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Q: #607. What happened to those who came out of their graves in (Mt 27:52-53)?

     A: (Mt 27:52-53) “And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, (53) And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”

      This event, which is listed only in Matthew, occurred right after Jesus died on the cross (Mt 27:50). In conjunction with this, we are told in (Mt 27:51) that “the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split.”

     Almost certainly, the “graves were opened” as a result of the earthquake. These “graves” were most likely like the tomb of Jesus, which was “hewn out of rock,” with a “large stone rolled against the door” (Mt 27:60). As a result of the “quake,” the stone either rolled away from the front of the tomb, or it was “split.”

     In understanding these verses (52-53), I believe the punctuation may be misleading (there wasn’t originally punctuation). It makes it sound like the moment the graves were opened (Friday at 3 p.m. – “the ninth hour” Mt 27:46), the bodies in them “arose,” but they didn’t leave their graves for 2 more days, until Jesus was resurrected on Sunday. However, I think this is better stated this way: 

“…. and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened (period).” New sentence: “And many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after His resurrection.” Putting this another way, “As a result of the earthquake on Friday, many graves were opened. Then, on Sunday, after Jesus was resurrected from the dead, many of the saints in those graves arose, came out of their graves, and went into the holy city…”

     I believe this order is important in order to fit with verses found elsewhere in the Bible. 

(1 Cor 15:20-23) “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. (21) For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. (22) For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (23) But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.”

(Col 1:18) “And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.”

(Rev 1:5) “And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,”

     These verses tell us that when Jesus arose from the dead, at His resurrection, He was the first (“firstfruits, firstborn, first begotten”) to be raised from the dead who would never die again. If those who slept (were dead) “arose” before Jesus was resurrected, it would contradict these verses. (Unless they died again. More on this below.)

     This leads us to our question: “What happened to those who came out of their graves?” I see only two possibilities. 

     The first, which seems to have more evidence, is as follows.

     After Jesus died, most believe (including me) that His body remained in the grave, but His spirit and/or soul descended into Sheol (or the heart/lower parts of the earth). Sheol was made up of two places: Paradise and Hades. All of the people who died in the Old Testament went to one of these two places. Believers went to Paradise (also called: “Abraham’s Bosom”), and non-believers went to Hades. (We can see a picture of these two places in Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus: Lk 16:19-31). 

     From the time Jesus died, until He arose on Sunday morning (3 days: Mt 12:40), He was in Sheol proclaiming His victory over death and sin, and the Gospel to those who were there (1 Pet 3:19)(1 Pet 4:6). It was a message of joy for those in Paradise, and a message of sorrow for those in Hades. Those who were in Paradise would include the “saints” whose bodies were soon to “arise from their graves.”

     However, Jesus’ soul was not left in Hades to see corruption (Ps 16:10)(Acts 2:27,31). On Sunday, the 3rd day, He was resurrected from the dead. His “spirit and/or soul” was reunited with His body, which was now a “glorified body.” One thing that we see Jesus doing in His “glorified body” (which we will also receive one day: Phil 3:21, 1 Cor 15:43-55, 1 Jn 3:2), is having the ability to be in one place, and then in an instant, to be in another place (Lk 24:31,36)(Jn 20:19,26). I mention this because I believe it ties to the “bodies of the saints which arose, and came out of their graves after Jesus’ resurrection.”

     After the resurrection of Jesus in His “glorified body,” I believe the “saints” were also resurrected in a “glorified body.” (MacArthur and Gill also hold this view.) This was a preview of what will happen in the future when all believers (“saints”) will receive new “glorified bodies” at Jesus’ return. When these “saints… went into the holy city, and appeared to many,” in their “glorified bodies,” it pointed to the significance, hope, and joy of Jesus’ resurrection, and the future resurrection of all believers. 

     After this time of witnessing, keeping in mind what we said above about “glorified bodies” being able to go from place to place instantly, I believe the “saints” (in their “glorified bodies”) went immediately from earth to Heaven. (Some believe they went at the same time that Jesus did at His Ascension: Mk 16:19, Lk 24:50-52, Acts 1:9-11.)

    Having said this, the “second possibility” for what happened to the “saints who came out of their graves” is that after appearing to, and witnessing to those in the holy city, they died again shortly afterwards. MacArthur says in his study Bible, “Nothing more is said about these people, which would be unlikely if they remained on the earth for long.” If this is the case, this would be similar to what likely happened to others who were raised from the dead in the Bible before Jesus’ resurrection, such as: Lazarus – (Jn 11:1-44), the daughter of Jairus – (Lk 8:41-42,49-56), and the son of the widow of Nain – (Lk 7:11-15). (More listed here.)

     This “second” view was the view I had always held until studying to write this study. But again, as I studied, the evidence seems a bit stronger for the first view. In addition, these two questions came to mind:

#1. If the point of them coming back to life was to point to the significance, hope, and joy of Jesus’ resurrection, and a future resurrection of all believers (in “glorified bodies”), then doesn’t it seem to take away from that “joy and hope” if they died again after proclaiming it?

#2. If those who “arose from their graves” were “saints” from the Old Testament, their bodies would have been in their graves (“tombs”) for a long period of time, thereby suffering decay and decomposition (as opposed to all others in the Bible who were raised to life shortly after they died). Doesn’t this seem to point to needing a “glorified body” to come out of their tombs?

     So, in summary, based upon the above, I do believe that all in the Bible who were miraculously brought back to life after dying later died again, “except” in this instance. I think these “saints who came out of their graves” had “glorified bodies” (like the body Jesus had when he was resurrected), and this was specifically ordained by the Lord as a witness and a preview to those they “appeared to in the holy city” of what would happen with all believers in the future at the return of Jesus. After their “appearance,” they did “not” die (because “glorified bodies” cannot die: 1 Cor 15:42,54, Lk 20:36), but instead went alive straight into Heaven (as Jesus did at his ascension).

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