By Pastor Glenn Pease
History is full of the weird and mysterious in relation to the dead. In Barbados, in the West Indies, in 1812, a vault was opened and three coffins were in a confused state. In 1815 and 1819 it was opened, and again, each time the coffins were in disarray. The Governor, Lord Cambermere had the vault carefully checked and cemented up and sealed. Nine months later it was opened in his presence with thousands of spectators. To everyone's amazement the coffins were scattered about, one was on end, and some on top of others. No one could explain it, and so it entered the books as another ghost story, along with hundreds of other unexplained mysteries.
Christianity has always been involved in the history of the unexplained, because it too deals with the supernatural. Many of the haunted houses of history have been parsonages, and you wouldn't believe all the weird goings on that preachers have experienced. Much of the history of ghost haunting and hunting has been written by Christian men. For example, Sabine Baring Gould, author of Onward Christian Soldiers, who died in 1924 at the age of 90, wrote much about ghosts, and his own brother was seen by his mother after his death.
Ludwig Levater, a Protestant Calvinist minister in Switzerland wrote a book in 1572 with the title, Of Ghosts and Spirits Walking By Night. He believed that the dead could appear, but felt most ghosts were due to hallucination and pranks. He told of how merry young men would throw sheets over themselves and scare the wits out of travelers at Inns. Sometimes they even went so far as to hide under the bed. Ghosts are still a part of most Halloween parties today, but they are so tame that seldom will a ghost ever win a prize.
There was a young man of Bengal,
Who went to a Halloween ball.
He thought he would risk it,
And go as a biscuit,
But a dog ate him up in the hall.
He would have been better off as a ghost. This type of humor was not appreciated by the Catholic Church. They officially believed in ghosts, and took the matter quite seriously. In 1509 when four monks came to John Jetzer at night with sheets over them to give him some theological answers from the other world, they were caught, and made to give up the ghost in more ways than one, for they were condemned to die at the stake. Some people just can't take a joke. That phrase, giving up the ghost, is used 5 times in the King James Version to refer to the death of Jesus on the cross, and it is used also to describe the dying of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The ghost, of course, refers to the spirit of man. Only once did we find a reference to a ghost in its eerie supernatural sense in the New Testament. When Jesus came walking for the disciples on the sea, in the night, we read in Matt. 14:26, "But when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" and they cried out for fear." Any of us seeing a white figure moving across the water in the night would jump to that same conclusion that it must be a ghost. Mark tells us the same thing, and both use the word phantasma. This is the only place where the word is used in Scripture. It does reveal that the disciples believed in the possibly of ghosts. This is not surprising, for most everybody did in their day.
The issue of the reality of ghosts revolves around the question of whether or not the dead can ever return and appear unto men. The Catholic Church has concluded that the dead in heaven or hell can never return, but the dead in purgatory might, if God permitted. Protestants concluded that all the visions and contact with the dead are simply demons impersonating the dead. That is, they do not deny the evidence of the supernatural appearances, but they feel it is demonic deception rather than the return of the actual dead. The Catholic Church tended to support the stories of good ghosts who would return to make up for their sins. They would haunt a murderer until he confessed, or help solve some injustice and encourage the faithful. The Puritans so objected to this that they went to the other extreme, and wanted nothing to do with the dead, and so they ceased even to have funeral sermons.
The point of this introduction is to show that there has been a history of Christian debate over ghosts. The debate goes on yet today, and there is a great interest in the subject. Dorthy Scarborough in her book, Famous Modern Ghost Stories writes, "Man's love for the supernatural, which is one of the most natural things about him, was never more marked than at the present." Along with the growing interest in the occult there are also a growing number of books on ghosts. Shopenhower asserted that belief in ghosts is born with man, and that no one is free from it. It is true that such beliefs are found in all lands and ages, but it is not true everywhere. I asked my three children if they believed in ghosts, and they thought it was silly. Mark even said that is like believing in Santa Claus.
