QUESTION: In Matthew 27:52-53, what did the saints say when they appeared to many? Josephus does not write anything about it.
ANSWER: You ask an interesting question. Of course we don't really know what they said, since the Word of God doesn't tell us. But it's worth taking a closer look at this unusual miracle.
Matthew reports that when the Lord Jesus died "the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom" (Matt. 27:50-51). This "veil" was the curtain that divided off the Holy of Holies, a place that only the high priest was allowed to go–and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. By the supernatural tearing of this heavy curtain, God announced that now a way had been opened into His presence, for all who would trust in Christ (cf. Heb. 10:19-20).
At the same time, a great earthquake shook the land (Matt. 27:51), and it broke open many of the tombs in the area. Then, after Christ's resurrection on the Sunday morning, "many" of these saints who were dead and buried were also resurrected, and went into Jerusalem, where they appeared to others (vs. 52-53). Several questions can be asked about this strange occurrence.
1) How many of the saints were raised from the dead–how many is "many"? One ancient source in the Ante-Nicene library says it involved 12,000 people, claiming that they walked through the land until Christ's ascension, when they were caught up to heaven with Him. It says that among those resurrected was old Simeon (Lk. 2:25).
Well, maybe. But the number seems impossibly high, and neither that nor any of the other details are substantiated by Scripture. Given the circumstances, I would think a couple of dozen could be considered "many."
2) Another pertinent question is: What kind of resurrection was this? Were these dead saints simply restored to mortal life temporarily, as Jairus's daughter was (Mk. 5:41-42), or Lazarus was (Jn. 11:43-44)? Or did they receive glorified resurrection bodies, as Christ did, never to die again?
Bible scholars differ on that, but I personally favour the second option, as it more clearly demonstrates the power of the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
Some see a problem with the latter view, however. First Corinthians declares that "Christ is...the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep....But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming" (I Cor. 15:20, 23). If the saints in Matthew 27 received their glorified resurrection bodies, does that not contradict the order God has established?
This can be resolved in several ways. For one thing, Matthew says these saints did not come into Jerusalem until after Christ's resurrection (vs.53). Matthew may have reported the event where he did, because the breaking open of the tombs was associated with Christ's death, even though the raising of the others happened after His resurrection. Even so, this is not a resurrection "at His coming." So perhaps there would still be a problem.
Another solution would be to suggest they were still mortal, like Lazarus. But that might mean they were still around for years afterward. Surely Peter or Paul, or another of the New Testament writers would have commented further on them, if that were so. No, I believe they were raised in their eternal, glorified bodies, as Jesus was (cf. Phil. 3:20-21), and appeared only briefly.
Another resolution of the difficulty could involve the identity of these individuals. These were Old Testament saints. That is, they were Jews who died before the death of Christ, so they were not able to believe in the New Testament sense. They could not put their faith in the crucified risen Christ, because that work of redemption hadn't happened yet when they died. And First Corinthians is specifically referring to "those who are Christ's"–in other words, Christians.
If this distinction can be made, then they wouldn't violate the order given later–any more than Enoch or Elijah did, when they went to heaven earlier (Gen. 5:24; cf. Heb. 11:5; and II Kgs. 2:11). To put it another way, the saints of Matthew 27:52 were the "firstfruits" of an earlier harvest than the one mentioned in First Corinthians that specifically concerns the Christian church.
3) What did these saints say, when they "appeared to many" in the city of Jerusalem? My guess is that they said little or nothing, and that their stay was very brief. The Greek word for "appeared" is emphanizo, which means: revealed to the sight, made visible. They didn't need to say much. They were simply there! Their appearance was in itself an announcement that Christ had conquered death. The conclusions to be drawn from their startling visitation would be explained later in the teaching of the apostles.
The later message of the apostles was: "Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him" (Rom. 6:9). And what happened to these others was a graphic illustration of what Jesus said: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live" (Jn. 11:25).
Probably these saints simply appeared long enough, to believing relatives or friends who'd know them, to assure them that it wasn't some kind of vision. And Matthew is careful to state they had "bodies" (vs. 52); they weren't simply ghosts. But then they disappeared–just as Jesus did when He sat at supper with the couple He met with after His resurrection (Lk. 24:30-31). This may, in fact, be an ability we all will have after the resurrection, to transport ourselves from place to place instantly.
4) Where did these saints go when they disappeared? I think it's possible that these special saints ascended into heaven with Christ on the very day of His resurrection–so they were not around very long. Yes, it's possible that there was more than one "ascension" of Christ.
The "firstfruits" sheaf in Israel was presented to the Lord on the day after the Sabbath (Lev. 23:11), which was also the day of Christ's resurrection (Matt. 28:1). Under the Old Testament Law (Lev. 23:9-14) this involved a token of grain being presented to the Lord at the beginning of harvest. It was an act of worship, in confidence that there was much more to come. That is the picture to be drawn from the resurrection of Christ. His resurrection was a foreshadowing of many more to come.
There is a seeming contrast between what Jesus said to Mary after His resurrection: "Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.'" (Jn. 20:17), and what He said shortly after, to His disciples: ""Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have" (Lk. 24:39).
So, was there a brief return to heaven, between those two events? Nothing in the Bible seems to rule that out.
Though it is not taught explicitly anywhere in Scripture, it's indeed possible that Christ ascended into heaven to present Himself to the Father as having accomplished His mission, taking these newly glorified saints with Him. After that, He returned to provide further proof He was alive, and to share important teaching for His followers for forty days (Acts 1:1-3). Then He ascended finally and visibly, until the time appointed for His second coming (Acts 1:9-11).
These are matters on which we cannot be dogmatic, since the Bible does not give much detail. But there are a few ideas to think about.