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 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 epicenter 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 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.
All four gospels describe the moment of Jesus’s death, which occurs just before the earthquake . Three of the gospels say that Jesus called out loudly (MATTHEW 27:50; MARK 15:37; LUKE 23:46), and John notes that at this moment Jesus said, “It is finished .” Christ had accomplished His mission to reconcile us to God.