What is the meaning of Matthew 27:52-53 when the graves opened after the death of Jesus?
The first question this scene raises is, why did God send an earthquake?
In the Scriptures, an earthquake is used to describe social upheaval. For example, Joel 3:16 uses an earthquake to describe the time when God will fight for Israel in Armageddon against the nations that come against her.
In keeping with this symbolism, causing an earthquake at the moment of Jesus’ death suggests that a great social upheaval was imminent. This was prophetic of events that would take place for the nation that rejected and crucified the Lord. History confirms that Israel’s national identity was lost in AD 70 when Rome destroyed the temple and the city of Jerusalem. God used an earthquake to send this to Israel message upon the death of His son.
The other event that occurred in connection with the earthquake was the opening of the graves. The passage reads,
“…The earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” Matthew 27:51-53
As the previous answer suggests, the meaning of this passage has been questioned. But upon close examination the answer seems evident. The Greek word used when saying these individuals “arose” is the word “egeiro” (Strong’s # 1453).
Though it can be used for waking from natural sleep, its use here is consistent with the three miracles Jesus performed when he raised the dead. It is the same word used for the awakening of Lazarus (John 12:9), the awakening of the widow’s son (Luke 7:14) and the awakening of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:54).
Lazarus is described as, “he whom he had raised (egeiro) from the dead.“
To the widows son Jesus said, “I say unto thee arise (egeiro).”
To Jairus’ daughter he said, “maid arise (egeiro).”
These were not resurrections in the full sense of the word. They are often referred to as resuscitations, since the individuals eventually died again. These also stands in marked contrast to the resurrection of Jesus who was rewarded with immortality and would never die again. The awakenings Jesus performed, and those described after his death, were intended to prove the authenticity of who Jesus was.
What helps clarify the meaning of this passage is the sequence of events. There are two events described:
- the opening of the tombs caused by an earthquake, and
- the raising of the saints after the resurrection of Jesus. These events are separated by parts of three days. The earthquake occurred when Jesus died. The saints were raised upon his resurrection, three days later.
This timing was intended as a final witness that the resurrection of Jesus would mean life for the world. Many have claimed to be Messiah (See Matthew 13:22; 1 John 4:1), but here was a man whose death shook the earth and whose resurrection brought forth life. The sequence is significant.
By raising these individuals as immediate evidence of Jesus’ own resurrection, it would seem reasonable that they would be known to the citizens of Jerusalem and recognized that they had been dead. Recall how the Chief Priests and Pharisees demanded that Pilate put guards at the tomb of Jesus, lest the disciples steal his body and say that he was raised from the dead.
When Jews living in Jerusalem heard that his body was no longer in the tomb, but were told by their religious leaders that his disciples had stolen it, Jesus’ Messianic claims would be ignored, believing he was just another “false prophet.” But if the people of Jerusalem met and spoke with individuals whose funeral they had attended and who may have been dead for some time, all the claims that Jesus was a criminal, worthy of death, were proven wrong.
It was unequivocal proof that Jesus was the true Messiah.
For more on exploring the contradictory gospel records of Jesus’ resurrection, listen to, “Why So Many Contradictions Surrounding Jesus’ Resurrection?” (Contradictions Series (Part IV))