God of the Living

God of the Living

In our passage this morning we have yet another of what at times seems to be endless instances of people, often religious leaders, who seem to be trying to set Jesus up. In Jesus’ day there were four major religious groups within Judaism—Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes. The group challenging Jesus in Luke 20 are the Sadducees. If we had to summarize the crux of what they believed as it pertains to the events that follow, it would be this: Negatively, they denied the resurrection of the dead—and I can’t resist the old joke, “That is why they were so sad, you see”— and the existence of spirits. Positively, they focused on the written Law of Moses, rather than oral tradition, as being binding. Of the four Jewish sects, the Sadducees were the ones most interested in politics and they were also cooperative with the Roman Empire.[1] Having this background, we have ample cause to be suspicious of their motives.

In fact, we may be seeing some of Luke’s own suspicions by the way in which he introduces this account in the life of Jesus.[2] Luke begins in verse 27 by stating, “Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question.” Luke’s clarifying that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection was probably due not only to his being a Gentile convert to Christianity, but additionally he was a Gentile who was writing for a primarily Gentile audience that may not have been familiar with the various beliefs among the divisions within Judaism. Any Jewish believer would have known the beliefs of the Sadducees in the same way that Christians today know the key differences between Catholic versus Protestant expressions of Christian belief. And though under ordinary circumstances it may not have been important for Luke to make note of the Sadducees not believing in the resurrection from the dead, given what follows, this doctrinal piece of information becomes quite important because what the Sadducees questioned Jesus about was a doctrine they didn’t even believe in—the resurrection of the dead! So Luke was giving his Gentile audience a “heads-up” that the Sadducees’ request may have been less than sincere—not so much a request for clarification about a doctrinal point of the law as it was a set-up.

Having noted that the Sadducees “say there is no resurrection,” Luke proceeds to recount their exchange with Jesus beginning with verse 28. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.” Now on this point, the Sadducees are absolutely in keeping with Jewish law which taught precisely what the Sadducees state. Now one of the things that can make this passage difficult for us to understand, especially in the western world, is that by and large we are far less family-minded than ancient—and even some modern—societies. For most of us, if we were to lose a brother who was married and had died childless, we wouldn’t ponder or worry about what would become of his legacy. But ancient societies were different than our own. What the Sadducees were referencing here was what was known as a levirate marriage[3] and it was often observed in societies in which marriage outside of a clan was forbidden. This law protected the widow and guaranteed continuance of the family line[4] by requiring that the brother of a man who died childless marry the widow. The firstborn child of this new union would then be treated as the firstborn of the deceased. So, so far, so good. There’s nothing unusual in what the Sadducees state about commonly held Jewish beliefs on marriage.[5]

However as soon as we come to verse 29, there is cause for concern for the Sadducees present a hypothetical woman who is nothing short of the kiss of death. This woman married one of seven brothers who, when he died, died childless. Consequently, and according to the law of levirate marriage, she then was married to the second of the brothers who, you got it, died childless. Then she was married to the third brother and—what are the chances?—he, too, died childless. Fortunately there was a fourth brother available but, against all odds, he died childless. A fifth brother then stepped in to preserve the family line of the first brother but, incredibly, he, too, died without providing an heir. The poor sixth brother, no doubt shaking in his sandals by this point, upon hearing of the death of his brother nonetheless fulfilled his fraternal obligation and married the surely-by-now aged widow but, alas, he did not succeed in producing an heir for he, too, died before providing her children. Last, but certainly not least, the seventh loyal brother followed through and married the ill-fated widow and—can you believe it?—he, too, died leaving no children. And, in the end, the childless woman died as well.

Now had the Sadducees’ believed in the resurrection of the dead, we might expect their question to be: Do you think it’s possible that this woman, or one—or all—among the family of brothers had sinned or possibly been cursed that such a tragic ending would result? But, no. The question these Sadducees wanted Jesus to answer was: Given that the woman had married seven brothers, “at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” (33). Seriously? That’s their question? That’s the question coming from adherents of a form of Judaism that didn’t even believe in the resurrection??? Again, we’ve cause to be suspicious. Now their question may have been a way of indicating either why the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead or it may have been their way of trying to make nonsense of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.[6] In other words, by presenting such a hypothetical dilemma, they may have thought they had presented a slam-dunk situation that would conclusively refute belief in the resurrection of the dead.

