November 20, 2011
In cynicism, the Sadducees asked Jesus a trick question about the nature of marriage in heaven, hoping to discredit Him and make the resurrection seem absurd. If they had rightly known God’s power, they would have recognized that since the Pentateuch, God has promised that hope in Him is not only for this present life. Alistair Begg explores the possibilities of human relationships in eternity, acknowledging that earthly blessings, while altered, can only be more delightful in heaven.
Sermon Transcript: Print
We’re going to read again the passage that we read this morning. We have to finish up our work from earlier today. Mark chapter 12, and reading from verse 18:
“And Sadducees came to him, who say that 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 are 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.’”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
Lord, please help us now as we try and wrap up the study from this morning. Clarify our thinking, so that we might understand and believe and obey your Word and live in the light of it. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, those of us who were present this morning have a jump start on this, because we’re really finishing up what we began. The Sadducees, as you would see from the reading, had posed a question about the resurrection, despite the fact that they didn’t even believe in the resurrection. And there is a cynicism about the way in which they come to Jesus. Their motivation is absolutely clear: they want to expose, if they can, the absurdity of the resurrection itself. And although previous attempts to trap Jesus have ended in failure, by means of this particular approach these individuals were hoping to discredit him. And as you read the opening part of this little paragraph, you have the sense that they feel that, perhaps on this occasion, they’ve done a very good job.
But in verse 25, Jesus begins to answer them. And the first answer he gives is in relationship to the specific question that they had raised. Although it is a spurious question, nevertheless, Jesus addresses it. The whole question was in relationship to the demands of the law of God, which you can find in Deuteronomy 25, which made provision for the lineage of a man if he had died childless. And these Sadducees are using this levirate law, pushed to the level of absurdity, to somehow or another, at least in their minds, bolster up their conviction that the idea of the resurrection is entirely untenable. Because what they’re saying is, the chaos that would ensue in the afterlife is such that God would never, ever have had any part in making such a thing happen.
The question is really a very Jewish one, and that’s why we took time this morning to read Deuteronomy 25. It had express application in that context. But as would become obvious, I think, in the reading of the passage and in reflecting upon it, I hope, the question that they posed remains a matter of considerable pastoral significance tonight for individuals who have been married more than once. If as a result of divorce or as a result of the death of a spouse there has been in an individual’s life more than one marriage, then that introduces the prospect of, in the afterlife, meeting up with more than one spouse. And what are you going to do? Who are you going to live with? How are you going to spend your time? And so on. And if you’ve ever thought these things out—and I’m sure many of you have—you’ve wondered, really, just exactly how it was going to spin for you.
Well, what Jesus says in verse 25 is, essentially, you’re not really going to have to worry about it at all. “Don’t lose any sleep over it,” he says, “because there will actually be no need for procreation in the afterlife and therefore no need for marriage. And it is in this respect,” he says, “that you will be like the angels.” Now, it’s important that you notice he doesn’t say that “you’re going to become angels” but that “you will be like the angels.”
Now, I don’t know how this strikes you, but I would include this as one of the hard sayings of Jesus. A hard saying of Jesus in this respect: that for those of us who have or are enjoying married life—the companionship that it provides, the joys of every aspect of marriage—the concept of a heaven that removes us from this realm is not, I would suggest to you, something that is immediately attractive. Now, I don’t think that we have to feel bad about this, in the first instance, because after all, one of the great gifts that God has given to us as children of men is the gift of family life, is the gift of marriage, the relationships that he has established from the very beginning of creation: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This has been instituted by God himself.
But when we think in terms of what eternity will be, we discover that it isn’t going to include that. Which is tough for us if our view of heaven is essentially the Irving Berlin view of heaven. And what is that? Well, it goes like this:
Heaven, I’m in heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak,
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.
So the Christian says, “That is for me, at least in measure, wrapped up somehow in my anticipation of life as it might ultimately be.” And so, essentially what we do is, we project the best that we have now, we kind of supersize it, and assume then that that is going to be heaven.
