In 2004, when I was a student at the Ambassador Bible Center, a fellow student and I co-wrote (I did most of the writing) a skit that dramatized Luke 20:27-40 and turned into a moderate farce about Bible re-enactors. It remains one of my most humorous and light works in what is a decidedly dark body of work, filled with witty and ironic inside jokes about Homestar Runner, and the skit was even put on a dvd showcasing the amazing acting talents of my fellow classmates who charitably agreed to spoof themselves in front of a large audience.
Despite the fact that I have turned this particular passage of scripture into a spoof before, it a passage of deep meaning, and today I would like to discuss its meaning in greater detail. After all, this passage shows the attempted trap of the Sadducees against Christ because of their denial of the resurrection, and it has major implications on eternal life and how it is to be lived that are especially important in dealing with certain heresies (like Mormonism). Additionally, it is also very notable for showing how God views time, and the relationship between history and prophecy, a subject of considerable interest to me as a biblical historian. With that said, therefore, let us tackle this immensely intriguing passage in Luke 20:27-40.
Luke 20:27-40 reads as follows: “Then some of the Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection, came to Him and asked Him, saying: “Teacher, Moses wrote to us that if a man’s bother dies, having a wife, and he dies without children, his brother should take his wife and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. And the first took a wife, and died without children. Now the second took her as wife, and he died childless. Then the third took her, and in like manner the seven also; and they left no children, and died. Last of all the woman died also. Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife does she become? For all seven had her as wife.” Jesus answered and said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection of the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; nor can they die anymore, for they are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But even Moses showed in the burning bush passage that the dead are raised, when he called the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him.” Then some of the scribes answered and said, “Teacher, You have spoken well.” But after that they dared not question Him anymore.”
What is this passage really about? To understand it we must understand a little bit about the Sadducees. Little is known about them because they were a priestly aristocracy that denied the resurrection, only believed in the inspiration of the Torah (they denied the validity of the Prophets and Writings), and because they were wiped out when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans. Most of the Sadducees died then, the remainder lost legitimacy because their base for power was (so far permanently) broken. One could be a Pharisee and be a (particularly “conservative”) Christian, but one could not be a Sadducee and be a Christian because of the importance of the resurrection as the sine qua non and raison d’etre of Christianity.
Since the Sadducees denied the standing of the books of the Hebrew scriptures outside of the law, the challenge in engaging them in a doctrinal dispute was finding the right reference within the Law itself. After all, one can only engage someone else in a discussion if there is common ground on which to discuss. Whatever the gulfs of disagreement, so long as there are common premises (or, alternatively, if one can argue one’s point from the premises of the other position, even if they are not held in common; see Jude :9, 14), then there can be discussion. Here in this passage we see Jesus speak about the resurrection by using Exodus, part of the Torah.
In doing so, Jesus reveals a profound truth, that God considers Himself presently (and considered Himself in the time of Moses) to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even though those three believers are currently in the grave awaiting the resurrection of the just (see Hebrews 11:39-40). Because their resurrection is already assured, they are counted as being alive even as they sleep because they will enter into eternal life. For God, what will be is counted as if it already is, and that is what Jesus’ use of Exodus 3:1-6 tells us. It tells us that when those who are converted and believe die, they are counted by God as alive because they will certainly live for all time with Him. Let that understanding comfort those of us who mourn for those who sleep.
Let us also comment on an additional useful aspect of this discussion. Today there is a heretical group called the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints (popularly called the Mormons). Among their many mysterious beliefs is the practice of marrying for time and eternity in the (mistaken) belief that marriage will continue on into eternal life, and that husbands will continue to be patriarchs with wives and children whom they will rule over for all eternity. Jesus Christ specifically rejects that view by saying that those who are counted worthy of reaching eternal life will no longer marry or be given in marriage. They will be like angels, without sex or sexual union, and will be counted as the children of God. Part of the reason that the just of the first resurrection will not marry nor given in marriage is that there will be no childbirth among spiritual beings. Those who enter into eternal life at the resurrection of the just will attend the wedding supper between Christ and the Church, and that is that.
Let us also comment that the misunderstanding of the Sadducees concerning the resurrection is the same as the misunderstanding of the Mormons. If your concern is about your own power in this life, and projecting that power into eternal life for all time, you fail to understand the purpose of the Kingdom of heaven. God’s kingdom is not to continue the base and immoral systems of domination and control that mar this life, but to show rewards based on spiritual growth and righteous living. There will probably be many poor and lonely widows who rule over whole nations and provinces in God’s kingdom, and many lordly and mighty men who ruled over institutions and churches and nations in this wicked world who, if they are lucky enough to even enter into the Kingdom of God will be lucky to rule an apartment complex or campground. If they are lucky enough to enter at all.
Therefore, let us in closing note that Christ’s genius in answering these questions consisted in a few qualities. For one, he showed us for all time (refuting in advance the view of the Mormons) that there will be an entirely different manner of living in eternal life from the way we live and behave in this present world. For another, he managed to show the truth of resurrection from the Law, showing it in the omniscience of God concerning those who have died and will certainly be raised again into His kingdom being counted already as alive and as witnesses to our life, even as they lie asleep in the ground (see Hebrews 12:1-2). This passage also gives us some understanding of how to engage people in theological debate by appealing to common ground to show truth not recognized by the parties with whom we are in dispute. There is much we can learn from this passage about the God of living. Let us therefore do so.