Wednesday, 30 January 2019

The New Jerusalem: Heaven or the Church?

In Revelation 21:1-5, we read:

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.” (NKJV)

While a number of interpreters consider this passage to be descriptive of heaven itself, what John saw was “coming down out of heaven.” Others have concluded that the vision symbolically depicts the church on earth, even though the imagery seems more heavenly than earthly.

Deciphering the Symbolism 

John saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” a description comparable to 2 Peter 3:5-13, borrowed from Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22.When the words “heaven(s) and earth” are used together in scripture, the phrase typically refers to the physical realm of human inhabitance, inclusive of sunlight, rain, oxygen, and terra firma (Isa. 51:6; Jer. 51:48; Joel 3:16; Matt. 24:31, 35; Heb. 1:10-11). While our literal dwelling place (the physical cosmos) will ultimately pass away (Matt. 24:35; 2 Pet. 3:7-12), it serves as a figure for the new, spiritual realm prepared by God for his people.

John saw “the holy city, New Jerusalem,” which elsewhere symbolizes the church [ekklēsía] enrolled in heaven but also the future heavenly home (Heb. 11:10-16; 12:22-23). What John saw was “prepared as a bride,” which is descriptive of the church (Rev. 19:7-8; cf. 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:24-27), a spiritual entity that will endure through eternity (Eph. 3:21; 1 Thess. 4:16-17). God dwelling with his people is both a current reality (1 Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:22) and a future expectation (1 Cor. 15:24; Phil. 1:23; 3:20). And what about the former things passing away as all things are made new, including the removal of tears, death, sorrow, crying, and pain? 

Tension Between Now and Not Yet

The Lord promises, right now: “whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die …” (John 11:26); “… in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22); even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ …” (Eph. 2:5);  Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward [man] is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory …. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 4:16–5:17); But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope …. Rejoice always” (1 Thess. 4:13; 5:16).

Nevertheless, we still anticipate the future: “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven …” (Matt. 5:12); “For we were saved in this hope …. we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Rom. 8:24-25); “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20); Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:3-7). Therefore, “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col. 3:2).


Is the “New Jerusalem” a symbol of the church or a symbol of heaven? Yes it is! To be part of one is to be included in the other. All faithful members of Christ’s body have their names registered in heaven (Phil. 4:3; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 21:27). God’s manifold blessings are available both “now in this time … and in the age to come” (Mark 10:29-30).

--Kevin L. Moore

     See also New Heavens and New Earth.

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Wednesday, 23 January 2019

The Pentecost-day Miracle: 12 or 120?

In Acts 2:1-4 the description of the Pentecost-day outpouring of the Holy Spirit begins with these words: “they were all together in the same [place]” (v. 1).To whom does the pronominal reference apply? Is Luke speaking of the12 apostles of 1:26, or the 120 disciples of 1:14-15?

In the late 4th century John Chrysostom offered his thoughts on the question: “Was it upon the twelve that it came? Not so; but upon the hundred and twenty.In the generations following, this has been a popular interpretation. The “all,” according to Heinrich A. W. Meyer, “were not merely the apostles, but all the followers of Jesus then in Jerusalem, partly natives and partly strangers, including the apostles” (emp. in the text).R. C. H. Lenski confidently affirms: “‘All’ refers to the persons mentioned in 1:12-15 and certainly includes the women …”Ernst Haenchen concurs, making application to “the Christians, i.e. the one hundred and twenty persons of 1.15 [‘not only the Apostles’] …”David J. Williams comments, “By ‘all’ we may assume that at least the hundred and twenty of 1:15 were included …”6

As prevalent as this view has been and continues to be, is it correct? Have those making this claim given sufficient, unbiased attention to key contextual matters?

The Immediate Literary Context

Between Christ’s ascension and the Day of Pentecost the apostles did assemble with approximately 120 believers (Acts 1:15), yet several days elapsed from the apostles’ return to Jerusalem to the outpouring of the Spirit (cf. 1:5). Seeing that Pentecost was fifty days after Passover (Lev. 23:15-16), and from Christ’s resurrection to his ascension was forty days (Matt. 28:1; Acts 1:3), over a week stood between the Lord’s ascension and the Day of Pentecost. The temple was the regular assembling place for larger groups (Acts 2:46; 5:42), so it is helpful to note their prayer meetings were in the temple (Luke 24:53), not in the upper room where the apostles were residing. 

