Zombies In The Bible? Part 2

Title: Zombies In the Bible? Part 2

Text: Matthew 27:50-53

Time: March 22nd, 2013

 

 

A few weeks ago I dealt with a Bible passage that comes up during Holy Week, particularly on Good Friday every year, yet is so strange and mysterious that it produces lots of wild and crazy speculations – Matthew 27:50-53, “ And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” Last time, I tried to explain this verse as best I could within a wider and more general explanation of resurrection from the dead. We are into the Easter season, or more properly, the season of Lent, just a few days away from Holy Week, so talk about resurrection from the dead is entirely appropriate. That’s one of the great benefits in living in a society that celebrates Easter every year – it gives us an opportunity and excuse to talk about death, resurrection, and life after death. These things might potentially go neglected in an increasingly secular society. We must thank God that we are still able to deal with these important subjects in a public way every year around Easter. So before we actually get into Holy Week, or the final week of Christ’s life, before Good Friday and Easter morning, I’d like to deal with the strange passage I talked about a few weeks ago, only deal with it in a little more depth. Again, I don’t want to take away from Christ’s death, burial and resurrection by talking about something else, but I do want to answer as many questions as I can about this very weird verse found in the New Testament gospel accounts. I began to read some of the commentaries on Matthew 27:50-53 and found that they are all over the map as far as explaining this verse. It’s seems like nobody is really certain what is happening, although some come across as more sure than others. However, even the commentaries that claim to explain the verse raise more questions than they answer. Some of the questions they raise are – Who are these people that rose from the dead? How many of them rose from the dead? It says they were “saints” but what kind of saints? Old Testament saints or New Testament saints? When did they actually rise from the dead? On Good Friday, when Christ died on the cross, or on Easter Sunday, when Christ rose from the grave? What became of them after they appeared to people in Jerusalem? Did they live out their lives and then die? Or did they ascend into heaven like Jesus after a few days? None of the commentators raise the question of zombies, because this isn’t really a realistic biblical alternative, although it is an interesting question that I’ll raise simply because our culture today is so enamored with them. But my goal is to bring clarity, as much as possible, about a very strange and mysterious passage. I’d like to get it out of the way in time for Holy Week so we can focus on Jesus as we approach Easter Sunday. So let me do my best, again, in explaining this mystery.

 

First, who were these people who rose from the dead? Matthew 27:50-53, “ And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” Like I said before, the commentaries vary widely in identifying who these resurrected people were. Nobody thinks they are what we would call zombies, even though the text could be interpreted that way if we read into it the contemporary zombie scenario. For example, it says the bodies of people who had died raised to life. Was it just their bodies that came back to life? That sounds zombie-like. Also, they came out of the tombs and went into the city. Why? Perhaps looking for food, perhaps looking for people, to eat? Again, we can read much into the passage using contemporary zombie mythology, such as from episodes of The Walking Dead television show, for example. But obviously we’re reading into the text far more than is warranted. There must be better explanations; there are. Some theologians say they are Old Testament saints — or holy people from ancient Israel. Some see them as famous figures from Jewish history, like the prophets or leaders of the people in the tradition of Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, and so forth. Recall in the transfiguration that occurred during the ministry of Jesus, Moses and Elijah appeared to meet with Jesus, then vanished, Matthew 17:1-13. Perhaps famous saints of old returned. However, this is unlikely, because we hear nothing of it in Jewish history, or any history at all. Are we to believe that something as supernatural as known Jewish heroes returning from the dead hundreds and hundreds of years after death wouldn’t have been reported elsewhere? No way. Another explanation is they were non-famous Old Testament saints. But if this were true, how would people in the city identify them, as the passage implies? A better explanation is that they were holy men and women who had died recently, who were either godly, pious Jews, and, or more probably, were believing Christ-followers who died before Jesus completed his ministry. We’ve got to remember that Jesus drew huge crowds for around three years with his miracles and preaching. No doubt many would have heard and believed him, and probably some of these believers died. Their rising from the dead is probably God the Father’s way of showing all believers what will happen because of Jesus Christ. It’s certainly another demonstration of resurrection power!

 

Second, when did these people rise from the dead? Matthew 27:50-53, “ And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” Now believe it or not there is a controversy among the commentators about this passage in respect to when these saints rose – was it on Good Friday or Easter Sunday? As I read the text, both in the original Greek and in English translations, the most straightforward and natural reading is they rose right after Christ died on the cross, on Good Friday. But some theologians see them rising from the dead on Easter morning at the same time or shortly after Jesus rose from the dead. They would read the passage, “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,” KJV.  So this interpretation separates the temple being torn and the rocks splitting from the actual resurrection of the saints. The earthquake happened when Christ died on the cross, it broke open the tombs, but the saints didn’t actually arise until after Jesus did on Easter morning. Now that’s possible, but it seems to be reading a theological tidiness into the verse instead of actually parsing the text itself. In other words, for some people to imagine the saints resurrection occurring before the Lord’s resurrection, or to see a Good Friday resurrection besides an Easter Sunday resurrection just doesn’t seem right. For them, having it all occur on Sunday makes more sense, theologically – Christ being the first fruits of those who sleep (1 Corinthians 15:20) – and symbolically, because it just seems to go together better, ties everything together all at once. Now which is it? I honestly don’t know for sure, because I see the arguments on both sides. But if I had to pick one, I’d go with the saints rising to life immediately after Christ died on the cross, when the curtain in the temple tore, and when the rocks and tomb split. To me, this is how the text actually reads, and also, it shows that a supernatural power was released at the moment of Christ’s death. Cosmic forces let loose at the defining moment in world history when Jesus made his complete and final sacrifice for the sins of the world. It makes sense that the forces of nature and super-nature would react on earth, but also throughout the universe probably! But whether they rose on Friday or Sunday, they did rise, and that’s the main point.

