By David Luke
The season of Easter give us a reason, if one was necessary, to trace again the remarkable events surrounding the last days of Jesus. There were many unusual occurrences at that time and Matthew records one of the most astonishing in 27:51-53:
‘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.’
It is, to say the least, an extraordinary occurrence. It raises many intriguing questions, not least what happened to them afterwards? Why does Matthew include this episode? Is it simply because it is unusual and intriguing? While it certainly is these things Matthew’s point is ultimately theological.
He includes this incident because he wants us to understand that Jesus’ death is in fact a victory over death. It is Jesus’ death which leads to the resurrection of the dead. As the writer to the Hebrews will later put it Jesus by his death destroyed ‘the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery’ (2:14,15). Matthew too wants us to understand that Jesus’ death is a triumph not a disaster. That in the shattering of these tombs and the raising of the dead saints, we witness Jesus’ triumph over death for those who trust in God. In Michael Green’s evocative phrase, we understand that with Jesus’ resurrection we have witnessed ‘the day death died.’
At Easter we do not simply remember a great teacher or a remarkable figure. Instead, we remember that God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of many holy people points to the fact that Jesus’ resurrection is not simply a personal miracle. His resurrection has far-reaching consequences for all who put their trust in him. Jesus has overcome death and those who trust in him share in that victory. This remarkable event adds testimony to Paul’s great claim that with Jesus’ resurrection ‘death is swallowed up in victory.’ And one day those who die trusting in Jesus will come forth from their graves in their glorious resurrection body.
The resurrection of Jesus and these saints tells us that Jesus’ death is a triumph not a disaster. Of what other death can that be said?