Matthew 27:51-54 “Easter at Christmas!”

Translation & Sermon by Nate Wilson for Christ The Redeemer Church Manhattan KS, 05 Jan 2014


27:50 But as for Jesus, after crying out in a loud voice, He released His spirit.


27:51 And, check this out, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom,

and the earth was shaken – and the rock-strata were ruptured,

27:52 and the tombs were opened up –

and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep [in death] were raised,

27:53 and, coming out of the tombs after His resurrection, they entered into the holy city

and were disclosed to many.


27:54 And as for the centurion and those guarding Jesus with him,

once they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening,

they became very afraid, saying, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”


·         I hear there was a special birthday celebration recently! Most people call it “Christmas.”

·         Have you considered what the word “Christmas” means? The “Christ Mass” is the Roman Catholic sacrament in which Jesus’ body and blood are supposedly received as a sacrifice to pay for our sin.

·         Some Christians call this season “Advent,” instead of “Christmas.” “Advent” means “coming,” to remember the special “coming” of Christ described in the Gospels.

·         Now, Christians have not always celebrated Christmas or Advent. Apparently they did not celebrate anybody’s birthday at first, but, about three hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians started developing a tradition of celebrating events surrounding Jesus’ birth, although initially they celebrated on January 7 – the date still used by Coptic and Armenian Christians instead of December 25. In fact, John Chrysostom, whom I have quoted in my sermons, reportedly introduced celebrations of the birth of Jesus in Constantinople in the late 300’s.

·         Later, in Medieval Europe, priests encouraged Christians to avoid the pagan winter solstice parties and instead hold an all-night prayer vigil in honor of Christ’s birth – and remember His life and death as well in the traditional “mass.”

·         By the 13- to 15 hundreds, not only the mass but also the ridiculously-complex holy day system were in desperate need of reform, and some Reformers abandoned Christmas as an unbiblical and pagan contrivance. On the other hand, Martin Luther was one reformer who kept Christmas and even encouraged the use of Christmas trees – not as an idol to worship, but rather to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation within his home.

·         In America, Governor Bradford threatened the Plymouth settlers with jail or fines if anyone were caught observing Christmas[1]. It wasn’t until the 1830’s that my home state of Alabama became the first in the Union to recognize Christmas as a legal holiday.

·         So it seems that, while the Bible doesn’t command us to celebrate Advent, it is something we are free to do, and Christians throughout the centuries have brought Christmas into practice for the joy of worshipping Jesus.

·         I also want to point out Christians throughout history have made the connection between remembering Jesus’ birth and remembering Jesus’ death, and that is what I hope to do now, but I also want to add to it the remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection!

·         The death and resurrection of Jesus are of mind-bogglingly-enormous significance. This was the hinge point in the history of the world, spiritually speaking. In one of my favorite books of poetry, T.S. Eliot called it, “the axle tree… the still point of the turning world.[2]

·         Here in Matthew chapter 27, verses 51-54, I was surprised to discover a prequel to the resur­rection – even before the burial account! So I want to call your attention to what these four amazing verses say.

·         Matthew records three stunning events which reveal how earth-shatteringly important the death and resurrection of Jesus was. Three concrete subjects and three passive verbs, followed by three more verbs expounding on the third event:

1.      The rending of the temple veil

2.      The earthquake, and

3.      The resurrection of many dead bodies!

·         Let’s start with v.51…


27:51 And, check [this out], the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth was shaken – and the rock-strata were ruptured,

Και ιδου το καταπετασμα του ναου εσχισθη εις δυο απο ανωθεν ‘εως κατω και ‘η γη εσεισθη και ‘αι πετραι εσχισθησαν

·         What was the significance of the veil of the temple ripping?

o       The veil was the curtain that stood between the holy presence of God and the sinful people of Israel.

o       It was made of blue, purple, and scarlet linen, embroidered with pictures of angels, and hung on gilded poles (Ex. 26:31-33).

