“Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him and questioned Him: “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaves his wife behind, and leaves no child, his brother should take the wife and produce offspring for his brother. There were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and dying, left no offspring. The second also took her, and he died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. So the seven left no offspring. Last of all, the woman died too. In the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be, since the seven had married her? ” Jesus told them, “Are you not deceived because 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. Now concerning the dead being raised — haven’t you read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him: 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 badly deceived.”” (Mark 12:18-27 HCSB)
Do you like surprises? Not me. I’m not crazy about getting surprised or caught off guard by something someone says or does. Now, that’s not to say that I dislike receiving gifts. I just don’t like the box to pop open and scare me. I guess that’s really the issue, being scared or afraid of something. When it comes down to it, death is probably man’s greatest fear and, for many, it may come as the biggest surprise of all. The surprise is not just when death may come or how it may come but what comes after it. What happens to us after we die? That question is as old as human existence and, some think, just as mysterious.
This week, we come face-to-face with this question of what happens after we die and is there life after death and Jesus doesn’t sidestep the question or the fear it may cause to rise up in the pit of our stomach. In fact, He gives us an answer and it contains – wait for it – a bit of a surprise.
We are in the midst of a section where Mark lines up issue after issue and conflict after conflict as Jewish leaders confront and oppose Jesus, His teaching and His authority. As you’ll recall, Jesus has been telling those who’ve been healed and had evil spirits driven out to keep the details to themselves. They were tasked with not telling anyone. This seems to have been designed to keep those opposed to Jesus’ teaching and authority, the Chief Priests, scribes and Jewish religious leadership, at bay. You can’t develop a case against Jesus if you can’t pull together witnesses to testify against Him before the Sanhedrin.
But now, Jesus’ time has come. He didn’t silence Bartimaeus, the blind man that He healed on His way through Jericho to Jerusalem. Word of Jesus’ presence and Bartimaeus’ healing spread quickly among the Passover pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem for the celebration as they raised the cries of Hosanna and praised God for keeping His promises. And just as word spread quickly among the pilgrims of what Jesus had done, it also spread quickly among the Jewish religious leaders and they vowed to stop Him, to silence the Son of Man.
Last week, we heard the Pharisees and Herodians confront Him and challenge Him with a question intended to discredit Him before the crowds or entrap Him against the Romans: Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? His response sets you back on your heels and makes you asses your commitment to God: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Whose inscription does your life bear? Caesar’s or God’s?
This week, Jesus is confronted by a group that is mentioned by Mark only in these verses, the Sadducees. The Pharisees are mentioned over one hundred times in the New Testament and the Sadducees are mentioned only fourteen times. We know very little about them and their beliefs mostly because no documents or records containing them have ever been found. Most of what we know comes from the records of those who opposed them, the references we find in the Gospels, and a few historical references by Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century. We know they considered the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, to be the only books that constitute God’s Word and, thus, authoritative. And we know they rejected belief in the resurrection. Both of those beliefs are readily seen in our focal passage.
The challenge posed to Jesus is based on levirate law and Deut. 25:5-6. This passage simply states that it is the brother’s duty to marry his sister-in-law and the first son born to them will carry on the deceased brother’s name and land inheritance. The Latin term, levir, means brother-in-law and the existence of levirate law in human culture and communities predates the Mosaic law. So, the Sadducees present a story to Jesus that involves a “reductio ad absurdum” argument, or one that is so outrageous that the resulting logical consequence is absurd or contradictory. Simply put, a man marries and then dies without children. According to levirate law, his brother must marry the widow and provide an heir for his dead brother’s estate. However, that brother also dies and begins a line of progression through all seven brothers who marry her and die without leaving an heir. Their conclusion, whose wife will she be in this “supposed” resurrection you believe in?
To be honest, we immediately discount the argument because it doesn’t fit our cultural view of marriage, death and brother to brother or brother to sister-in-law expectations and responsibilities. But this was not just common, it was expected in most ancient cultures and this Jewish culture. Moses acknowledges this when the prevailing levirate law is referenced and clarified in the Deuteronomy 25 passage. Providing an heir would maintain the dead brother’s claim on his portion of the promised land inheritance. In many ways, our culture has lost this tie to family and their land. We can go back several generations and see it among our pioneering forefathers, but our modern culture has lost much of this. We tend to live individualistic lives that have little connection to our past or a particular place. I also think modern families bear the brunt of this loss. Many children question their identity and their place in this world and our culture is reaping the results of what we’ve sown.
We’ve heard their argument but how will Jesus respond? He replies, “Are you not deceived because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God?” The idea of being deceived here means that they have lost their way, they’ve wandered off the path and don’t even realize it. How? Jesus says that they don’t know scripture as well as they think they do. They claim to believe only the Torah is authoritative for their beliefs, so these guys are the REAL conservatives of their day. In fact, we might just label them the Torah only ultra-conservatives. But Jesus says they don’t know scripture as well as they think they do. And then, He proves it.