When Luke reports that “they” were in the same place (Acts 2:1), the nearest antecedent is the “apostles” (1:26). In order to include 120 men and women, one has to skip back over eleven verses and ignore the immediate context. Further, the apostles are the only ones recorded in Acts 2 as speaking from God, and the masculine pronoun houtoi (“these”) in verses 7 and 15 (literally “these men”) clearly has reference to them. Contextually the baptism of the Holy Spirit had not been promised to all believers but specifically “to the apostles whom [Christ] had chosen” (Acts 1:2-8; see also 2:43; 5:12).

But what about the description in Acts 2:17-18 regarding the pouring out of the Spirit “upon all flesh” [epì pâsan sárka], including sons, daughters, young and old men, and male and female slaves? This is part of a quote from the 9th-century BC prophet Joel concerning events to occur “in the last days” (vv. 16-17), i.e., over an extended period of time rather than all at once. As we continue reading the historical record of Acts and beyond, we see the gradual fulfilling of this prophecy (e.g. 2:39, 43; 4:33; 5:12, 32; 10:24-48; 11:12-18; 21:8-9), involving the laying on of apostolic hands (6:6; 8:17-18), and eventually the Lord’s spectacular judgment against nationalistic Judaism in AD 70 (cp. Isa. 13:6-11; 34:1-5; Ezek. 32:7-8). 

What About the House?

All who received the outpouring of the Spirit on this occasion were in “the same [place]” [tò autó] (Acts 2:1), more directly identified as “the house” [tòn oîkon] (v. 2). Earlier, at the Lord’s instruction, Peter and John had located the place where Christ would eat the Passover meal with his 12 apostles, viz. a “lodging place” or “guest room” [katáluma] that was a furnished “large upper room” [anágaion méga] in “the house” [tēn oikíantēs oikías] (Mark 14:14-15; Luke 22:10-12). Was this the same locality in Jerusalem as “the upper room [tò huperōon] where they were staying” (Acts 1:13)? Although the text is not definitive, Luke is alluding specifically to “the house,” i.e., not just any house but one in particular, presumably the site of previous reference. 

What do we know about houses in 1st-century Palestine?

During the Roman period typical urban housing in this region consisted of at least four types: (a) the simple house; (b) the courtyard house; (c) the shop-house; and (d) the mansion (domus).These dwellings differed in size, architecture, construction materials, and furnishings, indicative of various socioeconomic levels and family units. 

The most common type of housing, in which the majority of the population lived, was the simple house. It was quadrangular in shape, joined to a courtyard (for domestic chores), and divided into three or more rooms. These dwellings ranged in size from about 215 sq. feet (20m2) to 2152 sq. feet (200m2), although most were comparatively small. Not considering room divisions and the courtyard, the area would be comparable to the interior of a school bus or three-car garage. If this is the type of residence alluded to in Acts 2:2, it would have been extremely difficult if not nearly impossible to cram 120 people in any one room.

Another type of residence was the courtyard house, ranging in total size from around 2152 sq. feet (200m2) to 3229 sq. feet (300m2). These were occupied by multiple families of slightly higher economic standing, generally consisting of four dwellings of two or more rooms each, sharing a courtyard and a single entrance. Since Luke reports “they were all together in the same [place]” (Acts 2:1), almost certainly this type of structure would be excluded if 120 occupants were in view. While the total area would approximate a small one- or two-bedroom apartment, about half to three-fourths the size of a modern-day basketball court, each room would not be much bigger than that of a simple house.

Houses with shops (tabernae) were common in most cities of the Roman Empire, as were apartment buildings, many of which were built on top of the shop-houses. Even though there is no archaeological evidence in Jerusalem of ancient apartment buildings, neither a shop-house nor an apartment would have been large enough to facilitate a sizeable group. 

