“And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” Matthew 27:51-53
This passage has a myriad of connotations, in order to expand on this we must first consider an aspect of Dispensationalism, which is a method of interpreting history that divides God’s work and purposes toward mankind into different periods of time. In this article we will look at the dispensations of salvation. Which is to say that everyone has or had to believe something slightly different in order to be saved, based on the period that they lived in history. The first dispensation refers to those who lived from the time of Adam up to the time of Christ, they had to believe in the coming of the Messiah and give blood sacrifices until He came.
God required animal sacrifices to provide a temporary covering of sins and to foreshadow the perfect and complete sacrifice of Jesus the Christ (Leviticus 4:35, 5:10). Animal sacrifice is an important theme found throughout Scripture because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). When Adam and Eve sinned, animals were killed by God to provide clothing for them (Genesis 3:21). Cain and Abel brought sacrifices to the Lord. Cain’s was unacceptable because he brought fruit, while Abel’s was acceptable because it was the “firstborn of his flock” (Genesis 4:4-5). After the flood receded, Noah sacrificed animals to God (Genesis 8:20-21).
God commanded the nation of Israel to perform numerous sacrifices according to certain procedures prescribed by God. First, the animal had to be spotless. Second, the person offering the sacrifice had to identify with the animal. Third, the person offering the animal had to inflict death upon it. When done in faith, this sacrifice provided a temporary covering of sins. Another sacrifice called for on the Day of Atonement, described in Leviticus 16, demonstrates forgiveness and the removal of sin. The high priest was to take two male goats for a sin offering. One of the goats was sacrificed as a sin offering for the people of Israel (Leviticus 16:15), while the other goat was released into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20-22). The sin offering provided forgiveness, while the other goat provided the removal of sin.
During Jesus’ lifetime, the second dispensation, one believed Jesus IS the Messiah, but they continued to give sacrifices though Jesus was alive.
The third dispensation presently, excludes animal sacrifices which ended because Jesus the Christ was the ultimate and perfect sacrifice. John the Baptist recognized this when he saw Jesus coming to be baptized and said, “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Animals did no wrong, they died in place of the one performing the sacrifice. Jesus the Christ also did no wrong but willingly gave Himself to die for the sins of mankind (1 Timothy 2:6). Jesus took sin upon Himself and died in our place. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
Through faith in what Jesus accomplished on the cross, we can receive forgiveness. Animal sacrifices were commanded by God so that the individual could experience forgiveness of sin. The animal served as a substitute—that is, the animal died in place of the sinner, but only temporarily, which is why the sacrifices needed to be offered over and over. Animal sacrifices have stopped with Jesus the Christ. Jesus was the ultimate sacrificial substitute once for all time (Hebrews 7:27) and is now the only mediator between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2:5). Animal sacrifices foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. The only basis on which an animal sacrifice could provide forgiveness of sins is Christ who would sacrifice Himself for our sins, providing the forgiveness that animal sacrifices could only illustrate and foreshadow. (Romans 8:1–4)
In the third dispensation, we believe Jesus came as a man, died, resurrected, ascended to Heaven and will return, there are no more sacrifices made. (Hebrews 10:1–10, John 3:16; Hebrews 9:28, Hebrews 1:1–2, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4) In all these dispensations, we learn that everyone had to believe something slightly different, depending on when they lived, in order to be saved.
With respect to those who were raised from the dead once Jesus resurrected,(Matthew 27:51–52) they were all from the first and second dispensation. Which is to say, they died and went to paradise (Hebrews 11:3). Jesus gave a literal glimpse of paradise on the other side of death in His discussion of the rich man and Lazarus. (Luke 16:19–31). Those in paradise waited on Christ to come to Paradise in order that they might accept Him AS the Messiah. Jesus went to Paradise for three days and three nights, to fulfill the promise made to them and to minister to all those who died from the time of Adam until His arrival.
“To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:79
Once Jesus rose, he was seen by Mary, and He told her not to touch Him as He had not yet ascended to the Father in Heaven (John 20:17). This was an important detail as Jesus was not a man born of men, but by the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:20) Which is to say that Jesus would have been corrupted had Mary touched Him in His glorified state and He would not have been suited to go in the presence of the Father in Heaven, much like a virgin on her wedding day is presented to her husband unknown by man.
During this dispensation, mankind had never been in Heaven, which is an accommodation God makes for man at the request of Jesus Himself, who also opens salvation to all people be they Jew or Gentile.
“Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.” John 17:20–24
It’s during Jesus’ initial ascension after His resurrection, that those who rose from the dead, who were in paradise, walked the earth until Christ return. “And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” Matthew 27:51-53
The Bible is not clear on a few details related to this group, whether these who were in paradise went to heaven with Jesus in His initial ascent when He left Mary at the grave site, or did they walk the earth until His next ascent, which did not take place for some 40 days after His initial return? (Acts 1:2-4)
Whats most biblically consistent, is that this group walked the earth as a witness to the resurrection of Christ for the entire 40 days Jesus Himself walked the earth until His ascent. “Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen: To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God:” Acts 1:2–3
“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.” 1 Corinthians 15:3–8