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 marvelous 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 marvelous 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 afterward, 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 a resurrection, therefore, be dependent on an open grave? No, in the same way that the departure of our human spirits from 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 he 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 glorified resurrection.
This explains why only a limited number of graves were opened. This was not their final resurrection and God was not playing favorites 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.