The curtain of the Temple
Pp Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45
1. Man’s sin
2. The cherubim with a flaming sword in his hand
3. Moses’ veil
4. Solomon’s veil
6. Into New Testament times
7. The rent veil
The earth shook and the rocks split
The dead were raised
On the previous web page, we saw how the Gospel writers deal briefly with the three hour period between the sixth and ninth hours - between the time when Jesus hung on the cross and a darkness fell across the land until He breathed His last and died. Here, we encounter a series of events which Matthew brings together into one unit and which seem to naturally point towards their occurrence upon or shortly after Jesus’ death.
But, the presumably temporary appearing of the believers raised from the dead is specifically spoken of as occurring after the resurrection of Jesus which lies at least thirty-six hours away chronologically and it could be argued that the event of their raising also took place at this time. But that’s not how it appears to read from most modern translations and it seems strange that Matthew should take an event which happened in the future and include it here as a consequence of the death of Jesus. We’ll look more carefully at the text when we get to that passage below but it makes the way for the possibility that Matthew’s record of the Temple curtain being torn in two is simply an appendage included in a summary of various events and that it occurred a little while earlier.
In the text of both Matthew and Mark, there’s no specific statement which would tie in the rending with Jesus’ death such as a simple
‘Upon Jesus’ last breath...’
or the like. Luke 23:44-45, however, does seem to tie down the event but before Jesus breathes His last. We read there (my paraphrase to better represent the Greek words present) that
‘It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, the sun’s light failing and the curtain of the Temple was torn in two’
Clearly, Luke seems to be placing the tearing of the veil at some point in time between the sixth and ninth hours when Jesus hung on the cross. This is the way Lukgel understands the writer’s intention (he speaks of the event as occurring ‘at the same time’ as the sun’s light was darkened - literally, this would have taken place around the sixth hour) but, equally possible, is Matthew’s order in which the word translated ‘Behold’ inserted here seems to be used to draw attention to the event in the context of what has previously transpired (that is, Jesus’ death).
While there’s no discrepancy or conflict in the text, attempts at an accurate harmonisation seem to be impossible to achieve and the reader can decide which chronological order he follows - that the rending of the Temple curtain was associated with Jesus and the cross is all that’s important, however, and the expounding of the passage isn’t altered, it appears to me, if its sequence is changed.
Having said that, there seems to be a certain ‘cause and effect’ here in Matthew that’s lacking from both Mark and Luke, for it appears that the earthquake causes the rending of the veil of the Temple and that it also splits the rocks which open the graves. Markcole comments that Jerome, commenting on the now lost ‘Gospel of the Hebrews’ (believed to have been heretical by many, I hasten to add)
‘...does not mention the curtain but says that the great lintel of the Temple cracked and fell...’
giving a clear indication of how the curtain was rent and how the priests who were ministering in the Holy Place saw no spiritual symbolism with the death of Jesus outside the city gates. Had it simply been rent with no other discernible agency, it might have been interpreted as the work of God but, because God worked through the natural event, its significance was missed.
Finally, of all the phenomena recorded, only one - the tearing of the curtain of the Temple - is paralleled in the two other Gospels (Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45) and the writer of Matthew is quite obviously either using an independent source, recording the testimony of an eye-witness account or inserting into the narrative his personal memory of the events.
Whatever his reasons, the three events seems to be inextricably linked.
The curtain of the Temple
Mtw 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45
Excerpt edited and developed from 'The Restoration of Creation'
One would have thought that, when Matthew wrote ‘the curtain of the Temple’ he would have used language which would have been only possible of one interpretation, but commentators make much of the possibilities here and a short discussion is necessary.
I doubt whether the early Church had any difficulty knowing what either Matthew, Mark or Luke actually meant because they had the living experience of the work of Christ very tangibly alive in their own lives. But, being far removed from the first century, we tend to look at sentences and statements and see in them a wealth of possible controversy which was never there in the original.
