In 1959, atheist Philosopher Bertrand Russell (author of Why I Am Not a Christian) was asked what advice he would give to those living one hundred years from then. Here is what he said:
I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.
The moral thing I should wish to say [is that] love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.
At a surface level, that is good advice. Being tolerant is wise and adhering to facts is important for sound living. The majority of the comments I have read on the Web laud it as sound and brilliant advice to which we should all pay heed.
But if you look below the surface, this advice is impotent, unless you know the Scriptures and the power of God. Since Russell was an atheist, he rejected God’s revealed facts and God’s revealed definition of love. He could only allow for a certain kind of facts, and a self-defined kind of love.
Russell was an extremely immoral man who married four times and divorced thrice. All of those divorces involved his infidelity. His first marriage ended because, a few years into it, while he was out cycling, he realised he did not love his wife. He then engaged in several sexual affairs and would do so for most of the rest of his life. It is hard to take him seriously when he gives advice about love.
As I watched a couple of his interviews, I observed what appeared to be a sullen sadness. But I was not surprised.
In one interview, he was asked whether he held any belief in an afterlife. He believed that such talk was nonsense because there was no proof for it. No wonder he seemed so sad! For if you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God, you will not believe in a resurrection and therefore will have no hope. You will have no hope for justice or for any real meaning in this life. All you will have, like Russell, is a quest for sexual and other sensational pleasures. So sad, you see?
I don’t know about the sexual morality of the Sadducees but, from this encounter with Jesus, we can conclude that they lived only for what could be seen. Their minds were made up. They rejected the biblical teaching of the immortality of the soul and the biblical teaching concerning the resurrection. They lived ignorant of the Scriptures and of the power of God. How sad. Do you see that? We need to see it.
If our only hope is in this life then, as Paul said, we are most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19). But thanks be to God for his gospel! The good news of what God has done for believing sinners in Jesus Christ is that there is life beyond death. The gospel is secured by the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. His resurrection assures the resurrection of everyone who has repented and trusted in Jesus alone for forgiveness of their sins. His resurrection assures the believer’s reconciliation with God, which results in an unending relationship with the triune God. Jesus’ resurrection means that how we live now, and what we believe now, will matter when we die.
In this study, we will examine this truth from this text under two main headings.
A Cynical Question
The story begins with a cynical question:
And Sadducees came to him, 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 and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”
Perhaps very shortly after the group of Herodians and Pharisees slunk away, muttering though marvelling, another group from the Sanhedrin took their place, seeking to humiliate and destroy of Jesus. These were the Sadducees.
Who Were the Sadducees?
We don’t have a lot of information about the Sadducees but we have enough to paint a helpful picture of the scene before us.
Their origin is uncertain, but we know that they were an aristocratic and wealthy sect who were predominate in the Sanhedrin.
It was from the Sadducees that the majority of the high priests arose in second temple Judaism. From about 30–70 BC, twenty of the 28 high priests were Sadducees.
Sadducees were particularly concerned with matters of the temple and it was their stranglehold on things there from which much of their wealth arose. When Jesus cleaned out the temple (twice, mind you), it would have put him at the centre of their hostile radar. He needed to go.
What Did the Sadducees Believe?
The Sadducees viewed only the Torah (our Pentateuch) as inspired. Any teaching from other portions of what we call the Old Testament held no authority for them. They also rejected the oral traditions promulgated by the Pharisees.
We also know that they rejected the doctrine of the resurrection (v. 18) the existence of angels and demons (Acts 23:8). They were Bertrand Russell in high priestly garb. They did not know the Scripture or the power of God. They were the worst kind of people to be shepherding God’s people. Sadly, Sadducees still stand in pulpits today.
A Truly Dumb Question
The kind of question posed by the Sadducees is summed up by the Latin term reductio ad absurdum, which means “reduction to absurdity.” This form of argument attempts to show that a belief is ridiculous or absurd if followed to its logical conclusion.
What Was Their Motive?
I can only guess (but I think it’s a good guess): The Sadducees wanted to humiliate Jesus in the eyes of the multitudes who were coming to view him as Messiah. Whereas the previous scene was a political ploy aimed at Jesus’ destruction, this was a theological attempt to embarrass him thereby diminishing his popularity.
The question perhaps arose from the apocryphal book of Tobit in which a woman marries seven brothers, as here. Each died on the wedding night, being strangled to death by a demon.
The question is grounded in a law found in the Pentateuch, the very section this group of religious leaders affirmed.