o       Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest was to pull back that veil and step into the holiest place of God’s presence with the blood of a goat and “sprinkle its blood on the mercy-seat [of the ark inside and] … make atonement… on account of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and for …all their sins” (Lev. 16:15-16, Brenton). (The rest of the year, the priest would remain outside the veil and sprinkle blood on the outside of that veil every time he offered a sacrifice for sin – Lev. 4:2-6)[3].

o       The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the veil in the temple of Jesus’ day was 20 cubits wide and 60 cubits tall and the entire span of a hand in thickness[4].

o       The fact that such a massive tapestry 4 inches thick was ripped in two, plus the fact that it was ripped starting at the top (some 60 to 90 feet above the floor), indicates that this was a sign from God.

o       Hebrews 6:19-20 explains the symbolism of this momentous event by saying that Jesus entered into the holy place through the veil as our eternal high priest, offering His own blood to pay for the sins of His people and obtaining forgiveness of sin for us.

o       It goes on in Hebrews 10:18-22 to explain that since Jesus has obtained forgiveness for us, there don’t need to be any more animal sacrifices, and, in fact, there doesn’t need to be a veil separating redeemed sinners from the special presence of God either. “Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith…” (NASB).

o       Do you see the comparison drawn in Hebrews between Jesus’ body and the temple veil? (“…the veil, that is, His flesh...”) When Jesus was broken, the veil broke[5]. Mind you, the breaking of Jesus’ body was not literal – no bones were broken, nor was his body physically cut in two, but the Biblical concept of brokenness has to do with being punished by God for sin[6].

o       For over a thousand years the Jews saw that veil between them and the special presence of God and knew that there was something incomplete, something hidden – yet to be revealed, and they waited for the Messiah (whom it symbolized) to come and do away with the guilt of sin once and for all. Then, when Jesus finally came and died on the cross, the veil was also torn in two.

o       The rending of the veil marked the end of a symbol. The temple was no longer to be the place of the special presence of God, and the altar was no longer to be approached with sacrificial animals to forgive sin. That symbol was no longer needed.

o       Jesus’ subsequent resurrection also teaches us that His suffering and death were sufficient payment for sin. God accepted it; it was enough to pay for our sins, so, once completed, the eternal Son took up His life again (John 10:18).

o       And the peace that we celebrate at Christmas “was through the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:20).

o       So the first sign of the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection is the rending of the temple veil, which showed that Jesus’ death was the sufficient sacrifice to atone for human sin, nullifying the temple, and showing that He is the great high priest through whom we may have peace with God and free access to Him.

·         The second sign of the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection was the earthquake.

o       It wasn’t just little pieces of clay crumbling; this Greek word petrai means “rock strata” – it’s the same “rock” in which Joseph of Arimathea carved his tomb (v.60).

o       This quake was so great that multiple historians outside the Bible appear to have noted it in their writings, including Josephus (Wars, VI.299), Pliny (L. 2. c. 84), and the writers of the Talmud[7].

o       What is the significance of this earthquake? Well, in the Greek Old Testament, of the 32 times this verb for “quake” occurs, about 75% of the time it is describing the wrath of God coming upon the earth in judgment[8], so I think that the quake was intended to communicate to everyone that a significant event of divine judgment was occurring while Jesus was on the cross.

o       God had hurled His hatred for sin against Jesus, and the earth was quaking as a result.

o       Furthermore, it spoke of judgment yet to come. The physical rocks of the land of Judah were broken, warning that the unrepentant Jews would be all-but-obliterated in 40 years when God would visit judgment upon them through the Roman army.

o       Although the earthquake does not provide the final revelation of Christ’s kingship, I still see in the earthquake a symbol of Jesus’ kingly office of separating good from evil,[9]

§         just as the prophet said in Zechariah 14:4, that when the Lord came He would split the Mount of Olives and reign as king.

§         Paul, in his gospel presentation to the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:31) said that God resurrected Jesus in order to indicate to the world that Jesus is the one who will be the judge of the world.

·         So the death and resurrection of Christ was significant:

o       as the fulfillment of His priestly role of offering the ultimate sacrifice for sin that established our free access to God,

o       and the death and resurrection of Christ was significant as a symbol of His kingly role of judgment,

o       and thirdly, the death of Christ was significant in His prophetic role in the beginning of the general resurrection.