He gives them a twofold answer, 1) they misunderstand life in the resurrection and 2) they underestimate the power of God.
First, they misunderstand resurrection life. Resurrection life is not the same as life like we know it. There is no marrying or being given in marriage – traditional male and female roles. The purpose of marriage is, essentially, the continuation of human existence through procreation. We have children to perpetuate the human race because we are mortal and we will all eventually die. Just think, in these last two stories we’ve dealt with taxes and death – the two things in life that we feel are certain. But that’s not the case in the resurrection, marriage would be superfluous. Completely unnecessary and, perhaps, distracting for the purpose of eternal life.
What is the purpose of eternal life? We are given a glimpse, but not a guidebook. We will be “like” the angels but not angels. We know that man’s greatest purpose is to love God above all else in life. I believe that purpose applies to this life as well as the next. We will be eternal beings, like the angels, and be eternally loving Him in all of the ways that can possibly be lived out. But our eternal life will not be defined or limited by current gender roles. Why do I say that? Because Jesus specifically mentions there will be neither marrying (a male role in Jewish society) or being given in marriage (a female role in Jewish society).
While gender and the roles given to each gender are needed in this world, they are not needed in the next. There will be no marriage or the relations that define them, in heaven. Will we know one another? Absolutely. Will we be subjected or subservient to one another in those relationships? No, we will be subject and subservient to God alone. Paul even tells us that the church, all of God’s people – male and female – will be subject to Christ as the bride is to the groom (see Eph. 5:22-33). We will all give ourselves over to Him, not to one another.
For some of you, that may be a relief. But for others, it may come as a shock and cause you to question my words. However, I would encourage you to go read Jesus’ words, again. We won’t be living as married couples in the resurrection life. It is unnecessary and would limit our ability to love Him and serve Him as He deserves. We won’t be angels, but we will be like the angels. Eternal beings who live to be in love with and in service to our God and King.
Next, Jesus addresses their misunderstanding and lack of knowledge regarding the Scriptures. He tells them, “Regarding the resurrection, haven’t you read in the book of Moses, the passage about the burning bush? How God spoke to Moses: “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 badly deceived.”” I’ve read several commentaries that try to emphasize the “present tense” of this verb (I am) and I’ve heard several sermons that do the same. But that’s not the point, here. Because the verb tense isn’t stated but is implied in the original language and only supplied by the translator for convenience. The point is not about verb tense, it is about the power and the character of God!
What do I mean by the power and the character of God? The point that God is making to Moses at the burning bush is that He has established a covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He made a covenant promise to them and He has the power and the intent to keep it. He will not abandon them and cease being their God in the midst of the greatest threat to His covenant’s fulfillment, their deaths. God’s character will not allow Him to abandon them and His power is capable of overcoming their greatest foe, death. He is not God of the dead, but of the living! You think you know and understand God, but you are badly deceived.
So, God’s promises and covenants to us are not impacted by our death. We may not be able to do anything further, but He is quite capable of finishing what He started. As Paul tells the Philippian Christians, “I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 HCSB) That promise extends beyond death, because the “day of Christ Jesus” is the final day of life on this earth, the day of judgment. These Philippians, and even Paul himself, would not live to see that day. But “He who started this work in you, will carry it on to completion” until that day. God will FINISH what He has begun in them and He WILL fulfill His promises and covenants with us. Death holds no power over God, and Jesus is going to prove this to these men in just a few short days.
So, the eternal life that God promises may not be what you expected but I can assure you it will be much, much better than you’ve hoped. In fact, “What eye did not see and ear did not hear, and what never entered the human mind — God prepared this for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9 HCSB) We’ve never experienced and can’t even begin to imagine what God has prepared for those who love Him.
Don’t be deceived by what the world says about life, about death and certainly not about heaven and hell. In fact, be careful even about those who claim to know. Not long ago, there was the story of a Baptist pastor who was involved in a car crash and claims to have spent 90 minutes in heaven. His experience is only that, an experience and it holds no authority for any believer. Let me state this unequivocally, authority for our beliefs and actions must NEVER be based upon someone’s experience. The only authority for faith and action in a Christian’s life is the Word of God as revealed to us by the Holy Spirit (see John 16:12-15; 1 Cor. 2:9-16).
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 HCSB)
Are you surprised by Jesus words? For those of you who are married, it doesn’t say you won’t love your earthly spouse in heaven, just that you won’t be married to each other nor love one another physically. In truth, you will actually love each other much more deeply because you will begin to love each other in the same way you are loved by God. Simply put, heaven will be nothing like you expected but it will be so much more than you ever dreamed or hoped. Don’t take my word for it, just take God at His Word.
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