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Sunday, April 16, 2017

I May not Understand It (Matthew 27: 50 – 54)

I must say, right up front, that I do not understand the resurrection of Jesus. I believe it, I gratefully accept it, I receive it in faith – but I do not understand it. It is beyond our comprehension. It is outside of all human experience. There were no eyewitnesses to it. It cannot be replicated in a laboratory. I do not know what to make of it

But I am, fully, unabashedly, grateful for what it makes of me.

And yet, the Gospel of Matthew makes the story even more difficult to comprehend, if that were even possible. If the supernatural resurrection of Jesus weren’t enough, Matthew also describes a number of concurrent phenomena that threaten to boggle our already reeling minds. At the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, the veil of the temple in Jerusalem was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth shook violently enough to split rocks and to burst open a number of tombs – from which the bodies of many holy men and women who had died were raised. And these resurrected saints went into the city of Jerusalem and seen by many.

We could almost explain them with a naturalistic explanation – an earthquake (to which the region of Jerusalem is prone as it is located along a fault line known as the Dead Sea Transform (also called the Syrian-African Rift)) shook the area at about the time of Jesus’ death. Damage from this earthquake caused the veil in the temple to fall, and it fell it was torn in two. The earthquake caused rocks to fall from the steep cliffs around Jerusalem and they were shattered on the ground below, and tombs – which were carved into the stony hills of the region – were cracked open and… the bodies of dead saints were …..

Yeah. That’s where a naturalistic explanation falters. There’s no natural way to explain the revivification and reanimation of numerous dead bodies. It is a fantastical event, to be sure, so far outside the realm of normal, natural, human experience as to be almost unbelievable.

Did it happen? Did it literally, historically happen just this way?

If so, there is a curious lack of historical evidence for it. There is no physical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, either of course. But where one raised, and resurrected body could be denied, discredited, and ignored, where one resurrection could be overlooked, it seems like a mass evacuation of graves in the area around Jerusalem would have attracted some attention, that it would have been noticed (by someone other than Matthew)[i]. “…Many interpreters balk at the thought of so many risen dead being seen in Jerusalem. Such a large scale phenomenon should have left some traces in Jewish and / or secular history” (Brown “Eschatological” 64).  But there’s no trace of this mass resurrection in Jewish writings, or in secular histories. Nothing in Josephus (the Jewish historian). Nothing in Roman government reports. Nothing in the Talmud. Nothing.

And if it did occur – literally and physically just this way – we might have expected the other New Testament writers to mention it, but they don’t. Jesus’ resurrection is there, of course; it is the central theme of the New Testament, without which the whole thing would be in vain (1 Corinthians 15: 14), but there’s nothing in the writings of Paul, in the other thee gospels, in the other epistles or in the Revelation given to John on Patmos about these walking dead.[ii]

This small sliver from the gospel of Matthew is the only place where we read about the raising of the many dead holy ones at the time of Jesus’ resurrection.[iii] And though the “argument from silence” is not the strongest argument to be made, we do wonder why, if many holy ones were raised up from their tombs and were seen by many people in the city of Jerusalem, why nothing of them is said anywhere else. Maybe the bodies of many saintly women and men were restored to life and were seen walking around the streets of Jerusalem in the days after Jesus’ resurrection, but if they did, no one except for Matthew seems to have said anything about it.

But what if we were to read these phenomena not as literal, physical, historical happenings, but as poetic symbols of what’s happening in Jesus’ death and resurrection. There is symbolism here (Barclay 409) and we should take note of it.

Jesus’ death and resurrection is such a powerful event that the effects of it are felt throughout the whole of creation. There is darkness in the heavens (Matthew 27: 45) as the sun is dimmed for several hours. There is a tremendous shaking of the earth (Matthew 27: 51).  And the underworld is opened, releasing those who were dead back into the realm of the living. The heavens, the earth, and what is under the earth are all affected by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2: 8 – 11 NKJV)

These are apocalyptic, eschatological symbols here – signs of the end, symbols of powerful judgement, but also symbols of powerful grace. Darkness and earthquakes – these are your standard biblical expressions of the kind of judgments to be seen at the end. The prophets spoke this way: of the darkening of the sun and the falling of the stars and of earthquakes shaking the land… These were signs of judgment and wrath at the end. But this terrible and tragic ending (Jesus’ death), is also the beginning of something wonderful and new (Jesus’ resurrection) – which is why we also have the resurrection of these holy ones. They are the symbols of Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection life given by Christ to his followers.

It is the resurrection power of God’s action that is important here, not the identification of those raised saints who were seen in the city afterwards. (Brown “Death” 1126) It is the fact that the way is open, and that access to God has been made possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection that is important, not which of the Temple veils Matthew intended to describe[iv].

I may not understand Jesus’ resurrection – it is outside human experience, it stands without eyewitnesses, it cannot be repeated or duplicated. But I accepted it and receive it with thanks and praise to God. I definitely do not understand Matthew’s description of these fantastic phenomena, but I accept them too, as symbols of the mighty work of God. Jesus’ death and resurrection tears the fabric of the universe, even as it tears the fabric of the temple veil, shakes the foundations of the universe even as it shakes the rocks and hills of Jerusalem. And Jesus’ death and resurrection brings life to those who are dead. I may not understand, but I accept it and receive it with thanks and praise. And I say, along with the Roman centurion, who had seen the earthquake and all that was taking place, “in truth this man was – and is – son of God.”

Barclay, William.  The Gospel of Matthew Volume 2. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press. 1958. Print.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah: Volume Two. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1994. Print.

Brown, Raymond E., “Eschatological Events Accompanying the Death of Jesus, Especially the Raising of the Holy ones from their Tombs” Faith and the Future: Studies in Christian Eschatology. NY: Paulist Press, 1994. Print.

[i] Yes. I know the author of the Gospel of Matthew (whoever he was) was not an eyewitness to any of the events in his gospel
[ii] There were not zombies, either. (Though that might make for a great story…)
[iii] And there’s debate: were these saints raised as Jesus died, or were they resurrected after? Matthew is a little ambiguous on the point.
[iv] And there is debate about which of the two or three veils Matthew intended. (Brown “Death” 1110 – 1113)

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