After the resurrection

Posted: 24th March 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

While most of the gospels rightly focus on the empty tomb as the next event after Christ’s crucifixion in the resurrection story, Matthew includes a very curious anecdote of what happened in the interim:

50 Jesus shouted again with a loud voice and gave up His spirit. 51 Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was split in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened and many bodies of the saints who had gone to their rest were raised. 53 And they came out of the tombs after His resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.

– Matthew 27:50-53 (HCSB)

According to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tombs during the Second Temple period were “were hewn into the slopes of the hills surrounding the city, mainly on the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus.”

The burial caves were in continuous use for several generations by members of the same family. Simple tombs have a narrow opening, sealed with a square stone. Several dozen particularly large tombs have splendid facades, decorated with columns topped by gables with floral motifs. In primary burial, bodies were placed in niches (kuhim) or on benches (arcosolia) cut into the walls of the burial chambers. The most typical feature of the Jewish tombs of that period are the stone chests with lids (ossuaries). Thousands of these have been found in Jerusalem, some decorated and bearing inscriptions. They attest to the prevalent practice of collecting the bones of the deceased for secondary burial, a custom based on the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead.

drybones.jpgOne imagines that upon the earthquake at Christ’s death, the lids of the ossuaries slid off, exposing the dry bones; perhaps the chambers were rent open as well. The imagery recalls Ezekiel’s prophecies regarding God’s restoration of His people through His spirit:

1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and He brought me out by His Spirit and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them. There were a great many of them on the surface of the valley, and they were very dry. 3 Then He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I replied, “Lord GOD , [only] You know.”

4 He said to me, “Prophesy concerning these bones and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Lord GOD says to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live. 6 I will put tendons on you, make flesh grow on you, and cover you with skin. I will put breath in you so that you come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”

7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded. While I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 As I looked, tendons appeared on them, flesh grew, and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man. Say to it: This is what the Lord GOD says: Breath, come from the four winds and breathe into these slain so that they may live!” 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me; the breath entered them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, a vast army.

11 Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Look how they say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished; we are cut off. 12 Therefore, prophesy and say to them: This is what the Lord GOD says: I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them, My people, and lead you into the land of Israel. 13 You will know that I am the LORD, My people, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put My Spirit in you, and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I am the LORD. I have spoken, and I will do [it].” [This is] the declaration of the LORD.

– Ezekiel 37:1-14 (HCSB)

It’s curious to note that, in Matthew’s passage, the tombs (REB: “the graves”) were opened at his death, but the saints (TNIV: “holy people”) didn’t come out until after his resurrection. That said, the TNIV does include a variant reading in the footnotes that “they came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city…” The latter hints at the order of Ezekiel’s prophecy: the bones were exposed, then they were knit back together out of the tombs, then they received the Breath of God and were restored into the holiness of God.

Interesting also that Matthew does not explicitly identify “the holy city”. In my reading of Keith Mathison’s When Shall These Things Be?, he mentions that “the designation holy city appears only five times [in the entire New Testament]: twice in Matthew’s gospel and three times in Revelation.” The latter three apply to New Jerusalem; the other passage in Matthew is from the devil’s temptation of Christ at the beginning of his ministry on earth. Mathison concludes:

If this exegesis is correct, it implies that the words holy city […] should be taken figuratively, not literally. The church of Jesus Christ, symbolically speaking, is the holy city where God dwells with his covenant people.

The question then begs itself whether Matthew was describing a physical or spiritual event. And was this the “resurrection of the saints” event described by John in Revelation 20:4?

4 Then I saw thrones, and people seated on them who were given authority to judge. [I] also [saw] the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of God’s word, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and who had not accepted the mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with the Messiah for 1,000 years.

If correct, then Matthew would be providing one more sign that Jewish eschatological expectations had been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the parallel destruction of the physical temple and establishment of the eternal temple within the hearts of mankind:

31 “Look, the days are coming” – [this is] the LORD’s declaration – “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 [This one will] not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant they broke even though I had married them” – the LORD’s declaration. 33 “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days” – the LORD’s declaration. “I will place My law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. 34 No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying: Know the LORD, for they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them” – the LORD’s declaration. “For I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sin.”

– Jeremiah 31:31-34 (HCSB)

  1. tcgreek says:

    You’ve argued like a true preterist.

