What is the chain of events when “the saints which slept arose”?
Christ commanded His spirit to depart. A divine hand sundered the temple’s veil from top to bottom. An earthquake opened graves. Sleeping saints arose. They exited their graves after Christ’s resurrection. They appeared to many in Jerusalem (Mat 27:50-53). This spanned the three days of the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection (1Co 15:3, 4). But is Christ’s resurrection before or after the “sleeping saints arose”? If they rose when He died, they remained in the stench of corruption until the third day, alive in an opened sepulcher whose contents were visible to passers-by. Why these saints waited in the tombs and why they were not discovered (thus causing excitement in Jerusalem) are problems that make this interpretation unlikely. The grammar equally supports another interpretation: after Christ’s resurrection, these saints came back to life, exited their tombs, and appeared in the city. The punctuation in the KJV agrees with this sequence.
The order is consistent with the way the Lord raised Lazarus (John 11). The stone was rolled away and the grave was open; then Lazarus was raised. At the Lord’s death, the graves were opened, as though in anticipation that those bodies within would be brought back to life.
Why is this fuller account only in Matthew?
The events at the cross on that day were not typical acts; rather, they fulfilled the types concerning the Lord’s death. The rending of the veil was not a typical act in an earthly sanctuary which showed that the death of Christ gave access to God in the heavenly sanctuary. The rent veil showed that the death of Christ ended the typical sacrifices of the Old Covenant. God was finished with those types; they were fulfilled in the once-for-all offering of the body of Christ (Heb 10:10). We do not enter the heavenly sanctuary through a rent veil nor through the “rent body of Christ.” We enter through the veil, that is to say His flesh (v 20). It is a living way (v 19), by means of a living Christ.
Matthew writes for the Jews, Mark for Roman proselytes (like Cornelius), and Luke for Gentiles. The Gentiles needed to know that the Jewish system of sacrifices had ended. Instead of being excluded from the value of the offerings, they have an equal claim on divine blessings because of the cross. Mark and Luke therefore include the rending of the veil.
On the other hand, the Jews needed confirmation that their sacrificial system had ended. That may be the reason that Matthew tells about the darkness (Mat 27:45) and the earthquake (v 51). When the sacrificial system was initiated, it was with a thick cloud (Exo 19:16) and a quaking mountain (v 18). The God Who spoke then, spoke now with the same “presence” and power. He ended that sacrificial system. The second confirmation (“in the mouth of two of three witnesses . . .”) was the appearance in Jerusalem of saints returned to life. The Law came with the threat of death (Exo 19:12, 21) at Sinai. The end of the legal system of sacrifices came at Jerusalem through the life-giving “word of the cross” (1Co 1:18, ESV).