What’s permanent? At best, I have a couple of decades left to understand what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. Life is brief. What’s beyond?
Nothing, according to some. It’s over when we die. That’s what Sadducees believed back in Jesus’ day. They were aware that others were dying to meet their loved ones in the afterlife, but even in this life relationships are complicated. We lose friends when they break up with us or move away. Even the most treasured and stable relationships end when death takes someone. People remarry. So, what relationships survive into the afterlife?
That’s why the Sadducees invented this yarn to undermine people’s hope of a resurrection after death. And they trotted out this old chestnut to undermine people’s trust in Jesus as a teacher:
Matthew 22:23–33 (my translation, compare NIV)
23 That same day, Sadducees approached him to say there’s no resurrection. 24 “Teacher, Moses said that if someone died without having children, his brother is to marry the woman and raise up offspring for his brother.
25 Among us, there were seven brothers. Since the first married and died without offspring, he left his wife to his brother. 26 The same thing happened to the second, and the third, … the whole seven. 27 Last of all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, whose of the seven will the woman be? For they all had her.”
29 In reply, Jesus said to them, “You are misguided. You don’t know the Scriptures or God’s power. 30 In the resurrection, there’s no marrying or being given in marriage — just like the angels in the heavens.
31 But regarding the resurrection of the dead, haven’t you read how God spoke to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob?’ He is not the God of those who are dead, but of those who are living.”
33 On hearing this, the crowds were astounded at his teaching.
To ground their views in the Torah, they remind Jesus of the law in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. A deceased’s brother had the responsibility of continuing his family line by marrying his widow to give them children. They describe this duty as raising up offspring for his brother, because they don’t believe people are raised up from the dead. In their minds, this law is about raising up future generations, because that’s the only way God’s people will continue to exist.
These Sadducees held power in Jerusalem. The high priests belonged to this sect. Naturally they were males, and you can hear their sexist attitudes. They treat the woman as a possession. Our translations tone it down, but the question is who will own her in the future since all seven had her (τίνος τῶν ἑπτὰ ἔσται γυνή; πάντες γὰρ ἔσχον αὐτήν·).
Jesus’ attitude is so different. He wants to say that marriage is not part of resurrection life, but he uses a clumsy circumlocution that could detract from his point. He says that in the resurrection there’s no marrying (what happened to males in his culture) or being given in marriage (what happened to females in his culture). For Jesus, what happens for the woman is as important as what happens for the man. Jesus’ emphasis on equality is remarkable.
But gender isn’t the only power-play here. The Sadducees addressed Jesus as teacher only to undermine his authority, expecting he won’t have a satisfactory answer for people who’ve lost loved ones. Just like the Pharisees, they’re out to trap him (22:15) and question his authority (21:23).
Why would they try to mislead their Messiah into a trap? Because they’re already off-track, misled. They don’t know the Scriptures that reveal the heavenly sovereign’s interactions with his earthly realm because they don’t know the God of the Scriptures. They don’t know God’s power as the sovereign faithfully persisting with his long-term goal of restoring justice to his earthly realm, ultimately fulfilled in raising the dead (22:29).
Our presuppositions distort how we read Scripture. You can’t use a text about a brother raising up children for his family as a proof-text against God raising up the dead unless you’re already committed to a limited view of God’s power. It suits us to limit God’s power because that enhances our own. It was for the sake of their own power over people that they ruled out God’s power to raise the dead.
At this point of Matthew’s story, that’s the crucial difference between Jesus and the high priests. For them, death is the end. In a few days, they will use their power to put Jesus to death.
If Jesus believed as they did, he should use his power to resist them and prevent his demise. He doesn’t. He believes in the power of God, and he’ll stake his life on it. He won’t fight them to gain the kingship, because he believes in the God who raises the dead.
For Jesus, this confrontation is personal. They’re misguided about the Scriptures because they don’t know the Person revealed in Scripture. They don’t know God as the Sovereign power, even when his anointed is standing before them.
Jesus needs to demonstrate from the Scriptures that they are wrong. He could have chosen something like Isaiah 26:19 from the prophets, or Daniel 12:2 from the writings, but that would only have led to further disputation over how to interpret Scripture because they’re starting with different presuppositions about God.
The Sadducees favoured the Torah (as a kind of canon within an undefined canon), so Jesus chooses a verse from the foundational revelation of who God is: the I AM revelation to Moses at the burning bush. It will take another post to explain how that infers the resurrection.
Just look how Matthew wraps up this story. He started with the Sadducees feigning recognition of Jesus as a teacher (22:24). He ends with the crowds astounded at his teaching (22:33).
If Scripture is the revelation of God and his power with us, the crowds were seeing Scripture come alive in front of them: the revelation of the living God and his power in his anointed.
What’s astounding is how God restores our relationships with him and each other. God doesn’t force himself on us; he gives himself for us. If Jesus is the heavenly sovereign loving his earthly realm, everything depends on God using his power to raise the dead.
Open Matthew 22:23-33.