  2. Hmmm… I don’t know if that’s a compliment or a criticism!

    I honestly was just trying to place those couple of verses in Matthew within some kind of context, more associative than exegetical. I’ve alway read those verses as an account of literal events – the dead being resurrected and going into Jerusalem – but Mathison’s comments on “the holy city” being more a spiritual designation of the church as God’s dwelling place caused me to reimagine the verses.

    The link to Revelation 20 is a major stretch that would require some significant time text manipulation to fit any preterist schema. I probably could have done better to link to the 1 Peter (?) text on Christ preaching to the wayward spirits in Sheol and having them be resurrected into spiritual church..

  3. Bryan says:

    I was thinking more along the lines of an Amillennialist, though not an interpretation of the first resurrection that I hold, or thought of for that matter. I hold that the first resurrection of Rev 20 is regeneration (cf. John 5).

    I’ll have to think about this one a bit.

  4. TC says:


    I admire your creativeness, but I see the above as quite a leap in interpretation.

    Ezekiel’s vision refers to the nation of Israel proper.


    If a reader follows the flow of Rev 20:4-6, there’s no way a person can come out with regeneration as the first resurrection.

    The martyrs came to life and reigned with the Messiah for 1, 000 years completed (HCSB). The first resurrection is the coming to life of the martyrs to reign with the Messiah.

    How can this be regeneration?

  5. I admire your creativeness, but I see the above as quite a leap in interpretation.

    That’s fair and I’ll accept the rebuttal. As I said before, this was more of an associative imagery exercise than an attempt to exegetically prove anything. I’d still like to know what Matthew was referring to though…

  6. Peter Kirk says:

    Interesting. Your point about “the holy city” indeed suggests that these verses should be understood symbolically.

    But Matthew can hardly be referring to “the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of God’s word”, for as far as we know no one (not even John the Baptist) was put to death for testifying to Jesus before Jesus himself was. So I don’t think this can be used as an argument for the millennium starting on the first Easter Day.

  7. Bryan says:


    You can come out with that interpretation by acknowledging the only other time two separate resurrections are mentioned, is by the same author in his Gospel, John 5, where the first resurrection is explicitly regeneration.

    Also, there is a relationship between the two resurrections, and the two deaths. It goes like this:

    Those who are part of the first resurrection will not suffer the second death. If we consider the first resurrection in light of John 5, it makes sense that the regenerate will not face the second death. We can then pair the antithetical statements as such:

    First resurrection, Second death == spiritual
    First death, Second resurrection == physical

    Also, I don’t think we must take 4-6 as saying just the martyrs, as he says
    “And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand;”

    The Martyrs, and the ones who do not worship the beast, and the ones who don’t receive the mark. I don’t think these are in apposition to just the martyrs, but as a way of saying “all Christians.”

    Paul in Ephesians say that we are already seated with Him on his throne, in an already/not yet sense (Eph 1). Since Christ is ruling his kingdom on the throne, and we are seated with him, thus all reign with him, not just martyrs. Some amillers disagree and say just the martyrs, and that’s fine. I just don’t think the text is that constrained.

  8. TC says:


    I’m just going with the natural reading of Rev 20:4d:

    “and they came life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (NASB).

    This part of v.4 begins with conjunction “kai,” here “and.” Most versions do not translate it. While the NET didn’t translate it, they have a helpful footnote stating the reason.

    These martyrs were already Christians and therefore had united with the Messiah in baptism, which is a type of resurrection (Rom 6:3, 4). But that is clearly not what John has in view.

    This “coming to life and reigning with Christ” is something else.

    Regarding John 5, there’s nothing there to frustrate two resurrections.

  9. TC says:


    I found this on the verses under question from John Walvoord:

    “The resurrection of these saints, occuring after Jesus Himself was raised, is a token of the coming harvest when all the saints will be raised” (Matthew: Thy King Come, p. 236).

    Perhaps you might find it helpful.

  10. Bryan says:

    I didn’t say it “frustrated” two resurrections, I said it’s the only other place that mentions two resurrections, luckily enough, by the same author. The first time he mentions two resurrections is John 5, where Jesus explains that the first resurrection is regeneration. See verses 19-29 (too long to quote in full here). Verse 21 says that “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will,” and verse 24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

    That sounds very much like regeneration in terms of resurrection to me, and even has the same thing mentioned as Rev 20: Those who believe in Him does not come into judment (second death) but has passed from death to life (first resurrection).

