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89. Marriage, the Resurrection, and the Christ (Luke 20:27-44)
James J. Tissot, detail of 'The Pharisees Question Jesus' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
"27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 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 have children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?'
34 Jesus replied, 'The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age 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. 37 But in the account of the 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." 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.'
39 Some of the teachers of the law responded, 'Well said, teacher!' 40 And no one dared to ask him any more questions. 41 Then Jesus said to them, 'How is it that they say the Christ is the Son of David? 42 David himself declares in the Book of Psalms: "The Lord said to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand 43 until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'" 44 David calls him "Lord." How then can he be his son?'" (Luke 20:27-44, NIV)
In this passage Jesus is speaking to Sadducees, but there aren't any Sadducees these days. He also speaks to the scribes, "the teachers of the law" -- Bible experts -- but the issues Bible scholars debate these days have changed from 2,000 years ago. How should we treat this passage then? First, we'll seek to understand what Jesus is saying to both parties. Then, we'll look for the nugget of truth to apply to our own lives.
Beliefs of the Sadducees (Luke 20:27)
"Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question." (20:27)
Just who were the Sadducees? They were "sad, you see." (Bad pun!) Actually we don't know a great deal about them since none of their own writings survive, only those of their opponents. They were Jews, of course, but of a particular party or persuasion. These seem to be some of the distinctive elements of their belief system:
- Belief in the Torah, as written. They were literalists who rejected the Pharisees' "tradition of the elders," the "oral law" that "hedged" around the Law with hundreds of mini-rules. They didn't impose as many rules and weren't nearly as strict as the Pharisees.
- Belief in free will over the idea that everything is predetermined.
- Denial of the resurrection, angels, and of the immortality of the soul, or of punishments and rewards in the after-life.899
Perhaps their focus was on right temple worship, since they seemed to be the religious group most closely associated with Jerusalem's wealthy, aristocratic families, particularly the high priest's family. The name "Sadducee" seems to derive from the name Zadok, who was high priest at the time of David and Solomon. The basic issue separating Pharisees and Sadducees was purity. The Pharisees kept Kosher homes, were concerned with ritual purity, and were admired by the multitudes for their strictness, if not for their pride and hypocrisy. The Sadducees mainly had the support of the wealthy.
The Sadducees now raise an objection to Jesus' teaching of the resurrection and cite Moses as their authority.
Reference to Levirate Marriage (Luke 20:28)
"'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 have children for his brother.'" (20:28)
The basis for the Sadducees' trick question rests on the practice of levirate marriage (from Latin levir, "husband's brother"). The Sadducees are referring to the passage in Deuteronomy:
"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" (Deuteronomy 25:5).
This law afforded the protection of a husband for the widow and provided for the deceased husband a sort of after-life in that his name is carried on after him by his widow's children by his brother.
A couple of examples of levirate marriage are found in the Bible. First, the curious relationship between Judah, his son Onan, and Tamar, his widowed daughter-in-law (Genesis 38:8-26). And second, the story of the Moabite widow Ruth, her mother-in-law Naomi, and her kinsman-redeemer Boaz (See the entire but short Book of Ruth.)
Was levirate marriage practiced in Jesus' day? Though it was allowed, apparently it was only found occasionally among the wealthy classes -- the classes that favored the Sadducees. The school of Rabbi Shammai permitted levirate marriage in certain cases, where the school of Rabbi Hillel did not. Apparently two leading Jerusalem families, members of which officiated as high priests, were descended from such levirate marriages -- perhaps even the High Priest Caiaphas himself.900
Laying the Trap (Luke 20:29-33)
Now comes the Sadducees' puzzle for Jesus to solve, perhaps their favorite question to stymie those who believe in the resurrection:
"Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?" (20:29-33)
To us this may seem a trivial exercise -- like how many angels can stand on the head of a pin -- but to the Sadducees this was a serious attempt to discredit Jesus. Whose wife will she be at the resurrection -- if there is a resurrection? They are arguing against the resurrection by trying to show up problems and inconsistencies with an opposing view.
