The Sadducees’ Question — Part One
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The Sadducees’ Question — Part One

Mark 12:18–27  (ID: 2843)

Religious leaders had been approaching Jesus, trying to unnerve and stump Him with questions. When the Sadducees had their turn for clever opposition, Jesus rebuked their lack of faith in the resurrection. In this message, Alistair Begg reminds us of the importance of understanding both God’s Word and His power. If, like the Sadducees, we test Jesus intellectually, we may find the spotlight turned instead onto our spiritual state.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Mark, Volume 6

Jesus vs. the Religious Leaders Mark 11:12–12:44 Series ID: 14106

Sermon Transcript: Print

Mark 12:18:

“And Sadducees came to him, who say there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.’

“Jesus said to them, ‘Is this not the reason you[’re] wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.’”


Gracious God, we bow before you now, thanking you that you have made yourself known to us in the Bible. And we pray that you would help us now to speak about it and think about it and respond to it in a way that honors you and changes us—changes us into the very likeness of your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Well, I think there is little doubt that the response of Jesus to this particular question fails entirely to meet the contemporary standards of political correctness. If you were following along carefully, you would notice the distinction. The politically correct answer to an approach like this would be to have said that there are, of course, a variety of views concerning the resurrection and perspectives on the resurrection—and would also have gone on to say that all of those views are equally valid. And because they’re equally valid, there is no real reason for us to fall out with one another and so on; we will all be tremendously happy. In direct contrast to that, Jesus is very direct in pointing out that his questioners are flat-out wrong. And you will notice he says that on two occasions in the passage that we read: verse 24, “Is this not the reason you are wrong?” he says, and then in verse 27, “You are quite wrong.”

Now, we’ve been reading Mark for a little while—some of us have been studying it for an age—and we’ve become familiar with the game that is being played most recently. What we have here is a succession of approaches by the religious leaders and their friends to try and unnerve, or trip up, or thwart in some way, Jesus of Nazareth. The game that they’re playing is essentially “Stump the Rabbi.” They’re coming with a series of questions for the teacher, and in every instance, it’s just an attempt to make him look foolish or make the ideas and the concepts seem quite ridiculous.

In 11:27, we saw that it was the representatives of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, who were involved in this: “The chief priests … the scribes and the elders came to him,” and they challenged his authority. Last time, in 12:13, we saw that the individuals in that representative council had now dispatched a coterie of Pharisees and Herodians—a sort of an amalgam of theological and political dissidents—who then were also trying to, as it says in verse 13, “trap [Jesus] in his talk.” They’re like 737s lined up on the runway at Newark, just waiting to take off, just waiting for the next chance they’ve got to go. And here we now have, in verse 18, it’s the Sadducees’ turn, and they come flying down the end of the runway to encounter Jesus.

How difficult it must have been for these folks, given that they were the credentialed ones. They were the ones with the diplomas. They were the ones with the right kind of background. And this Galilean carpenter, this upstart fellow, had none of what they had. He didn’t come from the right kind of background; he hadn’t gone to the proper schools. And yet—surprise, surprise—it was to this individual that the people were paying attention, and not to them. At the end of Jesus’ talks, the people actually responded. They went out saying they were amazed by his teaching. Many of them became his followers, in a way that people were falling off from the religious establishment of the time. And as we’ve noted, there is more than a little jealousy that is in the heart of these individuals as they come to challenge him.

Who Were the Sadducees?

Now, I would like to assume that we all knew everything about everything, but it’s clear that we don’t, and therefore, we need to ask the question, Who were the Sadducees? Who were the Sadducees? And the origin of their name is somewhat foggy; it’s unclear. But in terms of their position, their status in the society of the time, the historians record for us the fact that they were the aristocratic party. They were made up of the high priestly caste and also of lay family members of the leading individuals in Jerusalem. They would be the people that were appearing in the society pages, if you like, when you went into a city and you found those glossy magazines in the hotel, and you turned through them, and you saw that this individual was at such and such a function and so on. We have them here in town as well, I know. Well, these individuals were those folks. They were socially influential on account of their wealth and their status, they were notoriously arrogant and harsh in their execution and administration of justice, and they were at the same time on the theologically conservative end of the spectrum of Judaism and of their doctrines, so much so that they rejected the innovative ideas that the Pharisees brought to the table—not least of all, this idea of the resurrection.

And really, at the top of their list of things to be refuted was this matter of the resurrection. And that’s why Mark says in verse 18, “And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection.” This was the defining feature of these individuals. That’s why at Sunday school we were taught that the Sadducees were “sad, you see,”[1] because they did not believe in the resurrection. And once again, Sunday school helps us out. You’ll never be able to forget that now. Who were the Sadducees? They were the ones who did not believe in the resurrection, and that is why they were… Okay. You’re a very smart group. It’s so easy to speak to you.

