The Earthly Temple and the Empty Tomb
This article first appeared on The Gospel Coalition Website.
The passion narrative is a familiar story with familiar elements: chief priests, Golgotha, two thieves, Pilate, the crowd, the cross, the tomb, and of course, Jesus. But there is a central piece we tend to overlook.
According to Matthew, the temple is an essential part of that fateful week.
Matthew mentions the temple 16 times over the final eight chapters. It’s no accident the temple comes into sharp focus as his Gospel reaches its rising climax. His retelling of the story creates an unexpected juxtaposition as he moves from the cross, to the temple, to the tomb.
Using expert storytelling technique, Matthew invites us to see the tomb of Christ as more than rock and stone. It is a picture of the temple.
Destroying the Temple
After his Palm Sunday parade into Jerusalem, Jesus marched into the temple courtyard. He found it filled with uncleanness, moneychangers, and robbers. Overturning the tables, he drove out the salespeople and healed the blind and lame. The next day he sparred with priests and Pharisees, pronounced judgment on the temple, and departed, never to enter again.
As they walked away, his disciples admired the temple’s beauty. “You see all these, do you not?” Jesus replied. “Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2). Sure enough, a few chapters later the chief priests could only find one accusation against Jesus that stuck:
At last two came forward and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’” (Matt. 26:60–61)
Jesus was planning to destroy the temple. It had become a place filled with the filth of self-righteous religious leaders. The scribes and Pharisees had turned it into a whitewashed tomb: sparkling and clean on the outside but filled with wickedness within. Jesus was going to bring an end to the temple and rebuild it in three days.
Tearing the Curtain
Matthew’s passion narrative ends with a surprising twist. As Jesus hung on the cross, with insults flying at him, he quoted the words of Psalm 22. Then he “cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit” (Matt. 27:50).
Yet this was not the climax. His final piercing cry received an echoing response from the temple:
Behold, the curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. (Matt. 27:51)
The week began with Jesus rampaging through the outer courtyard, continued with a prediction of the building’s destruction, and ended with the sound of a tearing curtain that separated God and man.
From Temple to Tomb
A man named Joseph claimed the dead body of Jesus, wrapped it in linen, and “laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away” (Matt. 27:60). Matthew is drawing a parallel here. In place of temple walls are tomb walls—hewn rock impervious to all mankind. In place of a curtain embroidered with fiery angels is a great stone with guards standing watch.
Matthew presents us with an honest picture of the temple. Just as the ark of the covenant, a sarcophagus-like box, was kept hidden from human eyes behind a thick curtain, so Immanuel—“God with us”—was hidden from view as the stone rolled over the tomb’s entrance. The temple had been a place where thick walls and a stone curtain barred sinners from fellowship with their God.
The temple was a tomb: a place of death, bloodshed, and constant reminders of sin. And like a grave, the temple had become filled with the uncleanness of evil priests, false teaching, and filthy profiteering.
All of that was about to change.
Jesus came to destroy the temple and to rebuild it in three days. Neither stone temple nor stone tomb could imprison the presence of God forever:
Toward the dawn of the first day of the week . . . behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. (Matt. 28:2)
The angels on the temple curtain guarded the way to God. But this angel welcomed:
Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. (Matt. 28:5–6)
The stone, like the curtain, was removed from the entrance. When the women peered in, however, the presence of God was no longer within.
Though the chief priests tried to re-imprison God in tiny chamber, the rock walls and heavy stone that again separated him from the world couldn’t contain him. Jesus was risen; he had left the tomb. No physical walls—whether of temple or tomb—were able to separate God from his people any longer.
As the women departed with fear and joy, they encountered someone walking in the garden:
And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. (Matt. 28:9)
Jesus had come out of the tomb into the world. Finally, God and man could once again walk together as they had so long ago in Eden.
From Tomb to New Temple
In Matthew’s final scene, the risen Christ sends forth his disciples to gather stones. The risen King is building a new temple—not a tomb of cold, lifeless stones but a spiritual house of living stones. He’s assembling a people from the four corners of the earth, washed clean and taught to follow him.
The best news is this: we are his temple, his planted garden multiplying and filling the earth. And his presence will never depart from this living temple, for he promised: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
?Chad Ashby is pastor of College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife and three boys. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he completed an MDiv in biblical and theological studies. Chad blogs at After Math.