So you have to admire Jesus’ composure here in his answer to them beginning in verse 34: “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.” So rather than ask the Sadducees—as I might have been tempted to do!—why in the world they would ever request clarification about a doctrine all who were Jewish would know they didn’t even believe, Jesus used their question as a teaching moment to indicate the importance of the resurrection and the place of marriage within God’s created order. I should add here that in Mark’s recounting of this same incident, he notes that Jesus did begin his reply by pointing out their error. Mark states: “Jesus replied, ‘Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?’”[7] Too, Jesus’ response is reminiscent of the instruction the the apostle Paul later adopted and encouraged Timothy to use as we saw in our recent study of I and II Timothy: correct wrong doctrine and teach right doctrine.

Returning to Luke, the first thing Jesus said to the Sadducees is that “the people of this age,” that is, all who have lived on earth since the time of God’s original creation, “marry and are given in marriage”—indicating the practice current in marital arrangements at that time in which men married and women were given in marriage by their parents. Now as far as marriage in general is concerned, we know from the book of Genesis that one of the first things God allowed Adam to experience after creating him, was to discover that wonderful though animals and the overall world of nature may be, without a human companion, Adam was nonetheless alone. If you’ll recall, upon stating “It is not good for the man to be alone” and adding “I will make a helper suitable for him,”[8] God allowed Adam to experience the qualitative difference between animal and human companionship. After forming “all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky” from the ground, the LORD God “brought them to the man to see what he would name them.”[9] And then we’re told, “But for Adam no suitable helper was found.”[10] Yet once God created Eve for Adam, Adam exclaimed, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”[11] And so Adam came to realize that Eve was qualitatively different than any of the animals found in creation for she, like he, was a human being who was also made in the image of her Maker. And on a tangential note, it’s important to remember that the point in the creation account isn’t that we are only half a person unless we marry but rather that much as we may love animals and other aspects of God’s created order—and you all know I do!—the community and affection and delight an animal may provide can never substitute for human companionship for we were made not only to love God but to love our neighbor, to love each other, as ourselves. So animal companionship can never substitute for the God-given need we have to be in community with other people—especially our spiritual family.

But foundational though marriage may be to God’s initial plan, Jesus reminded the Sadducees—and the rest of those listening—that marriage is a good specifically for God’s created, not eternal, order. Marriage is a good for this age, this earthly, age, not the age to come, our heavenly destiny. Part of the mistake the Sadducees were making was to assume that belief in an age to come—if such a thing were to exist for they didn’t believe it existed—meant simply a continuance of this age. But they were wrong about this. Again, beginning in verse 35, Jesus makes this clear: “35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.” So Jesus makes a number of points here about those whom God, by his grace, calls to himself.

First, they must be considered worthy—something which can occur only by placing our complete and utter trust in Jesus Christ and turning our lives over to him, even as those who lived during Old Testament times placed their complete and utter trust in the very same God as he spoke to them at that time by means of his prophets.

Second, those whom God does call to himself by the grace he provides will partake in the age to come and they, as Jesus did after his crucifixion, will partake in the resurrection from the dead, death being the last enemy that God in Christ conquered on the cross. And though this is clear for those of us living after the time of Christ’s resurrection and ascension to heaven, Jesus is going to go on to show how tis was true as well for those living in Old Testament times.

Third, those who attain to the age to come—again, which is another way of referring to heaven—will neither marry nor be given in marriage. The creation mandate to multiply and fill the earth will be completed by then so that one of the key reasons for which God provided marriage will no longer exist.