Now, their question, as was true in the previous couple of questions, is not asked out of a desire for instruction, but in order, once again, to try and show just how absurd the idea of—in this instance—the resurrection proves to be. It’s important for us also to know that the Sadducees really only dealt with the Pentateuch—that is, the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. They operated out of the Pentateuch. And it is from the Pentateuch that they then quote, in order to seek to give substance to their question, which is really a trick question. Once again, you see how clever is the opposition to the truth that is found in the Lord Jesus Christ.

We think to examine Jesus intellectually, and he turns things around and examines us spiritually. He turns the searching gaze on us.

Have you noticed—I know I say this all the time, as if I’ve got some particular predilection about Christian Science reading rooms—but I’m struck by two things: one, by how nice they always look, how well they are lit, and two, by the inevitable fact that there is always an open Bible in the window—despite the fact that the reason the Bible is in the window is actually, ultimately, to undermine the very truth that the Bible teaches. Don’t be misled by the fact that someone says, “Well, they were quoting from the Bible, you know.” Yes, but what were they doing when they were quoting from the Bible?  Here you have these individuals, the Sadducees, and they have their Bibles open, as it were. They’re here, they come to Jesus, and they said, “We want to speak to you about an issue that, you know, is found in the Bible. Moses wrote for us…” Very clever!

Now, let’s just turn back for a moment and make sure that we understand that to which they’re referring. Deuteronomy chapter 25—and I think that this is time well spent, because it will help to earth the underlying concept which gives rise to their approach to Jesus. Deuteronomy 25:5. And you’ll notice, if you have the same version as I do, that it says, “Laws Concerning Levirate Marriage.” Levirate marriage. The word levir, the noun levir—l-e-v-i-r—is Latin for brother-in-law. Brother-in-law. So these are laws that relate to marriage, and particularly to the role of the brother-in-law in the loss of his brother to death.

Anyway, here we have it: “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.” You see how clear, incidentally, the Old Testament is about how the whole sex thing works? “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.”[2] So the contemporary strategy of “hook up, shack up, and then tie the knot up if you want” is completely opposed by the clear instruction of the Bible. (That’s just a little extra in passing. I just threw that in. You don’t have to worry unduly about that.)

“And the first son,” verse 6, “whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.” That’s why this is taking place. That’s why she doesn’t go and get married outside the framework of the family: because the concern is for the name of the family and for the heritage of the one who has died.

Verse 7:

And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, “I do not wish to take her,” then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, “So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, “The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.”

So if you were traveling in Israel, and you came to a bed-and-breakfast, and the sign on the door said, “Bed-and-Breakfast with the Sandal Pulled Off,” you would say, “I got it. I know exactly what was happening here. That’s that Deuteronomy 25 stuff.” And it would be.

If you turn, go now—Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth—and turn to Ruth, then let me give you an assignment for this afternoon, if you would like it, and that is to read for the first time, or to reread for your benefit, the story of Ruth. And when you read the story of Ruth now, in relationship to the question posed in Mark 12 and the background given to us in Deuteronomy 25, suddenly the lights will go on in a way that perhaps you’ve never known before. And you will understand why it is that Naomi, in her sort of craftiness, when she figures out that Ruth has been working in the field of Boaz, oh, how her gears start to spin when Ruth comes home in the evening and she says, “I was working in the field of a man called Boaz”! And she says, “Oh, Boaz! Boaz is a nice man. Boaz is one of our relatives.” And immediately she begins to think. And when you read the story on, what do you discover? You discover that the exact thing that’s being described here, that the one who has first rights to the hand of Ruth refuses it, and when they gather in the city gates before the elders, the transaction takes place, and that’s why you read about all the sandal stuff in Ruth as well.

It’s actually one of the loveliest small short stories, I think, in the entire world. And at the heart of it is the issue that these Sadducees now bring before Jesus in an attempt to set the law of God in the Pentateuch against the reality of the promised resurrection, which, if they actually had their heads on, they would realize is also there in the five books of the Law—all of the anticipation of what there is going to be. But because they’re fixed in their desire to oppose this, they present themselves in this way.

And so, look at how they pose it: “Supposing a situation has arisen,” they say, “where a married man has died before his wife has a child, and his brother has married the widow, and then that brother died before producing an heir, and it went on all the way through to the death of the seventh brother, and then finally the death of the sevenfold widow”—which in her case would be a relief by that point, presumably. And then they say, verse 23, “In the resurrection, when they rise again—NOT!” You see? See? So they’re there with one another, “In the resurrection—ha ha ha—in the resurrection, when they all ‘rise again…’” Yeah? “In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as a wife. Gotcha! The Levirite law is so clear. There can’t be a resurrection! Because if there was a resurrection, it would be complete chaos. People’d be running around heaven all the time, trying to figure out who was married to who. It’d be absolutely ridiculous. The whole idea is absurd!” That’s what they’re saying. And the argument that they’re using is a reductio ad absurdum, which some of you remember from your logic classes—and some of you imply routinely in law courts all around Cleveland, but we won’t talk about that for now. In other words, taking something that is true and reducing it to a level that is absolutely absurd, whereby we then use it as a mechanism to refute the reality of the premise. That’s what they’re doing. What they’re saying is, “To believe in the resurrection’s just ridiculous.”

