For Christians, funerals can be mixtures of sadness and joy. We grieve the loss of someone we love since we will miss their presence and voice. However, when a Christian passes away, we are also comforted with the reality that their life didn’t end when the body ceased to function, and we know we will see them again if we are followers of Jesus, as well.
The fantastical idea of Heaven – like we’ll be sitting on a cloud just hanging around – sounds boring. Thankfully, as mysterious as the Bible is about it, the apostles tell us a few things.
We will have a new and resurrected body, a doctrine taught by Jesus in the Gospels and repeated by the apostolic writers (1 Corinthians 15:35-49). Once this world is judged, Revelation speaks of a New Heaven and New Earth. Everything will be remade from the eternal, redeeming all creation from the corruption at the Fall. We will live in that New Earth as a Temple and City to God, relating with nations and peoples as the intimate dwelling place of our Father (Revelation 21). There is purpose and intimacy within that.
Not boring at all.
Something very important had to happen to make all of this possible – to provide the opportunity to go from death to life, from destruction to thriving in God’s Kingdom.
The Lord Jesus Christ. His life, death, and resurrection changed everything.
One of Christ’s disciples, a former tax collector, shares an odd detail during the crucifixion of Jesus that none of the other Gospel writers do. But it tells us something important about the power of the cross.
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Did the Dead Rise at the Death of Jesus?
Every one of the Gospels describes the crucifixion in their own way. There are definite similarities, but each highlights different moments that give us a full and complex picture of what happened when Jesus died on the cross.
In Matthew 27, there is a strange description. Jesus cries out with a loud voice and gives up his spirit in verse 50. Immediately following his willing death, giving his eternal and divine life for the dying world, a number of things happen: The veil in the Temple before the Holy of Holies tears from top to bottom. There was an earthquake. Rocks split. A centurion testifies that Jesus was righteous and the Son of God (Luke 23:47, Mark 15:39).
Among this traumatic event, dead people get out of graves and start walking around.
“At that moment the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, rocks split apart, and tombs opened. The bodies of many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead. They left the cemetery after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city of Jerusalem, and appeared to many people” (Matthew 27:51-53).
I’ve watched most or all Jesus movies. I don’t remember that scene, although if I ever made a Jesus movie, I would include it. Imagine the scene – the Earth goes through great upheaval of earthquakes and rocks breaking in two. Then stones that covered tombs begin rolling away of their own volition, opening while formerly dead people start sitting up within.
“The Walking Dead” and other media have made zombies a popular feature in horror over the past fifty years, going all the way back to “The Living Dead” movies. We would be wrong to imagine these people in the Bible as zombies, however.
While these people were resurrected at the crucifixion, they didn’t leave the cemetery until the resurrection, three days later. Cemeteries weren’t in the city proper for various reasons, but for the Jews, dead bodies made things unclean. Once touching a dead body, you had to wait seven days before being clean again (Numbers 19:11-13). With that in mind, and other space and health issues, cemeteries were away from the main population.
These people didn’t touch the dead, though. They formerly were the dead. The Law didn’t have a rule for that. The implication is that they waited until Jesus was revealed as alive, then they were allowed to reveal themselves, as well.
Who were these people? Matthew makes it clear they were “godly men and women.” They had followed God faithfully before their death.
Where did they go? They went into the most holy city, the city of Jerusalem, King David’s city, where God was said to dwell and the home of the Temple of God.
What did they do? They appeared to people, giving testimony to the miracle that had happened.
What happened to these people? The Bible doesn’t tell us. We can speculate, which is interesting. (Were these new, resurrected bodies? Did they translate to heaven later like Jesus, too?). But we won’t know until we get to Heaven and ask God.
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Where Else Do the Gospels Talk about the Dead Rising?
I’m not the only one who thought this scene should go in a movie about Jesus. Matthew did, too. Why?
The Gospels record much for us to pull into this discussion. Let’s first look at a certain group of people called the Sadducees. Along with the Pharisees, they were one of the two most influential religious groups of the day, like political parties with platforms and doctrines except within Jewish culture and the Temple system. The primary way the Bible differentiates the Sadducees was that they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. That was a part of their whole philosophy against the supernatural in general, miracles included.
