Image of the empty tomb that shows what happened when Jesus died (and why it matters).

What Happened When Jesus Died (And Why It Matters)

CULTURE | Caleb Mathis | 14 mins

Ever done Easter out of habit? Does it feel abstract or disconnected from your life? Can it really impact us now, two thousand years later? And if so, should it?

There’s an idea that faith has to be blind, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. What if it were actually possible to feel the message of Easter? To see, touch, and hear what the death of Jesus actually achieved. I believe God wants to give you something that concrete to build your life upon. Why? Because that’s precisely what He did the moment Jesus died.

The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, celebrated each year on Good Friday and Easter, are the foundation stones of Christianity. You can’t have Jesus without them. But most of our talk about what those events achieved is elusive and ephemeral. We say that Jesus’ death grants forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God—but those things are spiritual realities. You can’t actually see them. You can’t rub up against them or feel them between your hands. How do we know that something spiritual permanently shifted when Jesus took his last breath on the cross? Is it possible we’re reading our own desired outcome into the moment?

God, in His wisdom, didn’t leave the answers to those questions up to chance. In fact, He wrote them, not just in an unseen spirit realm up there, but in our physical reality down here. The day Jesus died, for a moment, you could actually see, hear, and feel God’s rescue plan.

What happened when Jesus died

Below are three physical things that happened following Jesus’s death, what they meant, and why they still matter today.

All four accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible give narratives around Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. For our purposes today, we’re going to stick with Matthew’s. You should read the whole chapter, but we’re going to laser focus on Matthew 27:51-53. Here’s what happened when Jesus died on the cross:

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.

Ummm… what the actual crazy is going on here?

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life was written for a primarily Jewish audience. He drops these bombs and then moves on because his original readers would have caught all the references to their ancient history. But to us, it sounds like the weirdest episode of The Walking Dead ever. It’s worth the time to unpack these events because once you wrestle with them, you’ll never experience Easter the same way again. Fair warning, though: put on your floaties. We’re going to the deep end.

Before we unpack all this, we have to briefly touch on the wildest (and probably my favorite—I mean, I did name one of my kids after him) prophet from Israel’s history: Ezekiel.

ZEKE THE FREAK

Ezekiel lived about 600 years before Jesus, at a time when Israel was at a particularly low point in its history. Their homeland had been destroyed, the temple burned, and the people were taken away as political exiles to Babylon.

While most prophets delivered spoken messages from God, our main man Ezekiel operated on a different level. He was actually commanded to act out many of his messages. Once, God commanded him to spend 390 days laying on his left side and cooking his food over poop (Ezekiel 4). That’s… something. Needless to say, Zeke was committed to his role as a prophet and wasn’t worried about being misunderstood.

Most people who know of Ezekiel associate him with a vision of dry bones. The whole thing is recounted in chapter 37 of his book, but here are the highlights: He’s transported to a valley (in a vision). It’s full of dry human bones. God breathes on the bones. There’s some shaking. The bones come together. Tendons grow on them—then muscles. By the end of it, what was dead and dry is now a living, breathing army.

What God’s doing here is more than a Nightmare Before Christmas prequel. It’s a symbol of His plan and what ultimately is achieved through the death of Christ. All that weird stuff that happened after Jesus died can be related directly back to this 600-year-old prophet’s vision.

Let’s start with the undead elephant in the room and work our way backward.

EASTER ZOMBIES?

You’re telling me when Jesus died, some righteous people came back to life and wandered around Jerusalem? We gotta jump back to Zeke’s dry bones for context.

Remember, the Israelites were living as exiles at the time of Ezekiel’s vision. Hope, for these ancient people, meant returning to their ancestral homeland, rebuilding God’s temple, and getting back to the business of being His peculiar people again (Deut 14:2). The dry bones were a perfect metaphor for what they were feeling.

Ezekiel 37:11-13 sums it all up: [God] said, … “These bones are the whole house of Israel. Look how they say: our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished; we are cut off. Therefore prophesy and say to them: This is what the LORD God says: I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them, My people, and lead you into the land of Israel.”

Ezekiel’s vision was meant to give hope to the exiles, but in light of Jesus, God’s painting an even larger, cosmic picture. We have enemies more dreadful than Babylon, and not even death can sidetrack God’s plans.