 

Third, what became of these people after they rose from the dead and appeared in the city? Matthew 27:50-53, “ And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” Again, there is controversy on this point also. Some Bible interpreters say they rose from the dead in the exact same way as Jesus rose from the dead – in a glorified body. As I explained a few weeks ago, Jesus rose in a material, physical body, because it says he could do the things he did before when he was alive, for example, eat, Luke 24:42. He also invited “doubting Thomas” and the other disciples to touch the wounds in his hands and side as proof that it was really him, Luke 24:39. So he had a body of flesh and bone. But it’s also clear that he had a slightly different body as well, a glorified body. He could come and go, appear and disappear at will. And eventually, he ascended into heaven in bodily form. Now some scholars feel that the resurrected saints also had the same kind of glorified body as Jesus, and that they only appeared on earth for a short time, and soon they ascended or were taken into heaven also. If they didn’t ascend like Jesus, they may have been taken into heaven like Elijah, 2 Kings 2:11. This might explain why we don’t hear any more about these resurrected saints, because they were removed to heaven in their resurrected glorified bodies after they appeared for some forty days. But is this really the best explanation? It reads a lot into the passage, or in other words, it adds a lot to the passage. The text doesn’t say they ascended to heaven. It doesn’t say they rose in glorified bodies. All it says is that they rose from the dead and appeared to many in the city. And that’s all we know about them. Where did they go and what did they do after that? It doesn’t say. I think it’s more normal and natural to see these saints rising from the dead in the same way Lazarus rose from the dead in John 11:38-44. As far as we know, he came back to life and then lived out the rest of his days, then died like everyone else, only this time he stayed dead. He didn’t rise and ascend to heaven in a glorified body like Jesus would on Easter morning. He simply rose to life in the same kind of body he had before, the exact same kind. I think absent any further information, we have to assume this is what happened to the saints described in Matthew 27.

 

I know for some Christians not having clear, definite answers to all questions bothers them. For some people, everything must be explained with absolute certainty, all the loose ends must be tied together, and every issue must be resolved. Well, I too want clarity and certainty, but that’s just not possible in all instances. Some things are very clear, crystal clear; while other things we have to keep an open mind because we just don’t have all the information to make a conclusive summary. A full explanation of Matthew 27:50-53 is an instance in the Bible where we have to keep an open mind and keep searching for clarity. Maybe one day we’ll be able to piece together the data in a definite way, but as far as I can tell, we aren’t at that place yet. There are a number of explanations that all seem to make sense, but it’s hard to tell for certain which one is the one that really explains the verse and what really happened. You can bet I’m going to ask somebody when I get to heaven about this incident! There’ll probably be a long line of people waiting to ask questions about this one! But my rule of thumb in Bible interpretation, the one I learned from my many years of study, formally in college and seminary, and informally on my own, is this – the simplest explanation is usually the correct interpretation. In the case of this passage, I find the simplest explanation, without reading anything into it, is that these are Christian believers or followers of Jesus who died shortly before the end of Jesus’ ministry. They may have been well known by Jesus and the disciples. But they were dead and buried. Then, a short while later, Jesus is arrested, tried, sentenced and crucified. When he died on the cross these Christian saints immediately rose from the dead at the same time the curtain in the temple was torn and an earthquake split rocks and tore open their tombs. They may have stayed in or around the tomb on Saturday, or was taken into a nearby home. But on Easter Sunday morning they went into the city and showed themselves to everyone, probably at the temple. Again, it’s not totally clear what they did in the city, who they talked to, and so forth. Then, they, along with the other Christians, learned of Christ’s resurrection and rejoiced in it and also witnessed to their own resurrection by God’s power also. They may have been responsible for many converts to Christianity in those early days. What happened to them? Maybe they were killed by the Jews in order to silence talk of resurrection (John 12:10-11). Maybe they continued to witness for the Lord until they died. Again, we don’t know. What we do know is that God demonstrated his mighty power to raise the dead, and not only with Jesus, but also with regular people like these folks. That’s great encouragement for us ordinary people. Resurrection isn’t only for special persons; it’s for everyone who believes the gospel. Amen.

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