Matthew 27:52-53 says: “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.” What is the theology of the LCMS concerning these verses? Who were these people? Did they live out a normal life and then die again? Did they go to heaven shortly after their appearance in Jerusalem? Are they the “saints” found under the altar in Revelation?
Among the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel is the only one containing the reference to the incident referred to above. This is not necessarily unusual because, in spite of their agreement on the fact of the resurrection, each of the Gospels contains details on the resurrection not found in all of them.
The reason this particular detail found in Matthew has drawn so much attention is most likely due to the fact that it is contrary to normal human experience. Consequently most commentators have little if anything to say about it, or else they place it in the category of legend.
Such is the case, for example, in Dr. Alexander Bruce’s commentary on Matthew in The Expositor’s Greek New Testament. Bruce notes that, according to certain apocryphal literature, among those who rose that day, along with others, were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Although we cannot know the names of those who rose since the Scriptures do not give us that information, there is no reason, textually or otherwise, to assume that this event is simply legendary.
It is not unusual for us to lack answers to the sort of questions posed by our questioner. The Bible contains other resurrection accounts whose mysteries we cannot explain purely out of our human experience. Consider the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:22-43, Luke 8:41-56); the young man of Nain (Luke 7:11-17); and particularly Lazarus, who had been in the tomb for four days (John 11:1-44).
Although we have no further information about these people, just as we have none about those who rose at the time of Jesus’ resurrection, it can only be assumed that they all lived a normal life and died again, however many years later that happened to be.
What is most important is the fact that the resurrection of these “saints” shows that death has been conquered, and that the resurrection and eternal life are a reality. The resurrection of these people is a reminder of the unity with Christ that is ours by faith. It is an assurance to us of the truth of Christ’s promise that, because He lives, we shall live also (John 14:19).