The God of the Living

A woman married to (and in turn widowed by) seven brothers! Whose wife will she be in heaven? The Sadducees use this strange story found in Matthew 22:22–33 to try to trick Jesus.

There is life after marriage! The Sadducees came to Jesus with a problematic question. The Sadducees denied the resurrection. They came to Jesus in the context of increasing opposition to him. The Sadducees held that only the books of Moses were authoritative. They denied the resurrection and the existence of angels. They asked Jesus the question about marriage. They had seen the Pharisees (their rivals) fail with their trick question about taxes. Now they are going to try to trap Jesus. The background for their question (see verse 24) is the practice of levirate marriage, Deuteronomy 25:5,6 (though there is question as to whether it was still being practiced in Jesus’ day). See Genesis 38 and Ruth 4. The story is probably too strange to be true. Their hope is to embroil Jesus in an error and to discredit the idea of the resurrection. The view of marriage reflected in the presentation is superficial and deeply problematic. It focuses simply on the physical relationship (all seven had her).

You will be like the angels. Despite their motives, despite the character of the story they raised, Jesus does answer their question. Heaven, or more accurately, the new heavens and earth, is not just a continuation of earthly life, the assumption behind the mocking question. There is no marriage and giving in marriage at the resurrection. (Luke 20:36 records that Jesus also mentions that there is no death in heaven.) In that respect you will be like the angels, who do not marry. Jesus is not teaching that we become angels or are like them in every way. Beware of mythology about angels, such as “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings” (from ”It’s a Wonderful Life” 1946). The new heavens and earth are more glorious than earth. The resurrection is better than this life. There are unhappy marriages, and even abusive ones. Even in Christian circles some make the relationship focus on authority, missing the biblical emphasis on mutual love and intimacy. Christians, especially those enjoying a good marriage, are sometimes troubled by Jesus’ words here. After all, marriage is good. It was instituted by God in Eden before the fall. We may have trouble understanding how heaven could be truly good and happy without marriage. Jesus does not say that nothing of your marriage relationship will continue, but that heaven is a world where marriage has no relevance. Remember that even the best relationship on earth is marred by sin and its effects. The purpose of marriage, from the very beginning, was to reflect and illustrate the relationship between God and his people. That’s a motive for making it a good marriage. “The ultimate design of marriage, as presaged by Gen. 2:24, was to point people to the relationship of Christ to the church. This design will no longer be required when all whom God has ordained have come into his covenantal family. Then the resurrection of the bride, the church, will come about, and all will enjoy the consummated marriage relationship to Christ, to which former human marriages pointed. It s likely for this reason that Christ says that ‘in the [final] resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven’ (Matt. 22:30).” (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, pages 940–941) Heaven, the life after the resurrection, is indescribably glorious, see 1 Corinthians 2:9; 2 Corinthians 12:4. In ways that we cannot now comprehend, life after the resurrection will be far better, far happier, than our present lives. Focus, not on your friends, not on your spouse, but on the glory of God in Christ Jesus. In that glory there will be no pangs for something lost, no nostalgia for earlier times. “Jesus responds to their mockery with a stinging rebuke: ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven’ (Matthew 22:29–30). What is he saying? Human marriage is a phenomenon of this world intended to give a glimpse (as in a mirror darkly) of a future beyond our ability to comprehend. The momentary marriage of this world will be infinitely transcended in the world to come. This means the sweetest moments of earthly marriage, whether the delights of sexual intimacy or the quiet joys of deep emotional connection, are only faint glimpses of the glories to come when we are fully united to Jesus.” (David White, God, You, & Sex, pages 208–209)

Understand the Scriptures and the power of God. God is the God of the living. The Sadducees believed in tangible, concrete things. In some way they were like modern materialists and humanists, or perhaps like deists. If you can’t see it, touch it, measure it, it doesn’t exist. You can’t put resurrection in test tube. In their story, the purpose of levirate marriage is to raise up an heir for the deceased brother. The verb is the one on which the noun for resurrection is based. That’s as close as they came to the idea of resurrection. They did, however, believe in the existence of God. Jesus quotes Scripture. To the Sadducees, who prided themselves on not being influenced by new-fangled ideas, Jesus quotes from the Scriptures recorded by Moses (see Mark 12:26), from Exodus 3:6. God there identifies himself as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Jesus concludes, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

God is faithful to his covenant promises. The argument is more powerful than we sometimes realize. It does not rest just on the present tense or on the names of the patriarchs. God’s self-identification reminds you of the covenant. God had promised to be the God of Abraham, Genesis 17. The renewal of that covenant promise in Exodus 3 uses the names of the patriarchs. The Lord had promised to be with, to be faithful to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was with them in trouble. He was Abraham’s God, even at that agonizing moment when he was called to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. He was Jacob’s God, even when he buried his beloved Rachel. He is the God who promises to be with you in difficult times as well as times of joy. If God was with them in life, but if their death merely was extinction, what happens to God’s promises? (See 1 Corinthians 15:19, where Paul expands the point that Jesus is making here.) How comforting would it have been to Israel in slavery to remember that God was the God of Abraham, if that assurance ended with death? There is more to God’s covenantal faithfulness than the Sadducees realized! “The kingdom of God and the salvation it brings cannot stop short of the complete reclaiming of men, body as well as soul, from death, nor of their complete equipment for the consummate fellowship with God in heaven.” (Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, p.320)

Understand God’s power. The power of God comes to its ultimate expression in the resurrection, see Romans 1:3,4; 8:11. Death is the wages of sin, but the penalty has been paid in Christ. He is the fulfillment of God’s covenantal faithfulness. His work is not complete until the effects of sin, including death, are rolled back. The focus of this resurrection life is not on the marriage connections of the (imaginary) seven times widow or on the details of your life, but on the glory of your God. God raised up Christ (the very One who was responding to the Sadducees), and he will raise you up as well. Because God is faithful to his covenant promises he is the God of the resurrection. He is your God in good times and difficult.

Understand the Scriptures and the power of God—and live this week in the comforting knowledge that the God of the living is your God, your Savior, your Lord.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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