Alright, so very famous story here—it’s the story of the Sadducees coming to Jesus and putting a question to Him about the nature of the resurrection. This is what Luke tells us, chapter 20, verse 27:
There came to him some Sad′ducees, those who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the wife and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and died without children; and the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”
Alright, we’re going to pause there for just a second to unpack the context of this before we look at Jesus’ answer. A couple of quick points. First and foremost, the Sadducees...who were they and why were they asking this question of Jesus?
Well, you might know from reading the New Testament and other passages, like in the book of Acts, that the Sadducees were one of the leading parties of the Jewish people in the first century AD. They were a small group, but they were very powerful and influential because they were tied primarily to the temple and to the priesthood. So the Sadducees consisted of a lot of the elite—high level, high ranking, very powerful, Jewish priests—who were functionaries in the temple, but who were also wealthy aristocrats in the city of Jerusalem.
And they were distinct as a Jewish group for a couple of reasons. First, unlike the Pharisees, which was the most popular Jewish movement of the day, the Sadducees denied certain beliefs that were common to the Jewish people—the first one being the resurrection of the dead. In other words, the Sadducees did not believe in any form of afterlife. They believed that once you died, that was it. Your existence ceased to be. So they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. They also did not believe in the inspiration of certain books of the Bible. They only accepted the first five books of the Bible, commonly called the books of Moses or the Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And they didn’t accept what we refer to today as the historical books, or the writings of the prophets—like Isaiah, Jeremiah, so on and so forth. So they had a much smaller canon of Jewish Scriptures.
And so what they’re doing here is they’re coming to Jesus, and they’re taking a situation from the book of Deuteronomy, which describes what was called levirate marriage. Levirate marriage was the idea in the Old Testament law of Moses, that if a man’s brother died, he had the responsibility to marry the widow of his brother in order to have children with her, so that his brother’s name—and also the land and inheritance associated with his brother’s name—would not pass away, would not be taken away from the family but would remain in the family.
So what they’re trying to do basically is set up a situation where they mock the resurrection by showing that there was a hypothetical where this one woman married seven brothers who all died successively. And the question was, well, in the resurrection, whose wife is she going to be? Okay, and the reason they ask this question is not just because they didn’t believe in the resurrection, but because when first century Jews talked about the resurrection, they didn’t just mean what we think of as life after death or the immortality of the soul. No, no, no, no. For a first century Jew, the resurrection—by definition—meant bodily existence, the reunion of the soul and the body after death in a New Creation, in a new Heavens and a new Earth that Isaiah talks about in Isaiah 65 and 66.
In other words, the resurrection for first century Jews was essentially bodily. And the Sadducees rejected that, so they wanted to create a hypothetical situation where a woman, in her resurrected body, would be married to seven men in their resurrected bodies. And you can imagine the kind of problems that would bring. So that’s what they’re doing with Jesus. They’re trying to trip Him up, they’re trying to show the foolishness of the bodily resurrection by posing this question to them as a kind of dead end that He can’t get out of, because they recognize that in many ways, Jesus shares the belief of the Pharisees, one of them being (obviously) the resurrection of the body.
So, as a general rule, you don’t want to put Jesus to the test and you don’t want to try to trip Him up, because He always wins. So we want to see how does he respond to that query, and what does it teach us about the nature of the resurrection. So in chapter 20, verse 34, this is how Jesus responds:
And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him.” And some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For they no longer dared to ask him any question.
Awesome ending there. This is what you call an ancient mic drop moment, right? He just stopped the conversation and that was it. No more questions from the scribes and the Sadducees and the leaders of the Jewish people.
