The Sadducees and the Resurrection
A study of Luke 20.27-40
Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them is she? for seven had her to wife." (Luke 20.33).
The Sadducees, who were the materialist philosophers of Jesus' day, did not believe in a resurrection to a future life and had no use for Jesus' teaching of a coming Messianic Kingdom in which "all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth" (John 5. 28). They despised the simple faith of women like Martha who knew that her dead brother Lazarus would "rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (John 11. 24). And they thought they had found a weak point in the argument, to put Jesus in a quandary. So they came to Him with their conundrum.
The question was based on the old Mosaic law which sought to prevent any family inheritance passing to another line in consequence of there being no male heir in the particular family. Moses had provided that in the event of a man dying without leaving a son to inherit his estate, his widow was not free to re-marry whom she pleased, neither was she at liberty to remain single. It was the obligation and duty of the dead man's nearest brother to take the widow as his wife. The first-born son of that union was then to be accounted from the legal standpoint, not the son of his true father but the son of the dead man. That first-born became heir to the dead man's property, taking his family name and behaving in all ways as if he were in reality his son. By means of this custom it was hoped to keep every family inheritance in the line of the family to which it had originally belonged. Whether the custom was ever carried out in its fulness or whether it was even really practicable in later times when Israel grew into a great nation is not material to the point now at issue. Suffice it, thought these Sadduccees, that here is something which cannot possibly fit into this fantastic teaching about men and women being resurrected from the dead to live on earth again.
Thus it was that Jesus listened patiently whilst they unfolded their story. There were seven brothers, good Israelites all and zealous for the laws of their fathers. The eldest was married but unfortunately he died without leaving an heir. The second son, obedient to the Law, married the widow with the intention of raising up seed to his brother. Most regrettably, he died also, without having achieved his object. The third brother was no less zealous in his devotion to the Law, and without delay he married the already twice widowed woman. His good intentions were cut short by his own untimely demise and the unfortunate wife was passed on in turn to brothers four, five, six and seven, all of whom died in turn without son or heir. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that after this series of matrimonial disasters, the woman died also, leaving seven inheritances without owners.
Incidentally the story as framed by these Sadducees is a bitter commentary on the contempt in which women were held in the days of the First Advent. These men saw nothing distasteful in the idea of this unfortunate wife being passed on from man to man seven times repeated. The point of their question would have been equally well made had there been only two husbands involved, but they had to make it seven. The woman in the story was viewed merely as a means of producing the desired heir to the inheritance and apart from that received no consideration at all. It is important to bear that fact in mind when considering this incident.
With sly malice therefore the fateful question was brought into the open. The seven men and the woman have all been raised from the dead and stand upon earth again, alive and virile. "Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them is she? for seven had her to wife!" It is only when one considers for a moment the nature of the Mosaic laws regarding marriage that one realizes just how diabolically clever was that question. It was not merely a matter of deciding which of the seven was the legal husband of the woman. The laws of Deut. 25 forbade any woman to return to her first husband after having been married to a second. To do so was "an abomination to the Lord". On that showing it would be necessary in the resurrection for this woman to remain the wife of the seventh husband. However, the laws of Leviticus 18 branded as criminal any man who had a husband's relationship to his brother's wife during the brother's lifetime. With the first brother now alive again and present before them there could be no doubt that his was the first legal marriage and therefore all the other six brothers were lawbreakers and also "abomination to the Lord". To whichever brother the Lord awarded the wife, therefore, He would be recommending the breaking of one or another of the Mosaic laws on the subject and making one or more of the persons in the story into transgressors. To those legalistic minds there was no way out of the impasse; there could be no such thing as a resurrection without compelling someone or other to break the laws of Moses.
In addition to that sufficiently condemning fact, there was also the question of the inheritances. With the seven brothers all back on earth, to whom would each property belong? The wife would have become the legal custodian of all seven estates after the death of the seventh brother, and until the birth of her first son, the son which was never born, for the Sadducees took care that in the story she died childless. However, suppose in this new resurrected life she did bear a son to whichever husband secured the award of her as wife, what then? Under the Law that son would become heir of all seven inheritances, whilst the seven original owners were standing by, morally if not legally each still entitled to his own property. There must have been a certain amount of rubbing of hands together as these learned men waited for Jesus to unravel this legal tangle.
His was a simple answer, and though completely unexpected, it was incontrovertible. 'Those considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection of the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage; and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection". (Luke 20. 35-36 NIV). There was a world of meaning in those few simple words of Jesus, and most of it does not occur to our Western minds until we relate the answer to the question, and the background of the question.