And the way in which we think about these things—and I can put it in a first person—the way in which I think about these things clarifies for me just how earthly-minded so many of my heavenly thoughts prove to be. You know, people always talk about those who are “so heavenly-minded that they’re of no earthly use.” I haven’t met many people like that; I don’t know about you. I think my problem is that I’m so earthly-minded I may be of no heavenly use. And when it comes to this issue of heaven itself and the afterlife, I realize, when I read an answer like verse 25, just how daunting it really is. Now, maybe it’s not good to be so honest—I don’t know—but there you have it. Marriage and reproduction belong to the earthly sphere, which is temporary, but the heavenly life is eternal.
So immediately the carpet is pulled out from underneath these characters. They’ve come with this elaborate attempt at undermining the whole concept of the resurrection, and Jesus says, “Well, first of all, in terms of the specifics that you’re mentioning, that really is a moot point. Because, actually, when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels.”
“Oh, well,” you say to yourself, “well, he’s only referring to the process. So when you get there, you don’t get married and you’re not given in marriage. But that’s okay, ’cause I’m already married. So I don’t have to worry about the process. So I’ll go up there as I am. It’s only for those that somehow or another want to get married. I don’t want to get married; I am married!” But that only mitigates it in part, doesn’t it, when you think it through? But for those of us in married life who enjoy one another’s company and who have already made secret plans to meet each other, whatever the program is—I don’t know where we’re going to meet; I don’t know where it is: behind the school sheds, I think, just for old times’ sake, but I—verse 25 is a hard saying of Jesus.
Now, commentators differ as to the specifics. Let me just give you a couple of instances. This is from a professor from Australia, who’s a well-respected man, publishing with a very, very good company that we have tons of their books in the bookstore here. And this is a quote from his commentary: he says, “Because resurrection bodies will lack reproductive organs,” it is a moot question as to whose wife she would be. I read that and I said, “What?! Where did you get that from? How can you be a brilliant professor…?” I had never, anywhere, ever heard that as a notion. But of course, it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? But it’s just, I don’t know where he gets it from.
He goes on to say, “Jesus’ teaching about the sexless condition of the resurrection need not mean that … gender differences between men and women will not continue after the resurrection in a recognisable form.” This is getting worse by the minute. So what are we going to wear? Like, signs? How are we gonna distinguish one another? So that, although the whole thing is sexless, he says, or is asexual, this doesn’t mean that there won’t be any gender definition, and that we will be perfectly able to decide who’s who and what’s what. Well, fine. I mean, he’s far cleverer than me, but that’s one approach to it.
Then I found a commentary that had to do… It was a piece on the Jewish perspective on the sexuality of angels. Well, that’s what it was! And the writers, [Davies] and Allison—that is two last names, not a girl’s name—they’re protesting against the notion that “the eschatological narrative will be the affair of eunuchs.” So they’re saying, “We don’t see how you get to that as a conclusion,” and they then conclude that “while procreation and marriage are excluded, we do not see why sexual love, which is a power, should be a priori excluded.”
But here’s what strikes me. Maybe, after all that I said last week about the volitional aspect of praise, you won’t be here in your thinking, but we said that genuine praise had a volitional aspect to it, it had an intellectual aspect to it, and it had an emotional aspect to it. Is it not your experience, just every so often, when you gather with God’s people as we’ve done this evening and you sing, that suddenly, in the expression of genuine, heartfelt praise to God, things are clarified for us in a way that seldom happens in other contexts? So that our thoughts, then, are so channeled as to give us almost, as it were, a foretaste of what heaven would be. And basically, Sundays are supposed to be a foretaste of heaven: the day of rest, the opportunity that leads us in to that eternal rest, so that our minds are constrained by thoughts which take us up and out of ourselves, our earthly considerations—even about those nearest and dearest to us, even beyond those considerations, which in our earthly pilgrimage may mean so much to us.
