Jesus and the Walking Dead

Matthew 27 may contain the strangest passage in the whole New Testament. It begins with Jesus’ death, and it ends with what sounds almost like “zombies.” It goes like this:

When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 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. (Mt. 27.50–53)

The story appears in no other Gospel. And the oddity of reanimated corpses strolling toward Jerusalem has led many to discount it as being about as believable as the latest season of The Walking Dead.

Questions abound.

  • Why were these corpses raised at Christ’s death?
  • What did the citizens of Jerusalem think?
  • And what ultimately happened to these once dead “walkers”?

Yet for me, the oddest question is this:

If the bodies were raised at the moment of Christ’s death (vs. 52), why did they not emerge from their broken tombs till “after Jesus’ resurrection” (vs. 53)? On this point, the New Testament scholar Raymond Brown can scarcely suppress the sarcasm: “What an extraordinary courtesy!” Assuming that the above translation of the text is the most natural one, I want to draw some implications from this strange passage that are actually quite important.

1. The Spirit brings forth resurrection

For the Christian, new life is the product not merely of the cross and resurrection, but of the Spirit’s work. As Paul tells us: all of us were dead in our transgressions and sins (Eph. 2.1). Yet God made us alive by his Spirit.

Along these lines, many scholars see Matthew’s account as a shout-out to Ezekiel 37, in which Israel’s faithful dead were brought forth from “tombs” (vs. 12), with an “earthquake” (vs. 7), and then caused to walk about by the Lord’s “breath” or “Spirit” (vss. 9–10). The same thing happens in Matthew. And in one sense, every one of us is like those corpses. We have been given life by Christ’s Spirit, and we are called to go and show that life to others.

2. The Spirit is given from the cross

The late theologian Tom Smail (1928–2012) tells of a powerful experience that he once witnessed in worship. In it, a young woman stood up and gave this prophetic word:

“There is no way to Pentecost except by Calvary; the Spirit is given from the cross.”

While some treatments of Pentecost can verge into prosperity triumphalism, Smail sought to show the connection between Spirit-given power and the suffering Servant on the cross. Matthew 27 does this with great pathos. Here, Christ gives his last ragged “breath”—his Spirit—so that the veil might be torn, the tombs might be opened, and we might be given new life. The Spirit is given from the cross. And this is why Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost must always live together as a kind of “trinity” within the Christian calendar. But none of this addresses our initial question.

3. We wait alive in the abode of death

Why is it that these corpses came to life on Friday, while not emerging from their tombs till Easter morning? While we can’t be sure, perhaps there is a lesson here as well. In some ways, we are like those waiting saints. Like them, it was a death that brought us life. Like them we’ve been inspired by the Spirit from the cross. And like them we wait for this new creation to go fully public.

To be in Christ is to have gained a foretaste of the age to come. The veil is torn. The heart of stone is shattered. And yet on Holy Saturday this new life remains somewhat incognito. It sits humbly—waiting—amid the stench of death and slowly airing grave clothes.

What kind of patience was required to sit quietly in an unlocked tomb because it was not yet Sunday?

Perhaps it is something like the kind of patience required to go on trusting in a God of resurrection while sitting in an oncology ward or ICU, while death continues to claim those closest to us.

In addition to “going” and “showing,” part of the Christian vocation is to engage in holy patience: to wait alive in the abode of death. And to wait in hope. Because—to amend the famous Easter meditation of S.M. Lockridge (1913–2000)— while it may be Saturday, “Sunday’s coming.” And so we find ourselves within this story, because like these patient saints, we wait within Death’s shattered house, in the belief that the God who gave his Spirit from the cross will not leave us waiting.

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Dr. Joshua McNall is Assistant Professor of Theology at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Bartlesville, OK. In addition to his academic roles, he also serves as Associate Teaching Pastor of Grace Community Church. His PhD thesis (A Free Corrector: Colin Gunton and the Legacy of Augustine) was just published by Fortress Press. Josh lives in Bartlesville, OK with his wife Brianna and their three children. He blogs regularly at joshuamcnall.com.

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