Okay, so let’s break down His response. There are a few key elements here to understand what Jesus is getting at. We want to make sure we understand what He is saying and what He’s not saying, because there have been some misinterpretations of this passage as well. So first point, number one. Notice what He says:
“The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:34-35)
What’s He talking about here? So the first point of background that you need to understand is that Jesus is referring here to the very common Jewish idea of two worlds or two ages. This age, referring to this fallen, present, sinful world of suffering and death, and then what they call the age to come, or the world to come. In Hebrew these two words were ha-olam ha-zeh
, “this age,” and ha-olam ha-ba,
the age to come or the world to come. And the world to come was the New Creation, the new Heavens and the new Earth, in which there would be no more suffering, no more sin, no more death anymore, because all things would be made new. It was described by Isaiah in the prophet’s book, Isaiah 64-66. The last three chapters of Isaiah are all about this new Heavens and new Earth. So what Jesus is saying is, in this
world, the sons of this world or this age, we marry and are given in marriage, but in the age to come they’re not going to do that. In the New Creation, there isn’t going to be anymore marriage or anymore procreation. Why? He gives the reason.
First, because they cannot die anymore. So in the resurrection, there will be no more death. And one of the principal ends of marriage and procreation is the reproduction and the transmission of life in the human race to keep the human race alive as a result of sin and death. So because of sin, we all die. Because of death, people pass away. So procreation serves the purpose of transmitting life to the next generation. But in the resurrection, there will be no more death, so there won’t be any need for marriage, which has as one of its principal ends, procreation—not just the union of spouses, but procreation.
The second reason Jesus says is, because they are equal to the angels and are sons of God. Now...this verse is a problem. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard in popular American culture, people talking about someone who has died getting their wings or becoming an angel...or Heaven has received one more angel. And I know that some people mean that kind of metaphorically, and it’s sentimental with all good intentions, but from a Biblical perspective, that is completely false. Angels are pure spirits. They’re a different kind of creature than human beings. Human beings are body and spirit, matter and soul, body and soul composites. That’s how God makes human beings, and so we’re fundamentally different.
So when a person dies, they don’t become an angel. When a person dies, their soul is separated from their body and awaits the reunification of the body and the soul in the resurrection. And from that point, from death until the resurrection, the person continues to be a human. So just as a caveat, we should never, ever, ever—Christians should never say that someone becomes an angel. And that’s not what Jesus is saying here as well. When He says that they’re equal to angels, what He’s pointing to there is the fact that angels are immortal, that angels do not die, and, in Jewish tradition, there was also a very strong tradition and belief that angels did not marry as well. They didn’t marry, they didn’t procreate—I mean, they don’t have bodies so they can’t do it—but they didn’t procreate and have children in the way that human beings who are mortal and have bodies can do. So they’re equal to the angels insofar as they’re immortal, they’re not going to die anymore, and therefore there’s not going to be any marriage in the New Creation, in the new life of the world to come.
Alright, so that’s His main part. So what He’s doing is He’s showing that the Sadducees don’t understand the nature of the resurrection, because they are assuming that certain earthly realities of this world, or this age, are going to continue in the new age...and they won’t. There will be no marriage in the resurrection, so the Sadducees, as Jesus says in one other Gospel, “You are quite wrong. You don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God.”
Now, however, He does try to meet them on their own terms, because as I mentioned at the beginning, the Sadducees only accepted the five books of Moses as Scripture. So in order to buttress his conclusion about the resurrection, He goes back to the Pentateuch, just like they did—they cited Deuteronomy 25. Jesus cites the book of Exodus 3, the story of the burning bush, where God appears to the Moses and says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” And so what Jesus says to them is….you might think, “What does that have to do with the resurrection?” Well, He’s refuting the Saduccees’ idea that at death we cease to exist, that that’s the end of our existence, by pointing out the fact that when God appeared to Moses (in Exodus 3), He referred to Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob...even though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been dead for a long time before Moses came onto the scene—for centuries, right? And yet God refers to them in the present tense, as being their God.
So what Jesus is saying here is, the reason God says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” is because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still alive. They’re alive to God. They might have died, their souls might have been separated from their bodies, but they continued to live to God through the immortality of their soul. And, He also—He doesn’t go on to say this but—the Jewish belief would be, that at the resurrection, all of the saints of the Old Testament—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, whoever—would have their souls and their bodies reunited to live forever in the New Creation, in the world to come, in this new Heavens and this new Earth. And that’s why the scribes are astounded, because they never thought about that passage in Exodus 3 that way, and Jesus takes a text from their Scriptures and uses it to prove that the soul does continue on after death.
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