Deuteronomy 25:5–10 instructs concerning the Levirate law. To assure a progeny and to protect the land inheritance of a family, if a man died without male offspring, his brother would marry her to raise up offspring in his brother’s place (see Genesis 38:6ff).
Though the Sadducees held to this law, they put a ridiculous twist to it. They intended to make folly of the doctrine of the resurrection; a doctrine that they obviously had concluded Jesus believed. After all, as Mark has recorded, Jesus had already raised people from the dead (5:35–43). Perhaps even more significantly, on three occasions he had predicted his own resurrection (8:31; 9:30–31; 10:33–34). Is it possible that some of the disciples had let it out that Jesus had made such a prediction? Perhaps, and if so, then certainly the Sadducees, as part of the Sanhedrin, would have been aware of this.
Nevertheless, the Sadducees aimed to mock the doctrine of the resurrection with this argumentum absurdum. “The Sadducees were attempting, in this instance, to make spiritual truth look ridiculous by interpreting it with the grossest of literalism. By doing this, they hoped that the whole concept of the resurrection would be laughed out of court” (Cole). Witherington adds, “Apparently they thought it was impossible to believe in a notion like resurrection that led to the ridiculous situation of a woman having to choose between seven husbands!”
They asked, “In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as a wife” (v. 23). I can almost hear them with their elitist, snobbish chuckle as they thought to themselves, “Let’s see how this ‘Teacher’ handles this one!” They would soon see—and they wouldn’t be laughing any longer.
They thought that the resurrection was nonsense and they saw this example as an illustration of why it could not be true. After all, since God gave the law of marriage, and since God established this levirate law, then God would be creating his own chaos if the resurrection were true. Or so they thought.
Have you ever been in a situation where someone thought they won the argument but were in fact bereft of the truth? Did you show them the evidence? This is what was taking place in this scene.
Many years ago, while I was pastoring in Australia, a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on my front door. As I engaged with them, I spoke about Jesus being God. They replied, citing John 1:1, that Jesus is, in fact, a god, but not God himself. They assured me that that is what the Greek text actually says.
I walked over to my bookshelf and pulled down a Greek New Testament. Giving it to them, I asked them to show me from the Greek text that “a god” is the correct translation. They stared at me—and each other—blankly.
We had better be sure of the source of our beliefs. Be sure that your facts are founded in God’s authoritative truth.
Beware: God’s people have throughout history been plagued with religious leaders who claim more than they have a right to. Be careful of equating good actions with true godliness (2 Timothy 3:5) Such false teachers are often very close to a place of worship.
I am not bringing this to your attention to make you cynical, but rather to prepare you so you are not alarmed. The Sadducean spirit continues. Be prepared to stand against it.
Beware of any form of religion that offers you answers only for while you are alive. If it cannot answer ultimate questions about lie after death, then it is vacuous.
A Courageous Answer
In vv. 24-27, we read Jesus’ courageous answer:
Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor 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, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”
Having heard their cynical question Jesus responded with a courageous, clear and confident answer. His response is one we should emulate.
Jesus went for the jugular: “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” Ouch!
The Greek word translated “wrong” is planao. We get our word “planet” from it. It speaks of that which wanders and hence connotes being led astray. It is a word associated with error. The Sadducees were in error. They were greatly mistaken. Jesus told them so. And in case they missed it, he drove it home with, “You are quite wrong” (v. 27). If the sandal fits …!
But where precisely were they in error? In what way had they wandered from the truth? Jesus identifies two areas: exegesis and theology. The two are inseparable. An inability to understand Scripture will yield an inability to know God. How sad, you see? Their name says it all.
The Sadducees were erroneous when it came to what resurrection life looks like. They assumed that the Bible taught an unbroken continuity of resurrection life with the way life is before death, including the state of marriage.
Now, some do teach that marriage will transcend the grave. They think that what Jesus is saying is that, in the resurrected state, no new marriages will come into being. I don’t think so. I don’t believe there is any indication that marriage will survive the grave, for at least three reasons.
First, marriage is designed for procreation and since there is no death in the resurrected state, marriage will not be necessary. Second, marriage pictures the ultimate relationship between Christ and his bride, the church. Since that purpose has been fulfilled, it seems highly unlikely that it will continue after death. Third, Jesus taught clearly that marriage was until death. That would seem to end the argument right there.
The Old Testament and the Resurrection
Though the Bible does not provide us with a lot of information about life in the resurrected body, it does provide us with enough revelation to believe in it. And those living under the old covenant were privy to such revelation. Consider some evidence of the resurrection from the Old Testament.