Marrying is Temporal, Not Eternal (Luke 20:34-36a)
"Jesus replied, 'The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage and they can no longer die.'" (20:34-36a)
Now we need to consider some definitions.
The words "considered worthy" (NIV) or "accounted worthy" (KJV) translate the Greek verb kataxioō, "to consider someone worthy to receive some privilege, benefit or recognition, consider worthy."901
The phrase "taking part" (NIV) or "to obtain" (KJV) is the Greek infinitive of the verb tynchanō, "to experience something happening, meet, attain, gain, find, experience."902
The word translated "age" (NIV) or "world" (KJV) is the Greek noun aiōn (from which we get our word "aeon"), "a segment of time as a particular unit of history, age."903 Jesus is contrasting the current age with "the age to come" -- seen by Jews as the Messianic period.
When we consider this passage we learn several things about the resurrection:
- It is a privilege. We may take the resurrection of the dead for granted, but Jesus is teaching that those who experience the resurrection (at least the resurrection to life, John 5:28-29) must be considered worthy. Not all will experience this. We see a touch of the Apostle Paul -- "and so, somehow, to attain to (katantaō) the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:11; cf. Hebrews 11:35; Acts 13:46). The resurrection to life is something to be granted by God, not to be assumed.
- It is an immortal state. Resurrection brings one to a state where he or she can never again experience death. Paul said, "For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him" (Romans 6:9).
- It is a state in which marriage is outmoded. In our age the opposite sex is very much on people's minds. Finding a husband or wife, marriage, sex, and having children are the very core of our lives. They occupy a great deal of energy and focus. But in the age to come, Jesus is saying, people will no longer marry or be given in marriage. Marriage will be outmoded; God has another focus for us.
Loving couples may be saddened by this teaching -- and those with an impossible spouse will be relieved. But let's not read more into this than it says. Will we know our husband or wife in heaven? I am sure we will, since the Bible indicates that people are recognized and known in heaven. Will we love our spouse in heaven? I am sure we will, since this will be a place where love is preeminent. But it will not be the erotic love or exclusive, monogamous commitment kind of love we experience in marriage. It will be different. Perhaps marriage may be remembered, but it is not as important as it is now. In the age to come, marriage will not be the defining relationship of our lives as it often is here on earth.
LDS Teaching on Eternal Marriage
In light of Jesus' teaching in our passage, it seems strange that Latter-day Saints put such a focus on eternal marriage. The Bible does not teach the continuation of marriage and family beyond this age. But the Mormon Doctrines and Covenants do.904 Mormons teach that marriages sealed in a Mormon temple are eternal ("for eternity"), while marriages which are not so sealed are temporal.
However, Jesus implies strongly that the marriages suggested by the Sadducee are no longer in force in the age to come. That is the clear intention of his statement in our passage.
Like the Angels (Luke 20:36)
"... and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection." (20:36)
In what sense are those in the age to come angel-like? The closest referent in the context is "they can no longer die." The phrase "sons of the resurrection" reflects a Hebraism, where "son of" is used to denote "one who shares in [the resurrection] or who is worthy of it, or who stands in some other close relation to it."905
Jesus answers the Sadducees' question by undermining the basic premise behind levirate marriage -- to preserve one's name and existence beyond one's own life. Jesus argues that those in the age to come are no longer subject to death. Marriage and reproduction are necessary to the maintenance of human life in a world where people die, but they are obsolete in a world where people live forever.
God of the Living (Luke 20:37-38)
Jesus has defended the resurrection against the Sadducees' argument. Now he himself cites Moses to prove the resurrection:
"But in the account of the 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.' He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive." (20:37-38)
Jesus argues simply that the idea of being the God of a dead person is foolish. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must either be alive or can confidently expect that God will raise them to life. God will raise the dead because he must keep his promises to them to be their God.
Agreement from the Pharisees (Luke 20:39-40)
As Jesus was answering the Sadducees, the Pharisees and scribes ("teachers of the law") who believed in the resurrection, looked on approvingly.
