Session #22  (Most quotes are NIV)


Matthew 27:51 includes the phrase The earth shook, the rocks split.”

The Holy Land can have massive, destructive earthquakes but they happen rarely.  It is not surprising that earthquakes are intimately connected to God’s presence.  Exodus 19:18  says   ”Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountaintrembled violently.“  

There are two Greek words for “rocks and stones,” and we know both of them in English.  One is λιθος (lithos) from which we get English words like lithograph or lithium.  It means “stone” and is a reference to the loose stones and boulders found everywhere on earth.  The other Greek word is πετρος (Petros) which refers to bedrock.  Lots of English words here including petroleum, petroglyph, etc.  Matt 16:18 comes instantly to the mind of Christians:   “And I tell you that you are Peter [bedrock], and on this rock [bedrock—Jesus repeats the Greek word], I will build my church, and the gates of Hadeswill not overcome it. “ 

At the death of Jesus, Matthew tells us that the bedrock itself shook.  Now couple this with the veil of the Temple tearing to allow people to view the Holy of Holies—God’s special place—and one is reminded of Jewish mythology, outlined by Oskar Cullmann in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6, p 96:  “The rock in the holy of holies is thus the origin of the creation of the world and the supreme point of the earth.  It is the gate of heaven.”  (It is no wonder that Islam has parked their Dome of the Rock mosque right on top of this bedrock.  They claim Mohammed ascended to heaven on this spot.  The Jews think the Muslims are squatters on their sacred spot, and are less than pleased about it!)

It’s all about appearances and all about symbolism for the people of Jesus’ time.  This bedrock upon which the Temple stands shook violently.  Other areas around Jerusalem had the bedrock itself tear open during this earthquake.  

The people did not say “Oh, we’re having an earthquake!”  They said “God is mad about something.  The veil in the Temple and now this too?  We’re in trouble!”  And some of them might have put two and two together and come up with this:  “Is this about the death of Jesus?  Have we killed an innocent man and God is angry with us?”

Today, there are those who say “This was just coincidence.  Earthquakes happen.  The death of Jesus didn’t cause it.”  For the believer, we know different; Isaiah 13:13 describes what he calls the Day of the Lord:  “Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the Lord Almighty, in the day of his burning anger.”


There is absolutely NO WAY we can appreciate the effect of what is described in Matt. 27:52-53:  “…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 andwent into the holy city and appeared to many people.”

Even Boris Karloff movies aren’t this crazy:  Grandpa, who’s been dead for years, strolls in the front door and says, “Hi, guys!  What’s for dinner?”  (Think that’s “over the top?”  Keep reading!)

There is background for this which generally eludes Christians.  The Jewish people believed that when the real Messiah comes, he will turn the Holy Land into a Garden of Eden.  At that time, “pious” (probably a better translation than “holy”) people would come out of their graves in order to participate in the joyous celebration.  

TW. Manson, The Servant Messiah, p. 90 gives us a better picture of Jewish thinking in the first century:  “It is therefore important that we should be clear about what the word ‘Resurrection’ meant in New Testament times. It had nothing whatever to do with disembodied spirits in some heavenly sphere.  On the contrary, it was essentially a restoration to life in this world, a bringing back of the dead person from the cold and shadowy underworld, to resume his place among his kinsfolk and friends and to recover the health and vigour that were his before he died.” (emphases in bold are mine)

These dead people, noted carefully by Matthew, had their graves violently opened at the point of Jesus’ death on the cross.  Read the details:  they were alive, but they didn’t come out of their graves and go into the city UNTIL Jesus himself had risen.  I Corinthians 15:20 “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”  They waited until Jesus had risen before they came out—Jesus leads the way for all resurrections!

To see the dead walking around as described by Matthew is to see “the Messianic Kingdom” being fulfilled before our eyes!  This is why Matthew includes the earthquake and the raising of the dead:  his goal is to show that Jesus was the expected Messiah.

No one makes up a story like this!  When the dead come into the city, there are so many eye witnesses to this fact that it quickly becomes undeniable.  The enemies of Christ can only invent an explanation which attempts to dissuade people from the obvious conclusion:  surely, this was the Son of God!


It is John’s Gospel now which provides an interesting and informative detail.  The Jewish leaders are getting a little antsy about the High Holy Day coming up fast.  It is late Friday afternoon (a day they called “The Day of Preparation”), and the Holiest Day of the Year would begin at 6:00 p.m.  It would be improper to have “dead bodies” laying around, especially our Passover Lamb, Christ, when Exodus 12:10 says of the first Passover Lamb, Do not leave any of it till morning”

Necessity:  get these three to die, get them off the crosses, bury them somewhere, and pretend this didn’t happen.  LORD, DELIVER US FROM UNPLEASANTNESS!

John 19:31 says “they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.”  If you read the previous material on “How to Crucify,” then you understand this perfectly.  The key to crucifixion was breathing.  The crucified would eventually die of asphyxiation because their lungs were collapsed.  As long as they could stand up on the spike through their ankles, they could catch a breath.  Normally, the will to live translated to three or four days on the cross, but Jesus and his two companions are not allotted such a length of time.

How to kill a crucified man:  it’s easy—just break his legs.  Suddenly he can no longer stand up and within minutes he runs out of oxygen and is asphyxiated!  So that is what the Roman soliders do.  Make no mistake—these are not Jewish Temple Guards.  They are Roman soliders—the Greek word “strategoi.”  Crucifixion is capital punishment, only carried out by Rome.  Rome is responsible until the prisoners quit breathing.  They will guard the crosses for days and in shifts if necessary.  These soliders are highly disciplined pros and they are not in the habit of relinquishing their duties to the “uncultured locals.”  The punishment for this would be severe.

 John’s text says (verses 33-34)  “But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ sidewitha spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.”    

Was this “piercing” done with a pugio, a 9-to-14-inch sword carried by the Roman soldier, or was it a lancea, the longer lancee/spear which might be used in battle?  Arguments abound, and the Greek cannot help.  My preference:  it was the handy sword which could easily reach the crucified and poke Jesus in the heart to “check” for death, but I cannot defend my choice.

As to the “blood and water,” the symbolism never stops!  Brown, John, vol. 2, p. 947 tells us the Homeric legend that gods do not have blood in their veins, but blood mixed with water!  Oh, please!  The only thing the “blood and water” meant is that Jesus was really dead!