After 2020, many of us can identify with the Israelites—feeling like dried up bones, our hope perished, cut off from all good things. But God opens graves. He returns exiles. He brings hope back to the hopeless and life where only dried-up bones have laid. And that’s not just a spiritual metaphor—He literally did it.

While a pretty weird side note of Jesus’ death, these resurrected saints are meant to give us hope. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul, an early leader in the church, writes extensively about resurrection. He explains that Jesus is God’s first fruit—and because Jesus has been raised from the dead, and we are clothed in His righteousness before God (Galatians 3:27), we can have tangible hope that death is not the end of our story. Those who hope in Christ can expect resurrection will come for us also (1 Corinthians 15:23).

Matthew is the only book that talks about these resurrected saints, and he doesn’t give us any more information about them—where they went, what they did, how long they stayed alive. That’s because the point is not these people. They’re merely a physical symbol of God’s plan for all of creation: new life. And that plan includes you.

Shoot-Me-Straight Summary: With God, whatever feels like the end doesn’t have to be. Whatever is dead, hopeless, or forgotten can bloom again. Nothing, not even dried-up bones, are outside the power of God to be changed. In my life, I’ve experienced resurrection from addiction, abuse, and workaholism. After a diagnosis, my faith was brought back from the dead. And I believe God isn’t finished with his resurrection business in my life. The question remains, then, what dried-up bones do you need to give to Him?

WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN’ GOIN’ ON

Working our way backward, we come next to an earthquake. Throughout the scriptures, earthquakes are associated with God—it’s one of the tangible ways He displayed His presence and power (1 Samuel 14:15, 1 Kings 19:11-13, Psalm 68:7-8).

In Ezekiel’s vision, just before the dry bones come back to life, there is a rattling or shaking. The Hebrew word the prophet uses, raash, is used elsewhere in the Bible (including the next chapter over, Ezekiel 38) for an earthquake. Whether Ezekiel’s shaking would have registered on the Richter Scale or not doesn’t actually matter—the point was that God was intervening.

For the nation of Israel, the most significant moment of their ancient history was accompanied by an earthquake. In Exodus 19, in view of His nation, God descends upon a mountain, causing it to tremble under the weight of His glory and presence. God calls Moses up onto the mountain, where he receives the ten commandments, the beginning of Israel’s Law.

This law, guidelines meant to set Israel apart from the rest of the nations on earth, was a completely new thing. No other nation rested one day a week; cared for foreigners living in their midst; gave rights and protections to their servants and slaves; worshipped only one God. It was a shaking up of the old ways of doing life, a change embodied by the earthquake.

There were actually two earthquakes at the end of Jesus’ story—this one, immediately after His death, and one the morning of His resurrection. They take us back to Moses, the giving of the law, and remind us of Jesus’ words: that He hadn’t come to abolish law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).

I’m just thinking out loud here, but perhaps the first earthquake, at the time of Jesus’ death, was a bookend to the earthquake of Moses. With an earthquake, the law was given; and with an earthquake, some 1500 years later, the law was fulfilled. Jesus was the first and only person to perfectly keep God’s rules for living. With the requirements of that law met, a few days later, Jesus would rise from the dead, accompanied by an earthquake—this time, signaling that something brand new was beginning.

Dumb-It Down, Dude: When God steps onto the scene, in scripture or in your own life, you can expect things to get shaken up. In my own life, God has shaken up my view on money and generosity, work and enjoying life, emotional health, even sex. And, my life is so much better for the shaking. When God sends an earthquake, instead of bracing yourself, lean into it—something new (and better) is coming.

The new spiritual reality inaugurated by Jesus’ death was so powerful it needed two earthquakes—and it’s best represented by the first thing on our list. We’ve saved the best for last.

TORN TAPESTRIES

Speaking of our guy Moses—as God was using him to lead Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land, He gave instructions for the tabernacle. Think of it as the beta-version of the temple, the place where God and His people could interact (through intermediaries known as priests). Part of the tabernacle, and then later the temple, was an inner room called The Holy of Holies. It’s the place where God’s presence would physically appear above the Ark of the Covenant (you know, that Nazi face-melting gold box we all know and love).