Commentators note that there were two veils of separation which were known to the Jews in the Temple. The most holy one of all was hung between the Holy of Holies where God’s presence dwelt and the Holy place where the priests came to minister, while the other separated the Holy place from the Court of Israel where the altar of burnt offering was located and where male Israelites were allowed to come in to offer sacrifice. Matcar comments that
‘Tearing the latter would be more public [for many non-priestly Jews would have witnessed it] but tearing the inner veil could hardly be hushed up’
and so hints at public declaration of whichever curtain was torn apart. The commentator then goes further in noting that
‘Destruction of the outer veil would primarily symbolise the forthcoming destruction of the Temple while destruction of the inner veil would primarily symbolise open access to God...but destruction of either veil could point in both directions’
I don’t want to provide a commentary on the commentary, but I fail to understand how the outer veil could point towards the destruction of the Temple unless it was firmly grounded in Jewish tradition. Matcar notes that
‘Jewish parallels are interesting...’
and cites Yoma 39b in the Babylonian Talmud which he observes as stating that the Temple gates opened of their own accord during the forty years prior to the Temple’s destruction, a fact which seems to be confirmed by Josephus in War 6.5.3 and interpreted by him as a sign of destruction. He writes that
‘...the eastern gate of the inner [court of the] Temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night. Now those that kept watch in the Temple came hereupon running to the captain of the Temple, and told him of it; who then came up thither, and not without great difficulty was able to shut the gate again. This also appeared to the vulgar to be a very happy prodigy, as if God did thereby open them the gate of happiness. But the men of learning understood it, that the security of their holy house was dissolved of its own accord, and that the gate was opened for the advantage of their enemies’
That a firmly secure door opened of its own accord was thought to indicate that their protection had been divinely removed is fairly logical - but how a draped curtain which hung at the entrance to the Holy Place could be so interpreted is another matter entirely. Lacking a definitive statement from Jewish sources, the only pointer that a rent outer veil could have naturally symbolised was, perhaps, that service to God was now taken from the elite Levitical priesthood and made available to all for it was here, in the Holy Place, that the blood of sacrifices and offerings were sprinkled - and it was only this curtain which prevented entry.
It’s evident from the NT letters that believers have been raised up to be priests to God (I Peter 2:5, 2:9, Rev 1:6) but, unless that priesthood is rooted firmly in a Levitical context, the service rendered to God becomes devoid of reality for the presence of God still remains within the Temple in Jerusalem while the inner curtain remains in place.
There seems, therefore, to be no reason to suppose that the outer curtain was rent in two for it’s more natural to see a reference to the inmost of the two, even though the report of the inner veil being ripped open could only have been declared to the congregation of Israel by the priests who were ministering to YHWH within that Holy Place.
The significance of this inner veil being rent is variously interpreted by commentators but there seems to be little which commends some of the suggestions. Mathag sees the rent curtain as indicating
‘...the wrath and judgment of God against the Jewish authorities...’
but how this is actually outworked through the divine hand tearing something which had been put up by divine command isn’t clear. Neither is it clear how Mathag can justify the interpretation that it speaks of
‘...the end of the Temple where God is no longer present’
through a symbolical act of judgment. But, the rending of the curtain - as we shall see below - only makes sense if God’s there. Perhaps he sees in the removal of the barrier, an inference that God’s somehow ‘got out’, but none of the three writers record that this is the symbolism intended and that it naturally pronounces judgment on the old Levitical order (this is the bottom line of the quote - I’m not commenting on the statement concerning the removal of the barrier between God and man). Matmor, however, is a bit more vague when he notes that, whichever curtain is meant
‘...the thought is of judgment on the Temple...’
Again, one might ask ‘how?’ for, although there may be a consequential inference that judgment will be poured out on the old way of serving God, there’s nothing in the text which shows that, by His death, Jesus condemned the Temple practices. Rather, the assertion of Matthew is that Jesus came specifically to fulfil such offerings and sacrifices (Mtw 5:17).
Therefore, it’s best that we accept the testimony of the three writers at face value - that is, that the dividing wall between the presence of God and the dwelling place of mankind had now been removed by something that Jesus did on the cross. This will have dynamic implications for the NT believer and their relationship with God and it may even pronounce the ‘death sentence’ on the old Mosaic style of worship commanded in the Torah - but, primarily, the rending of the curtain has to be thought of in the simplest of terms which are separated from any idea of judgment.
If a barrier is removed, then, it means freedom of access on a two way basis - not only would mankind now be shown to be able to enter in to the presence of God but also that God might exit out from the Holy of Holies into mankind’s society in a way in which He’d never before done. This, surely, is the most simple explanation of the rending of the Temple curtain and, as we shall see as we consider the use of veils through the OT below, there’s a wealth of theological implications here to which this event serves as a fitting conclusion.
1. Man’s sin
It’s evident that man was created to have fellowship with God.
