In Matthew 27 we read that ‘many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after [Jesus’] resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many’, verses 52,53. In this context we ask, What is meant by ‘the holy city’?
This phrase is first found in Nehemiah 11:1 where it refers to ‘Jerusalem the holy city.’ Likewise Isaiah 52:1, ‘Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city: for henceforth there shall no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean.’ Again in Matthew 4:5 we read that the devil took Jesus up into the holy city and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, surely in Jerusalem. Finally we read in the Revelation of the holy city being trodden under foot of the Gentiles forty and two months, 11:2; of John seeing ‘the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven’, 21:2; and finally, 22:19, ‘And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.’
It is evident therefore that the holy city in our text is Jerusalem, but it is also evident from the above references that the Scriptures refer to two Jerusalems called by Paul, ‘Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children,’ and ‘the Jerusalem which is above, which is the mother of us all’, Gal. 4:25,26. Also the apostle writes of ‘…mount Sion… the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’ to which the people of God have come, which is set in contrast to mount Sinai, Heb. 12:18-24.
In Matthew 27 then we are considering these bodies of the saints which arose, went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
I was first alerted to this passage in the years that I was exposed to the rotten New International Version which, when compared to the accurate Authorized Version, seemed to give a different meaning to these words. Verses 51-53 in the NIV read, ‘At that moment [of Jesus’ death] the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.’ That clearly reads that these bodies were raised to life, and came out of the tombs before Jesus rose. I remember wondering how it was that these bodies of the saints could have risen before Jesus, who is called ‘the first begotten of the dead’, Rev. 1:5, ‘the firstborn from the dead’, Col. 1:18, and ‘the firstfruits of them that slept’, 1 Cor. 15:20; when Jesus had before indicated that his rising would precede his peoples’, ‘because I live, ye shall live also’, John 14:19; this being clearly confirmed by Paul in his address to king Agrippa, that Christ ‘should be the first that should rise from the dead’, Acts 26:23.
What became clear from the whole testimony of scripture was that these bodies rose after Jesus, the opposite to what the NIV states, and that ‘when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God’, Matt. 27:54. But we will come back to the centurion later.
But the NIV misleads from the beginning of those verses when it uses the phrase ‘At that moment’, instead of what the original has: ‘And behold’. By saying ‘At that moment’, the NIV informs us that the earthquake – as well as the bodies rising – actually occurred at the point of Jesus’ death, which is again incorrect. But when you read the AV state ‘And behold…’, and read right the way through to the end of verse 54, you realise that Matthew is making a statement in these verses from the vantage point of after the centurion’s confession. Anyway. Just compare the two versions and see how misleading the modern one is.
So let us consider our text. First we read in the AV that ‘many bodies of the saints which slept arose’, Matt. 27:52. If ‘bodies’ then this was a physical resurrection and bears witness to the wonderful truth of Christ’s physical resurrection also. They are said to have ‘come out of the graves after his resurrection’, so as he arose then his people rise after him. At the end of the world, at the great and final resurrection of the living and the dead, of the just and the unjust, ‘at his coming’, Christ’s people will finally rise from the dead in glorious incorruptible resurrection bodies; they, the body of Christ, will rise just as he their great head had risen, cp. 1 Cor. 15.
But two thousand years ago in Jerusalem upon the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week, many bodies of the saints which slept literally arose, went into the holy city and appeared to many. Amazing. The centurion and they that were with him witnessed it; they knew that these people had risen from the dead, just as they knew that Jesus had walked out of the grave. Yes, and ‘the watch’ that was set by the chief priests and Pharisees to guard the sepulchre: the soldiers that came and ‘showed unto the chief priests all the things that were done’, they knew that Jesus and these other bodies of the saints had risen out of the graves, and although they set about to cover it all up, still they knew, Matt. 27:62-66, 28:11-15.
Eventually of course, as Lazarus before them, these saints that rose after Jesus had risen, who were seen of many alive in the holy city, died again. But these rose to testify the spiritual truth that those in Christ rise with him: not only physically at the end of the world, but now spiritually also, for ‘in Christ shall all be made alive’, 1 Cor. 15:22, we already having been ‘quickened together with him’, ‘raised and seated together with him in heavenly places’, Eph. 2:5,6. Some may say that Lazarus specifically, and others mentioned in the gospels which were raised from the dead by Jesus were actually raised before he was, but, as with the case of Lazarus, Jesus was teaching the truth, and giving a sign, that he was the resurrection and the life, and that those who are living and believing in him would never die. It could be said that the teaching of Jesus to Martha and Mary in John 11 was, ‘But that ye may know that the Son of God is the resurrection and the life’, he saith to the dead man, ‘Lazarus, I say unto thee, Arise!’ And he that was dead came forth.
Yes bodies will rise. But in Revelation 20 we see something slightly different, for we read of ‘the souls of them… that lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years’, who are the partakers of ‘the first resurrection’, verses 4-6. Being ‘the souls of them’, then having experienced a spiritual resurrection. And this is simply John’s description of what Paul had already written of as quoted above to the churches at Corinth and Ephesus. When a person is born again, is baptized into Christ, is found to be in Christ, it is proved that, spiritually, he was risen with Christ when He rose. In Christ his people are alive. The Father looks at them and sees them in his Son, raised and seated together with Christ in the heavenly places. They, like their head, can therefore say, We are they that liveth, we were dead, but now we are alive for ever more’, Rev. 1:18. This is the wonderful position of the children of God as they are found in Christ, and this is called ‘the first resurrection; blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power’, Rev. 20:5,6.
