Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. The undead are having quite a heyday at the moment! It seems like wherever you look there are stories about zombies, vampires, and ghosts popping up on TV, in the movies, and in books. For much of the past decade, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series about vampires in the Pacific Northwest was popular among girls and women of all ages. Currently, AMC’s hit television series, The Walking Dead, is the #1 show among the coveted 18-49 age demographic. The Walking Dead envisions a grotesque and frightening world in which a virus has killed most of the world’s population and reanimated their corpses in mass herds of zombies that threaten the few remaining human survivors. There’s an entire multimedia universe based on The Walking Dead, including novels, video games, comic books, and a spinoff TV series. And even now all things ghostly and ghastly continue to grab people’s attention and sell out at the box office. So even though zombies and vampires have been tropes of horror movies since the days of silent films, it appears that the dead have never been more popular than they are right now.
It is against this pop culture background that we hear the bizarre blip (not quite long enough to be a story) in our Gospel lesson about a miracle that took place immediately after Jesus’ death on the cross. St. Matthew writes:
“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” (Matt. 27:52-53, ESV).
This is an astounding event! But it’s also strange and mysterious—way beyond any frame of reference in our understanding of matters of life and death. At the time of Christ’s death, many Old Testament saints, long dead, got up out of their graves, walked out of the cemetery, and appeared to people in the city.
Yet this miracle was not an ancient forerunner of the walking dead. These were not zombies or ghosts. We know they weren’t ghosts because Matthew tells us their bodies were raised—not just their spirits (Matt. 27:52). We know they weren’t zombies because rather than being walking corpses, their raising was somehow connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Besides, zombies aren’t real (in case you didn’t know!). Exactly what did happen to these holy people and what kind of body they appeared in is hard to say. But they were not monsters—far from it!
The main question or issue that arises from this passage is trying to understand whether or not these Old Testament saints were permanently resurrected or merely temporarily revivified like Lazarus or the widow of Nain’s son. After all, the people whom Jesus raised from the dead during his earthly ministry all eventually died again. None of them remain alive and walk the earth today. There seems to be something special and unique about the apparent “resurrection” event recorded in Matthew 27. Yet it cannot be a true, complete, and final resurrection because the New Testament repeatedly affirms that Jesus is “the firstborn of the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:15). If Jesus is the firstborn, then how could these Old Testament saints be raised to life before Christ was raised on that first Easter morning? And again, if they were permanently raised, then where are they today? Were they assumed into heaven near the time of Jesus’ Ascension? Almost every reference to the resurrection of the dead puts this event in coincidence with Christ’s return on Judgment Day. So if these holy people were permanently raised from the dead, then their resurrection had to be a strange, one-off occurrence in human history. Which of these explanations is correct, I simply cannot say.
Truthfully, there isn’t a lot we can say about this Biblical event, for outside of these two verses in Matthew’s Gospel, we have no other historical reference to this astonishing event. The other Gospels make no mention of it, and neither do contemporary sources such as Josephus or other first century historians. Of course, this has led many people to doubt the veracity of these words, relegating them more to the realm of legend instead of regarding them as an actual, historical event. Even many erstwhile conservative Bible scholars view this insertion into Matthew’s Passion account as one of theological, not literal, interest.
But we cannot take that tack. As Bible believing Lutheran Christian, we believe, teach, and confess that every single Word of Scripture is inspired—that is, God-breathed, without error, and completely reliable and true. Despite the doubt of others, I cannot deny the truth of these wonderful words. So for our purposes, we must believe this story in its entirety—hook, line, and sinker.
Yet just because we are willing to believe it doesn’t mean that we will understand it. Questions abound regarding this miracle, and we may never know the answers until we see the other side of Glory. Yet there are still several things to be learned—and even blessings to be enjoyed!—by paying close attention to this account.
First, it is refreshing for us to rediscover that not everything in Scripture is easily explained. Not even a theological degree can make you a master of God’s Word. God is so much bigger than our imagination. You can’t put him in a box. His ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8-9). While the Bible teaches us everything essential for our salvation, it does not satisfy our every curiosity. And that’s a good thing. For if we could understand everything about God, that would mean God is quite small and wouldn’t say much about him. Yet the very fact that he defies our definition and delineations increases the weight of his glory.
The second point is that our curiosity and alarm at this story reveal more about us than they do about the story itself. Unfortunately, most of us have bought into the devil’s lie that “death is just a natural part of life.” But nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, the Bible teaches that death is the most unnatural thing in the entire world. Death is our enemy, the result of Adam and Eve’s sin and God’s judgment on that sin (1 Cor. 15:26; Gen. 3:17-19). “The wages of sin is death…” (Rom. 6:23a). God’s original design for creation was not death and decay, but unending, abundant life. And so, because our God is Lord of the living, not of the dead, we should be more surprised by our own untimely demise than we are by the raising of the dead. Resurrection is part of God’s plan to redeem and recreate the world. Jesus comes to make all things new (Rev. 21:5). He started that program with his miracles of healing. He continued with his own death and resurrection. And the final fulfillment will come on the Last Day, when all the dead are raised, not just a select few Old Testament saints.
The third thing this story teaches us is that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ mark the beginning of a new era for humanity. No longer are we condemned merely to die and rot. Because of Jesus we have the hope of eternal life! By his death, Jesus destroyed the power of death (Heb. 2:14). Death and the grave could not contain him; neither will they contain you if you are a Christian. For if you live and die with faith in Christ, then you will live forever with him after death and into eternal life. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6:5).
When is the last time that you saw a dead person get up out of their grave fully alive? Although, as a Christian who confesses faith in “the resurrection of the body,” I eagerly await the day of final resurrection when Christ returns on Judgment Day, nevertheless I have not yet seen a dead person come back to life. Few others have either. But someday you will! That is God’s promise!
“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:15-18).
God’s promise of the resurrection is what gives us hope to carry on in the midst of a world full of death and destruction. The devil tried to defeat Christ by destroying his body on the cross. But, as they say, you can’t keep a good man down. Jesus Christ was the only perfect man ever to live, the best of the best, and so God raised that very good man to give eternal life to you and me.
Even though we cannot explain the miraculous raising of the saints at Jesus’ death, we hold onto the promise of the Lord who comes to make all things new, including a new you and a new me. Perhaps this miracle of Lent is merely a hint of even greater things to come. That is the story I choose to believe. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of + the Holy Spirit. Amen.