Yesterday we discussed the veil of the temple being torn in response to Jesus giving up His spirit. But Matthew also records another significant event that happened after Jesus’ death on the cross. After Jesus gave up His spirit, “The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of their tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people” (Mt. 27:51-53).
Huh? What are we supposed to make of this story? Are there zombies in the Bible? If they were raised to life after Jesus died but didn’t come out of their tombs until His resurrection, what did they do for three days? How long did they stay alive? Did they die again? Are they still alive today? Let me be perfectly honest with you…I have no idea. And quite frankly, no one else does either. Because the Bible doesn’t say. The whole account is three sentences. You just read the whole thing. You know as many details as any Bible scholar. This is one of the strangest, most confusing stories in the whole New Testament. So why does Matthew include it at this crucial point in his story? Let me humbly make a few suggestions.
Perhaps Matthew wants us to see how the earth itself reacted to Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ death was a cataclysmic event and the physical world responded in kind. This could also be Matthew’s way of communicating to us that death itself was defeated by Jesus on the cross. The great enemy cannot even hold dead bodies underground anymore. Maybe this is Matthew’s ways of saying “from that moment on, death was a defeated force” (N.T. Wright). Or, possibly Matthew is telling us “From now on, you never know what God’s life-giving power will achieve” (Wright). Ultimately, I think this story is pointing forward to the final resurrection at the last days (Rev. 20). The Apostle Paul calls Jesus “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Co. 15:20). His resurrection was not some one-off, unrepeatable event. On the contrary, Jesus’ resurrection was the prototype, if you will, for what is to happen to all of creation (Ro. 8; 1Co. 15).
John’s Gospel places special emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection occurring on the “first day of the week” (Jn. 20:1, 19). Since his opening line (“In the beginning”) John has been alluding to Genesis chapter one where God creates the world in a week. Now, with Jesus’ resurrection, a new week is dawning. Jesus’ resurrection marks the first day of new creation. And it even takes place in a garden (Jn. 19:41, 20:15). This is John’s way of telling us that everything is different now. God’s rule over the earth has been inaugurated and He is beginning to make all things new (Rev. 21:5). I want to suggest that this seemingly crazy story about holy zombies is Matthew’s way of communicating a similar message. Because the Son of God willingly gave up His spirit for the sake of humanity, the whole world has changed. N.T. Wright says,
“Look at it like this. The effect of his giving of his own life; the example of love, non-retaliation, the kingdom-way of confronting evil with goodness; Jesus’ taking of the world’s hatred and anger on to himself; and, way beyond all of these, the defeat of the powers of evil, the blotting out of the sins of the world, the love of God shining through the dark clouds of wickedness—all of this is now to be seen around the world. It is seen, not only in the millions who worship Jesus and thank him for his death, but in the work of healing which flows from it: in reconciliation and hope, for communities and for individuals. The world is indeed a different place because of what Jesus did in his death.”