This leads us on then to describe what ‘the holy city’ really is. As we have said, two thousand years ago bodies arose and appeared in Jerusalem unto many, as Jesus did. But when we go to the other references in holy Scripture to ‘the holy city’ we begin to see the spiritual significance of what Matthew is being inspired to write. Who, we may ask, actually saw the risen ones: who were the ‘many’ of Matthew 27:53? Well, Peter in Acts 10:40,41 to Cornelius and they that were with him, stated very clearly that God raised up Jesus the third day ‘and showed him openly; not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead.’ ‘Witnesses’ are mentioned again in Acts by Paul. While speaking to the people in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia the Apostle said: ‘But God raised [Jesus] from the dead: and he was seen many days of them which came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are his witnesses unto the people’, 13:30,31.
In the light of this we can safely assume that, as Jesus was seen only by chosen witnesses, cp. again 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, so these others that rose after him, ‘the bodies of the saints’, were seen only by chosen witnesses. In other words, the resurrection is only witnessed, known, and experienced, by those ordained unto it by God. Spiritually the resurrection is entered into by the elect, by those chosen of God from all eternity. Not all the people in Jerusalem saw the risen Christ and those who rose with him, but many did. And today, only those who have been made partakers of Christ in his death and resurrection are they that ‘see’ him alive by faith, who know him as risen and living now. How? Because they have risen with him. They are alive unto God in their experience because of a resurrection out from the death of sin, the condemnation of the law and its bondage. They have been called out of the darkness of ignorance, sin and death into his marvelous light: the light of spiritual life and liberty in Christ and his gospel. So those who saw Jesus and they that rose with him are those for whom Christ was the resurrection and the life, who lived and believed in him; for seeing him, and them, they had this wonderful truth revealed to them; the truth of Christ having overcome sin and death, and that they, who were given to see it, were made in him then – and would be made finally at the last day – partakers of this victory.
Again, ‘the first resurrection’ of Revelation 20:4-6 is union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. Paul, thus unified with Christ, could cry, ‘I live!’ Having been crucified with Christ he could say, ‘nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’ and I in him, Gal. 2:20. The testimony of those risen with him is, Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God, that he is Lord; and none can say these things aright but by the Holy Ghost, 1 Cor. 12:3.
A careful reading of the gospels in regard to the testimony of the centurion shows that when Christ gave up the ghost, ‘he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man’, Luke 23:46,47; but when, probably while he was still standing there and news came that the veil of the temple had been rent in twain from the top to the bottom, Mark records that he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’, Mark 15:37-39. But when the centurion, after the earthquake and the rising of the bodies of the saints and their appearing in the holy city on the third day, ‘feared greatly’, he reasserted and confirmed his belief that, ‘Truly this was the Son of God’, Matt. 27:54.
What a difference in testimony! Viewing the actual scene of the crucifixion he can declare as much as ‘this was a righteous man’; but seeing the death and the resurrection he must cry, ‘this was the Son of God.’ Well, didn’t Paul write the same to the Romans? Jesus Christ was ‘declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead’, 1:4. Then it was the spirit of holiness who caused the centurion to declare such a thing; for none can do so but by the Spirit of God.
So we see that this centurion not only saw Jesus raised from the dead – along with the others who’d come out of the graves – but was made a partaker of the blessing of the first resurrection, he being one of those witnesses ‘chosen before of God’ to view these things. It follows therefore that when Christ had prayed from the cross, as the nails were being driven into his hands and feet, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’, one of the ‘them’, and perhaps the foremost of ‘them’ at the scene was this centurion! Praise be unto God! His enemies are turned unto him by his grace, by the death of his Son, and by the power of his resurrection.
Now we come to ‘the holy city.’ Spiritually speaking, surely the holy city is not Jerusalem after the flesh, the earthly Jerusalem which is in bondage with her children; who being still under the law, and strangers to the covenant of grace and devoid of faith, know nothing, and have seen nothing of the resurrected Christ. Then the holy city in this context must be the Zion of Isaiah 52:1, a place devoid of the spiritually ‘uncircumcised and unclean’; Jerusalem, the holy city, ‘the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God’, Heb. 12:22, the new Jerusalem, the Jerusalem which is above, the dwelling-place of God and of his Christ; the church, the body, the redeemed; those in Christ, of the faith, risen with Christ, glorified. These are all the ‘them’ for whom Christ prayed, all the sheep for whom he died, for whom he was made sin, whose sins he bore away, who were counted as having been crucified with him; who know him as their Lord, Saviour, life, light, and their all in all.
They see him, are known of him, and know him. He the living God has begun a good work in them; he works in them both to will and to do of his good pleasure; he calls them, they hear his voice, come to him and follow after him. He teaches them, they are taught of him, they learn of him, they obey him and his gospel, and do the things that he says. He is their Lord and they call him Lord, not with their lips only but in their submission: they do the will of the Father which is in heaven. This is shown by their humbling themselves before Christ and their following his steps, 1 Peter 2:21.
Others call him Lord, Lord, but do not the things that he says, Luke 6:46; they hear his sayings but do them not, being contentious and obeying not the truth, Rom. 2:8, they never do the will of the Father in heaven. Why? Because like all in Jerusalem at the time of the centurion’s declaration who were kept from seeing anyone raised from the dead, they are ignorant of the resurrected, living Christ, and are strangers to his risen people; and although they may profess to ‘believe in Jesus’ and take his words and apply them to themselves – especially those which pertain to salvation and comfort – they have never known him in experience as their life, and, just holding to the bare text of scripture, miss ‘the way, the truth and the life’ altogether.