Today we are going to answer the question: What happened to those people who came out of their graves when Jesus died and rose again per Matthew 27:51-53?
“Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, 52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
So that’s our enigmatic verse let’s see how we should answer this question.
Survey of Interpretations
Before I give you my take on this text which I will do at the end, I want to do a brief survey of what the church has said about this passage over the last 2,000 years. So I’ve pulled together a bunch of quotations ranging from the 1st century church fathers up through the reformation period, and I am going to just walk you through how the church has historically interpreted this passage and then give you my own interpretation after that.
And this is a good exercise in how to do theology and biblical interpretation. Just as we are to read the Bible within the community of the church, so also we should interpret Scripture within the context of the church, and not just the church of the present day, but the universal church throughout history. This is one of the ways we obey the 5th commandment to honor our fathers and our mothers. That doesn’t mean the church has always gotten the right interpretation, in fact often it gets it wrong just like Israel got things wrong, but checking our work with theirs can help keep us from error.
Ignatius (35-108 AD)
For says the Scripture, “Many bodies of the saints that slept arose,” their graves being opened. He descended, indeed, into Hades alone, but He arose accompanied by a multitude..
Origen (200’s AD)
These same mighty works are still done every day; the veil of the temple is rent for the Saints, in order to reveal the things that are contained within. The earthquakes, that is, all flesh because of the new word and new things of the New Testament. The rocks are rent, i.e. the mystery of the Prophets, that we may see the spiritual mysteries bid in their depths. The graves are the bodies of sinful souls, that is, souls dead to God; but when by God’s grace these souls have been raised, their bodies which before were graves, become [p. 965] bodies of Saints, and appear to go out of themselves, and follow Him who rose again, and walk with Him in newness of life; and such as are worthy to have their conversation in heaven enter into the Holy City at divers times, and appear unto many who see their good works.
Hilary of Poitiers (300’s AD, “Athanasius of the West)
The earth shook. For the earth could not hold this dead man. Rocks were split, for the Word of God and the power of his eternal goodness rushed in, penetrating every stronghold and principality. Graves were opened, for the gates of death had been unlocked. And a number of the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep arose. Dispelling the shadows of death and illuminating the darkness of hell, Christ destroyed the spoils of death itself at the resurrection of the saints, who saw him immediately. The centurion and the guards who witnessed this disturbance of the entire natural order confessed him to be the Son of God.
- The gates of death (hades) were unlocked, the physical bodies of the saints rose. Christ is seen by these resurrected saints.
Apollinaris (300’s AD, denied Christ had a human mind)
The raising up of the saints’ bodies was announcing that the death of Christ was actually the cause of life. They certainly were not made visible prior to the Lord’s resurrection, since it was necessary that the resurrection of the Savior first be made known. Then those raised through him were seen. It is plain that they have died again, having risen from the dead in order to be a sign. For it was not possible for only some of the firstborn from the dead to be raised to the life of the age to come, but the remainder [must be raised] in the same manner.
- This was a bodily resurrection but they died again, kinda like Lazarus. So not a glorified body like Jesus received.
Jerome (4th century, Latin scholar)
As Lazarus rose from the dead, so also did many bodies of the Saints rise again to shew forth the Lord’s resurrection; yet notwithstanding that the graves were opened, they did not rise again before the Lord rose, that He might be the first-born of the resurrection from the dead.
The holy city in which they were seen after they had risen may be understood to mean either the heavenly Jerusalem, or this earthly, which once had been holy. For the city of Jerusalem was called Holy on account of the Temple and the Holy of Holies, and to distinguish it from other cities in which idols were worshipped. When it is said, “And appeared unto many,” it is signified that this was not a general resurrection which all should see, but special, seen only by such as were worthy to see it.
Remigius (5th century, Apostle of the Franks)
But some one will ask, what became of those who rose again when the Lord rose. We must believe that they rose again to be witnesses of the Lord’s resurrection. Some have said that they died again, and were turned to dust, as Lazarus and the rest whom the Lord raised. But we must by no means give credit to these men’s sayings, since if they were to die again, it would be greater torment to them, than if they had not risen again. We ought therefore to believe without hesitation that they who rose from the dead at the Lord’s resurrection, ascended also into heaven together with Him.
Thomas Aquinas (13th century, Dominican Friar)
Concerning these bodies of the saints, the question is usually raised, whether or not they were going to die again. It is undisputed that some men rose again, after they had died, such as Lazarus. But concerning these men it can be said that they rose so as not to die again, because they rose for the showing of Christ’s Resurrection. Now it is certain that Christ rising from the dead will now die no more. Likewise if they had risen, it would not have been beneficial for them, but rather detrimental; wherefore, they rose as being about to go with Christ into heaven…For as Christ has the power to show Himself to whom He will, so it is understood concerning glorified bodies.
John Calvin (16th century, French theologian, Genevan Reformer)
But here a question arises. “Why did God determine that only some should arise, since a participation in the resurrection of Christ belongs equally to all believers? I reply: As the time was not fully come when the whole body of the Church should be gathered to its Head, he exhibited in a few persons an instance of the new life which all ought to expect. For we know that Christ was received into heaven on the condition that the life of his members should still be hid, (Col. 3:3,) until it should be manifested by his coming. But in order that the minds of believers might be more quickly raised to hope, it was advantageous that the resurrection, which was to be common to all of them, should be tasted by a few.
Another and more difficult question is, What became of those saints afterwards? For it would appear to be absurd to suppose that, after having been once admitted by Christ to the participation of a new life, they again returned to dust…But it is more probable that the life which they received was not afterwards taken from them; for if it had been a mortal life, it would not have been a proof of a perfect resurrection. Now, though the whole world will rise again, and though Christ will raise up the wicked to judgment, as well as believers to salvation, yet as it was especially for the benefit of his Church that he rose again, so it was proper that he should bestow on none but saints the distinguished honour of rising along with him.
Matthew Henry (17th century English minister, non-conformist)
[My paraphrase] He starts by saying there are many questions we cannot resolve as to who these saints were: some say the ancient patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), some say modern saints (Joseph, Zecharias, Simeon, John the Baptist, etc.), perhaps the Old Testament martyrs (Abel-Zechariah) who are spoken of in Rev 20:4-5 as “those who were beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, arose before the rest of the dead.
“Some think that they arose only to bear witness of Christ’s resurrection to those to whom they appeared, and, having finished their testimony, retired to their graves again.But it is more agreeable, both to Christ’s honour and theirs, to suppose, though we cannot prove, that they arose as Christ did, to die no more, and therefore ascended with him to glory. Surely on them who did partake of his first resurrection, a second death had no power.”
I believe along with the majority above that this was a physical resurrection of the body, and that these saints ascended into heaven with Jesus and are currently reigning with Him in that resurrected state.