In the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve walked freely in the midst of God’s Creation, they had perfect fellowship with God, there being no barriers that restricted their access and there being nothing that was negative in their relationship with the Creator. God walked in human form with man (or so the interpretation appears to be of Gen 3:8) - they conversed face to face.
Though this may be hard for us to conceive, there’s certainly no reason to see in the set up of the original Creation any ground that they could not have shared with God.
But then man chose to go his own way apart from God. Instead of listening to the One who’d given them life and trusting Him for all the wisdom and knowledge that they needed, they effectively rebelled against His rule by choosing to listen to the voice of the serpent over His voice. When the suggestion of the serpent plainly contradicted God’s known command, they had every opportunity to put a creature who was already under their rule down, but they chose instead to listen and obey and the fellowship that man had had with the Creator was destroyed.
Adam’s experience of sin, then, caused the relationship to be broken. Had he remained in the innocence of knowing what was wrong without experiencing it, then there would have been no judgment - but once he overstepped the mark, God had to step in and judge.
So began the barrier - the ‘veil of separation’ - between God and man, the veil being a symbol of the sin that had been committed in the garden and which separates mankind from the presence of God. This ‘veil’ speaks to us of something that prevents two objects from becoming one and, as we now go on to trace these ‘veils of separation’ through the Biblical record, we’ll see how the presence of this separation is indicative of man’s plight up until the work on the cross by Jesus.
2. The cherubim with a flaming sword in his hand
As we’ve already seen, the result of the first life that committed sin became eternal separation from God’s presence. Is 59:2 tells us that
‘...your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God’
before going on to state that
‘...your sins have hid His face from you so that He does not hear’
Primarily meant for the children of Israel as the Davidic line of kings was drawing to a close over the kingdom of Judah as a consequence of sin and rebellion, it has a secondary application in every situation where a person chooses a way of life that’s opposed to God - there comes a separation between individuals and the Creator on account of their own freewill choice and, even worse, the perception of God in that individual’s life then becomes increasingly corrupted until, finally, gods are worshipped that bear little, if any, resemblance to the true God (Rom 1:18-32).
In John 17:3, Jesus says that
‘...this is eternal life, that they may know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent’
because eternal life is simply fellowship with God, a friendship relationship with the Creator. Therefore, on exclusion from God’s presence in the garden, mankind was excluded from the tree of ‘eternal’ life (Gen 3:22).
God had told the man that, in the day that he disobeyed His voice, he would die (Gen 2:16-17). It’s quite plain that Adam and Eve didn’t suffer physical death until many years afterwards, even though the curse that was put on both they and their descendants was that they would return to the dust after a life of toil and struggle (Gen 3:18-19). But God’s instruction concerned spiritual death.
Just as physical death means a separation of the soul from physical life (the body), so spiritual death means a separation of the soul from spiritual life (that is, God, through the believer’s spirit). Though mankind shrinks away from the final separation of body and soul, the worse horror is to live a life of spiritual separation before physical death that then continues after what’s tangible is swallowed up by immortality.
The first ‘veil of separation’ was a cherubim which guarded the way both into God’s presence and to the tree of eternal life (Gen 3:24). It prevented mankind from both coming in to fellowship with God, and, to a certain extent at least, it restricted God coming out of His dwelling place (Heaven) to fellowship with man. Of course, God, being who He is, showed His presence to men and women on the earth throughout the OT and revealed His nature to all He chose. But, because of sin, the fulness of His presence could not be revealed.
As we trace the line of veils in other parts of the Scriptures, we need to remember this twofold function of the veil - as a restriction placed upon both God and man, the former voluntarily through another’s actions, the latter obligatory through personal choice.
3. Moses’ veil
Ex 26:31-33, 40:3
The Tabernacle that was set up in the wilderness as the Israelites journeyed onward to the promised inheritance of Canaan had three divisions. Firstly, as you approached from the outside, you came in to what was known as the outer court into which all Israel had access to bring their offerings to worship God. In the centre of this compound lay a roofed enclosure (roofed temporarily so it could be easily removed and packed away when they moved onwards) which contained two further divisions.
The first of these two was the inner court or Holy place where only the priests were allowed access to minister to the Lord by applying the blood of the sacrifices, burning incense on the altar that stood there, laying out the shewbread on its table and trimming the branched lampstand. Each of these have their own applications and relevance to a believer’s walk with the Lord but they aren’t relevant to the subject under discussion.