The other type of house was the much more spacious mansion (domus), inhabited by the wealthy upper class. Archaeological remains of such dwellings have been unearthed in Galilee, the best preserved of which is a 72-feet (22m) by 39 feet (12m) building with eleven rooms for various usages. “These mansions had space enough to house a large family and a good number of servants, as well as to receive clients and friends, and to conduct the business transactions and social gatherings that were frequently held in the large houses in Antiquity (Vitrubio, De Architectura 6:5, 1-12). The existence of this type of house in relatively high numbers is one more indication of Graeco-Roman influence in Galilee during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.”9  

Assuming there was such a house farther south in ancient Jerusalem,10 and assuming Jesus and/or his immediate disciples had access to it, and assuming this is potentially the kind of structure Luke is alluding to in Acts 2:2, would approximately 120 people fit in any one room? The largest space in these homes was the atriumand archeological discoveries elsewhere have conclusively shown that the atrium in a large Roman-style residence would accommodate only about 30 to 50 people—still inadequate for a gathering of about three times that size.11

Alternatively, if “the house” of Acts 2:1-2 was in fact the location of “the upper room where they were staying” (Acts 1:13), in its urban setting the building would have been less spread out like the typical mansion and would have occupied a smaller section of land and thus built upward with more than one story. The landmass of urban environments in antiquity was relatively small compared to modern cities, while population density was rather high with very crowded living conditions.12


The biblical text itself sufficiently demonstrates that the referential “they” of Acts 2:1 is the small group of 12 apostles of 1:26. Considering there were no chapter and verse divisions when Luke first penned these words, the connection and flow of thought are even clearer. Sociocultural and archaeological evidence provides further confirmation, helping to illuminate our understanding even more. 

--Kevin L. Moore

     Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     Homily 4 on Acts of the Apostles,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Vol. 11, ed. P. Schaff (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1889): 55. 
     Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 4, trans. P. J. Gloag and W. P. Dickson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1884): 42.
     The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1964): 57.
     The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971): 167.
     Acts NIBC vol. 5 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990): 39. See also J. B. Polhill, Acts NAC 26 (Nashville: Broadman, 1992).
     Prior to his ascension, Jesus declared: “you will be immersed in the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). This was not a universal pronouncement for all people of all time but a specific address to “the apostles whom he had chosen” (v. 2) to be fulfilled not long after it was spoken. It was a reiteration of the promise he had given them multiple times before (John 14:25-26; 15:26-27; 16:12-13).  
     The information in this section is based on Santiago Guijarro’s “The Family in First-Century Galilee,” in Constructing Early Christian Families, ed. Halvor Moxnes (London/NY: Routledge, 1997): 49-55.
     S. Guijarro, “Family in First-Century,” op. cit. 54-55.
     10 In the 1970s the remains of a 6,500 sq. ft. (603.87m2) palace were discovered in Jerusalem, the largest ever found in Israel, speculated by some to have been the residence of the high priest Annas (cf. John 18:13-24). See Justin Taylor, “Is This the High Priestly Palace…” TGC (28 Aug. 2012), <Web>.
     11 See Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NIC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987): 533-34; and esp. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, St. Paul’s Corinth: Texts and Archaeology (Wilmington, DE: Liturgical Press, 1983): 178-85, providing dimensions of numerous archaeological sites throughout the empire. 
     12 Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: the Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University, 1983): 28-29. Although Ben Witherington III favors a different application, he concedes, “it is unlikely that Luke is thinking of a Christian house holding 120 people” (The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998]: 131 n. 8).

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Wednesday, 16 January 2019

What Did the Centurion Say?

Matthew reports that a centurion and those with him, having witnessed the extraordinary events surrounding the Lord’s crucifixion, were fearful and said, “Truly this was theoû huiòs” (Matt. 27:54).Mark informs his readers that the centurion, having observed the manner of Jesus’ passing, exclaimed, “Truly this man was huiòs theoû” (Mark 15:39). If these words were originally spoken in Latin (the language of the Romans), Matthew and Mark have provided Greek translations that have been preserved in the Greek New Testament. The challenge for English readers is determining the sense of the predicate nominative and its modifier (left untranslated above) in the respective accounts. 