"Some of the teachers of the law responded, 'Well said, teacher!' And no one dared to ask him any more questions." (20:39-40)
For the moment, Jesus was on the same side of theology as the Pharisees and scribes. But not for long.
Jesus Asks His Own Question (Luke 20:41-44)
Now, instead of answering difficult questions, Jesus poses one himself.
"Then Jesus said to them, 'How is it that they say the Christ is the Son of David? David himself declares in the Book of Psalms:
'The Lord said to my Lord:
Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.' (quoting Psalm 110:1)
David calls him 'Lord.' How then can he be his son?" (20:41-44)
The Pharisees used the term "Son of David" to refer to the Christ, the Messiah. David was looked at as Israel's greatest king and the Messiah was seen by the Jews as restoring David's kingdom to its original glory. But Jesus points out to them what David, the author of the clearly Messianic Psalm 110, says:
"The LORD (that is, God, Yahweh), says to my (i.e., David's) Lord ..."
David is clearly referring to the Messiah as his superior, as his Lord. Here the Messiah is worthy of the allegiance of his own ancestor, David. Jesus asks the scribes, "How can he be his son?"
Lest the Pharisees and scribes take too much glory from Jesus' defeat of the Sadducees, Jesus seems to be saying to them that they don't really understand the Messiah and the age to come any better themselves. After this, Jesus wasn't asked trick questions. His opponents were intimidated by his superior understanding of the Scriptures and his ability to articulate them clearly.
Lessons for Disciples
For the most part this passage seems to rehearse theological questions of another era. But present-day disciples should perk up their ears about one item especially:
This age and the things we deem important in it will soon pass away. Money, sex, fame, and power, which are the focus of most lives in our day, will soon have no importance. Even our health is of no long-term importance. We will die, but when we are resurrected the old rules that governed our existence will be gone. Are you prepared to live in the age to come, or has the entire investment of your life been according to rules that will soon be obsolete? Now is the time to focus on the things of God. Now is the time to build eternal things in our own lives and in the lives of others.
Father, often I have been much too concerned about things of this age. Sometimes I have been so worldly-minded that I have been no heavenly good. Help me and my brothers and sisters to give the resurrection and the age to come priority in our value system. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"Those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels." (Luke 20:35-36)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- What did the Sadducees believe about the resurrection? What did Jesus believe? What did the Pharisees believe?
- What can be the result in a person's heart if he feels there will be no reckoning in the life to come for the things he or she has done during this life?
- What was "levirate marriage" and what was its purpose in Israelite society?
- In what way does Jesus' reply destroy the Sadducees' carefully constructed objection?
- What effect does Jesus' question about the son of David being David's Lord have? Of whom did he ask the question? Why?
- What things should we be doing to be able to live both in the present age and be ready for the age to come? What should we cease doing?
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
See the discussion in Gary G. Porton, "Sadducees," ABD 5:892-895. Here is a
passage from Josephus, Wars of the Jews 2.8.14, §165, that contrasts the
Pharisees and the Sadducees. Josephus, a Pharisee, was no friend to the
"But then as to the two other orders at first mentioned, the Pharisees are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their laws, and introduce the first sect. These ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, -- but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment. But the Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men's own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to everyone, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades. Moreover, the Pharisees are friendly to one another, and are for the exercise of concord, and regard for the public; but the behavior of the Sadducees one towards another is in some degree wild, and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them. And this is what I had to say concerning the philosophic sects among the Jews."
 Jeremias, Jerusalem, pp. 93-94; 218; 372.
 Kataxioō, BDAG 523.
 Tynchanō, BDAG 1019.
 Aiōn, BDAG 32-33.
"And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there,
only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy."
"In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; and in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]..." (D&C 131:1-2)
"Wherefore, if a man marry him a wife in the world, and he marry her not by me nor by my word, and he covenant with her so long as he is in the world and she with him, their covenant and marriage are not of force when they are dead, and when they are out of the world; therefore, they are not bound by any law when they are out of the world." (D&C 132:15)
 Huios, BDAG 1025, 2cβ.
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