Now, people who are opposed to the resurrection, that’s largely how they operate. If you read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, you will recall that in that book he paid scant attention, if any attention at all, to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s all tied up in scientific argumentation. But I have a sneaking suspicion the reason he bypassed the resurrection is because he’s so clever he realized he should bypass the resurrection, because the resurrection may actually trip him up and land him on his big, fat head. And this is what he says in his book: Jesus probably existed, but the idea that he came back to life after being dead is absurd. Absurd! End of story. He’s a Sadducee. These guys are forerunners of everybody who professes any kind of belief and at the same time overturns the resurrection.

Jesus Responds

Well, you have it there, don’t you, right up until verse 23: “For the seven had her as [a] wife,” and now they’re all ears, looking to Jesus. Verse 24, Jesus responds. And you will notice he responds with two questions of his own. First question is in verse 24: “Is this not the reason you[’re] wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels [of] heaven.” That’s the first question. And then in verse 26, the second question: “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him?” Okay? Very straightforward.

To the first of the questions, about the issue of marriage—which is not really the question; the underlying question is the fundamental issue of the resurrection—but to the first question, he says, “If you want to think about the first question as you have mentioned it here in the absurd argument that you have used, then isn’t the reason you’re wrong because you don’t know the Scriptures and you don’t know the power of God?”

What a stinging rebuke that is, isn’t it? These are the boys! This is the religious aristocracy. These people are from the high priestly families. These are the ones who are meticulous in relationship to the Pentateuch. They are the ones who are come quoting the Law of God to Jesus. And Jesus says, “You know what your problem probably is? You don’t know the Bible. You don’t know the Scriptures. And you don’t know the power of God. If you knew the Scriptures, you would know not to ask this question. If you knew the power of God, you would realize that in the purposes of God there are dimensions that we have not yet seen but into which we will inevitably enter.

“And in relationship to the second question: Have you never read your Bibles?” That’s what he says to them. That’s a rebuke as well! “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses …?” What’s the book of Moses? What do we have as the book of Moses? Their five books! He says, “If you want to quote the Pentateuch, let’s quote the Pentateuch. Didn’t you read it?”

You can imagine how uncomfortable these characters must feel in their clothes. I can see their toes curling in their shoes as they realize again and again… First the group comes and challenges his authority, and he absolutely decimates them. Then they come with a question about Caesar, and he produces the denarius, and now they’re dumbfounded. Now the next group have lined up, and they’re ready, and they fire their great volley against him with this wonderful scenario that they have contrived—and how clever they must have thought it was!—and now he’s actually saying to them, “Have you never actually read this thing that you keep coming here with and want me to comment on?” It’s amazing.

I want to say to you again: we think to examine Jesus intellectually, and he turns things around and examines us spiritually. He turns the searching gaze on us.  Jesus turns the tables on them.

And in verse 25, when he introduces this, you will notice that the resurrection is a nonnegotiable. Remember in verse 23, when I was trying a vain attempt at humor there in verse 23, “In the resurrection, when they rise again…” “In the resurrection, when they rise again—oh, yeah, yeah, yeah…” And Jesus says, verse 25, “For when they rise from the dead… You might think that’s funny. I’m telling you it’s not a joke. For when they rise from the dead…” It’s a nonnegotiable. The resurrection from the dead is absolutely foundational to the unfolding story of God’s purposes from all of eternity.  

And what he goes on to say—and this is what we have to come back to this evening, because it raises all kinds of questions about what heaven will be like and whether you even like the idea of it—what he says immediately is that life in heaven is going to be significantly different from anything on earth. The resurrection life, he says, is comparable to the life that is enjoyed by the angels: “For when they rise from the dead”—and they will rise from the dead—“they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

One day we will be free not only from the power of sin and from the penalty of sin but from the very presence of sin.

I don’t think there’s any question that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing as he raised the issue of angels. Because the angels were also part of what Sadducees didn’t believe. And for your own follow-up, you can go to Acts chapter 23, where Paul is defending himself against his accusers, and in the course of his monologue he explains that he is a Pharisee, and that as a Pharisee he believes in the resurrection, and he actually says, “It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” Very cleverly. Because what then breaks out in the company is an argument between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. “For the Sadducees say,” says Luke, “that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.”[3] So Jesus says, “When they rise, they won’t be marrying in this way, but they will be like the angels.” Well, that would just make their toes curl some more: “We don’t believe in angels either!”