Most American Christians would be highly skeptical of anything to do with ghosts, and I am sure most of us would fit this category. I'm not interested in looking at ghost evidence, but our text brings us into a realm far more mysterious than any story you ever heard of about ghosts. Some believe these dead raised to life were ghosts. It all depends on your definition. My interest in the passage is to point out how much more mysterious reality is than fiction. People flock to see horror movies with all the terror of ghouls, vampires, and monsters of every sort. Blood flows freely, and people get their sadistic kicks out of it all. But its all fiction, and everybody knows it, even those who scream and get goose pimples.
But our text, and the whole of Matt. 27 is a record of historical fact. This chapter is so filled with evil and horror, and supernatural mystery, that if we could see it portrayed as it really happened, it would make the Hollywood horror films look like bedtime stories. I defy anyone to show me anywhere in all the literature of history a record of more horror and mystery than we have here in Matt. 27.
It begins with the evil satanic inspired plot to kill the Son of God. It records His capture and deliverance to Pilate. Secondly, it tells of the stricken conscience of Judas, and his terrible despair that ended in a most gruesome suicide. Thirdly, we have here a supernatural dream of Pilate's wife giving warning. Fourthly, we have the demonic plot successfully carried out of releasing a known criminal, who was Barabbas. Fifthly, we have the cry of the cruel mob saying, "Crucify Him and let His blood be upon us and our children." Sixthly, we have the inhuman mockery, and the crowning of Jesus with thorns. Seventhly, we have the scene of dying men forced to drag their cross to the place of skull-Golgatha. It was a place of horror and death. Eighthly, we begin to see the whole creation involved in this most supernatural event. At noon the sun goes black and for three hours the land is draped in darkness. Nothing Hollywood could do could ever match such a setting for the conflict of good and evil. Ninethly, near the end of darkness a blood curdling cry came from the middle cross, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
There is more horror and mystery per verse here than anywhere in God's Word, or in all creation. If the world is hungry for the mysterious and supernatural let them read the Bible, and let us who believe it share it, and let the world know. We have a text that should be a thrill to anyone who longs for more insight into the supernatural. It is a text that has a fantastic history, and more implications than we can begin to cover. It raises many questions that nobody can answer. It leaves commentators mystified, and many just skip over it. Christians are often afraid of the supernatural, and text like this bother them, and so they ignore them. People say they believe the Bible, but if you ask them if they believe any have ever risen from the dead, and come out of tombs, and appeared unto others, they would write you off as some kind of a kook. Most Christians are not even aware this passage is in the Bible.
Maybe some would like to believe it is one of those passages that got into the Bible by mistake. No chance, for there is scarcely a scholar anywhere who does not agree that this is a part of God's original revelation. It is as authentic as John 3:16. There is no escaping it, and so we must treat it as God's revelation, and incorporate it into our theology. The earthquake, the tearing of the veil in the temple, and tombs being opened, are all connected, and each has a valuable message to convey. We are focusing our attention on the saints who rose from the tombs. An unknown poet has put the whole scene into poetry.
The graves flew open, and exposed their store,
And into bodies shook the human ore;
The temple corner-stones were seen to yield,
And to and fro the laboring fabric reeled,
The hallowed loaves were thrown the floor about,
And the seven golden burning lamps went out.
The sacred incense lost its odorous scent,
The awful veil was into pieces rent.
