The mass resurrection of “many holy people” just after Jesus himself was raised.
Jesus’ resurrection was, no doubt, one of the more glorious events in human history. But I submit that that day’s events were even bigger than most realize. There’s a detail right under our noses in Matthew 27, and most who read it never seem to grasp just what a big deal it is. There was another story running concurrently with Jesus’ own death and resurrection, and in Matthew, we get two sentences about it, which the author inserts at the point in time at which the second story began. Read it here:
Matthew 27:50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
The story of this mass resurrection begins at the moment that Jesus died. There was a rock-splitting earthquake, and it broke open the tombs. And the bodies of many holy people came to life again—at what exact point in time, we are not told. But after Jesus’ own resurrection, those holy people in their resurrected human bodies came out of those tombs and went into Jerusalem, where many people saw them.
That’s what we are told, and this is the only passage in the Bible that speaks of this event in historical-narrative fashion. You can search the other three gospels, and not find a peep about it. And nowhere in the epistles will you find the event covered in this sort of here’s-what-happened way. But even so, here it is in Matthew 27, right under our noses. And this really puts us to the test.
Do we need to take this story into account as we size up the big picture of Jesus’ resurrection? Or is it simply insignificant? Many, it seems, decide on the latter. They rarely talk about it, and when the preachers do happen to read past it in a public scripture-reading, many choose not even to comment on it. And when they do comment on it, often, the comments seem aimed as minimizing the importance of this spectacular event. You’ll hear things like, “Well, this miraculous event was just another way that God was showing the glory of Jesus’ resurrection.” And what a tragic understatement that is!
When we run across this passage in Matthew 27, it should immediately send us scurrying through the scriptures to see what else is said about it. There are some New Testament passages that allude to this, I believe, but none that come right out and tell us the story again like Matthew does. And some moderns may use this fact even as a reason to doubt Matthew’s account of it. But how many times does the Bible have to tell us a thing to make it true? If once isn’t enough, then we have some serious issues of faith going on. Right?
Because we tend to be “cognitive misers” when it comes to studying the Bible, it never occurs to most folks to go to looking for more information—and much less, to dare to get into the Old Testament in search of more material about this mass resurrection. But I believe that it was prophesied in advance, and more than once. Let me show you just two of the passages I have in mind, and then we’ll take a further look at some New Testament passages that I believe allude to this mass resurrection.
For starters, we’ll turn to the “Dry Bones” prophecy of Ezekiel 37. I’ll post it below in sections, and intersperse a few comments along the way.
Ezekiel 37:1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.
“Very dry” makes it plain that these were the bones of those having been dead a long time. And notice how they were “on the surface”, where they could be seen. Matthew’s account has the tombs being broken open, where I would presume that their contents could be seen, at least partially, by onlookers. So let’s not miss this similarity between the two passages. Now going on:
Ezekiel 37:3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Notice that what was prophesied to happen here seems like the reconstituting of their human bodies, starting with the bones. The flesh and blood and skin and organs had long since rotted away, leaving just the bones. But God was foretelling a time when he would bring them back alive again. And this doesn’t seem to be a story about giving them “heavenly bodies” or “spiritual bodies”, such as we read about in 1 Corinthians 15. No, this seems very much to be the return of regular human bodies to the original bones.
Let’s continue with Ezekiel:
Ezekiel 37:7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
So the bodies were reconstituted–and again, the description seems like the normal description of a human body. And once the “breath” (ruach, in the Hebrew, which is translated as breath, wind, or spirit) came into them, they came back alive and stood up. And Ezekiel makes it a point here to describe their number. They were “an exceedingly great army.” And this does jibe with the Greek in Matthew 27 somewhat. Matthew uses polys, which is a standard Greek word for “many”. The use of that word is a little aggravating in this present case, since it’s often used relatively. That is, the soldiers in a great army would be called “many”, but so would a crowd inside a house.
There is a linguistic link between the Greek (Septuagint) version of Ezekiel 37 and Matthew 27, however. Each uses a form of the same Greek word for “many” (polys) that we saw in Matthew 27:52. Here are the excerpts with translations:
καὶ πολλὰ σώματα τῶν κεκοιμημένων ἁγίων
and many bodies of the having-been-sleeping holy ones
συναγωγὴ πολλὴ σφόδρα
a gathering many exceedingly
Both passages use a variation of polys (πολλὰ / πολλὴ) to describe the number of those raised. And while this by no means proves that the two groups in question were the same, it is certainly a detail worth noting as New Testament authors frequently used specific words or phrases from Old Testament passages to which they wanted to draw the attention of the well-read reader. And if these two passages do speak of the same raised crowd, then Ezekiel gives us a fuller indication of number by including the word translated “exceedingly” here.