Most translators have opted for the insertion of the definite article and capitalization to make a theological statement: “the Son of God.” But was this the original intent (and understanding) of this pagan officer and his colleagues? The phrase as recorded by Matthew and Mark could legitimately be interpreted and rendered, “a son of God” or “a son of a god.” Unless one is inordinately devoted to the translational decisions of uninspired linguists, one should consider all options and let the biblical text itself in light of the circumstances and the overall context of scripture be the determinative factor. 

Luke reports this incident as well, observing that the centurion, moved by what he saw, glorified “God” [tòn theòn] and called Jesus a “righteous” [díkaios] man (Luke 23:47). Luke’s account seems to suggest that the pagan soldier was aware of “the God,” whether in the henotheistic sense of a supreme deity above the lesser ones, or in the biblical sense of the one true God exclusively (cf. 1 Cor. 8:4-7). Either way, the description of Jesus as a “righteous” [díkaios] man helps clarify the intent of the centurion’s words as recounted in the other Gospels.

The adjectival díkaios in the New Testament conveys the sense of “righteous,” or “upright,” or “just” (in God’s sight), i.e., “innocent” or “faultless.” This was the mutual consensus of Pontius Pilate, Pilate’s wife, and Herod Antipas in their assessment of Jesus (Matt. 27:4, 18-24; Luke 23:4, 14-22; John 18:38; 19:4-6). The centurion and those with him at the cross apparently shared the same sentiment. It is surely within the realm of possibility that Luke had personally met and interviewed this man (cf. Luke 1:1-4) and was therefore able to capture the true intent of what he said. Matthew and Mark simply recorded the words in Greek without further clarification or explanation.2 The expression huiòs theoû may simply have been an idiomatic way of describing a “godly” person.

Irrespective of English translation, the centurion’s statement as reported in the respective Gospel accounts unlikely reflects the same understanding and faith developed in others who had much greater observational and learning opportunities (Matt. 14:33; 16:16; John 20:31; etc.). The fact that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God is well attested by numerous witnesses throughout the New Testament,and is not dependent on this isolated case.

--Kevin L. Moore

     Unless noted otherwise, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     D. E. Aune affirms that ancient historians observed the adage, “without adding or deleting anything,” although repeating words verbatim was not deemed necessary (NT Literary Environment 82).
     In the ancient Mediterranean world, the word “son” was often used to describe one’s character, disposition, nature, or conduct. For example, “sons of Belial” (Judg. 19:22; 1 Sam. 2:12); “sons of might” (Psa. 29:1; 89:6); “son of wickedness” (Psa. 89:22); “sons of the sorceress” (Isa. 57:3); “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17); “sons of this world” (Luke 16:8); “sons of light” (John 12:36; Eph. 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:5); “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36); “son of destruction” (John 17:12; 2 Thess. 2:3).
     See K. L. Moore, “Jesus Christ: the Son of God,” Moore Perspective (18 Jan. 2017), <Link>.

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Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Matthew’s Curious Account: Opened Tombs and Resurrected Saints?

In Matthew’s record of the Lord’s crucifixion, details are given not found anywhere else in the NT: “…and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27:51b-53).This passage raises some intriguing and challenging questions. Who were these saints? When did they rise: at the moment of Christ’s death, or after his resurrection? If at Christ’s death, where were they during the three-day interval? Having “appeared to many,” why is there no other report of this extraordinary occurrence? And what happened to these resurrected saints afterwards?

Preliminary Considerations

  • Each NT author, according to his immediate purpose and targeted audience, engages in authorial selectivity— focusing at times on certain details ignored by others, or omitting particular elements highlighted by others. The information in over 250 verses is unique to Matthew. 
  • Matthew is not a secular historian; he is an evangelist and theologian. His narrative reveals not only historical facts, but also sacred truths that yield spiritual insights.
  • Matthew writes as an ethnic Jew to an ethnically Jewish audience, sharing familiarity with OT imagery, including apocalyptic language and messianic expectations.
  • A major thrust of Matthew’s Gospel is portraying Jesus as the long-anticipated messianic king, ushering in the final dispensation of God’s redemptive scheme (cf. 3:2; 4:17; 6:33; 9:35; 12:28; 16:16-19, 28; etc.).2
  • Matthew has penned this material as a Christian writing to fellow-Christians, approximately three-and-a-half decades after the fact. Other NT documents were produced in the meantime that may shed light on the text in question. 