No one, except the high priest, was allowed into the Holy of Holies—and then only on one day of the year. The Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of the tabernacle by a large cloth. The Bible gives a few details about it—it was made of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and had images of cherubim worked into it (Exodus 26:31-33). These weren’t fat, naked babies playing harps but rather angelic guardians. One of the first places we find cherubim in scriptures is at the edge of the Garden of Eden, where God placed one (and a flaming sword) to bar anyone from entering paradise after the expulsion of Adam and Eve.

This same veil, separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the structure, was present in the temple during the time of Jesus. Even without the guardian cherub imagery, the function of the veil is pretty easy to deduce. You don’t just get to waltz into God’s presence. He’s in there; the rest of us are out here.

But the most amazing thing happened at the death of Jesus. Matthew records that the veil was torn in two, specifically mentioning this happened from top to bottom. This wasn’t a thin bedsheet. It was a protective barrier. That rip would have certainly thrown the temple into a panic. Was God’s spirit going to rush out and destroy everyone? Was this an act of punishment? Was He leaving the temple for good? Had He forsaken them? Is my face melting?

Instead, God was signifying that something promised long ago was about to take place. Back when Ezekiel was seeing freaky visions of bones coming back to life, God made a profound promise: “I will put My Spirit in you, and you will live.” What previously only dwelt behind the curtain had been set free—not to punish and destroy, but to bring life. At the death of Jesus, The Spirit of God prepared to make its home within the people who followed Him—the place it still dwells to this day.

That little detail about the rip starting at the top, it’s not insignificant. The destruction of the barrier that separated us from God starts on His end. He took action on our behalf. He doesn’t just come to live inside you… It’s actually His good pleasure to do so.

That’s why Bible writers like Paul can say things like, “Your body is a temple” (1 Corinthians 6:19). That’s not about tattoos or freaking cigarettes—it’s much more important than that. God’s spirit lives inside His children, making them a holy place where heaven and earth meet. If you follow Jesus, that includes you.

Bring it Home, Bucko: God living inside you changes everything. It’s allowed me to leave behind religion, knowing God as a good father and not just a demanding king. It’s given me the power to get off the hamster wheel of defining my worth through my productivity and just rest. It’s changed my life at home, with my wife and kids. More than anything else, it’s given me purpose and hope for the future.

The God that made everything in the cosmos—from black holes to black bears—longs to reside inside you and me. That’s so amazing; it’s difficult to comprehend. And yet, it’s true. In a nutshell (or should it be eggshell?), that’s the power and meaning of Easter.

So yeah, some very strange things happened after Jesus died. But none of it was by accident—the torn veil, the earthquakes, the renewed life—they were all tangible symbols of the change that occurred in unseen spiritual realms. The torn veil was the promise of God inhabiting His people. The earthquakes keyed us in on the start of something completely new. The reanimated saints were a symbol of death turning to life that you could touch—though, honestly, you might not want to.

Who said faith had to be blind? God was kind enough to give us physical trail markers on the road to Him—a broken barrier, a world shaking with potential, the promise that death doesn’t win. As I’ve traveled that road, I’ve found everything about my life changed for the better. The on-ramp to that road, of course, is Easter.

So yeah, Easter matters. It’s the pivot point of history, the moment everything we thought we knew about life and God was turned upside down. It’s even better than we’d ever dared to hope or imagine—and certainly better than those marshmallow Peeps. (How do you people eat those things?)


Written by

Caleb Mathis

Dad of three, husband of one, pastor at Crossroads, and at the moment would rather be reading Tolkien, watching British TV, or in a pub with a pint of Guinness.

Published on Apr 2, 2021
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What Happened When Jesus Died (And Why It Matters)

  1. What strikes you most about this article? Why that? (Noticing what stands out to you can be the beginning of hearing from God. Lean into it. See where it goes.)

  2. What’s your usual reaction to Easter?

  3. Which of these three elements feels most applicable to you right now? Where do you need Jesus to resurrect something, shake something up, or come alive inside you?

  4. Pray for that right now. A simple prayer like this (or whatever you want to say) totally works: God, I want Jesus in my life. I want everything he died for on the cross to be true for me. Forgive me and help me turn away from everything that isn’t your best for me. Help me receive and follow You instead. Whatever you have for me, I’m in.

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