Matthew 27:51-56 (NIV) At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. 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.
When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.
Just as Jesus’ dying hours were accompanied by signs the heavens, His death was accompanied by signs on earth. Those who wanted to see Elijah swoop down in a fiery chariot and rescue Jesus from the cross were momentarily disappointed, and then were terrified as the ground beneath their feet began to tremble, and the rocks all along the hills, including those covering the openings to tombs, began to tumble down into the valleys.
At that moment, the thick veil in the temple that shut the Holy of Holies away from view was torn in half, from the top down to the bottom, exposing to the eyes of the regular priests the room that had before been reserved for the eyes of the high priest alone, and that only on the Day of Atonement, when he sprinkled before God the blood of the sin offering. This tearing of the veil, not a result of the earthquake, but actually torn by God’s own hand, symbolized the fact that God had brought the blood of His own sin offering into the heavenly Holy of Holies, thus opening the way into His presence, not just to high priests but all people.
The resurrection of the holy people in the tombs around Jerusalem is only reported by Matthew, but was experienced by many others. These were not zombies, but saints of old who were raised from the dead and came out of their tombs as a sign of the new life and resurrection power that was unleashed by the death of Jesus.
Both the soldiers at the cross and the women who were watching from a distance saw the earthquake and the people walking out of the tombs – the execution site was near some tombs that were carved into the rock cliffs on top of which sat the city. (See John 19:41-42.) And they were terrified. They had no idea what these strange events actually meant, but they knew that the confluence of events was no coincidence. Even the pagan centurion realized at that moment that Jesus had been no ordinary man, and the very idea shook him to his core.
Father, even at Jesus’ death You had the last word, as the response of both heaven and earth bore witness to who Jesus was. The people, even His own followers, didn’t yet get it, but more and more would start to put the pieces together after the resurrection, and they would then put their faith in Jesus. Help me to never lose track of who Jesus is in all of the hectic and distracting moments in life, and let that knowledge inform my every thought, word, and deed. Amen.