The Soldiers Recognize Jesus

When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake…they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (v. 54).  

- Matthew 27:52–54

Given the emphasis in Matthew’s gospel on how Jesus fulfills the old covenant (5:17; 12:15–21; 26:47–56), it is hard to miss the significance of the hour of His death. Our Savior dies at the ninth hour (27:45–50) — three o’clock p.m. — the same hour at which the daily sacrifices begin in the Jerusalem temple. By this we see that Christ fulfills all of the old covenant sacrifices. After His atonement, there is no need to offer up the blood of bulls and goats; sin has been dealt with and the temple rituals therefore pass away (Heb. 10:1–18).

The earthquake following the death of Jesus (Matt. 27:51), Matthew Henry writes, signifies “the mighty shock, indeed, the fatal blow now given to the devil’s kingdom.” God’s people can now, by His Spirit, defeat temptation, for sin can no longer enslave us (Heb. 2:14–15). Jesus came to destroy the Devil (1 John 3:8), vanquishing the evil one on the cross. In the new covenant era, Satan’s kingdom is crumbling and the nations are granted the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:1–6).

Today’s passage reports that the earthquake also opens several tombs, from which appear many resurrected saints after our Lord rises from the dead (vv. 52–53). We do not know their identities, but these holy ones clearly died before Jesus inaugurated the new covenant and are raised only after He is resurrected. By this we see that the only way believers, whether they live under the old covenant or the new, can find final salvation (resurrected life in a new heavens and earth, Rev. 20:1–6; 21) is through Christ’s death and resurrection. Scripture does not say whether the people of Matthew 27:52 die again or ascend to heaven. In any case, their resurrection is a sign that Jesus’ death has inaugurated the last days, for this raising to life is the signal event of judgment day (Dan. 12:1–2). The resurrection of others, John Calvin says, also makes evident that Jesus died and rose again not only for Himself, but also to restore life to His people.

Ironically, many Jewish leaders will not believe even after these signs (Matt. 27:62–66; 28:11–15). To the soldiers guarding Jesus, however, these supernatural events prove they have killed a divine man (27:54). This may not be saving faith, but it does reveal that their hearts are not so hard as to miss the obvious.

Coram Deo

Because of the influence Greek philosophy has long had on Christian thought, we can never say too often that Scripture never teaches that we are complete persons without a body. Rather, we look forward to the resurrection of the body at the last day and our final state of life forever, body and spirit, in the presence of God. Whatever physical defects and problems we have now, they will all be gone in the new heavens and earth. Let us rejoice in that today.

Passages for Further Study

2 Kings 4:8–37
Ezekiel 37:12
Mark 15:39
Acts 16:25–34

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