“Jesus spoke to them, ‘Isn’t this the reason why you’re mistaken: you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised – haven’t you read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God said to him: I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead but of the living. You are badly mistaken.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever been in a fight with another person? I’m not talking about a rhetorical squabble, but an honest-to-goodness physical altercation. Thankfully, I haven’t. I’m not looking for that either. As a general rule, I try and avoid getting hit as often as I can. But if you were to be in a fight, it would be a whole lot easier if your opponent was made out of straw. A strawman, you see, can’t hit back. Well, what applies to our bodies, applies to our words as well here. Often when someone is going to get into a rhetorical battle with an ideological opponent, rather than engaging that opponent directly, he will create a ridiculously weak strawman of his opponent and proceed to demolish it. Then, when the dust settles, he will plant a rhetorical foot on the vanquished foe’s back and declare victory. And while this scene may be convincing to some, the trouble is, the actual opponent is not only still standing, but has done the same thing. Both parties are declaring unequivocal victory over the other without ever having actually engaged with each others’ arguments. Well, when someone accustomed to taking down strawman opponents comes face to face with an actual opponent who is well-prepared for the confrontation the outcome generally isn’t pretty. When a group of Sadducees got their turn to try and embarrass Jesus with a trick question, this is exactly what happened.
In the first two days of this week we watched Jesus expertly disarm a trap set for Him by the Pharisees and Herodians, two of the major political/religious factions of the Jews. They asked Him a question about taxes which put Him – or so they thought – in an impossible position. Jesus not only avoided the trap entirely, He did so in a way that left them utterly shocked. He toed the line He needed to toe for the sake of the Roman sympathizers by asserting that people should indeed pay their taxes, but even as He did so, He thrilled the anti-Roman masses by asserting that Rome’s authority was limited relative to God’s. It was the perfect answer.
Because this challenge was likely the beginning of a carefully coordinated attack on Jesus by the chief priests, this wasn’t the only wave of the challenge. There were more units lined up to take their shot if their compatriots before them failed. Up next were the Sadducees. This was yet another political/religious faction. The Sadducees were the cultural elite of the Jews. Their members tended to come from the best and the brightest. They were religious because there was no such thing as a non-religious Jew. Their very cultural identity defined them in religious terms. But they weren’t as concerned with the ins and outs of the religion so much as maintaining their social and political connections to be able to continue living the luxurious lifestyle their wealth allowed. They would have been like the country club Christians of a generation ago: wealthy folks living lives separated off from the rest of the world who didn’t really care all that much about church, but went because of the social merits their membership afforded them. Their biggest theological distinction was their rejection of the notion of a resurrection. They held this position, they said, because they only accepted the books of Moses as real Scripture and nowhere in those books was there any mention of a resurrection. No resurrection meant this life was all there was. That assumption justified their efforts to live as comfortably as they could in this life. They wouldn’t have played very nice with either the Pharisees or the Herodians, but here they were part of a uniting of enemies against a common foe, so they joined the fray.
When you look at the question they posed to Jesus, though, I can’t help wondering whether or not this was their original plan. The question comes off as so ridiculous and Jesus’ takedown of their position is so epic, you have to at least consider the notion that this was Plan B. Perhaps they were so shocked at Jesus’ epic destruction of the trap laid by the Pharisees and Herodians that they threw whatever were their original plans out the window, called an audible, and made something up on the spot. Maybe not, but that would at least give them a little bit of credit. Otherwise, the way this went down, you wonder a bit why they even bothered trying.
Their question to Jesus was rooted in justifying their objection to the idea of a resurrection. Why they thought this was going to help them I’m really not sure. Maybe my whole thinking on this line of questioning being part of a coordinated attack by the religious elite is off-base. In any event, they posed to Jesus an impossible, hypothetical situation about a woman who marries a man but is widowed before she has any kids. Fortunately, the man has a brother who takes her on as a levirate wife (see Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Unfortunately, he dies before she can have a child too. Have no fear, though, there is another brother. There are actually seven brothers in total. But each one manages to die before leaving her with any children. Other than this woman being perhaps the most unlucky woman in the world, can you picture this crazy scenario in your mind? After building this silly structure, the Sadducees finally laid their challenge over the top of it: When the resurrection comes, whose wife will she be?
