And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. Matthew 27:50-53 ESV
If this is the moment of Jesus’ death, it’s a strange place to insert a discussion of His resurrection. At the moment that the Messiah dies, Matthew notes that the preparation for Him to rise took place.
Most of us in the Western Church leave it there. These are the facts: Jesus died. An earthquake took place. The veil was torn. The graves were opened. When Jesus rose, these graves also gave up their dead. These risen bodies were seen by many in Jerusalem. That’s all we need to know. Just the facts, please.
But that’s not the way to see through the shadows, and into the face of God. The Western Mind is obsessed with answering the question, “what”. The Eastern Mind seeks to look beyond that; it seeks to answer, “why”. So why did Matthew mention these events at this moment in his narrative?
We’ve already seen that the Passover shadowed the work of the Messiah on the cross. That feast takes place on the 14th day of the first month of the Hebrew religious calendar. However, the Passover meal is eaten after sundown that evening, which according to the Biblical reckoning of time, begins the 15th day of the month. This meal initiates a seven day celebration known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It reminds Israel that their release from slavery in Egypt was so sudden, that they were forced to eat bread that had not been given time to rise. But later, leavening became symbolic of sin. And when Jesus died as our Passover Lamb, He removed the sin from our lives. He was placed in a tomb, and the Psalmist said that “…as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12 NIV) The Feast of Unleavened Bread shadowed the removal of sin from our lives.
And then we come to the first day of the week following the Sabbath that occurs during the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This day is called the Feast of First Fruits. But the preparations for this feast actually began at sundown on Passover. It is at that moment that the priests would go to the Mount of Olives, and ceremonially bind 10 sheaves of barley, without cutting or actually harvesting it. This was called “marking the sheaves.” Then, at the beginning of the first day of the week (which takes place at sundown), the priests would return to the sheaves and in a great ceremony, harvest those first fruits, take the barley into the Temple and grind it into wheat, and prepare loaves of bread that would, the next morning, be ceremonially waved before God in the Temple, as the High Priest shouted, “If God is faithful to bring us the first fruits, He will be faithful to bring the remaining harvest!”
This is why Matthew chose to make mention of the graves being opened at the moment of Jesus’ death. And why he also made it clear to his readers that the dead didn’t rise until Jesus did. He was revealing the shadow of the Feast of First Fruits.
In addition to being the place where the priests would go to bind the sheaves for the offering at the First Fruits, the Mount of Olives is a major cemetery. It was in Jesus day as well. It was where some of the most famous and notable Hebrews had been buried. So when the priests were going out to “mark” the sheaves for the offering, the graves of many were “marked” as well. And at the moment when the priests harvested these first fruits, Jesus and these others were raised from the dead, as our eternal High Priest shouted to eternity, “If God has been faithful to bring us the First Fruits, He will be faithful to bring the remaining harvest!”
But the shadows of Jesus first coming don’t end there. There is one more feast in the spring that Israel was commanded to observe. And the pictures in it are nothing less than stunning. In Hebrew it is called “Shavuot.” You know it today as Pentecost.