorded so that you might believe in Christ? Do you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior? Visit “Searching For God” and discover how to become a Christian.
1. John MacArthur. Matthew 24-28. The John MacArthur New Testament Commentary. Moody Press. 1989. pp. 275-276. Also, Grant Osborne. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Zondervan Publishing. 2010. p. 1046. Additionally, William Hendrickson. Matthew. New Testament Commentary. Baker Book House. 1973. p. 975-976.
2. R. T. France. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Eerdmans Publishing. 2007. p. 1082. Also, p. 581. Also, D. A. Carson. Matthew. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Regency Reference Library. 1984. p. 580.
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