They challenged Jesus about the resurrection of the dead because it was one of his main points of teaching. The famous story was when they asked about a woman who had married several men, each of the men dying one after the other. The Sadducees asked that when she got to Heaven, who would she be married to? Jesus’ answer was that there isn’t marriage in Heaven, so none of them (Matthew 22:23-34).
Another sign of the importance of the resurrection to Jesus was when Martha talks to him before Christ raised Lazarus from the dead. Martha is sad. Jesus comforts her by telling her that Lazarus will live again. She answers theologically – she knows Lazarus will be resurrected.
Jesus answers “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). The resurrection isn’t only an event sometime in the future, it is a person. The reality and truth of that person, Jesus, is revealed through the bodily resurrection of saints from the dead, a promise of immortality that only happens because Jesus is immortal. Jesus is the resurrection.
Then Christ proceeds to raise Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus openly taught about the bodily resurrection, that those doing good would be raised to eternal life and those who did evil would rise to judgment (John 5:29). Matthew says the people who got out of the tombs were “godly men and women.”
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Why Was it Important for the Dead to Rise?
The resurrection has its root in the cross. It is the cross that gives us life. If we lose our life for the sake of Jesus, we find it. Paul preached Christ crucified, which was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but it is life to those being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18).
It was finished at the cross. John 19:30 gives us the last words, “It is finished!” before Jesus died. He didn’t say it was finished at the resurrection but at the cross, and if God himself declares something is finished, how finished is that? Pretty done.
Paul says that Christ is the firstborn from the dead, the first one of many resurrected people (Romans 8:29). The sacrifice of Jesus erased all sin and concurrently killed death. He supernaturally removed the barriers between God and humanity, ending all enmity between us and others within himself (Ephesians 2:13-17), and the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us, translating us from death to life (Colossians 1:13), the current New Creation promise of a future resurrection finished yet waiting to be revealed when Jesus comes again to judge the world.
So therefore, at his death, stones were supernaturally removed by God while the whole corruption of the Earth and the devils behind it realized they lost – like being blown out in a basketball game by a billion points – and “godly men and women” were restored to life from death and then revealed when he was.
That’s why the scene was in Matthew’s account. And it would be in my movie.
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What Does the Dead Rising Mean for Us Today?
Now and not yet.
We have been told the Good News of the Kingdom, that we are now members of an immortal family no longer bound by sin or death, victors that will one day rule and reign in the Kingdom of Heaven on a New Earth over angels and nations. All tears will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4). Grief will give way to abounding joy.
But life is hard now. We are surrounded by conflict and enmity between people, individuals in families out to hurt one another and nations at war out to conquer others. Crisis, chaos, and tragedy enter our lives all the time. Sickness, pain, death, disease. Even Christians bicker and fight when we were meant to unify and take the gates of Hell by spiritual force.
Jesus and the Bible never denied this reality. In fact, Christ promised it. “In this life, you will have trouble.” Following Jesus was never a promise to get us out of trouble. If anything, we pick a side and join the battle lines in the spiritual realm, making us more of a target.
Thankfully, the Lord doesn’t leave us with that promise alone. He finishes the thought, “but don’t be afraid, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He has overcome not just our problems and trauma, but the whole world that produces them; the very corruption that brings chaos, he beat that already. All of it has been overcome, past, present, and future. It is a done deal. Finished.
And not yet revealed.
“Dear friends,” the apostle Peter writes, “don’t forget that God isn’t slow in keeping his promises, as some people understand slowness to be. He is patiently working for the salvation of people, but he will come suddenly” (2 Peter 3:8-10).
The dead raising from the graves reveals God’s faithfulness, his finished work, and the hope we have that all will be revealed, all we long for. God wastes nothing and will work all things for our good and his glory.
Dear friends, look to God our hope and don’t lose heart. He will reveal his finished work.
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Originally published Thursday, 14 September 2023.