Finally, there lay the most holy place, the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God took up residence (Ex 40:34-35). It was here that only the High Priest had the right of access - and then only once every year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) - but even on this day he wasn’t allowed to have fellowship with God. He entered in fear of His life to atone for the sins of Israel, taking with himself the blood of bulls and goats and a burning censer full of coals (see my notes on ‘Yom Kippur’ for a detailed explanation of this day and of its application to the work of the cross).
Because God’s presence (symbolised by the Ark, but present in the cloud that filled the Tabernacle) dwelt in the Holy of Holies, the veil of separation was hung up between this area and the outer two divisions, thus preventing men and women from being able to come in to His presence. The veil showed man that, while it was still hung, the way to God was barred because of sin.
But notice that God commanded that there were to be cherubim embroidered on the veil (Ex 26:31) which served as a reminder to Israel of the cherubim that God had placed between Himself and man to ensure separation. The cherubim reminded the nation that the consequences of what had been committed in the Garden of Eden were still in force (even though the people wouldn’t have actually been able to see the cherubim while the veil hung).
This veil of separation also became the protective covering to prevent the Israelites from seeing the Ark of the covenant when they moved on in their journey. It was used to veil the symbol of the presence of God before the other coverings were applied and before the outer tents were removed (Num 4:5).
God hadn’t originally intended that the veil should separate all His ministers from His presence continually but, for their own protection, entry into the Holy of Holies was restricted to just once every year on the Day of Atonement because of the sin of Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-2, 16:1-2) who appear to have been drunk (Lev 10:8-9), both men being slain in the presence of God for their sin of wrongful approach.
4. Solomon’s veil
II Chr 3:14
The Temple of Solomon, the first fixed location for the Tabernacle which had remained in its mobile form until this building, was simply a glorified version of the Tent of the wilderness.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the same threefold structure was present. Here again, the veil of separation was hung up to shield the presence of God from mankind, it being a similar design to that one used in the Tabernacle constructed (II Chr 3:14 - my italics)
‘...of blue and purple and crimson fabrics and fine linen, and worked cherubim on it’
The cherubim again are indicative of the sin of mankind in Adam and the way into the presence of God is similarly restricted, showing that the consequence of that original sin was still in effect.
I Chr 16:1, II Sam 7:18
Having stated above - and shown - that God took great care to show mankind through His people, the Jews, that the consequences of mankind’s sins were still in effect, He nevertheless gave occasional windows into what was planned in Christ - not only through the prophets but through the events that He allowed to happen which were often in contradiction to the Law He’d established through Moses.
For example, the tent that David set up to house the Ark of the covenant (the symbol of God’s presence) doesn’t appear to have had any divisions in it. Though one could be forgiven for thinking that the old Tabernacle structure was still present from I Chr 16:1, the verse II Sam 7:18 says that king David
‘...went in [to the tent] and sat before the Lord’
something that it was not permitted to do under the Old Covenant. Even if we were to read the Scripture and understand by it that David sat in front of the veil of separation, he would still be violating the clearly set out Mosaic legislation which allowed only the priests this right of access.
These windows in the OT give the reader pictures and illustrations of what was going to be made available in the Christ at a time to come - though it’s only possible to understand these facts retrospectively.
6. Into New Testament times
When Christ came, Solomon’s Temple had already been destroyed by the sacking of Jerusalem under the Babylonians. Zerubbabel’s Temple (the restoration of Solomon’s destroyed Temple that the returning exiles had constructed) had also ceased to exist by its absorption into future rebuildings of the Temple area, but most notably under Herod’s grand extensions.
In the place of both these two temples, stood the Temple of Herod (which reached it’s completion, ironically, only very shortly before it was destroyed by the Romans c.70AD) with the same 3 divisions (Outer court, Inner court/Holy Place and Holy of Holies). Here also there was a veil of separation hanging between the presence of God and the outside world.