    I think the “natural” reading of Revelation 20 is in accord with what the author has given us as a interpretive grid already. In which case “coming to life” can be easily taken as regeneration, in light of John’s previous record of Jesus’ teachings, and what the Bible says in other places of our spiritual condition (again, Eph 2 which explicitly says that we are dead).

    I never said that baptism is what John had in view here a la Romans 6, but Regeneration, a la John 5, the word play in Rev 20, and the truth of Eph 2.

  11. Peter Kirk says:

    Bryan, the problem with your interpretation of Revelation 20:4 is that these people, or some of them, were first “beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God” and then came to life in the first resurrection. I checked the tenses in the Greek, so this is not a case of theological presuppositions finding their way into translations. We can hardly have people testifying to Jesus before they are born again!

    Looking more closely, I suppose the Greek could be interpreted such that the first part of the verse is about the post-millennium period and then “They came to life and reigned with Christ” is a flashback. But then we end up with them being beheaded while they are reigning with Christ, which seems odd. The natural way of reading this text is surely the order beheaded – came to life – reigned, and I would consider anything else an imposition of theology from elsewhere on to this text.

  12. TC says:


    I have no problem with the Johannine texts, whether John 5 or Rev 20.

    Peter Kirk has brought out some important issues about the martyrs and the natural flow of the Greek text, that have gone unchallenged by you.

    Regarding Eph 2, I do not doubt the truth of that passage, but you are failing to take into account the natural reading of Rev 20.

    At one level we are reigning with Christ, no serious student of Scripture doubts that, but at another level we are awaiting the reign of Rev 20.

  13. @TC: I saw your post about the 2 Peter verse on your blog, but it wasn’t letting me add a comment. I don’t know if you saw this or not, but I wrote a few comments about that last week.

    Also, thanks for the quote from John Walvoord. It always struck me as curious that these verses were written right up against Jesus giving up his spirit and the temple curtain being torn in two. Those are big things and it seems like the link between all three + the centurion’s confession should be more obvious than it appears to be.

  14. Bryan says:

    TC- I know you don’t have a problem with the texts. If you did, we would be in agreement and not having this discussion 🙂

    The question I have in regards to those who are beheaded et al. is if it is talking about a future physical/bodily resurrection, why is John seeing the souls of the dead in his vision and not their resurrected bodies? I don’t think this is just a casual use of the word by John, I think it is purposeful. It seems to me that he is using this to set the location of what he’s about to talk about: Christ’s reign. I think John uses the word soul to show that he’s not talking about a physical resurrection, and a reign on earth, but to show that the reign is in heaven, which is where we would expect it to be if he says specifically that its the souls he is seeing. So, I take that to be setting the place or location of the events he is about to talk about. Then, after setting that location, he talks about the resurrections in light of that. FOr John, specifically in Revelation, the thrones he mentions are either heavenly (God’s throne) or a place of authority (in the sense of Satan’s “throne”). Here, it seems he has both in mind- the scene appears to be heavenly, and he’s talking about authority.

    I don’t think he’s making a temporal distinction quite the way we are. I think Revelation 20 is a recapitulation of other visions he’s written about that span a period of time. So he can talk about those who have already been martyred, as well as those who will be martyred throughout the period of the reign.

    The antecedent of “they” are whoever lives during this time span, who die in Christ.

    If you want to press me about it, I would concede that the order is death then reigning with Christ in the intermediate state, so maybe not regeneration per se. However, I do find it striking that the only mention of what seems to be two resurrections, both by the same author, would have incredibly different interpretations.

    I think John is setting the location of what he’s about to talk about, and then goes into the discussion more fully. Not necessarily a “flash-back” per se, but a fuller disclosure of what he means.

    All of this, is of course, in the context that John is writing to give hope and encouragement to Christians facing persecution. They don’t need to worry about dying for their faith, because Jesus wins, and they will reign with him. This context fits whether its amill or premill or postmill, and I think it is what is most important to take from this passage.

    For me, the natural reading of the passage is that the reign of Christ is a heavenly reign, wherein we join with him, either by our regeneration, or by our death. Perhaps its a little of both in an already/not yet scheme, along with Paul who says that we are seated with Christ as he reigns already in a spiritual sense, and will one day actually be with him in an actual sense.

    I’m sorry for such a long reply. I think the issue here is that I’m just being dumb, and not realizing why it’s necessarily a problem with the amillennial interpretation, in which case I apologize for all the unnecessary things I’m bringing up.