Contextual Clues

While the splitting of the temple’s veil is recounted by Matthew (27:51a), Mark (15:38), and Luke (23:45), only Matthew mentions the earthquake, opened tombs, and rising saints. The verb schízō (to “divide” or “split”) appears twice in this passage, and of its eleven occurrences in the NT, this is the only time it is applied to rocks. Matthew’s unusual, somewhat perplexing description seems to indicate more than a simple documenting of historical facts. Earlier he reported the Lord’s prediction of Jerusalem’s destruction, where there is a subtle transition from plain discourse (24:4-26) to symbolism (vv. 27-28) to heavy apocalyptic imagery (vv. 29-31), back to lighter symbolism (vv. 32) and then more straightforward speech (vv. 33-35).3

Matthew is writing to an audience well acquainted with the OT—the book of Isaiah in particular (cf. Matt. 1:23; 3:3; 4:14-16; 8:17; 12:17-21; 13:14-15; 15:7-9; 21:4-5; 21:13; 24:29). In Isaiah 26:19 the prophecy is given: “Your dead shall live; Together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; For your dew is like the dew of herbs, And the earth shall cast out the dead.” Contextually this passage is addressed in the 8th century BC to a bewildered Jewish people about to lose their political independence and be exiled from their homeland. For all practical purposes they are a “dead” nation. But there is hope for the future and salvation for “the righteous nation which keeps the truth” (vv. 1-2). The wicked will be brought “down to the dust” (v. 5) and “ashamed” (v. 11); “They are dead, they will not live; They are deceased, they will not rise …” (v. 14). Conversely, the seemingly “dead” people of God “shall live … they shall arise” (v. 19). The prophecy concerns the raising up of a defeated nation as their enemies are cast down.

About a century later, during the Babylonian exile, Ezekiel sees a vision of dry bones coming to life and explains the meaning to the Jewish captives: “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it,’ says the Lord” (Ezek. 37:12-14; cf. vv. 11, 21). This appears to be a reiteration of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Daniel, a contemporary of Ezekiel, also writes of this post-Babylonian-exile hope and extends it further to describe what God plans to do about six centuries afterwards in the days of the Roman Empire (cf. Dan. 2:28-45). Daniel’s messianic-age prophecy includes the following: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).

While the NT consistently speaks of a futuristic resurrection of all who have died physically,the OT repeatedly employs “resurrection” imagery to offer hope of redemption to the defeated, dejected, downcast people of God. With this background in mind, how would Matthew’s contemporary Jewish readers have understood the unusual, enigmatic account of opened graves and resurrected saints? 

Unique Details of the Account

Although most English versions translate Matthew’s words in v. 51, “the earth shook” (ESV, NASB, NIV) or “the earth did quake” (ASV, KJV), this unlikely refers to the entire material planet. The term gē is employed elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel with various nuances, usually in reference to the land inhabited by the Jews (2:6, 20, 21; 4:15; 5:5;9:26, 31; 14:34; 27:45), or the earth/land inclusive of its inhabitants (5:18; 6:10, 19; 9:6; 10:34; 11:25; 16:19; 17:25; 18:18, 19; 23:9, 35; 24:30, 35; 28:18).In the immediate context of Matt. 27, “there was darkness over all the land []” (v. 45; also Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44), viz. the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem.

That an actual earthquake did occur is indicated by Matthew’s report of a seismós in v. 54, which is the typical word for “earthquake” (cf. 24:7; 28:2).However, when Matthew says the land “was shaken” (v. 51), the verb is seíō [to “shake” or “agitate”], used just two other times in Matthew’s Gospel, both in the sense of an emotional shaking of human hearts (Matt. 21:10; 28:4). Elsewhere in the NT, the only other usages of this verb are metaphorical (Heb. 12:26; Rev. 6:13).