Although the Bible remains silent on the construction and layout of the Temple (it details nothing about the architectural plans of the Temple from the time of Zerubbabel onwards), we can be sure of the presence of the veil through Josephus, who describes the Temple in detail in ‘The Jewish War’ (Page 304 lines 17-20). He writes
‘The innermost chamber measured thirty feet and was similarly separated by a curtain from the outer part. Nothing at all was kept in it; it was unapproachable, inviolable [meaning “that which must not be profaned”] and invisible to all, and was called the “Holy of Holies”’
However, the Mishnah (compiled around 130 years after the destruction of the Temple) set out to record the ways of the Jewish religion including the service of the Temple before its destruction and mentions the existence of two veils in connection with the ceremonies of Yom Kippur (Yoma 5:1). It notes that
‘[The High Priest] went through the sanctuary until he came to the space between the two curtains separating the Sanctuary from the Holy of Holies. And there was a cubit’s space between them’
But it states in another place (Shekalim 8:5) that
‘The veil was one handbreadth thick and was woven on [a loom having] seventy-two rods...Its length was forty cubits and its breadth twenty cubits; it was made by eighty-two young girls, and they used to make two in every year; and three hundred priests immersed it’
This verse certainly makes the reader think that there was just the one veil but, like the offering of the two goats as one sin offering on the Day of Atonement (see my notes for further details), it’s also possible that, although two veils hung, there was only considered to be the one.
Whether there was at one time two curtains that hung that were regarded as being one veil, or whether the explanation of the two veils in the context of Yom Kippur was simply given to show the reader how the High Priest was able to get behind the veil and into the Holy of Holies when his hands were full, is unclear. Whatever the explanation, there was definitely a veil of separation that continued to be hung in the Temple in Jerusalem which concealed the presence of God from the majority of mankind.
That veil, just like all the previous ones, was a symbol of the rebellion and sin of mankind.
7. The rent veil
Mtw 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45
The implication of the above three verses in the Gospels is that Christ’s physical death sealed a work in which it was fitting that the veil of separation was torn in two. As this veil was the symbol of the restriction that was in force as a result of mankind’s original sin, it’s rending showed that Christ had opened up the way into the very presence of God - He had enabled man once again to have access to and therefore fellowship with God, to develop a relationship with Him.
The Jews’ reaction would have been to rehang the veil as quickly as they could, no doubt, to protect the sanctity of the Holy of Holies - but God had made a way to deal with the consequences of man’s own actions, so bringing to an end the service that had been commanded under the Old Covenant.
While it’s quite true to say that the veil rent allowed man in, it’s equally true to say that it allowed God out to dwell in the midst of His Church. We find a similar dual purpose in God’s actions in Mtw 28:2 where the stone that was rolled away is often considered to be so that Christ could get out - even though He had no need of this (John 20:19). The stone, therefore, was removed by the angels not to let Christ out so much as to let man look in and see that He’d risen and that His body had gone.
Access into God’s presence, therefore, was secured by the work of Jesus on the cross between the sixth and ninth hours, Heb 10:19-22 bearing witness to this when it says that
‘...since we have confidence to enter the [place where God dwells] by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since we have a great High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near...’
Having gone through an exposition of the old sacrificial system and shown that Christ has fulfilled its legal demands, the writer makes the declaration that now, in Christ, the way has been opened into God’s presence through the veil.
That veil of separation, indicative of mankind’s sin and rebellion, is now removed because of the work of the cross. Jesus is considered to be the veil that separated mankind in the sense that, having become sin (II Cor 5:21), He took it upon Himself to be separated from God, to deal with the problem that sin had brought about - so removing it in His own body.
But, having said that the way has now been opened, it doesn’t follow that mankind is automatically there in God’s presence. Freedom of access has been won by Christ for all who want it, but simply having the right of access doesn’t mean that the freedom is being used.
For example, salvation is available to all now that Christ has died and has risen from the dead - but it doesn’t follow that all men are saved because not all men have accepted the sacrifice that was given for them and not all have received it ‘by faith’. And it is ‘by faith’ that men and women enter in to the presence of God - not believing what Christ has done with their minds only, but letting what Christ has done become a part of their lives.
To want forgiveness but to stay in rebellion is not salvation. Faith in what Christ has done means not to choose one’s own way but to live the way that God created man to live - that is, sins forgiven and rebellion killed, being able to say in all sincerity that
‘I’m fed up going my own way - from now on I will follow God’
On the web page (part 2 section 1) where I deal with the restoration of fellowship with God, I’ve also included a fairly lengthy explanation of what a relationship with God both is and isn’t seeing as what a man has is often mistaken for the real thing. The reader should access these notes for a full explanation of the work of Jesus Christ which secured the reunion of God with man.