Genesis 5:24 says of Enoch that he “walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” Even if there is no direct reference to a resurrection here, it certainly implies from life to life. It seems to suggest a continuation of life, even if not in a resurrected body.
Abraham displayed belief in a resurrection when he took Isaac to sacrifice him. Though he knew what he was about to do, he displayed confidence that he and Isaac would both return to his servants (Genesis 22:5). As Hughes comments, “This implies belief in the resuscitating, if not resurrection, power of God.”
Ezekiel 37:3–6 portrays, in visionary fashion, the reality of resurrection. Ezekiel prophesied to dead bones and they came to life. Job knew that, even after death, he would see God in the flesh (Job 19:26). Isaiah wrote, “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” (Isaiah 26:19). Daniel prophesied a resurrection, either to everlasting life or to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2). The psalmist was confident that God would receive him in glory (Psalm 73:23–24).
But what did Jesus that resurrected saints will be “like the angels in heaven”? Perhaps a couple of things.
First, just as angels do not procreate, neither will those in resurrected bodies. Jesus knew the Sadducees rejected belief in angels but that didn’t intimidate him from stating the facts about them. He lived by the courage of his convictions. We should, too. Don’t be silent about the facts, even when people reject those facts—facts like the gospel.
Second, Jesus was informing these Sadducees that things would be very different for the believer upon death. He was not saying that we will become angels; rather, he was saying that our existence will be very different, as will our occupation. Like the angels, we will be occupied primarily with our relationship with God.
As France puts it, “Jesus offers in v. 25 a view of eternal life in which marriage is apparently irrelevant.”
Jesus’ admonition about them not knowing the Scriptures included their major error in rejecting the other thirty-four books of the Old Testament. When you read the Scriptures as a whole, it is clear that the life we live now is different than much of the life we will live after we are resurrected. Most significantly, it will be so wrapped up in loving, and worshipfully serving God that such ridiculous questions like the one put forth by the Sadducees will be unthinkable.
Again, let us learn that if we do not embrace all of Scripture, we will be deficient in our faith and knowledge. The word of God is not to be diced and sliced according to our whims, likes and dislikes. We do not sit in judgement upon God’s word; his word sits in judgement over us. An elitist attitude and spiritual reality are mutually exclusive.
The real rub here was their ignorance of the power of God. If they had any concept of the miraculous power of God (miraculous power), they would not have had any problem believing in the resurrection. But if you deny the authority and sufficiency of Scripture—whose author is God—you will, of course, deny his power. You will also deny his faithfulness.
Jesus masterly answered their cynical question, not because it deserved an answer, but because he desired to convict them of their foolish unbelief. I think he also did this, perhaps primarily, because Jesus desired to teach his disciples a vital principle of biblical interpretation.
Jesus added, “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (vv. 26–27).
Jesus went to a portion of Scripture that fell within their accepted canon: Exodus 3. Since copies of Scripture were not freely available, and since they were not, in any case, divided into chapters and verses, he referred simply to “the passage about the bush.” Such a working knowledge of the Scripture should typify all Christians.
Jesus pointed out that, when Yahweh revealed himself to Moses, he did so with the words, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Why is that significant? Let’s first refresh our memories about what was taking place here.
God confronted Moses, getting his attention by a burning-but-not-consumed bush. God revealed himself as the “I AM.” But he fleshed it out by saying that he was “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” Three times God would so identify himself in that chapter (vv. 6, 15, 16). This was his covenant name. The encounter was heavy on God’s covenant relationship with his people.
God spoke of his being the present God of these men: The “I AM” language highlights that God was, is, and will always be their God. This implies that they were alive. This is not merely a historic reference. If God made a covenant with his people through these patriarchs, which he did, he was still keeping covenant with them—because they were living!
But, even here we need to think carefully. They were alive because God is alive. They were alive because the God who lives is a covenant keeping God. God keeps his covenant. For God to keep his covenant with his people, they need to be alive. And this text makes it clear that they are! “It is absurd to assert that God pledges himself to a dead person unless this implies that the person is raised to life” (Schweizer).
Ferguson helpfully summarises: “God’s covenant promise to save his people would not be of any significance if it were overcome and shattered by death. It would be a tawdry salvation which lasted only for this life.” Therefore Jesus could say, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” There must be a resurrection. Brilliant! The Scriptures reveal this and God’s power assures this.
“You are quite wrong” (v. 27b) must have stung their elitist, smug pride. These men, who prided themselves on being the religious elite, were being corrected by this young rabbi from little, despised Nazareth. As Witherington notes,
Underling the entire discussion is a profound belief in the power of God, and God’s ability to even overcome death or summon the dead back to life. Jesus in essence accuses the Sadducees not just of bad exegesis, but of a failure of nerve, a failure to believe in a God whose yes to life is louder than Death’s no and whose power is great enough to create something out of nothing.