So let’s get back to the text of Ezekiel 37’s Dry Bones prophecy:
Ezekiel 37:11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”
Those to be raised were the ones among the dead whom God considered “the whole house of Israel”. The way I interpret that, it’s the group of all the faithful from Adam forward. (And I don’t have room here to explain that.) And he brings them back into the land of Israel–that “promised land” where they could finally live better with the help of the Spirit that he would put “within” them.
Is it just a coincidence that God poured out the Spirit on the Christians in Acts 2, just a few weeks after Jesus’ resurrection and just days after his ascension into heaven? That is, these holy dead were raised by the power of the Spirit on the day that Jesus was raised, and they were to live in the land. Well, also living there were the Christians, who were also given the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Peter plainly announces in his famous Pentecost sermon that that period was the fulfillment of Joel 2:
Acts 2:16 But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: 17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
So Peter announces that they are in the “last days”, and that the pouring out of the Spirit was to mark that era. And I want to show you a passage from just one chapter earlier than the Dry Bones prophecy. Many Christians use this passage thinking that it tells about God pouring out his spirit in Acts 2:
Ezekiel 36: 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Many see how this seems to fit Acts 2 so well. Not only do they connect the “put my Spirit within you” to Peter’s promise, “And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:36-38), but they’ll even connect “sprinkle clean water on you” and “clean from all your uncleannesses” with the baptism Peter taught on that same day. But if you study the context carefully between Ezekiel 36 and 37, you’ll see it’s talking about the same people who were to be raised in the Dry Bones event. That is, when God was talking to the living Jews in Ezekiel 36, he was telling them about their own resurrection–one they would experience of they would be faithful to him during their first lifetimes. He wasn’t talking to them to tell them about what would happen to some future set of believers. Yes, there would be some significant events among the never-dead believers at the same time, but Ezekiel 37 was not about those future Jews, but about “the whole house of Israel” among the dead.
And so, the way I see it, Jesus was busting out all the faithful from Sheol/Hades, where they were “prisoners” and “captives”. And while an entire book could be written on this subject, I’ll just give you a sampler here with a couple of one-liners from Psalm 68, which is also quoted in the New Testament in Ephesians 4:8-9:
Psalm 68:6 God settles the solitary in a home; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious dwell in a parched land.
Psalm 68:9b …you restored your inheritance as it languished;
Psalm 68:18 You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train
Psalm 68:20b …and to God, the Lord, belong deliverances from death.
Psalm 68:24 Your procession is seen, O God,
The Psalm shows God (or more specifically, Jesus, I believe):
- Leading out the prisoners from Sheol/Hades to prosperity
- Restoring his inheritance, who were languishing in Sheol
- Ascending upward to the face of the Earth, leading the captive faithful behind him.
- Delivering them from death.
- Starting a procession of those so delivered—so as to be seen by many among the living.
And regarding the last item on this list, let’s look back to the account in Matthew 27.
Matthew 27: 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
First of all, while we’re looking at this verse, who was resurrected first? Jesus was. He was the leader of the procession, and they followed behind. Secondly, once they were raised, where did they go? They proceeded to Jerusalem where they were seen by many people, just as Psalm 68 had prophesied.
NEW TESTAMENT ALLUSIONS?
While the Matthew 27 passage is the only historical narrative of this mass resurrection in the New Testament, I believe it is alluded to in a few places. In the first passage I’ll share, these “many holy people” who were raised are referred to as a “cloud of witnesses” who were surrounding the never-dead Christians:
Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
Those “witnesses”, of course, were the subject matter for the whole of Chapter 11, just before this verse. Specifically mentioned among them are Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham, just to name a few. And remember, Ezekiel 37 describes those who were to be raised as “the whole house of Israel”. And I contend that this does not include the unfaithful among the Israelites, for God had in mind only the “true Jews” among them, just as Paul puts it here:
Romans 2: 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
I believe that those “many holy people” who were raised were the true “inward” Jews. And that’s what God counted as “the whole house of Israel” from among the dead. Those people were brought back into the land at Jesus’ resurrection, where they would live out that generation among the never-having-died Christians.
And I believe they are the ones in view in this “First Resurrection” passage:
Revelation 20:4b Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
This describes a group of people who had kept themselves holy. And we should be careful to notice (as some fail to notice) that the group consists of not only martyrs, but also of those who “had not worshiped the beast…” and so forth. These people came to life in a “first resurrection”, and a second resurrection was to follow later, whatever “a thousand years” meant.
Now, to get them out of Sheol (which is called Hades in the Greek), the one who had kept them captive there (Satan) had to be “bound” so that Jesus could “plunder his house”. Now, this binding is mentioned just before the verses we read from Revelation 20. Let’s look at that passage, and then I’ll show you where Jesus prophetically foretells this binding himself:
Revelation 20: Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.
I think that the passage above parallels the binding that Jesus predicted shortly before his own death. Many miss the prophecy in the following passage, and I’ll discuss why after we read it:
Matthew 12: 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.