27:52 and the tombs were opened up – and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep [in death] were raised,

και τα μνημεια ανεωχθησαν και πολλα σωματα των κεκοιμημενων ‘αγιων ηγερθη[10]


27:53 and, coming out of the tombs after His resurrection, they entered into the holy city and were disclosed to many.

και εξελθοντες εκ των μνημειων μετα την εγερσιν[11] αυτου εισηλθον εις την ‘αγιαν πολιν και ενεφανισθησαν πολλοις

·         Prior to this resurrection of the dead, a dead man had been brought to life when he touched the bones of Elisha the prophet (2Kings 13:21), and a whole battlefield of slain men had been brought to life through the prophecy of Ezekiel (ch. 37). We also remember that Jesus had raised Lazarus of Bethany using a spoken command. Now another set of graves are transformed by the pivotal event of Jesus’ death and resurrection!

·         As the ultimate prophet, Jesus said, “…the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life,” (John 6:63) and Peter responded, “You have words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Once again, here is a symbol of the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection to bring eternal life to mankind, a prophetic event signifying that there would one day be a resurrection of all the dead.

·         Note that these saints in Jerusalem were not resurrected until after Jesus was resurrected – or at least they didn’t come out of their tombs until after Jesus’ resurrection, so Matthew is condens­ing a set of signs and wonders that occurred in the few days following Jesus’ death all into one paragraph.

·         So here is the first reference to Jesus’ resurrection as history, although Jesus had, of course, prophecied earlier that He would rise from the dead after being dead for three days. The resurrected Jesus is the one who told John in Revelation 1:18 “[I am] the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” [I love the illustration Jay Risner drew of this[12]:]

·         Now, what was the nature of these Godly men who walked out of their graves and into the city of Jerusalem?

o       The word translated “appeared” in most English Bibles does not imply that they were ghostly mists that shimmered into view and then disappeared, but rather that the “bodies” of these departed saints were seen alive (Cf. Isa. 26:19). And the context does not imply that they appeared as half-dead zombies, but rather as genuine living people.

o       This is fascinating, and it would be so interesting to learn more, like who was raised[13], what they said, and whether they died again[14], but the Bible doesn’t tell us any of that, so I suppose we must content ourselves with this tantalizingly-brief account.

o       Of the dozen or so commentaries I read, the closest thing to a Biblical answer to these questions was Matthew Henry’s suggestion that these persons raised were perhaps the martyrs mentioned in Revelation 20:4, who were raised to reign with Christ for a thou­sand years before everybody else was raised. I find that intriguing, but not enough to be dogmatic about.[15]

·         So what did it mean? Let me suggest three things, and, I hope there will be more later as we study the resurrection accounts in future sessions:

o       First: the widespread resurrections following Jesus’ resurrection fits with the “firstfruits” doctrine that Paul taught in 1 Cor. 15:20-27, “But now, Christ has been raised out of the dead – the firstfruit of the ones who have been sleeping. For since, on account of a man, there is death, also, on account of a man, there is resurrection of dead [men]. For, just as in Adam, all are dying, thus also in the Christ, all will be made alive, yet each in his own rank: Christ is the firstfruit, then those who are Christ’s – during His visitation, then there is the end, whenever He delivers the kingdom to His God and Father, whenever He has put out-of-commission all rule and all authority and power. For it is necessary for Him to reign until whenever He has put all His enemies beneath His feet. Death, the last enemy, is being put out-of-commission, for “He has subjected all things beneath His feet.” (NAW) Time doesn’t permit us to plumb the depths of that passage[16], but it should be clear that the resurrection of Jesus is the grounds upon which we can all be assured of our own resurrection in the future![17]

o       Second: there is something special about those who are holy. Not all the dead were raised, just the “saints.” Although this is not the only proof, it is a sign that not everyone will be raised to eternal life in the end. God reserves special blessings of life for those who are devoted to Him in repentance and faith. Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom (Mt. 7:21), so let us live lives dedicated to God as His holy people, and eager to share that good news with others so they might also have eternal life.

o       Third: Jesus’ death was sufficient to satisfy the wrath of God against sin and the penalty of death which God had instituted for sin. The fact that dead people came to life (even Old Testament saints who had died believing in the coming Messiah without knowing the name Jesus) is a sign that what Jesus did to save them (and to save us) worked! We can be confident that our sins really can be forgiven and that we can really be accepted forever into God’s presence.

o       The Apostle Paul explained these transactions in Colossians 2:13-15, “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.” (NASB) – or “through it [the cross]” (KJV, RSV, NIV – the Greek pronoun could be either neuter or masculine).