Now, when you look at this, when you seek to think this out, as we’ll try and do in the balance of the day, then it raises all kinds of both fascinating questions and interesting notions of what yet awaits us in the resurrection. And we will come to that tonight. But let me finish in this way, by just giving us, if you like, both the close to the morning and the introduction to the evening.

And this came to mind as I was finishing my studies, because during the week we had occasion to do a Q and A in one of the American cities, for Truth For Life. And in the course of the conversations, as people stood up and said who they were and their background, a young lady stood up at one point, and she introduced herself to me and to the group. She said that she was a new believer, that she had recently come out of the New Age movement, and that she had come to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. But what she had discovered—at least what she thought she was discovering—was that she had now entered a world that was much darker and gloomier than the world out of which she had come. Because, she said, her New Age world was full of optimism, it was full of expectation, it was full of positive energy, and now she had entered into a world that apparently—and I don’t know where she’d been worshipping—but she’d entered into a world that she said now was dark, it was gloomier, and it was not filled with these dimensions that had marked her life before. And she said, “How do I deal with this, and how do I get beyond this?” or “Is this right?” or whatever it might be.

And I responded by saying, “One of the ways that you will come to terms with this and clarify it in your own mind is by getting hold of a good hymnbook.” And I explained to her that a good hymnbook will help you understand so many of the doctrines that are foundational to Christianity—not least of all, our understanding of the present world order and our understanding of the world order that is yet to be.  I’m not sure just how much she made of that; I had no occasion to speak with her afterwards. I did have a number of people come and ask me what hymnbook they were supposed to get. And I told them, actually, a very ancient Methodist hymnbook would be a good start. I think some were surprised by that, but I actually believe that—that the hymns of Wesley and so on are all there, and you won’t suffer from them.

But what I was thinking of was the fact that if she finds a hymnbook, then she will find these words: you know, that

Heav’n above is softer blue,
And earth around is sweeter green,
And something lives in ev’ry hue
That Christless eyes have never seen.
And birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
And earth with deeper beauties shine
Since I know, as now I know,
That I am his and he is mine.[4]

Or if she found her way to one of the children’s hymns by Cecil Frances Alexander and got herself to

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

All things bright and beautiful.[5]

And I tried to show to her that this is the reality of present Christian experience—that C. S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe in the rising of the Sun, not simply because I can see it, but because by it I can see everything else.”[6] And I said, “So our view of the world recognizes that on the brightest days, the shadows fall into the reality of our expanding universe of understanding in Jesus. Darkness has come, and thorns remain,” and so on. And I said, “And that is because we’re actually being prepared for a dimension into which we will come—that what we enjoy now in Christ is the new that is fashioned in the context of the badness of a fallen world, but one day we will be free not only from the power of sin and from the penalty of sin but from the very presence of sin. ”

And I said to her, “And here is a verse for you to take away—1 Corinthians 2:9: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man, the things that God has prepared for them that love him.’”[7] In other words, we are ushered into a dimension in Christ that has a fulfillment in the resurrection that is actually beyond us. “Eye has not seen”; it is invisible. “Nor ear heard”; it is inaudible. “Neither has it entered into the heart of man”; it is inconceivable. But it’s not in doubt. And the reason it isn’t in doubt is because of the reality of the resurrection.

And that’s why Jesus says, “And so, fellows, you’ve gotta understand: God is not the God of the dead. He’s the God of the living.” To this we will return.

Let us pray:

O God our Father, we thank you now that when we search the Scriptures diligently, we meet with you, the living Lord. Perhaps some of us here this morning are in the predicament of the Sadducees, that we are unable to actually lay hold upon you because we neither know the Scriptures nor the power of God. We thank you that your desire is that we might know both. That’s why you’ve given them to us; that’s why you have provided the Holy Spirit: in order that that which you have inspired the apostles to write and the prophets to write, you illumine our minds to be able to see and to understand—that by nature we don’t get it, but in Christ we do. And then that we might discover the very power of God, the power that raised Jesus from the dead, at work within our lives, making us new people—not telling us how to go about the business of trying our best to be acceptable to you, but going about the business of declaring your glory as a result of your work within us and through us.

Help us, then, to live today in light of all that is yet before us. And we commend one another and our loved ones to you, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Brian M. Howard, “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep” (1974).

[2] Genesis 2:24 (paraphrased).

[3] Acts 23:6, 8 (ESV).

[4] Wade Robinson, “I Am His, and He Is Mine” (1890). Lyrics lightly altered.

[5] Cecil Frances Alexander, “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (1848).

[6] C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?,” in The Weight of Glory (1949; repr., New York: HarperOne, 2001), 140. Paraphrased.

[7] 1 Corinthians 2:9 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.