So that when one begins to track down that line, then, irrespective of these diametrically opposed concepts of what humanity and gender specifics will be in the afterlife, you find yourself saying, “When I sing, ‘My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought,’ and ‘my sin not in part, but the whole is nailed to [your] cross and I bear it no more,’ it doesn’t really seem that very much else matters at the moment.” When all of a sudden, our gaze is caught up with the wonder of the salvation that has been provided for us in Christ, we begin then to get just an inkling of the notion. When we think of those who, in the afterlife, are crying out, “How long?” as they long for their resurrection body, as they long for the ushering in of the new heaven and the new earth, we begin to get a little idea of what it is that we anticipate and why it is that this hard saying of Jesus, from one perspective, is really quite helpful for us.
It raises, of course, all the other correlative questions about being known and knowing in heaven, and whether the familial ties of earth will hold true into eternity, whether they will immediately be so transcended that they will be irrelevant to us, or whether they will be, if you like, enhanced in a way that we can hardly imagine. Again, this is my own personal hope—but not necessarily conviction—and that is that the things that are precious to us in this life in terms of relationships will not be eradicated in the afterlife but will actually be enhanced.
The afterlife is not simply going to be a form of resuscitation; it is going to be a complete transformation. But even in that transformative dimension, we have reason, I think, to anticipate the meaningfulness of these ties which have bound us together in an earthly way. And so that would extend to, for example, our relationships here at Parkside Church—that in eternity, I suppose it’s possible that we would just be so taken up with everything that we would never, ever give Parkside Church a thought; that we never, ever say, “Hey, didn’t you used to sit in the second section in the second service?” and so on, and “Don’t I know you from the small group? Weren’t you in the Help and Hope?” I mean, that kind of thing. These are not main things and plain things; these are questions of conjecture.
But let me give to you a quote, which I have found is the best quote. In fact, you are going to love this quote so much that I’m going to tell you now that we will post it on the internet to prevent you all from phoning up and annoying my assistant tomorrow morning. This is a quote from an Irish Presbyterian minister who’s a friend of mine, and it goes under the heading “Relationships in Heaven.” So just sit back and listen to this, and see if you find this helpful and encouraging.
“What about those who are nearest to us on earth?” That’s the question he poses:
Will I still have a special relationship with my wife in heaven? Will you still treat your parents as father and mother? Will our close friends here be our close friends there? It[’s] all very well to look forward to meeting tens of thousands. But are we not created in such a way as to still want an inner circle? Such questions are natural, but not easy to answer.
We will certainly know one another in heaven. King David looked forward to being reunited with his dead son there. “I shall go to him,” he said …. Paul urges bereaved Christians not to “sorrow as others who have no hope. For … God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” …. The reason for not grieving like unbelievers is that their parting is not permanent. They will meet again. We cannot know less in heaven than we did on earth and so we will recognize there those known to us here. That is surely comforting.
We[’re] also told that many aspects of marriage will no longer be appropriate in glory, where [to quote from Mark here] “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” …. There will be no reproduction. The husband will not need a helper nor the wife someone to cherish her protectively. Children will not require parental care. The relationship between Christ and his church will be so obvious as to render unnecessary a human illustration. Does this mean, then, that your husband or my best friend will be no more to us than anyone else among the multitudes of the redeemed? I do[n’t] think so. For every good thing will be better in heaven than on earth. If God has given you a Christian husband or wife, parent or child, brother or friend, you can be sure that, whatever the parameters of your future relationship with them may be, the friendship will be closer there than it is now. You will know them more intimately, love them more intensely, delight in them more fully. It is impossible that we should lose anything good in that place where good abounds. We can look at Christians whom we love especially and praise God that we will continue to love them, more and more, for ever and ever.
You like that quote? So you imagine, you take your grandchildren to you: Could you love them any more than you love them? The idea that I could love them more and more, and forever and ever? Oh, these silly Sadducees have helped us out, haven’t they, by posing this question and giving us the opportunity to consider it?