·         To recap these three amazing events and their meanings, John Chrysostom wrote, “[T]hey indeed said, ‘If He be the King of Israel, let Him come down now from the cross,’ but He shows that He is King of all the world. And whereas those men said, ‘Thou that destroyest this temple, and buildest it in three days,” He shows that it shall be made forever desolate. Again they said, ‘He saved others, Himself He cannot save,’ but He, while abiding on the cross, proved this most abundantly on the bodies of His servants [through their resurrection]!”[18]

·         These three awesome symbols of the world-transforming death and resurrection of Jesus rightly bring us to our knees to worship Jesus. “Oh come let us adore Him!” We see a pattern in the confession of the army officers:


27:54 And as for the centurion and those guarding Jesus with him, once they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, they became very afraid, saying, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

‘Ο δε ‘εκατονταρχος και ‘οι μετ’ αυτου τηρουντες τον Ιησουν ιδοντες τον σεισμον και τα γενομενα εφοβηθησαν σφοδρα λεγοντες Αληθως θεου ‘υιος ην ‘ουτος

·         The centurion[19] was right to conclude that this was no ordinary man, for Jesus obliterated the barrier between God and man, opening up fellowship through redeeming us from sin – symbol­ized by the torn temple veil, and Jesus suffered the wrath of God in our place – symbolized in the earthquake, and Jesus set death itself “working backwards[20]” in the resurrection of the dead.

·         Bible scholars debate whether the centurion understood Jesus to be the Son of God in the full sense of the Bible’s teaching or whether he was just expressing a pagan fear that one of the Roman gods must have liked this guy[21] – the Greek wording is ambiguous, so I’m not taking a side on that question.

·         Nevertheless, every human being must face for themselves the question of who Jesus really is.

Conclusion: Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?

·         If not, there is no better time than now to bow your heart before Him and tell Him you now believe that He is God-in-the-flesh who died for your sins and that you will life the rest of your life under His leadership.

·         Then worship is the natural outflowing of faith in Jesus, as Hebrews 10:18-22 says, “Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith…” (NASB) The Christmas carol that says, “O come let us adore Him” is right-on! Let us “draw near” as often as we can think of it to worship Jesus “Christ the Lord”!

·         The other natural outcome of this faith is to confess the truth of who Jesus is to others, in hopes that they will also believe and be saved. And since death no longer has a “stinger” (1 Cor. 15:55) for us who know that the resurrection is coming, we can bear witness of the Gospel fearlessly, even under threat of martyrdom! “Go tell it on the Mountain” that Jesus is the Messiah, the ultimate and eternal Prophet-Word of God who raises the dead, the Priestly Savior from sin who tore the veil, and the King who will shake evil out of the earth and whose kingdom shall never end!




[2] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton” chapter II, HBJ Publishers, 1971.

[3] Jewish writers mentioned that the veil was washed and replaced regularly, and I suspect this was part of the reason. Some translators argue for “veil of the sanctuary” and others argue for “gate of the temple,” but I think my translation is more accurate to the Greek words.

[4] See for further research on the veil, including commentary from Jewish tradition. Gill notes: isn. Shekalim, c. 8. sect. 5. Shernot Rabba, sect. 50. fol. 144. 2. Bernidbar Rabba, sect. 4. fol. 183. 2, and Bartenora & Yom. Tob. in ib.

[5] Cf. Matthew Henry, as one point in a list of interpretations and applications on this event, “It was in correspondence with the temple of Christ's body, which was now in the dissolving. This was the true temple, in which dwelt the fulness of the Godhead; when Christ cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost, and so dissolved that temple, the literal temple did, as it were, echo to that cry, and answer the stroke, by rending its veil.”

