Each year, we seek to reflect the glory of the resurrection in churches across the nation in both the simplest and most extravagant productions. Yet no staged glory can compare with the grandeur that the true story of the resurrection delivers to the human heart. In these pages, adapted from William Nicholson’s book, The Six Miracles of Calvary: Unveiling the Story of the Resurrection, you will find the purpose behind the suffering of our Savior and the meaning behind two of the supernatural wonders at the moment of His death. As we examine two of these events—the miracle of the opened graves and the revivals to the life of the saints in the Jerusalem graveyard—you will find the glory of Easter born anew in your heart.
- The locality
- Whose graves were they?
- What kind of resurrection?
- Christ’s resurrection is different
- Symbol of the resurrection
- What about Hades?
- Christ destroyed the power of death
- The prison doors opened
- The work is finished
- Self-evidencing marks
- Marvellous silence
- The resurrection
- God’s purpose
- A basis of assurance
- Grandeur of the plan
“The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.” — Matthew 27: 51-52
The midday darkness is the first of the six miracles that happened during Jesus’s crucifixion (Matthew 27:45). It is the beginning of the divine procession of signs that heralded the death of Jesus Christ. Second, came the supernatural tearing from top to bottom of the curtain of the temple. The third miracle was the earthquake and the splitting of the rocks (v. 51), while the fourth was the opening of the graves in the vicinity (v. 52). The fifth miraculous sign was the condition of the empty 6 MIRACLES OF EASTER tomb, and the last miracle was the resurrection of many saints who had died (v. 53). These were the six miracles of Calvary, all of them linked directly to the death of Jesus Christ.
Some of these miracles occurred in the heavens, others under the earth, yet they all established a unique class of miracles—each of these signs played a part in the miracle of Christ’s eternal act of redemption. Each miracle, in its own special way, elucidates the meaning and purpose of the depths of our Savior’s suffering. Together, all six surround Christ in His death, guarding carefully the truth of our deliverance.
Here we will look at the fourth of the Calvary miracles—the opening of the graves.
The disturbed graveyard has a distinct place among the miracles. It is the climax of all the previous miracles, even as it anticipates the miracles that will follow. Let’s consider the facts related to us in the gospel.
“When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.”
“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life” (Matthew 27:50–52).
We can clearly see that it was by means of the earthquake that the graves were opened. We may also conclude that most of the graves were located at or around Calvary. The earthquake would likely have been the most violent at its point of origin—the epicentre of Jesus’s disturbing death. It is certain that a graveyard existed near Calvary since Jesus was laid nearby in Joseph’s tomb (John 19:41–42).
Where these resurrections took place is important. If this miracle was meant to be a testimony to the power of Christ’s death, it would necessitate the graves being in close proximity to the cross. Further indication that these graves were close to Jerusalem is seen from the fact that when the saints were resurrected, they immediately entered Jerusalem (Matthew 27:53).
It can also be reasonably implied that these particular graves were rocky tombs, holes carved into the rock whose entrances were sealed by large stones rolled in front of them. We can infer this because of the obvious connection between the two statements “the rocks split” and “the tombs broke open.”
Since it appears that the opening of the graves is so closely connected to the splitting of the rocks, why separate these two events? The reason is because that there is a significant distinction between them. The splitting of the rocks was evidence of force, while the opening of the graves was evidence of design. The splitting of the rocks did not, by itself, foretell anything to come. The opening of the graves, however, was like the first budding of the coming resurrection glory.
As an event, the earthquake was not simply the means to open the graves but an independent miracle with its own distinct meaning. In the same way, the opening of the graves was not simply the logical result of the earthquake but an event with its own unique meaning and importance. It was the instantaneous result of the earthquake, in the same way that the earthquake was the instantaneous result of Christ’s shout of victory from the cross. And like the earthquake, it occurred in response to that shout. The moment Christ died, the graves opened.
Whose graves were they?
Significantly, it was only the graves of saints, God’s children, who were opened. Not one person’s grave was opened whose soul did not have a saving interest in the death of Christ, to which the opening of the graves was the marvellous answer.
It is such a beautiful picture. All those graves of God’s children, each and every one of them individually and lovingly selected, were to His eyes the most important places in the entire world!
While the graves were opened at the moment of Christ’s death, the bodies did not arise from them till after His own resurrection—on the third day. “They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection . . .” (Matthew 27:53, emphasis added). The record makes it plain that they were not raised until He was.