Then Jesus changes down into third gear, and in verse 26 he says, “Now, let me come to the real question that you’re asking, the underlying question. What you’ve asked about marriage you have been using as a ploy; I recognize that. I have addressed it as best I can. But I realize that what you’re really calling in question is the notion of the resurrection itself. That’s the real issue.” And so he says, “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 [the] God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”
Now, I’ve read this a lot this week, and you’ve read it a few times already today, and you may agree with me that the response of Jesus here does not strike one as immediately obvious. Maybe you, but it didn’t strike me as immediately obvious. He takes, as we noted this morning, a passage from the Scriptures which is contained in the Pentateuch. And it was the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible, the Law of Moses—that these Sadducees regarded as, exclusively, inspired Scripture. So he doesn’t go outside of that. He doesn’t go to the Psalms. He doesn’t go to Psalm 16:11, where the psalmist says, “Thou dost show me the path of life”—that’s the King James Version, banging into the NIV, which banged into the ESV—“Thou dost show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and at your right hand there are pleasures forevermore.” He doesn’t go to passages in Job that anticipate the resurrection. No, he says, “Let’s just stay right here in the section that you were mentioning earlier.”
In fact, he says to them, since they wouldn’t be walking around with big scrolls—I mean, you couldn’t say in those days, “If you just take your Bible and look on page 848”; they wouldn’t be wandering around with the scrolls of the Pentateuch with them. And that’s why they would refer to certain incidents in the way in which this is referenced. You see that. He says, “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush…” “In the passage about the bush.” So that they would immediately say, “Oh yes, I know what you’re referencing there. Moses and the burning bush,” which is in Exodus chapter 3. And they couldn’t turn to it, but you can, and I would like you to, if you would, so that we could just see that it’s there and draw our thinking to a close in a moment.
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he [had] turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Now, this is the passage which Jesus then uses to point out to the Sadducees, from the Pentateuch, the fact of the resurrection. Which then raises the question, in what sense does this section—concerning Moses and the burning bush and the statement made by God to Moses—in what sense does this convey the fact that God is the God of the living and not the dead? Because that’s the punch line, isn’t it, in verse 27? Says, “Let me remind you of the bush. You know the story of the bush, don’t you?” He says, “And this is what God said, and here’s the deal: God is the God of the living. He’s not the God of the dead.” What is he saying?
Well, think about it. Think how many years had passed by the time this incident took place, in relationship to Moses. From a human perspective, from an earthly perspective, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were long gone. They hadn’t been around for ages—literally! But when he addresses Moses, he speaks in the present tense in relationship to the patriarchs. And the point that he is making is surely this: that he is the ongoing God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are themselves ongoing. They have been gathered into the presence of God, awaiting that glorious resurrection day when, with all the myriad hosts upon hosts, they will be gathered into the grand finale, when all of this comes down from heaven, like a bride adorned for her husband, and the dwelling of God is with men in a new heaven and in a new earth.
Sinclair Ferguson puts it in a sentence or two: “God’s covenant promise to save his people”—the covenant promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will be your God and you will be my people”—“God’s covenant promise to save his people would not be of any significance if it were overcome and shattered by death. It would be a tawdry salvation which lasted only for this life.” What good would it be if he called Abraham out of the Ur of the Chaldees and made all these promises to him, and then Abraham died and it was over? That he establishes his purposes for Isaac, and Isaac dies, and it’s the grand finale? And so on. That’s the point that Jesus is making.
And these Sadducees were clever enough to understand exactly what he was doing and to be clear concerning what he said. If the Sadducees had actually known God’s power in the way that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had known God’s power, then they would have recognized what they failed to see: that hope in God is not simply for time alone. Hope in God is not simply for the immediate enjoyment and discoveries of his grace—all of which are wonderful, necessary, and meaningful. But if these guys, these smart-aleck Sadducees, had actually paid attention to the Bible they were reading, and if they had known the power of God revealed in the Bible they were reading, then they would not have come to Jesus with their cynical, smart-aleck questions. The problem for them lay just as Jesus pointed out: “Isn’t your problem,” he says, “that you don’t actually know the Scriptures, nor do you know the power of God? For he is the God of the living; he’s not the God of the dead.”