  15. TC says:


    Well, I just enabled commenting on my blog. Sorry about that. I read your piece, and it’s quite interesting. Again, the difference continues to be our interpretation of prophetic literature.

  16. TC says:


    I find it quite interesting that your hermeneutics would dissuade you from regarding Rev 20:4 as referring to a bodily resurrection.

    Tell me, Do we have to find the adjective “bodily” for a resurrection to be such? This is the first I’ve encountered such.

    I think you should pay attention to what Peter Kirk outlined above. You mentioned that this refers to some “regeneration.” What do you mean by that?

    Of course John meant for his readers to be encouraged by what he wrote. But is that all to the text? Encouragement?

    One nature of prophetic literature is that of double meaning and so on.

    Again, I see the fundament problem being one of How we interpret prophetic literature.

    Elshaddai, maybe you can start a thread on that one.

  17. No worries – Am I recalling correctly that you subscribe to historic premillennialism? (I apologize if I’m misremembering a different conversation.) More generally, what would you suggest as a written primer for your views on prophetic literature?

    As you’ve undoubtedly figured out, I’m pretty much a theological mutt who’s picked up pieces here and there. I’m trying to find an eschatological system that allows contextual/historical importance to be placed on first-century Israel, but not necessarily make it the centerpiece of the interpretation, ala preterism.

  18. Elshaddai, maybe you can start a thread on that one.

    We’ll see. Setting aside whatever preteristic lens I applied at the end of the Peter post, what was your basic reaction? Most of that post was just restating the argument by Richard Pratt Jr. for the principle of contingent prophecy. Is that too close to open theism (another topic I’d like to investigate)?

  19. TC says:

    Yes, I am Historic Premil.

    I believe that what the Reformers termed analogia scriptura, the analogy of Scripture, Scripture interpreting itself, it quite true.

    When we bring this principle to the promises and prophecies of Scripture, we discover that God means for His promises and prophecies to have literal fulfillment. Consider that all the prophecies of the coming Messiah were fulfilled literally.

    The Scripture itself is telling us something. Therefore, I believe that those promises and prophecies unfulfilled will be fulfilled literally.

  20. TC says:

    I’m not hearing much about Open Theism these days, but it will make for a great discussion.

    Again, the fundamental issue there is a person’s hermeneutics.

    There have been some scholarly and thoughtful rebuttals, especially from the Reformed community.

  21. @TC: you mentioned that “Well, I just enabled commenting on my blog. Sorry about that.” I just wanted to let you know that when I click on the comment link, I get the Blogger comment entry page, but it has the following statement:

    Comments on this blog are restricted to team members. You’re currently logged in as xyz. You may not comment with this account.

    It’s been a while since I played with Blogger and I currently don’t have an active Blogger blog to see what settings should be changed to allow for commenting.

  22. Bryan says:

    “Do we have to find the adjective ‘bodily’ for a resurrection to be such? This is the first I’ve encountered such.”

    Nope, neither does the adjective “spiritual” have to be there to take it as such either. I think its apparent in the antithesis that John provides:
    First Resurrection, Second Death – spiritual, not bodily [hence why John sees ‘souls’ not resurrected bodies.
    Second Resurrection, First Death – physcial, bodily.
    The first resurrection occurs throughout time, while the second death occurs at the judgment.
    The first death (our actual death) occurs throughout time, while the second resurrection (physical, bodily) occurs at the second coming.

    I did pay attention to what Peter outlined above. That was what the middle section of my last comment was about. I’m not using regeneration in some crazy new way- regeneration as in the act of the holy spirit changing our nature and making us born again/born again/etc (cf. John 3, 5, Ephes 2.1-10).

  23. TC says:

    @Elshaddai, I’ve checked it out and I think it should be working now.

  24. TC says:


    I admire your effort of constructing the Johannine antitheses, but John doesn’t do that. Notice that the effort is yours to avoid the natural reading of Rev 20.

    If your definition of Regeneration is correct, then it makes no sense when applied to the martyrs of Rev 20, and then calling it the First Resurrection of which John speaks.

    This is how it looks:

    1. They were Christians

    2. They got beheaded for their testimony

    3. Then they came to life

    4. And reigned with Christ for 1000yrs

    5. This is the First Resurrection, and which by the way, is the Regeneration of John 3, 5 and Eph 2:1-10.