I was coming down the home stretch. It was the last ten minutes of the last lecture of the class, and I was warming up for my closing comments.
Then it happened. The classroom, situated on the top floor of the building, began to roll and sway. Some students, eyes wide, froze in their seats; some screamed and dove under the tables.
Me? I stood there watching the pandemonium. It was all over in a few seconds, and when the shaking stopped, I suggested matter-of-factly that we consider the class finished and all leave by way of the stairs before an aftershock hit.
I can be calm like that during earthquakes. Having lived in California all my life, I’ve been through enough of them.
But that’s not saying I enjoy them. Inside, part of me still reacts like a little kid fearing whatever monstrous power could make solid ground suddenly seem so insubstantial. Californians, moreover, live with the dim but constant awareness that The Big One could hit anytime. I don’t know that I’ll be calm then.
According to Matthew, the death of Jesus set off a Big One:
The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matt 27:51b-53, NIV)
Here, Matthew describes events not mentioned in the other gospels or anywhere else. There was a violent earthquake that split rocks (the verb, from which we get the English word “schism,” is the same one used for tearing the curtain) and opened tombs. Presumably, these tombs were the kind hewn out of rock themselves, standing above ground and sealed with a large stone.
Matthew’s text is actually a little ambiguous. He mentions three distinct happenings: (a) some “saints” were raised to life, who then (b) came out of their tombs, and (c) went into Jerusalem. The sequence is clear, but the timing is not. Which of these happened while Jesus was still on the cross, and which after his resurrection? Some scholars argue that (a) and even (b) happened while Jesus was still on the cross (then where did they hang out until Easter? Starbucks?). Others place all three on or after Easter, sometimes even suggesting that here, Matthew was actually referring to the earthquake that he will mention again later, the one that accompanied the unsealing of Jesus’ tomb (cf. 28:2).
We may never know. Does it matter? What’s the point?
Matthew hasn’t even reached the story of Jesus’ burial yet, and already he’s talking about resurrection. Imagine the scenario. The sky has already gone mysteriously and ominously dark. Then the ground lurches and bucks beneath your feet. You hear rumors of graves rumbling open. Put yourself in the place of a witness to these events, and possibly a superstitious one at that. What do you fear will happen next? The judgment of God? Zombie apocalypse?
What happens next is new life.
Matthew wants us to understand: this isn’t just about our future hope. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, death has already been defeated. New life belongs not just to Jesus, but to the saints. Now. One truth is inseparable from the other.
When Jesus’ friend Lazarus fell ill, his sisters Mary and Martha hoped that Jesus would come to save him as he had so many others. They sent an urgent message, but to no avail.
When Jesus arrived in Bethany, seemingly too late, Martha went out to meet him. Like many Jews, Martha expected a mass resurrection of the faithful in the last days. After Lazarus died, this was her only remaining hope. When Jesus actually told her, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23, NIV), she thought he meant later, in the distant future. He responded,
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (vss. 25-26)
Shortly thereafter, he brought Lazarus out of the tomb.
How shall we live, when we know that death no longer has the last word?