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23That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him with a question. 24“Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. 25Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. 27Finally, the woman died. 28Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”
29Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31But about the resurrection of the dead— have you not read what God said to you, 32‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
33When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.
In the previous section, the Pharisees and Herodians accosted Jesus with the purpose of entrapping Him by asking Him a question the answer to which was sure to offend someone. Here in this section, the Sadducees confront Him with a question designed to undermine His teachings.
“That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him with a question. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” (vss. 23–28). First note that this confrontation occurred “that same day”: there was no rest for Jesus, even at a time when His heart must surely have been heavy due to His impending suffering.
This time, it’s the Sadducees who confront Him. “Men came from different camps to wage war on Christ” [Calvin, III-29]. The Sadducees were the materialists of that time They accepted the moral teachings of the Scriptures, but rejected the supernatural elements. They did not believe in the miracles of God, nor did they believe in such things as the resurrection of the dead, or angels, or the afterlife. Such a belief system necessarily leads to problems with respect to one’s view concerning the nature of God. If God is righteous and just, and there is only life on earth, then either all God’s justice must be carried out on earth, or God is powerless over the events of men’s lives. Yet, on earth, we often see the wicked prosper, and the good suffer. “The Sadducees restricted the reward of the godly and the due punishment of the wicked to this present life. Even if it had been true that each man is treated equally according to his deserts, it was too outrageous to confine the promises of God to such narrow limits. Experience clearly shows their crass stupidity. Plainly the reward laid up for the good is kept back till a future life, and the penalties of the wicked are not paid off in this life” [Calvin, III-29]. Again, if one holds that there is no life after death, then one must conclude that God is either powerless on earth, or that God does not care to exercise His righteousness or to be just. So we see, belief in the resurrection of the dead, and life after death, is a cornerstone of Judeo-Christian faith. Such a belief is necessarily tied to understanding the true character of God: His righteousness, His holiness, His justice.
The Sadducees approached Jesus calling Him, “Teacher”. However, they had no desire to be taught. Rather, they wished to teach Jesus of their own views. They begin by citing the Biblical teachings concerning the levirate marriage. The levirate marriage was a pre-Mosaic custom that was codified in the Mosaic law. “The law of Moses, in this as in many other matters, recognized existing custom and imposed certain regulations upon them” [Spurgeon, 322]. The custom held that if brothers lived together, and a married brother died, the younger brother was to marry the widow, and carry on the elder brother’s name (see Deut. 25:5-10). Now, this custom may seem a little odd to people in modern, non-agrarian cultures, but in the family structure of that time, it made perfect sense. The custom was a protection for the widow. She had left her family to join another family, and live among the other family. When her husband died, her connection to the family she joined was severely weakened. By marrying a younger brother, her connection to the family would be re-solidified. Contained in the law was a provision that allowed the younger brother to bow out of marrying the widow (see Deut. 25:7), but it was considered a lapse of familial duty for him to do so.
The Sadducees brought up the levirate marriage custom so as to set up (they thought) a contradiction in the Bible. They spoke of a family of seven brothers, who followed the levirate custom down to the seventh brother (though I’m sure the seventh brother had some misgivings, after seeing six of his older brothers die… Could it be her cooking?...). Since Moses codified the levirate custom, the seven marriages of the woman were all right and good. So the Sadducees asked, “Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” To the Sadducees, this was an argument against the resurrection. They felt that life after the resurrection would be chaos, because situations in this life would have made it so. “There never probably will be wanting unreasonable men, who will intrude into things unseen, and make imaginary difficulties their excuse for unbelief… Such a mind will often refuse to look at the overwhelming mass of plain evidence by which Christianity is supported, and will fasten down on some one single difficulty, which it fancies is unanswerable” [Ryle, 289].
Quite possibly, the Sadducees and Pharisees would argue over and over concerning the issue of the resurrection. Most likely, “this was one of the stock stories the Sadducees were in the habit of telling in order to cast ridicule upon the resurrection” [Spurgeon, 323]. Jesus, quite completely and succinctly, put the whole issue to rest: “Jesus replied, ‘You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not the God of the dead but of the living’” (vss. 29–32). According to Jesus, the error of the Sadducees, by disbelieving the resurrection, was rooted in two things: they did not know “the Scriptures”, and they did not know “the power of God”. If they knew and believed “the Scriptures”, they would know that there is a resurrection, and life after death. References to these things are rife, of course, in the New Testament, and in the Old Testament (which is what the Sadducees had), there are numerous references to these things, implicitly and explicitly. For instance, Isaiah prophesied to God’s people: “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead” (Isa. 26:19); and Daniel: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2); and Job: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see Him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25–27); and the Psalmist: “But God will redeem my life from the grave; He will surely take me to Himself” (Ps. 49:15).
The Sadducees erred in another way concerning not “knowing the Scriptures”. They read into the Scriptures something that was not there. They thought that life after the resurrection would continue, in a way, as it is on earth. Jesus corrects this notion: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like angels in heaven” (vs. 30). “Note, it is not strange that carnal minds have very false notions of spiritual and eternal things” [Henry]. When dealing with spiritual and eternal things, we must realize that there are some things that we humans just do not know. There are mysteries which are kept hidden from us. This is one of them. Paul tells us: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell” (II Cor. 12:2–4). The way of life in heaven is kept a mystery to men, purposely by God. We do know, as related here by Jesus, that life will not continue as it is in this fallen world. When we recognize this, we see that the foundation of the Sadducee’s argument is destroyed. “Their supposed argument was based on their own erroneous notions about the unseen world; and when the light of God’s Word was poured upon their seven men of straw, they vanished into thin air” [Spurgeon, 323].
The Sadducees also erred because they did not know “the power of God”. “The ignorance, disbelief, or weak belief, of God’s power, is at the bottom of many errors, particularly theirs who deny the resurrection” [Henry]. The Sadducees disbelief in the resurrection, resulted from their disbelief in the power of God. However, the one who created us, the one who conceived and constructed this vast universe, does have the creative power to raise us from the dead, into the realm of heaven, into those many mansions that have been prepared for us. God did not create us just to have us be destroyed. As Jesus points out, God is the God of the living: “But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (vs. 31–32).