For the moment we are not considering the resurrections themselves, but simply the opening of the graves. The opening of the graves had a significance beyond simply being necessary to release the resurrected from their tombs. The opening of the graves was not simply a physical necessity for the resurrections, any more than it was a mere physical consequence of the earthquake.
It was, in fact, a marvellous act of preparation that needed to be accomplished at the moment of Christ’s death and timed to occur at precisely the moment our Savior Himself entered among the dead. It could not be put off until He returned from the dead, although what He intended to accomplish among those who would be resurrected had to be delayed until then.
In view of all these circumstances, how powerfully does the miracle assert itself! We are overwhelmingly convinced that God’s intervention here is one of the clearest and most powerful of His precious testimonies to the death of Jesus Christ. The sense that something precious is being revealed to us seems warranted by the clear facts of the matter.
The fact that the graves were opened at the instant of Christ’s death, but the resurrections did not take place until the third morning afterwards, shows that the opened graves were intended to be an exhibition.
If the sealed rock tombs were opened by the earthquake merely to permit the resurrected bodies to escape, then the earthquake should not have taken place until the moment of their resurrection. But those graves were opened from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning and exposed to thousands of spectators. No attempts to seal them back up during the intervening Sabbath would have been permitted. Doesn’t it seem clear, then, that the opening of the graves was intended to be an exhibition—that it had a story to tell?
What kind of resurrection?
Again we ask, why were the graves opened at all? What sort of resurrections were these? Were they examples of what the apostle calls the “better resurrection” (Hebrews 11:35), the final glorified resurrection body? Or were they, as in the case of Lazarus, merely the resurrection of their mortal, earthly bodies?
It can be proved through Scripture that they were the latter, as I shall show later in this chapter. The point to be made here, however, is that the opening of the graves implies an earthly resurrection, because the idea that the gravestones needed to be moved aside so that their spiritual resurrection bodies could be released is illogical. A spiritual body has spiritual properties. In His resurrection body, Jesus entered the room where the apostles were assembled without going through the door (john 20:19, 26). It is His resurrection body that is the true model for all resurrected saints.
Would this kind of resurrection, therefore, be dependent on an open grave? No, in the same way that the departure of our human spirits from the earth is not dependent upon breaking down the walls and ceiling of the room in which we die.
Christ’s resurrection is different
We see this truth demonstrated in the coming forth of Jesus’s body from the grave. Although the great stone that sealed His tomb had been rolled away, Jesus had left the tomb before that event took place. The removal of the stone soon after His resurrection was to show the disciples that the tomb was empty and therefore convince them of His resurrection. An angel accomplished this removal of the stone, but at the moment it was performed, Christ was no longer there.
On the other hand, when Lazarus was raised, he was called back into his original body, and therefore the command was to “Take away the stone” (John 11:39).
For these reasons it becomes clear that the opening of the graves at Calvary is consistent with only one conclusion: what they experienced was only their natural earthly bodies being resurrected. They had not yet received their final glorified resurrection bodies.
Those saints who were raised from their graves were not, by themselves, an adequate expression of the victory of Christ in the sense that is expressed in 1 Corinthians chapter fifteen, for they were not yet risen from the dead but only revived from the dead.
But it was such an amazing event that it nevertheless illustrated and affirmed the truth of the better, future resurrection. When Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), He then proceeded to revive the dead body of Lazarus to illustrate the truth of the resurrection, even though what Lazarus was experiencing was not the final and
This explains why only a limited number of graves were opened. This was not their final resurrection and God was not playing favourites by raising only a few chosen saints. All of God’s children are dear to Him, but reviving just a few believers suited the purpose of what He was teaching them and at the same time sufficiently called attention to the occasion. Enough graves were opened to provide an illustration of the power of the cross, and the power displayed by those open graves furnished an example for all God’s people for all time.
What is really happening here? This is a true miracle, but it is also symbolic. A symbol is a sign that represents an idea. For example, a lamb is the symbol of meekness because a lamb does not resist. In the Old Testament, a slain lamb was the precursor of Christ crucified. In the same way, the opening of the tombs and their inhabitants coming back to life is a small picture of the future for all of God’s people.
Symbol of the resurrection
The opening of the graves symbolized the removal of all obstructions to the final glorious resurrection because it removed the obstacles to raising the revived dead bodies of the saints. But sealed tombs, even when sealed with rock, are only flimsy obstacles compared with the difficulty involved in the final, glorious resurrection.