I’d like to think there was a bit of a murmur of laughter in the crowd at the insane nature of this question before Jesus sighed with strained patience and gave His response, but they may have been too busy trying to keep up with the hypothetical to react just yet. Then Jesus responded and blew their entire framework to bits. Jesus completely turned the tables on them and insulted them in the process. He wound up humiliating them which, no doubt, put them even more firmly in the camp of the other religious leaders in wanting to get rid of Him.
Jesus’ response to them came in three parts. Let’s deal with the middle part first and then the other two in just a second. In the middle of His response, Jesus said there will not be marriage in the resurrection. This is a bit of a head-scratcher at first glance. It also rips the rug out from under the comfort often given to grieving widows and widowers that they can look forward to an eternity of happy marriage together in the afterlife. This is one of those lines to which we need to pay attention because Jesus said it, but on which we dare not build much theological structure because it’s the only statement to this effect that we have in the Scriptures. We can guess at what Jesus meant, but we can’t do much more than that so we shouldn’t root any doctrines in it.
I think the basic idea here is just as it sounds. Marriage won’t be around anymore in the kingdom of God. We won’t need it. There won’t be any more need for procreation as God’s creation project will be finally and fully completed. We won’t need the special intimacy because we will have a perfect intimacy with God as well as our brothers and sisters and mothers and children in Christ. We won’t need to offer the world any more pictures of the relationship between Christ and the church because everyone will already understand and live in that perfectly. All of the needs marriage now fulfills will be met entirely and so it won’t be necessary any longer. Now, I’ll admit that the idea of not being married at any point in the future doesn’t really sit very well with me because I rather enjoy being married, so this teaching doesn’t thrill me. But I trust that Jesus knows what He’s talking about better than I do, so I’ll go with Him and enjoy what I have to the fullest while I have it trusting that in the kingdom even my relationship with my beautiful bride will be perfected and even better than it is now. What that will look like, I do not know, but God is good and so will it be.
The rest of Jesus’ response was a takedown of the Sadducees entire argument and theological position. He also insulted them. A lot. Publicly. He accused them of not knowing the Scriptures. That was a big deal then. It would have been like saying to an elite, Ivy League-educated Manhattanite in front of a roomful of his peers, “Didn’t you even go to college?” The trouble with the argument of these folks was that they didn’t understand the nature of God, Jesus said. He took them straight to the Scripture they professed to be their primary and singular text to prove it along with the mocking question, “Haven’t you even read the Scripture you profess to follow?”
When God spoke to Moses at the burning bush, He said, ” I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The trick was, those three were long dead by the time God spoke those words. How could He say “I am” their God if they were dead? Wouldn’t the correct grammar then have been “I was” their God? But He is the God of the living, not the dead. If their souls were still alive in spite of their bodies being deceased, then an eventual resurrection only makes sense. We were designed for eternity, not death.
All of this being said, what worth does this text have for us today? Three things, I think. First, When you engage with the Scriptures, do so carefully and without ideological blinders to the extent you are able. When we bring our preconceived assumptions to the text, we are likely to have them fulfilled whether we should or not. Take the text on its own terms so you don’t miss what’s there. Second, we serve a living and powerful God with whom we can look forward to an eternity of intimacy and life. This life is not all there is. There is a resurrection coming for those who are in Christ when we will get bodies fit for eternity. That will be a very good day. Third, don’t try to take Jesus down with strawman arguments. You will lose badly and get embarrassed in the process. If you want to engage and challenge Jesus, that’s fine, but go to Him directly. He can take it. Tomorrow, we’ll look at one more challenge to Jesus and the revelation of the greatest command. See you then.