The adjectival hágios appears twice in this passage, in reference to the “saints” [hágioi] (v. 52) and the “holy” [hágios] city (v. 53).At the time of Christ’s death and resurrection, the word “saints” (meaning “sanctified ones” or “holy ones”) could apply to old-covenant Israelites or patriarchs but is not used this way anywhere else by Matthew or the other Gospel writers. Rather, at the time of writing, this term was employed prolifically as a descriptive designation for disciples under Christ’s new covenant.The modifier “many” [pl. polloi] (vv. 52-53) simply denotes the large number of something with no implicit comparative or exclusionary contrast (cp. Matt. 20:28; 26:28; Luke 12:7).10

Matthew says they made their appearance in “the holy city.” When alluding to the literal geographical locality, Matthew’s ordinary reference is “Jerusalem” (2:1, 3; 3:5; 4:25; 5:35; 15:1; 16:21; 20:17, 18; 21:1, 10; 23:37) or simply “the city” (21:17, 18; 26:18; 28:11; cf. 5:35; 21:10). Just one other time does he employ the words “the holy city,” in the story of Jesus’ temptation (4:5) in an exceptional and what appears to be visionary experience (cp. Ezek. 8:1-3; 11:24). The parallel account in Luke 4:9 uses the proper name “Jerusalem.” 

What makes this even more intriguing is that the expression “the holy city” does not occur in any other NT document except the highly symbolic Apocalypse of John, wherein it occurs four times (Rev. 11:2; 21:2, 10; 22:19) and is applied to the “new Jerusalem” (21:2, 10). Contextually this is the community of the saved (the church) under Christ’s new covenant (cf. Heb. 12:22-24), which, incidentally, was foretold by Jesus and recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (16:18-19) [see New Jerusalem].

When Matthew states that they “appeared” to many, this is the only time in his Gospel he employs the verbal emphanízō. Elsewhere in the NT this word typically conveys the sense of “make known” (John 14:21, 22; Acts 23:15, 22; 24:1; 25:2, 15). In Hebrews it describes Christ’s “appearing” in heaven in God’s presence (Heb. 9:24), although a closer parallel to Matthew’s usage is found in Heb. 11:14. The ancient heroes of faith anticipated “the city … whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10), and “declare plainly [emphanízō‘make it manifest’ (ASV), ‘make it clear’ (ESV)] that they seek a homeland” (v. 14), while “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them” (v. 16). The idea here of “declaring plainly” or “making known” is essentially a public confession of faith (see Heb. 3:1; 4:14; 10:23; cf. 2 Cor. 9:13; 1 Tim. 6:12).

Making Sense of it All

The confusion we might feel as we read Matthew’s account is comparable to a 1st-century Jewish Christian trying to decipher a 21st-century North American English text. Our hypothetical document transported back in time could read: “My freshman year at university I was just getting my feet wet, but by the end of the first semester I was barely keeping my head above the water!” Unfamiliar with the modern context, institutions, terminology, and idioms, a literal interpretation would almost certainly leave the uninformed reader with a distorted perception.

Viewing Matthew’s text as a simple historical narrative from a modern-day, westernized perspective makes it hard to process and impossible to confirm beyond the text itself. But by reading the passage through the informed lenses of Matthew’s original audience (in the anxious environment of the first Jewish-Roman war), we recognize earthquakes and breaking of rocks as apocalyptic representations of the awe-inspiring nature of God’s mighty power (cf. Psa. 18:7; 78:15; Isa. 13:13; 48:21; Joel 2:10; 3:16; Nah. 1:6; Hag. 2:6, 21). The opening of graves and resurrected bodies are familiar images of the redemption of God’s dispirited people (cf. Isa. 26:19; Ezek. 37:12-14; Dan. 12:2).11 “Saints” are understood as new-covenant followers of Jesus Christ, and “the holy city” is a metaphoric picture of the Lord’s church and spiritual kingdom.

Matthew’s enigmatic account vividly conveys a fundamental truth consistently taught throughout the NT, viz. the theological significance of the earth-shattering events of Christ’s death and resurrection. When Jesus “yielded up his spirit,” the devil had not won. Rather, divine power is demonstrated, especially “after His resurrection,” as those who are dead in sin are raised to walk in newness of life and join the citizens of the heavenly city (note Rom. 6:3-5; Eph. 2:1-5; 5:14; Phil. 3:20-21; Col. 2:13; Heb. 12:22-29).