The earth shook and the rocks split
Only Matthew’s Gospel records the fact of the earthquake (as well as the dead being raised) and it repeats the observation a few verses further on (Mtw 27:54) when it notes that the centurion uttered his statement partly because he
‘...saw [the effects of] the earthquake’
I’ve noted in my introduction to this web page that the threefold observation of the Gospel (earthquake, rent veil and tombs opened) form an integrated series of events that should possibly be seen as one - namely that the earthquake appears to have been the method which God used to bring about the rending of the inner veil of the Temple and to crack open the graves from which the dead exited into the city (though a person raised from the dead would hardly be limited by spacial considerations if something similar to Jesus’ raising from the dead is meant - see the next section for further comments).
Mattask’s comments, however, that
‘...the earthquake...caused the veil to be rent...’
goes unexplained in his commentary and should have been supported by Jerome’s reference to the Gospel of Hebrews (see my introduction) which simply observed that the lintel of the Temple cracked and fell. It’s no more than a supposition, of course, but the three events are more likely meant to be integrated into a whole than to be taken as individual events which stand alone.
Trying to define what an earthquake was thought to represent from the OT Scriptures (and from the NT) is not easy and the Bible makes a handful of references to natural earthquakes when they’re stated simply as a fact without any immediately obvious theological significance (Amos 1:1, Zech 14:5, Acts 16:26). Indeed, in one of the more famous passages concerning Elijah, God is said specifically not to be in the earthquake (I Kings 19:11) but this seems to be an observation which isn’t meant to be taken as inclusive of all other similar phenomena.
The earthquake can be a sign of God’s judgment and is used specifically so in the Book of Revelation (Hab 2:6, 2:21, Rev 6:12, 8:5, 11:13, 16:18) and it doesn’t matter whether these are taken literally or not - that such an event is associated with judgment would bleed over into an interpretation of naturally occurring events. However, just to confuse matters, an earthquake can also be a sign of a work of God as it is in Is 29:6 when YHWH comes to fight on His people’s behalf against their enemies (see also Joel 3:16), when God speaks from Heaven concerning the giving of the Mosaic Law (Heb 12:26) and when the Creation witnesses the presence of God (Ps 77:16-18, Nahum 1:5). It also follows the revealing of the divine Temple (Rev 11:19 - whatever that might mean).
Most of this language may be taken as figurative, for the king of Babylon is spoken of (Is 14:16) as being
‘...the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms...’
which appears in the midst of a passage which is normally taken by commentators as a reference to satan himself - the power behind the earthly throne and the real motivator whom God used to bring about His own purpose throughout the then-known world.
The earthquake, then, could be taken simply as an event with little or no theological significance but there seems to be some indication that we should take such a phenomenon as indicative of the testimony of Creation to the all-sufficient work of the cross. At the beginning of the rebellion of mankind, part of the restructuring of the created order which impinged upon Adam (Gen 3:17-18) was God’s pronouncement that
‘...cursed is the ground because of you...thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you...’
confirmed that this was to be a degeneration of Creation by Paul (Rom 8:20-21) when he noted that
‘...the Creation was subjected to futility...’
and that it’s subject to a
‘...bondage to decay...’
Quite clearly, belief in an evolutionary process whereby the simple becomes complex isn’t possible from the Biblical perspective though it has to be said that, theoretically, there may be some idea of man becoming an amoeba! If mankind could be shown to be less complex a being now than he was, say, five thousand years ago (which, I believe, it does), that would be a clear indication that the testimony of Scripture is accurate and that Evolution is errant.
But, I digress. It’s clear that Creation has been subject to a bondage to decay because of one man’s sin but, through one Man’s obedience, Jesus, it awaits a day when it will be set free from this bondage and experience the freedom and liberty for which it was intended, when the sons of God are revealed upon His return (Rom 8:21).
The earthquake, therefore, seems to be evidence that Creation itself was bearing witness to the sufficiency of the life of the Christ to restore it to God’s original intention, even though the created order as pagan religions often teach (such as the concept of ‘Mother Earth’) is not a correct inference from such an event. Rather, God uses what has come about by His own work to reflect His glory and character (Ps 19:1-4, Rom 1:20) and to declare His works (Is 55:12-13).
The dead were raised
That the writer of the Gospel of Matthew sees that the raising of the dead was associated with the death of Jesus is certain but there are a number of issues here which are less easy to resolve. The letters of the NT writers, however, are a good commentary on this passage and it’s to these which the reader must turn in order to understand what the answer is to some of the more puzzling questions.