Consequently, it signified that the better resurrection was now in operation. Whatever had made it impossible for the corrupted physical bodies of the saints to be raised in incorruption was now—by virtue of those opened graves—removed. And since the resurrection body implies the presence of the spirit to which it belongs, whatever had made it impossible for the disembodied spirits of the Old Testament saints to leave Hades and receive their glorified resurrection bodies, that too, by virtue of those opened graves, was now removed.
Thus, the opening of Hades was the counterpart to the opening of the graves. That is, the entire nature of death—the spirit’s separation from the body as well as the body’s natural decay—was now virtually abolished for the saints. Every saint in Hades could then be removed from Hades and be reunited to their bodies, now glorified and incorruptible. There was no longer any obstacle preventing it, and it was now only a question of God’s appointed time.
What about Hades?
In light of the victory that was accomplished, God’s saints will no longer enter Hades, that place where God once comforted His Old Testament saints, though their freedom was restricted. Ever since the resurrection and ascension of Christ, they have ascended to Him, far above all heavens.
Not only that, but Jesus brought back with Him all those Old Testament saints who had gone into Hades, when He Himself returned from there and carried them with Him into heaven. The gates of Hades did not prevail against His church.
How beautifully symbolic, then, that it was by the earthquake that the graves were opened! In other words, the victory of the Savior’s death had reached into “the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40) and had demolished the gates that had barred their passage.
That victory in “the heart of the earth” reverberated to the surface. The trembling earth and splitting rocks were symbols of the joyful revolution that had been accomplished for the Old Testament saints in Hades. We can see, therefore, that a part of what was accomplished for the spirit, symbolized by the opening of the graves, has already become the blessed experience of those who have died in Christ.
Meanwhile, that which was done for the body, likewise symbolized by the opening of the graves, all God’s people are still waiting for. It was accomplished and is as real as though it were now true. Every obstacle to the full and blessed resurrection of the soul and the full resurrection glory of the body was violently removed, and we believers wait only for our divine appointment to be revealed in glory. It was the death of Jesus Christ that accomplished such a wonderful victory for us.
When were the graves opened? Precisely at the instant of His death. That instant is emphasized because the dead bodies weren’t revived to life until Christ arose on the third day. The graves were opened, even though the actual coming to life was not going to take place yet. This signified that there was a direct connection between the death of Christ and the opening of the graves.
Christ destroyed the power of death
Christ’s death opened the graves. His death destroyed the power of death. The power of death is sin. Death entered into the world by sin and is the penalty of sin. Therefore, the death of Christ, who was sinless, enabled Him to bear the penalty of sin for His people.
But death mainly consists in the separation of the soul from the life of God, the decomposition of the body illustrating merely the shadow of death.
Therefore, when Jesus died and bore the penalty of sin for His people, His death was not only in His body but much more terrifyingly in the awful affliction of His soul. He was cursed for our sake that we might be saved from the curse. In this way, He extinguished the penalty of sin for us and made it possible for us to escape all the condemnation of our sin.
This was, therefore, the symbolic purpose behind the opening of the graves at the instant of His death. The power of sin to bring death was broken by His death, and all obstacles to our attaining true eternal life, both of soul and body, were entirely removed.
The prison doors opened
Jesus’s death opened those prison doors, removed the guard, and cleared the way. His own resurrection was the first use of that new freedom. His death guaranteed for His people the blessings of their resurrection in that it abolished the obstacles to that new life. His resurrection was the imparting of that blessedness upon His people.
His death allowed us to be legally freed from the penalty of sin; His resurrection is the actual deliverance itself.
His death allowed us to be pardoned from sin; His resurrection is the proof that the payment was accepted.
His death opened Hades; His resurrection emptied Hades. His death is the grave opened; His resurrection is the dead bodies of His saints rising from their graves into life incorruptible and eternal!
Such is the redeeming power of the death of Jesus Christ. “The tombs broke open” (Matthew 27:52). As a result, there no longer remain any obstacles to anyone being personally delivered from eternal death. “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me,” Jesus said, “has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24), and “will never die” (John 11:26).
All who place their trust in Christ have been freed in their conscience from the condemnation of sin and live now as children of God because they have already passed from death into life. In the meantime, their mortal bodies wait for their divine appointment, because all obstructions have been removed. The path from the grave up to the very presence of God, where nothing but eternal joy and pleasure await them, has been cleared.
The work is finished