[6] See my word study on brokenness at

[7] At least that is what A. T. Robertson claimed, although I have not found an exact reference in the Talmud.

[8] Hag. 2:6&21, Hab. 3:14, Nah. 1:5, Amos 1:14, 9:1, Joel 2:10, Ezek. 38:20, Isa. 24:18, 17:4, 19:1, 13:13, Psalm 68:8, Job 9:6, 2 Sam. 22:8, Judges 5:4, Jeremiah? Cf. John Gill: “This was also a token of divine wrath and fury.”

[9] Cf. John Chrysostom: “what took place was a prophecy of the coming desolation, and of the change into the greater and higher state; and a sign of His might…” On the other hand, Matthew Henry suggested that, “The earth, by trembling under such a load, bore its testimony to the innocency of him that was persecuted, and against the impiety of those that persecuted him…  Shall not the land tremble for this? (Amos 8:8)… [and secondly,] This earthquake signified the mighty shock, nay, the fatal blow, now given to the devil's kingdom… (Psalm 68:7-8).”

[10] The 3rd Singular spelling above is the reading of the Patristic and T.R. editions, following A, C, W, 090, and the Majority of Greek manuscripts. The Critical editions read 3rd Plural (ηγερθησαν), following א, B, D, L, Θ, f1 and f13 – a fair amount of support, but not enough to tip the scales for me. There is no difference in meaning, because Koine Greek allows for a singular verb to match a plural neuter subject as is the case here.

[11] This word only occurs two other times in the Greek Bible, both to describe literal waking or standing up: Judges 7:19; Psalm 139:2.

[12] The last frame at

[13] When the book of Job was translated into Greek around the second century B.C., the comment was added to the end of the book that “he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up,” so it has been suggested that perhaps Job was one of them, although I’d be surprised if Job was buried anywhere near Jerusalem. Albert Barnes and Adam Clarke made the reasonable suggestion that it would have been saints who had died recently enough that people would have still recognized them by sight.

[14] Calvin thought it “probable” that these saints did not die again. JFB (as Hendriksen) stated emphatically that these saints rose into glory with Jesus rather than dying again, but, untypical for them, they gave no scripture proof (Hend­riksen argued that it would destroy the symbolism if they died again, but I don’t consider that incontrovertible proof, and Henry, though he argued for the same position in pretty much the same way, admitted that we cannot be sure.)

[15] “What if we should suppose that they were the martyrs, who in the Old Testament times had sealed the truths of God with their blood, that were thus dignified and distinguished? Christ particularly points at them as his forerunners, Mat. 23:35. And we find (Rev. 20:4-5) that those who were beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, arose before the rest of the dead.” ~Matthew Henry (espousing amillenialism?)

[16] For further study, please read or audit the sermon I preached on this passage here: MP3 | Notes

[17] Cf. Calvin: “[By this resurrection] God declared that his Son entered into the prison of death, not to continue to be shut up there, but to bring out all who were held captive… he exhibited in a few persons an instance of the new life which all ought to expect.”

[18] Cf. Calvin: “[T]he heavenly Father did not cease to distinguish him by some marks, and during his lowest humiliation prepared some indications of his future glory, in order to fortify the minds of the godly against the offense of the cross. Thus the majesty of Christ was attested by the obscuration of the sun, by the earthquake, by the splitting of the rocks, and the rending of the veil, as if heaven and earth were rendering the homage which they owed to their Creator.”

[19] Whom A.T. Robertson claimed was named Petronius, but this was mentioned in no other commentary I saw.

[20] From C.S. Lewis The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe.

[21] The parallel passage in John 19:47 has the centurion stating that Jesus was a “righteous man.” Henry and JFB wrote that the centurion was expressing a Biblical faith, but Marvin Vincent, Albert Barnes, and Adam Clarke stated the contrary just as emphatically. Calvin took a position somewhere inbetween that the centurion was impressed enough for the moment to make a theologically-true statement but that it was not life-changing for him. Chrysostom, on the other hand, mentioned that there was a legend in his day that this centurion became a Christian martyr.