“The God of the Living and the Sons of the Resurrection” (Luke 20:27-40)
In these days of November, as we near the end of the church year, our thoughts turn to the end times, the return of Christ, and, as we just confessed in the Creed, “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Our Scripture readings during these weeks reflect this emphasis. So it is with our lessons today. In particular, I want to direct our attention this morning to the Holy Gospel for today, from Luke 20, where Jesus speaks of “The God of the Living and the Sons of the Resurrection.”
The original setting for this text was during Holy Week, in Jerusalem, as Jesus was teaching there, and his opponents were lining up, taking turns, trying to trap him in something he might say. For instance, some of his enemies tried to catch Jesus with a question about paying taxes to Caesar, thinking that, no matter which way he answered, they would have him. He would either say something to incriminate himself with the Roman authorities or else he would anger the Jewish nationalists. But Jesus saw through their trap and answered with a brilliant response that actually put them on the spot.
“Oh, well, so that didn’t work. Let’s have someone else give it a try. Next!” And so along come some Sadducees, going to try their hand with a trick question, wanting to make Jesus look bad.
“The Sadducees,” you say? Who were they? Glad you asked. A little background will help us understand where they’re coming from. The Sadducees were a group within Judaism that had certain distinctive beliefs. For one thing, the only part of the Hebrew Scriptures that they accepted as authoritative was the Torah, that is, the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Another distinctive belief of the Sadducees was that they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They did not believe in the resurrection, so they were “sad, you see.” No, I’m kidding about the name. That’s an old pastors’ joke, which means it doesn’t have to be funny. But the fact is that, unlike other groups within Judaism, such as the scribes and the Pharisees, who did believe in a bodily resurrection, the Sadducees did not. And that is what lies behind their question here to Jesus.
“There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, and they asked him a question.” They’re going to ask Jesus a question that they hope will trip him up and make him look bad. So they frame a ridiculous scenario, in order to pose a question that will make a belief in the resurrection look absurd.
Here’s how it goes: “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.” Let’s pause here. The Sadducees are citing one of the laws written in the Torah. It’s the case of what to do when an Israelite man dies childless, what to do so that that man’s name does not die out, but so that his line will carry on and have heirs and keep that man’s land and property within the family. This was a big deal in ancient Israel, according to God’s plan at that time. And so the provision in the law of Moses was that in such cases, which would be relatively rare–in such cases of a man dying childless, if that man has a brother, then that brother should take the widow as his wife, which would do a couple of things: it would carry on the deceased man’s genealogical line and his allotted family property, and it would also be a way of caring for the widow, who otherwise might be economically vulnerable.
OK, so that’s the set-up, the premise for what follows, the so-called levirate marriage, which was prescribed in the Law of Moses. That part, the Sadducees state correctly. But then they take this law to the extreme, to get at what they’re really driving at, which is to make a belief in the resurrection sound ridiculous–to make Jesus sound ridiculous. Good luck with that, boys! I’ll tell you in advance, that sort of thing generally does not work.
So anyway, here they go: “Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died.” Do you get that? Instead of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” they’re painting a picture of “One Bride for Seven Brothers.”
“Afterward the woman also died.” Well, no wonder! They must have worn the poor thing to death! Not to mention all the funerals she had to attend.
OK, so the ridiculous scenario is this: The one lady had been married to all seven guys. “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” Ah, it’s a gotcha question! “Try to wriggle out of this one, Jesus! Let’s see you try to defend your silly belief in a bodily resurrection now!” They think they’ve got Jesus over a barrel.
Guess again. Now this incident is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and our text in Luke does not include the first thing Jesus says back, which is, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” You see, the Sadducees did not know the Bible well enough, they did not understand it, and they also underestimated the power of God to do something as grand and wonderful as to raise up the dead. The Bible teaches it, and God can do it–that is, raise up the dead, bodily. That’s where Jesus is going with this.
And they don’t understand the temporal nature of marriage, either, that it is an estate established by God for this life only, but not for the age to come. Jesus says, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” You Sadducees don’t have to worry about “whose wife will she be,” because she won’t be the wife of any of them at that time. The estate of marriage is for this life only.
Those who attain to the age to come and to the resurrection from the dead do not marry, “for they cannot die anymore.” Thus there is no need to carry on the line, to be fruitful and multiply, which is a basic purpose of marriage. Those who will be raised from the dead are, in Jesus’ words, “equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” Now don’t be confused. Human beings, when they die, do not turn into angels. Humans and angels are two different species, if you will, both created by God, but different in their nature. The feature we will have in common with angels in the age to come is that we will not die anymore, and we won’t be married.
And so with this mention of us Christians being “sons of the resurrection,” meaning that that is the inheritance in store for us, Jesus now takes this matter of the resurrection even further. He’s going to prove it from the Scriptures.
Now Jesus could have quoted one of the many Old Testament passages teaching the bodily resurrection of the dead on the last day, such as passages in Daniel 12, Psalm 16, Isaiah 25 and 26, and so on. But remember, the Sadducees only accepted as authoritative the five books of Moses. Quoting Daniel, for instance, would not have carried much weight with them. So Jesus doesn’t go there. Instead, he goes to–surprise–one of the books of Moses. He says, “But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”
Now if I were looking for Bible passages to prove the resurrection of the dead, I have to admit, this would not be the first one I’d think of. But Jesus chooses this one, and he says it shows us the resurrection. So I’ll go with Jesus. That’s usually a good thing to do.
Here’s the idea: If the Lord God tells Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”–and Moses lived several centuries after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–and the Lord says, “I am their God,” present tense, this says that those old boys are still living, in God’s presence, even though they physically died. And if their souls are still living, that means God has something in store, yet to come, for their bodies. Their bodies will be raised, raised up all glorious, on the last day and on forever into the age to come.
Well, all that, dear friends, is a long way to get to this: This promise of the resurrection of the dead, the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come–this is a promise not just for the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No, this is a promise also for you–yes, you, all you who hear my voice today. God’s promises do not have an expiration date. All the promises of God have their “Yes” and their “Amen” in Christ. So this is a promise for you, you who believe in Christ.
Dear friends, this is how you are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead: You are worthy, and you attain, solely because of Christ. What has Christ Jesus done to make you worthy of everlasting life? He has conquered death for you! By his death he has destroyed death. That is, when Christ died on the cross for you, he took away the guilt of all your sins. Those sins had been weighing you down and damning you to eternal death. But now, because God’s own Son has died in your place, and you are trusting in him for forgiveness, you will not die but live. Christ himself rose, victorious from the grave. And you, baptized Christian, you have been joined to Christ, and so you will rise with him, leaping up from the grave, whole and restored, on that day when the trumpet blows and Christ comes again and calls you forth. I’d say this is pretty good stuff!
“The God of the Living and the Sons of the Resurrection.” That is the God we have, and that is who we are. It doesn’t get much better than this. What I mean is, the promise doesn’t get any better than this. But our bodies sure will be better than this. Indeed, our bodies will be raised up, whole and glorious, on the last day, because our God is the God of the living, and, joined to his Son, Jesus Christ, we are sons of the resurrection.