Yes, Jesus had been casting out demons, and was criticized by the Jews while doing so. But as so often happened with Jesus, this response went deeper than just to speak to that immediate situation. Yes, he was casting out demons from people so as to rescue the people from Satan’s power, but a greater campaign was imminent, and I believe Jesus alludes to that here. Not only was he “binding” these demons, but would bind their ultimate leader, Satan himself and plunder the underworld that was under Satan’s dominion.
And if you’re from the camps who think that the binding of Satan—his removal from the world, so that he could not deceive anyone else for a time—has still not happened today, I think that you have not been careful enough to pay attention to Jesus’ specific words here:
John 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.
Let’s notice three things here:
- The “ruler of this world” was Satan. Jesus calls him this three times in Matthew (and nowhere else that we have on record). Here are those verses for your study.
- He was to be “cast out”. This certainly fits with having been bound and cast into “the pit”, which is a special region in the far reaches of Sheol/Hades.
- The timing of this was “now”, Jesus said. It was imminent as of this Last Supper discussion he was having with his apostles.
Jesus said these things the night before he died. The next day, Jesus’ own spirit would leave his body after death and descend to Sheol/Hades. There he would not only “preach to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19), but would “bind” Satan (the “strong man”) and “plunder his house”, bringing up the faithful of “the whole house of Israel” so that they could live in the land again, this time bringing glory to him as never before.
Now, I want you to see the following passage in 1 Peter 3, because it ties some things together for us. Not only did Jesus die on the cross, but he went to Sheol and preached to the prisoners (who are not mentioned here as having been released), but then look what it says in the very last verse of the following paragraph:
1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
At the time of this writing, Peter has Jesus already having superiority over all the other divine beings (except for God, of course). And this is consistent with Jesus having already bound Satan. But in case you think this passage is only about the holy angels, let’s look at another:
Colossians 2: 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Do you see this “disarming” of “rulers and authorities” that happened at the time of the cross? These weren’t the holy angels that he disarmed. No, these were Satan and his allies who were not only “disarmed” but “triumphed over” at that time.
THE ESCHATOLOGICAL PUZZLE
For many of those who concern themselves with eschatological (“End Times”) matters, this mass resurrection on the same day as Jesus’ resurrection is intriguing, if not provocative. That is, it puts the “first resurrection” of Revelation 20, as well as the “binding of Satan” as having already happened. Furthermore, it sets that “thousand years” clock ticking—whatever “a thousand years” was supposed to mean in this apocalyptic language.
Further, it makes us wonder at what time it is now. Is Satan still “bound”? If so, that would be a surprise to a great many who think he’s still out and about, causing mayhem. Or if he has been let out “for a little while” already, are we will in that “little while”? Or have we reached the end of the story, where Satan, after having been let out to have his final hurrah, has now been confined eternally to the Lake of Fire, from where he can no longer work his wickedness on Earth?
Well, those questions constitute quite a can of worms, and are quite worth exploring, I believe. Indeed, I have opinions about them myself. But the point of this article is to show you that Jesus didn’t just die and come back in those three days. Rather, he died, bound Satan, came back from the dead, and brought all those righteous captives with him. He brought their spirits back up from Sheol/Hades, and had their bodies miraculously reconstituted as before. And these people went into Jerusalem, appearing as a great cloud of witnesses to all who lived there, and to all who would visit. This is like the traditional view on steroids!
Imagine being in Jerusalem at that time, and seeing Abraham. Or King David! Imagine hearing their stories, not only of their own lifetimes, but of their time in Sheol. Imagine what this would do to your own faith, if you were among those believers in Jerusalem who had never died before. Imagine if you had been one of the mothers whose children were murdered by Herod in Matthew 2 (read it here), and then on the day that Jesus rises from the dead, he also brings back your children! I think that’s what’s being alluded to here in this Hebrews 11 passage:
Hebrews 11: 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection.
And if I’m wrong about this passage, then please tell me, to what other Bible story is Hebrews alluding here?
I don’t think that this particular sentence was referring to some ancient-to-them event, but to one that had happened earlier in that same generation, just after Jesus was born. And then, 30-something years later, they got their children back, raised from the dead!
The title of this article is: “Jesus’ Resurrection Day Was a Bigger Deal than You May Realize!” Do you see what I mean now?
It’s easy for us in this day and age to think of Easter as the day that Jesus rose from the dead, which was really great, and after which he had his apostles start the church, which would run perpetually until he returns. But that view, as great as it may seem to some, pales in comparison to a fuller view of what all happened that day. It was the most amazing day in Earth history, up to that point.
And that’s what I wanted to tell you in this article.
Yes, I know that this raises a boatload of questions that I don’t have time to get into here. You’ll want to know what became of those who were raised after Jesus that day. You’ll want to know more about the “thousand years”. You’ll want to know why the Bible doesn’t spell out this out for us in a more convenient form.
Well, questions are good! Go look into it. Go work the puzzle and see what you come up with!