Heaven and hell were locked in mortal combat. The destiny of men in the world was being decided. And because Jesus, through death, conquered death, and delivered those in bondage by destroying the power of the devil, even Hollywood knows that the way to deal with Dracula is by means of the cross. Here we have the real war to end all wars, for this war opened the way to eternal peace with God. The open tombs and risen saints bore testimony to the cataclysmic effects of the cross. The magnitude of what Jesus did in dying could not be revealed except by a very extraordinary miracle. The Roman Centurion was so impressed by the supernatural effects of Christ's death he confessed that He was the Son of God. Luke 23:48 says, "And all the multitude who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts." We cannot be touched that deeply, but lets see what we can learn about these temporary tenants of the tombs. The first question we will look at is-
I. WHO? Who were these saints whose bodies came to life again? There are two views. They could be saints of the Old Testament, or as most believe, they could be believers in Christ who died during His ministry. If the thief on the cross was promised an entrance into paradise that very day, what about those who believed before the cross, but who had died already? Would they be blessed with a destiny less than that thief because they died sooner? Most say no, for it is fitting that all the followers of Christ would join Him in this conquering of death. Some commentators mention such people as Joseph the husband of Mary, and Simeon, and John the Baptist. The evidence does support the view that these were Christian saints rather than Old Testament saints. The word for saints is used only here in the Gospels, but everywhere else in the New Testament it always refers to Christians. If we go to be with Christ when we die, why should all of those who died during His life not join Him immediately in entering paradise? The day of resurrection was not only for the head, but for all of the Body that had been dead up to that point. The second question is -
II. HOW? Were they raised like Lazarus in their natural body which would be subject again to death? Were they raised as was Jesus with spiritual bodies, able to appear and disappear, and ascend with Him to paradise? Again we can only make intelligent speculation in an area of such unusual mystery. Either view is adequate. If they arose in their natural body, they did not have to die and be buried again, but could have ascended like Enoch and Elijah did in their natural bodies. Most everyone agrees that these saints did ascend with Christ, and did not have to die again. Spurgeon felt they were given the spiritual body we all we have in the day of resurrection. He said of them, "How I should like to know something about them! They were representative men; they arose as specimens of the way in which all the saints shall in their due time arise." There is no way to be sure of the nature of their bodies, but if they were raised with bodies like Jesus, bodies that could disappear and go through walls, then they would fit the description of what we think of as ghosts. In many lands the ghost has a body identical to its body of flesh, and it can eat and even marry, and none can tell the difference. If such be the case here, we have the ghosts of the godly. The third question is-
III. WHEN? In verse 53 Matthew makes it clear that it was after the resurrection of Christ that the saints came out of the tombs and appeared to others. The timing is important because the Scripture makes it clear that Jesus was the first born from the dead, and that He was the first fruits of those who slept. The resurrection of Christ would be anti-climatic if the saints had appeared before Him. The Christians would not have doubted the resurrection of Jesus if they had already seen dead friends and relatives who had come back to life.
The text says that the earthquake prepared the way for this resurrection by opening the tombs. The earthquake did not wake the dead. The tombs were open as Jesus died, and no one did anything about closing them up, for to touch a tomb or body would defile them, and they would be eliminated from participation in the Passover events. We have here the weirdest weekend of the world's history. You can search the records and you will never find an earthquake in history that added to the world population. They all subtract but this one. Earthquakes are a mouth of death swallowing up people, but here is one, like the great fish of Jonah, vomiting up the captives into life. There were more people alive after this earthquake than before it began. Nature helped Jesus literally rob the graves. Jesus was the greatest grave robber of all time, and He is not through yet, for He says in John 5:28-29, "Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment." All the spook shows of the world are kids stuff compared to what our Lord has done and will do in the display of supernatural power. The final question is-
IV. WHY? Did Jesus just have a flare for the spectacular, or was there a good reason for these saints rising and appearing? Obviously there was purpose, and some reasons are evident. Jesus could do many things as the Son of God that no one else could do. If He rose from the dead alone, it would still not be evidence that anyone else could do so. In these saints, however, we have a concrete example of the power of the resurrection. If Jesus entered death and set the captives free, then there should be evidence of it, and these saints were that evidence. John Calvin in his commentary on Matthew writes,
"Christ, in rising from the dead, brought others along with Him out of their graves as His companions. Now by this sign it was made evident, that He neither died nor rose again in a private capacity, but in order to shed the odor of life on all believers." There was more than one empty tomb on that first Easter. Because Jesus died and rose again, there were godly ghosts who walked the earth, and they represent, not just the victory of Jesus over death, but the victory of all who put their trust in Him.