Jesus was not referring to people of the world generally in His reply, and He was not referring to the institution of marriage as such. He was talking about the specific problem raised by these Sadducees, the relation of the Mosaic Law on re-marriage of widows to the resurrection and mankind's future in the Millennial Age. The word "marry" in this text is one that refers to the action of a man taking a woman to be his wife, and is not used in this form to describe a woman entering into marriage. Likewise, the word rendered "given in marriage" is one that refers to the giving of a woman to a man, as by a relative who thus formally hands her over. It is much the same as a modern bride's father will "give away" his daughter at the ceremony, or as Ruth the Moabitess was given to Boaz to be his wife that he might raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance. Both terms are consistent with the conclusion that Jesus was telling the Sadducees that in the future age men would not take women in marriage for the purpose laid down in the Mosaic Law. Neither would women be given in marriage for that purpose, because men will die no more, like the angels. Quite obviously in a world where there is no death the question of raising up an heir to a dead man's inheritance will not arise. Likewise the puzzle of deciding who will be the rightful heir to the inheritances is very simply resolved. This is so because all men in the Millennial Age are children of God by virtue of the resurrection and not children Adam by lineal descent. Rights to inheritances which are dependent on lineal descent will no longer have any validity in a world where there is no such thing as lineal descent, and so here again the Sadducees' unspoken question fell to the ground.
In few words, Jesus answered the question, not by setting aside the law of Moses nor yet by nullifying its prohibitions, but by showing that the conditions which brought the Mosaic Law into being will no longer apply. The remarriage of widows to their brothers-in-law for the preservation of inheritances was an arrangement that owed its existence to the fact that death was in the world. Jesus showed that since in the next Age there will be no death the problem will never arise.
The expression applied to those who have been "considered worthy of taking part in that Age" to the effect that "they can no longer die" is liable to provoke queries when it is remembered that if any man should give himself over to deliberate and incorrigible sin, in that day, he can and will assuredly die. It seems evident that Jesus is referring to the completed work of the Age, and the fulness of resurrected life which is the portion of those who are adjudged righteous at the end of the Age. He uses the phrase "considered worthy of taking part in that Age and in the resurrection". There is no question of worthiness in the first awakening from the sleep of death at the beginning of the Millennial Age. "All that are in their graves" said Jesus, and all it must be without reference to worthiness or to unworthiness. And in such case it is literally true that those who pass into the Ages of Glory, perfect and righteous, cannot die. It will be no more possible for a righteous man to die than for an unrighteous man to live. That is the Divine decree. God made man to live, and all the time that any man in those ages of eternity lives in harmony with righteousness he can do nothing else but live. Eternal life is as much a concomitant of righteousness as is eternal death of sin.
The A.V. text says that such are "equal to the angels" which is manifestly incorrect. Man, even perfect man, is inferior to, and not equal to, the angels. Says the Psalmist "What is man, that you are mindful of him... You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour You made him ruler over the works of your hands". (Psa. 8. 4-6). The correct rendering of the text is that they die no more because they are like angels, in the fact that they are perfect and sinless.
Jesus left quite untouched the wider question of the relationship of the sexes in the future Age. This text is sometimes taken as basis for the assertion that human beings will be sexless in that Age, neither man nor woman, but combining the qualities of both. There is really no evidence that Jesus intended to convey any such idea. The indications are in fact to the contrary. It is hardly likely that so revolutionary and unnatural a teaching would have won from some of the listening scribes the admiring admission "Master, thou hast well said". The question which inspired this glimpse of the future was not answered by saying there would no longer be men and women, but that there would no longer be death, and that disposed of the matter for good. There is also the fact that Jesus told them they ought to have known the answer to the question from the Scriptures: "You are wrong because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God" (Matt. 22.29). Behind all the complicated legislation of Moses that in the future Age is to be swept away, there lay the original Divine institution of marriage inherent in the original Divine ideal for mankind, and that is certainly not going to be swept away. The first chapter of Genesis gives us the culminating point to which Divine creation had attained prior to the entry of sin. God created man "in his own image, in the likeness of God created he him; male and female created he them... and God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good". In the expanded account of man's creation which we have in the second chapter of Genesis the statement is plainly made that it was not good for man to be alone and therefore God ordained a companion for him. That was before sin entered, when there was at the very least the possibility that man might develop his inheritance as God had instructed him without ever yielding to sin. There is no reason for thinking that the dual principle that pervades nearly all Nature and certainly the whole of the higher orders of life, and was extended to man at his creation, is going to be changed. Nor is there reason to believe that perfect humanity at the end of God's creative work is fundamentally any different from perfect humanity at the beginning of that work. Scripture does not discourse in detail on the conditions of human existence after the consummation of the Divine plan and the final defeat of evil. We can only reason from the general principles of God's creation. So far as this particular aspect of the subject is concerned we are on fundamentally more secure ground in the first two chapters of Genesis than we would be by taking the narrative of Luke 20 out of its context and applying it to something that was not in question and was not being discussed.
This incident is a striking example of the folly of men who thought they could prove the fundamental unsoundness of Jesus' teaching. "You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God" (Matthew 22.29). How often is the same thing repeated in our day! Men criticize and deride the message of the Kingdom because they neither understand nor want to understand its principles. Happy are we if, like Jesus, we can base our message and our faith upon the unassailable "living and abiding Word of God." (1 Peter 1.23).