Fourth, all who respond to God’s gracious call to himself can no longer die for they are like angels. Though Scripture doesn’t provide us a lot of information about angels, Jesus is stating here that one thing we can know is that though part of God’s creation, angels were created as immortal beings, beings that never experience death. So the point isn’t, as some throughout the history of the church have mistakenly believed, that we become angels after we die, but rather the point is that we become like them in this one regard: once we experience earthly death, we will never die either. We, too, will be immortal, no longer subject to dying or decay, even as angels have ever been. And, again, remember that the Sadducees denied belief in spirits—and this would have included a belief in angels so in making this point Jesus was refuting and correcting yet another misunderstanding the Sadducees had of the Hebrew Scriptures. Angels do, in fact, exist.

Lastly, those who turn to the Lord are now seen as God’s children because they are now children of the resurrection, risen never to die again. As God’s children, he gives us his living nature. And so it has ever been for those who place their trust in him.

But Jesus didn’t end his reply with this complete and utter affirmation of the resurrection of the dead but he went on to make crystal clear that this teaching, this understanding, of the resurrection is one that had been taught by Moses himself. Jesus was making crystal clear to these Sadducees—to these Jewish believers who denied the resurrection of the dead—that if they had understood the Hebrew Scriptures properly, they would realize that they had no basis for denying such a resurrection in the first place. Now remember that when the Sadducees first posed their question to Jesus, in our verse 28, they invoked none other than the author of the Pentateuch, of the first five books of the Bible, Moses himself. Again, these five books of the Law had a unique authority for the Sadducees[12] and Jesus, of course, would have known this. So now Jesus similarly invokes this very Moses to demonstrate how even he believed in the resurrection of the dead. In verse 37 we read, “But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’” If you’ll recall this account from the book of Exodus,[13] when Moses saw flames of fire within a bush that somehow didn’t burn up despite the flames, he went over to have a closer look. When he did so, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And, on another tangential note, by stating his name twice, by using this repetition of endearment as Dr. Stuart taught us, the LORD was letting Moses know that he knew and loved him intimately and personally. And what the LORD did after summoning Moses was to disclose to him that he was “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus concludes from this divine self-disclosure a point that should have been obvious to the Sadducees, verse 38: “[God] is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” The point of understanding God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob isn’t to indicate which God he was as opposed to other gods that existed in a polytheistic world. But rather the point of this self-disclosure is far more profound.

One of the central and foundational points taught by both the Old and New Testament Scriptures is that the one true God who made heaven and earth is the only God and, unlike idols who are dead and not real, despite what those who worship them believe, this one, true God is not only living but he passes on his living nature to all who turn to him. So for example, in Jeremiah[14] it states that the leaders of other nations “are all senseless and foolish” since they’re “taught by worthless wooden idols.” “But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God, the eternal King.” In a different context, the apostle Paul similarly states in his first letter to the Thessalonians,[15] “for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” And again in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul states,[16] “We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’…. and “there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” So we need to keep two things in mind: First, whereas an idol is merely an image or representation of a god, the Maker of heaven and earth is the one and only true God. And, second, though a dead and inanimate idol is unable to give life to those who worship or revere it because it is dead and inanimate, the one true God is living and because he is living, he is able—and chooses—to give his nature, his very eternal life to all who turn to him. Again, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”[17]

Brothers and sisters, do we understand this? Do we believe this? Do we see the implications of this? All who have come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ are going to live eternally with him, even though we die. To know—and love—and follow, as we do, not only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but also his Son, Jesus Christ, means that we have been given his eternal nature for though human death came about as a result of the Fall of the first Adam, human eternal life has been bestowed by the second Adam, Jesus Christ; By his Holy Spirit it’s been bestowed by means of God’s love for those who by his grace are enabled to turn to him in faith. For, wonder of wonders, this awesome, amazing God who has made us in his image has deemed us worthy of being recipients of his very nature—his very life—his eternal nature and life—so that even death won’t be able to separate us from his life. “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” So let us today—and this week—and this month—and always live to him, live for him, and declare his life and love to those whom he brings into our lives, that others, too, may know their awesome, amazing Maker, God our Father; Redeemer, God the Son, Jesus Christ; and Sustainer, Sanctifier, and Comforter, God the Holy Spirit.