Paul, writing in Col 1:18, speaks of Jesus as being
‘...the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent [that is, have first place]’
and, in I Cor 15:20, that He is
‘...the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep [that is, who have died]’
Clearly the inference is that Jesus was the first to be raised from the dead in a new resurrected body that’s no longer subject to natural limitations including death. There were many raisings from the dead before the resurrection took place (for instance, John 11:43-44, Luke 7:14-15, Mtw 10:8) but none of these represented a transformation of the body into an eternal dwelling place - they were subject to the same limitations, culminating in that person’s second bodily death.
Therefore, not only is Christ’s resurrection different in kind from all those others, but it’s also the first as a forerunner of those believers who will be raised in newness at the end of the age. Paul observes this in I Cor 15:23 where he notes the sequence of the events as
‘...Christ the first fruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ’
pushing the final resurrection of the dead into the future upon Jesus’ return to set up the visible Kingdom of God. Whether the believer died before or after the cross (Heb 11:35), all that Jesus has done points forward to a future day when the final glorification of God’s people will take place and the promised inheritance of an imperishable body will be received by them (II Cor 5:4-5, Eph 1:14).
Therefore, the resurrection of the dead is always a future event in Scripture (II Thess 2:1-2), one that is looked forward to and not an event of the past that will be repeated for other believers in other generations. Jesus, then, is the only One so far who’s received that type of body that all believers will inherit at His second appearing.
Once we realise this, it’s evident that those who had fallen asleep in the present passage could not have been raised in resurrection bodies as Jesus was. But, in what type of bodies they were raised (the phrase ‘appeared to many’ implies that there were special manifestations to certain individuals) and what happened to them after their appearances is not certain from the Scriptural account.
All that seems to be said with any certainty, however, is that some of the dead believers were raised and that it was witnessed by many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem (the phrase ‘went into the holy city’ seems to limit their appearance only to Jerusalem). The NT is quite plain, however, that the power of death had been finally destroyed by Jesus (Acts 2:24, Heb 2:14) and this incident is the historical setting which would point both back to the sufficiency of the work and forward to the future resurrection of all believers.
Having said what we can solely from the NT’s own testimony, we now need to go on to note several interpretations which seem to undermine the plain statements contained in these two verses. Commentators on the whole struggle with accepting the event as literal. For instance, Matfran observes that it’s
‘...presumably...to be seen as symbolic’
for no reason, I can see, apart from a general feeling that it’s implausible. His following statement that
‘...its character as sober history...can only be...a matter of faith, not of objective demonstration’
is more accurate, however, but we should realise that, if we were allowing provable fact to force the disciple into believing what he should, documented evidence outside the Gospels for the crucifixion of Jesus is lacking - and even more so (if that were possible) for the resurrection. Matcar - citing Senior - speaks about the ‘most popular’ current view as being that the incident was
‘...a symbolic representation of certain theological ideas about the triumph of Jesus and the dawning of the new age’
while Mathag states his preference (while not doubting the possible historicity of the account) when he writes that
‘I side...in concluding that the rising of the saints from the tombs in this passage is a piece of theology set forth as history’
I’ve already stated on the previous web page that the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t appear to be a theology book but an attempt at the accurate recording of the facts of Jesus’ life - perhaps that the Gospel is less of a theology book and more of a historical account would be a better description. We came to this conclusion as we looked at the brevity of information and description that was contained in the account of the three hour period of darkness in which mankind was reconciled to God the Father (Mtw 27:45-50) for there’s no hint at the theology of expiation, of propitiation, of redemption and so on. The writer seems to be concerned to record what he believes to have been the facts of the matter and to allow the theology which was already well-grounded in the churches of his day to find a root in what he was writing.
Therefore, had Matthew intended for there to be theology here, why did he state the fact of the raising of the dead and move on? Matcar also comments that
‘Others have thought it a primitive christian hymn’
which is another way of detracting from the historical authenticity of the event and to push it into the realms of liturgical poetry by which a literal event may be seen to be not what was intended - it seems strange, however, that it’s difficult to detect it as a first century hymn or that Matthew didn’t represent it in the text as such with a formula (Eph 5:14 see also I Tim 3:16) such as
‘Therefore it is said’
In the commentaries of those who accept the historicity of the account, there’s also been an attempt to move the event to the day of the resurrection, the Sunday which was to follow in three days time (‘three days’ as specified in the first century counting of time and the period throughout which Jesus would be in the grave) from the Friday where it’s here recorded under. This has more going for it and it may well be correct to think that Matthew summarised events associated with Jesus’ triumph into one cohesive statement without the reader having to think of them as occurring at the same moment or, at least, on the same day.
