How can you explain Matthew 27:52-53?
In Matthew 27:52-53, Matthew tells us some of the signs that occurred right after Jesus gave up his spirit. From earthquakes to the Temple curtain being split in two, Matthew shows us what happened in the supernatural death of our Lord.
One of the most interesting things that happened was that Old Testament saints came out of the tombs and graves and showed up in Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion. I think in one sense, we are shown that Jesus’ death and resurrection make him the firstborn out of the dead (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5), meaning that his death and resurrection are the first of many.
“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.” (Matthew 27:52–53, ESV)
Matthew may have intended for the mention of Old Testament saints coming out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection to be tied to the idea of the curtain splitting in two in the inner Holy of Holies. The symbolism of this happening shows that the way to God has now been open. No longer is his presence only in that room. His presence is now available to everyone who believes in Jesus.
In the same way, the resurrection of Old Testament saints tied to his own resurrection shows that saints that have died before his return in the second coming will be raised to life just as these Old Testament saints had been raised. Jesus’ death sets us free from sin, and his resurrection sets us free from the death caused by sin theologically.
Matthew doesn’t explain anything in this short mention of the event. He doesn’t explain what kind of bodies they had or if they died again. He doesn’t explain what happened to them after they came out of the tombs and showed themselves in Jerusalem. But it should’ve been a powerful testimony of Jesus’ own resurrection to anyone who knew these Old Testament saints.
There are some scholars who don’t believe that Matthew’s mention of this event has any historical basis or reality. No one else mentions this event except for Matthew. He mentions it as a tie between Jesus’ death and the power of his resurrection. We don’t know who these saints were.
But Matthew has his reasons for mentioning it where he does in the narrative. Most of them are theological. The other evangelists may not have thought it important to mention with their own theological distinctives in their Gospels.
But just because it’s only mentioned once by one of the evangelists doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. If you believe that the Bible is God’s inspired Word, then there is no reason to question what Matthew has told us about the death and resurrection of Jesus.