Let us pray.


[1] < https://gotquestions.org/sects-of-Judaism.html> Though the term Pharisee is often used in a derogatory sense today, the Pharisees in New Testament times were deeply committed to moral behavior and a scholarly approach to the Scriptures. Their stance on morality included a rigid adherence to behavioral aspects of Mosaic Law. However, since some of those biblical laws were vague, the Pharisees developed an “Oral Torah”: a set of traditions that created a buffer zone around the law of Moses, ensuring piety. Pharisees believed in a literal afterlife and the bodily resurrection of the dead. Of the four major sects of Judaism, the Pharisees held the strongest belief in determinism. The later rabbinic interpretation grew out of the Pharisee sect. Jesus not only criticized the Pharisees for their hollow legalism (Matthew 23:2–7) but also for distorting the commandments of God by way of their traditions (Mark 7:8–9). The Sadducees differed significantly from Pharisees in their theology. Sadducees did not believe in a literal afterlife or a bodily resurrection. In fact, the Sadducees’ primary interest was politics, which made them useful conduits for Roman authority. They saw the Old Testament law in a less rigid light than the Pharisees, though they were committed, in their own way, to its core concepts. Of the four major sects of Judaism, the Sadducees were by far the most cooperative with the Roman Empire. They tended to be aristocrats and were in control of the high priesthood. Annas and Caiaphas, mentioned in the New Testament (Luke 3:2), were Sadducees.
The Essenes were a monastic group. Unlike the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots, the Essenes felt called to separate from society in preparation for the end of the world. In broad strokes, the Essenes could be considered a doomsday sect. They felt the end times were imminent, and it was their duty to patiently, passively await the apocalypse. The Essenes produced written materials found millennia later, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. These critically important documents shows how carefully and accurately the Old Testament Scriptures had been preserved over the centuries. On the other side of the apocalyptic coin were the Zealots, by far the smallest of the four groups. Like the Essenes, the Zealots were something of a doomsday sect of Judaism. However, the Zealots believed their actions would directly influence when and how this apocalypse occurred. Specifically, they believed they were called to commit acts of violence against the Roman occupiers and to incite others to revolution. Theologically, Zealots were all but identical to the Pharisees, except for their fanatical, anti-Roman militancy. This view not only brought them into conflict with the Roman-friendly Sadducees, but it accelerated Roman aggression against Jews, culminating in the destruction of the temple.

[2] A parallel account is found in Mark 12:18–27: 18 Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. 21 The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. 22 In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. 23 At the resurrection[Some mss resurrection, when people rise from the dead] whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” 24 Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26 Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’[Exodus 3:6]? 27 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”


[3] From the Jewish word for brother-in-law, levir.

[4] NIV Zondervan study Bible note for Matthew 22:24.

[5] The book of Genesis provides an early instance of this practice and it’s formalized by Moses in the book of Leviticus: Genesis 38:8: Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.”; Deuteronomy 25:5–6: If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.

[6] Reformation Study Bible note.

[7] Mark 12:24.

[8] Genesis 2:18.

[9] Genesis 2:19.

[10] Genesis 2:20.

[11] Genesis 2:23.

[12] NIV Zondervan study Bible note on Matthew 22:24.

[13] Exodus 3:1–6.

[14] Jeremiah 10:8–10:They are all senseless and foolish; they are taught by worthless wooden idols. Hammered silver is brought from Tarshish and gold from Uphaz.What the craftsman and goldsmith have made is then dressed in blue and purple—all made by skilled workers. 10 But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God, the eternal King. When he is angry, the earth trembles; the nations cannot endure his wrath.

[15] I Thessalonians 1:9.

[16] I Corinthians 8:4, 6.

[17] In verse 39, the “teachers of the law” would have been Pharisees who did believe in the resurrection of the dead, hence their response: 39 Some of the teachers of the law responded, “Well said, teacher!” 40 And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

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