--Kevin L. Moore

     Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
     Note the repeated allusions to Jesus the Christ as “the Son of David” (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30, 31; 21:9, 15; 22:41-42; cf. 2:2; 21:5) and the prolific use of the verbal plēróō [“fulfill”] (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 5:17-18; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9, 35). See K. L. Moore, “The Kingdom of God” Part 1 and Part 3.
     See K. L. Moore, “Matthew 24: the End of the World or Jerusalem’s Fall?” <Link>.
     Matt. 22:29-32; Luke 20:37-38; John 6:39-40, 44, 54; 11:25; Acts 4:2; 17:18; 23:6; 24:15; Rom. 8:11, 23; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:12-57; 2 Cor. 4:14; 5:1-5; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Tim. 2:18; Heb. 6:2; Rev. 20:4-6, 13.
      Matt. 5:5 is a quote from Psa. 37:11, which itself is in the context of vv. 3, 9, 22, 29, 34. See K. L. Moore, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth” <Link>.
      Sometimes gē is used as a metonymy for the human inhabitants of the land/earth (5:13) or the inhabitants of another land for comparison (10:15; 11:24; 12:42), or simply the ground or soil (10:29; 12:40; 15:35; 25:18, 25), representing human hearts in the parable of the sower (13:5, 8, 23). The statement in 5:35 may be a reference to the entire earth, albeit in a figurative sense.
    See also Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11; Acts 16:26. The same word is used once by Matthew to describe the “tempest” of the sea (8:24), and multiple times symbolically in the book of Revelation (6:12; 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18).
     Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel this descriptive term is applied to God’s Spirit (1:18, 20; 3:11; 12:32; 28:19), the sacred things of God (7:6), and the holy temple (24:15); also, according to a variant reading in the Byzantine Majority Text, the holy angels (25:31).
     Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 26:10; Rom. 1:7; 8:27; 12:13; 15:25, 26, 31; 16:2, 15; 1 Cor. 1:2; 6:1, 2; 14:33; 16:1, 15; 2 Cor. 1:1; 8:4; 9:1, 12; 13:12; Eph. 1:1, 15, 18; 2:19; 3:8, 18; 4:12; 5:3; 6:18; Phil. 1:1; 4:21, 22; Col. 1:2, 4, 12, 26; 1 Thess. 3:13; 2 Thess. 1:10; 1 Tim. 5:10; Philem. 5, 7; Heb. 6:10; 13:24; Jude 3; Rev. 5:8; 8:3, 4; 11:18; 13:7, 10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6; [18:20?]; 18:24; 19:8; 20:9; 22:21.
     10 See K. L. Moore, “Did Jesus die for ‘many’ or for ‘all’?” <Link>. The term sóma is employed here with reference to the “bodies” of the saints (v. 52), which elsewhere in Matthew applies to the physical body, both living (6:25; 26:12) and dead (27:58, 59); the post-resurrection body (5:29-30); a dual reference to both the physical body and the post-resurrection body (10:28); the spiritually-illuminated person (6:22-23); and the symbolic body of Christ (26:26). Matt. 27:53 is the only occurrence of the noun égersis (“resurrection”) in the NT.
    11 D. A. Hatcher calls this “historicized apocalyptic” (Matthew 14–28 WBC [Dallas: Word Books, 1995]: 33b:851).

Here is a summary of the unusual features of this passage, indicating it may be something other than a straightforward historical narrative: (a) the only biblical record of these extraordinary details; (b) the verb seíō (“shake” or “agitate”) in v. 51 is applied to the earth/land [], while the other usages in Matthew refer to emotional disturbance (21:10; 28:4); (c) the verb schízō (“divide” or “split”) is applied to rocks, the only such usage of its eleven occurrences in the NT; (d) reference to the hágioi (“saints”), a term consistently applied to NT Christians and thus historically displaced; (e) reference to “the holy city” rather than the more common designation “Jerusalem”; (f) the lone occurrence of the verb emphanízō (“make manifest”) in the Synoptic Gospels; (g) the chronological uncertainty of events, as Jesus “yielded up his spirit” then “after His resurrection”; (h) the resurrection of Jesus is not reported by Matthew until chap. 28 (void of this information) but is mentioned here in the midst of the crucifixion narrative.

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