As we come to apply our study, let me say that a major aim has been for us to leave knowing the Scriptures and the power of God, not in a merely vague or merely intellectual way, but rather in an empowering way—enabling us to face life with hope of eternal purpose and reward; equipping us, in the words of Jesus, to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. This kingdom has come and will one day be fully realised after the resurrection.
We need to know the Scriptures and let them fuel our passionate faith in the power of our faithful God to do all he has promised. Listen to Wessel:
The fact that the phrase “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” carried with it the idea of the covenant God, the God whose promises can be relied on, underscores the basic thrust of Jesus’ argument—viz., the faithfulness of God.
Our God is faithful. Live with this courage of conviction.
This passage, like all of Scripture, is relevant. In what way does it apply to you and me? Let me suggest a few things.
First, like Jesus, those who follow him will often be assaulted by the world. We need to expect to take a punch—perhaps a lot of punches. Jesus faced wave upon wave of opposition and hostile attack. His enemies relentlessly attempted to derail him and to set him up in order to destroy him. Like the slithering serpent in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the devil relentlessly pursued Jesus from his first day on earth until his last breath before death. But all to no avail. Praise God for this.
These pericopes reveal that Jesus could take a punch. He just kept persevering. He kept pursuing the kingdom of God and his righteousness. He kept obeying the will of his heavenly Father. And he expects the same of us.
As long as we live in this fallen world, we will be confronted with those who want us to fall. We must remember that our ultimate enemies are not flesh and blood; they are pawns in far more sinister hands.
Jesus said that, if the world hated him, we should not be surprised when it hates we who follow him. As the New Testament and subsequent history demonstrates, many of these punches will come from those who profess to love God (John 15:18–20; John 16:2; 2 Timothy 4:5).
Second, if we will persevere in the midst of getting punched by the world, we too need to know the Scriptures and the power of God. As the disciples witnessed these attacks against Jesus, they were being provided with an example of how to endure to the end.
Because Jesus knew the Scriptures and the power of God, he came away as the victor. So will we. We need to know all the Scripture. And we need to know it well. What are you doing to equip yourself with God’s word? What are you doing to equip your family with God’s word? Is your family able to stand against the Sadducees they will encounter?
The statistics regarding the apostasy of young adults who were once raised in evangelical homes are frightening. What is the real issue? You can’t depart from that which you never possessed. That, in my view, is the underlying problem.
Children need to be familiarised with the Scriptures. But it is equally important that they be taught the power of God. Have the Scriptures led them to know and to believe the power of the living God? Have our children a claim on the covenant love of God? This is the fundamental issue in this passage.
Third, the Scriptures point us to the power of God, which provide us with all we need for the hope of the resurrection. The Lord Jesus Christ proclaimed, as recorded in Scripture, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). This is in the Scripture.
The New Testament speaks of the promised resurrection. Outside of the Gospels (where Jesus spoke of it), the resurrection is found at least 25 more times.
My point is that the resurrection of the Christian is taught in Scripture and it is assured by the sovereign power of God. In fact, without the resurrection, there is no good news. For if Jesus did not rise from the dead then Christians are of all men to be the most pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19). We would have no real reason to be glad but every reason to be sad, you see?
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20). Therefore we should be glad. By the power of God, he is able to raise our mortal bodies. As Paul wrote, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). This is at the heart of the good news of the gospel.
Fourth, there is a place for being dogmatic: “You are wrong” and “you are quite wrong.” Those words must have stung the Sadducees. The sting of truth is necessary to arouse those in spiritual danger.
There are some things which you can afford to be wrong about. But there are some things you cannot afford to be wrong about—like, who God is, what he requires, and what he alone can do.
This encounter is sad because, in rejecting Jesus, the Sadducees demonstrated that, though religious, they knew neither knew Scripture nor the power of God. In rejecting Jesus, they rejected their only hope to be saved from their sins. That is a terribly sad way to live, and an even more terribly sad way to die.
Non-Christian, Bertrand Russell, in a certain sense, gave good advice. But we need something far better than good advice. We need good news. We need the good news that, though we will face the Judge of all the earth one day, we can do so, not with terror and sadness, but with assurance and gladness.
I am sure the Sadducees gave lots of good advice in their day. But because they rejected the good news from God’s King about his kingdom, they died without hope. Don’t follow in their foolish steps. Repent and believe the Lord Jesus Christ.