Let’s conclude our consideration of certain texts from the Passion Narratives with one that describes the aftermath of Jesus’ death. The Gospel of Matthew recounts four immediate results of Jesus’ death, and while they describe historical events, they also signal deeper spiritual truths.
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 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 the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city, and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:50-53)
Let’s consider the four results described in this passage, each in turn.
I. Return – At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
The significance of the tearing of the Temple curtain and the way in which it happened ought not to be underestimated. Consider that God had walked intimately with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of day (cf Gen 3:8), but that after sin, they could no longer endure His presence; they had to dwell apart from the paradise that featured God’s awesome presence. Consider, too, how terrifying theophanies (appearances of God to human beings) were after that time. For example, the appearance of God on the top of Mt Sinai is described in the Book of Exodus:
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Ex 20:18-19).
Had God changed? Was He different from when He walked with Adam and Eve in intimacy? No. We had changed and could no longer endure the presence of God.
Throughout the Old Testament, a veil existed between God and Israel. There was the cloud that both revealed God’s presence and concealed it. There was also the curtain in the sanctuary, beyond which the High Priest could only venture once a year, and even then in fear and trembling.
Sin had done this. Mere human beings could no longer tolerate God’s presence.
But with His Death on the cross, Jesus has canceled our sin. We once again have access to God through Christ our Lord. His blood has cleansed us and the ancient separation from the Father and from God’s presence has been canceled. But we will not encounter God in a merely earthly paradise; He has now opened the way to Heaven.
It is now up to us to make the journey there, but the way has been opened, the veil has been rent. Through this open veil the Father now says, “Come to me!”
II. Rendering of Judgment upon the World – The earth shook, the rocks split …
Judgment has now come; Earth stands judged. This refers not merely to the created world, but also to the forces of this world, the forces of this age, which are arrayed against the Lord and His kingdom. These are forces that do not acknowledge the sovereignty of God but rather insist that political, social, cultural, and economic forces are what must hold sway and have our loyalty.
This earthquake, which has significant historical corroboration, demonstrates that the foundations of this rebellious world ultimately cannot stand before God. The foundations are struck; the powers of this world quake. Scripture says,
- People will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from the fearful presence of the LORD and the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to shake the earth (Is 2:19).
- For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts (Haggai 2:6-7).
- In my zeal and fiery wrath, I declare that at that time there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel (Ez 38:19).
- The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain” (Psalm 2:2-6).
- In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever (Daniel 2:42).
- The LORD will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble. But the LORD will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel (Joel 3:16).
- A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it (Ez 21:27).
Yes, the world shakes; the world is judged. And, most important, as Jesus says, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out (John 12:31).
Do not doubt, dear reader, that no matter how powerful this world may seem in its pride and glory, it has already been shaken; it has already been judged. The world has been conquered and shaken to its very foundations. Do not put your trust or hope in any worldly reality; the world has been judged and shaken; it cannot stand the test of time. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 3:14).
III. Resurrection to New Life – … the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
“Death is struck and nature quaking. All creation is awaking, to its judge an answer making.” (from the Dies Irae). Yes, by dying, Jesus has destroyed our death.
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).
Note well that although the text says that many of the dead appeared in Jerusalem, these appearances occurred after Jesus’ resurrection. Hence, we ought not to imagine ghosts or corpses walking around at 3:00 PM on Good Friday! Rather, they appeared on or after Resurrection Sunday. In this, they witness to the truth of resurrection and the initial fulfillment of the text from Ezekiel:
Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people! I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life (Ez 37:12-14).
Yes, on Good Friday, Jesus awakens the dead with the words, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14).
IV. Realization of Who Jesus Is – When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Jesus most clearly showed His identity as the Son of God through His obedience to the Father. According to the Gospel of John, as Jesus rose from the table of the Last Supper, He said,
The prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. Come now; let us go forth (Jn 14:30-31).
The centurion, in seeing Jesus die this way, somehow recognizes in Him the obedience of the Son of God, who loves and obeys His Father.
By His obedience, Jesus has canceled our disobedience; His humility has canceled our pride. Yet the weakness of God is more powerful than any worldly force. The centurion, who knew power and was trained to respect it, saw in the earthquake and the other occurrences, an indication of the Lord’s glory. The Lord’s way to that glory is not our way. But His glory and Sonship cannot remain forever hidden! Scripture says,
See, he comes amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him. Even So. Amen (Rev 1:7).