When we looked at the rending of the curtain of the Temple above, we noted that it was more likely that Luke placed the event in time order at the beginning of the sixth hour than that either Mark or Matthew had done - though, for theological reasons, present day believers would only see the event as being possible after the work had been completed on the cross and, thus, following the physical expiration of Jesus Christ.
Here, the problem we have with accepting the resuscitation of the dead is simply because it’s where the writer of Matthew has placed it but, because there’s evidence in the same few verses that chronology may not have been what the writer was too concerned with, we may be best to move it to resurrection morning. Matcar, citing Hutton, calls this incident
‘...a displaced resurrection account...’
where the earthquake of Mtw 28:2 would be the equivalent of that mentioned in Mtw 27:52 as one possibility. Matthew does seem to indicate two earthquakes, however, and it seems best to accept both as being individual events, but that a full-stop should be placed after the phrase
‘the tombs also were opened’
to make the first earthquake responsible for splitting the rock coverings (which were very often ‘in’ the rock rather than dug vertically down into the soil). Therefore, the text would more properly read
‘...the earth shook and the rocks were split and the tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many’
If this is accepted, Matthew’s Gospel is recording one of the events of the resurrection in the context of the cross because, when he mentions the first earthquake as having split the rocks of the tombs open, he immediately recollects what it paved the way for and so goes on to record it, albeit displaced from its correct chronological order.
There’s also the problem of trying to ascertain what the raised believers did inbetween the cross and resurrection if they were raised three days prior to them coming out from the tombs - these are naturalistic concerns, however, and they shouldn’t be the sole reason for opting for a raising from the dead on resurrection Sunday.
Commentators also struggle to know what happened to these believers after they’d ‘appeared to many’. Although we can be sure that they weren’t raised from the dead with the same body as that of Jesus (for the reasons set out above), we might be going too far to think of them as being raised from the dead as men and women were in the Gospel record - that is, with bodies that would then naturally die a second time at a later date.
There certainly seems to be an inference from Eph 4:8-10 that the resurrection of Jesus from the grave and into Heaven was more than just one Man ascending to the Father. Paul quotes Ps 68:18 as saying that
‘When [Jesus] ascended on high He led a host of captives and He gave gifts to men’
explaining the quote by noting that
‘In saying “He ascended” what does it mean but that He had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is He who also ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things’
There seems to be a translation of OT believers into the presence of Heaven here where the OT speaks of them simply as occupying Sheol, the place of the dead where both good and bad were consigned. The change which Jesus’ death brought about was good news not only for men and women who were alive - and for those yet to live - but for those who‘d awaited the day when the problem of sin would be resolved. I’ve discussed this in more detail on my web site on the dwelling places of the dead.
The inference, then, would be that those saints who were raised and who appeared to many in Jerusalem were not raised with resuscitated physical bodies but in a temporary form which could be seen and that, when Jesus ascended to the Father, they also followed after Him.
One final point needs to be made on this passage and it will show us the reason why these three events dealt with on this web page were brought together as one. Mathag comments that
‘The problem [of the dead being raised] is that the event makes little historical sense...’
but, in the context of the previous two events, it’s actually seen to be a necessity. The writer of Matthew not only brings these three events together as one unit to make the reading ‘tidy’, but there’re allusions to the restoration of the original created order here that seem to demand that they be kept together. Whether the writer realised this or not is impossible to say but he may have chosen to record these historical facts because they supported the theology of the church for whom he was writing. In this case, the rent veil would speak of the reversal of Gen 3:24 (it restores union with God), the earthquake would demonstrate the reversal of Gen 3:17-18 (it restores Creation) and the dead raised would declare the reversal of Gen 3:19 (it restores everlasting life).
For this reason, Matthew might be better seen as including what he knew to be historical events because of what He knew Jesus’ work to have accomplished whereas both Mark and Luke chose only to record the rending of the veil which, for them, was the pivotal event of the cross. The three events are much more than a simple ‘cause and effect’ as previously noted and Matthew can be seen to be demonstrating that the restoration of the original created order is accomplished through Jesus’ death on the cross.
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