As I was sitting late this afternoon, thinking along these lines, one of my songs from Sunday school came to mind. I suppose that’s sort of the story of my life—just Sunday school songs coming to mind. And I started to write it down, and then I got only about two lines into it, and I thought I could remember it all and then I couldn’t. And the reason that I couldn’t was because I’d got the first line wrong. And then I thought, “Well, I could maybe google it, but there’s no way in the world that you could find this particular song on the internet.” It begins, “You have heard of little Moses in the bulrush.” So I googled, you know, “You have heard of little Moses in the bulrush”—and here we go.
So, earlier this afternoon, this seemed to fit. Right now, I’m not sure. Anyway, I’m going to read it to you in any case, and then we’ll sing a song:
You have heard of little Moses in the bulrush,
You have heard of fearless David and his sling,
You have heard the story told of dreaming Joseph,
And of Jonah and the whale I often sing.
There are many, many others in the Bible;
I should like to meet them all, I do declare.
And by and by, the Lord will surely let us meet them
At that meeting in the air.
For there’s going to be a meeting in the air
In the sweet, sweet by and by.
I’m going to meet you, meet you over there
In a home beyond the sky.
Such singing you will hear, never heard by mortal ear;
It’ll be glorious, I do declare,
And God’s own Son will be the leading one
At that meeting in the air.
There the doubters will be missing altogether,
All the skeptics will be absent on that day,
There will be no grumblers present to disturb us,
And the Achans will be busy far away.
Remember, burying the stuff?
There the saints will have his seal upon their foreheads,
Dressed in raiment none but ransomed ones can wear.
All who have the wedding garments will be present
At the meeting in the air.
’Cause there’s gonna be a meeting in the air,
And God’s own Son will be the leading one
At that meeting in the air.
You see how different this is from Islam, from the vague hopes of Zen Buddhism, from the forlorn notions in the darkness of Hinduism for the chance of a go-around to come back again as something a little better, and hopefully not a little worse, than I am now?
My dear friends, let us make sure that in no respect we will ever be like these Sadducees. Let us resolve to know the Scriptures and the power of God, so that when we’re asked a reason for the hope we have, we can then tell them this fantastic story.
Let us pray:
Father, we do bless and praise your holy name that the ground of our assurance is not the depth of our conviction but is the reliability of the one who has made the promise. ’Cause our feelings ebb and flow. We’re like on a gigantic roller-coaster ride many days. But we thank you that, in your providence, that—to maintain that analogy—you bring the bar down over our knees and you keep us in, so that we don’t fall out, because you have laid hold upon us and because you’ve promised that you will bring to completion the good work that you have begun. It’s beyond us to conceive of these things. The only basis that we have for saying them, believing them, affirming them, is the trustworthiness of the Bible and the sufficiency and authority of Jesus.
We thank you that we’ve been born again to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead—a hope that not only stands the test of time but triumphs over the grave. It is a source of great wonder to us. And we pray that whatever the secondary factors are, whatever the ultimately inconsequential dimensions of this question really prove to be, that we might increasingly be taken up with Jesus as we live our lives, so that we can actually say, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Hear our prayers. Forgive our sins. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 Genesis 2:24 (paraphrased).
 Irving Berlin, “Cheek to Cheek” (1935).
 Douglas J. W. Milne, Let’s Study Luke (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2005), 310.
 Milne, 310–11.
 Source unknown.
 Horatio Gates Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul” (1873).
 Edward Donnelly, Biblical Teachings on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001).
 See Revelation 21:1–3.
 Genesis 17:7 (paraphrased).
 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999), 197–98.
 See Joshua 7.
 Mae Taylor Roberts, “The Meeting in the Air” (1925). Lyrics lightly altered.
 See 1 Peter 3:15.
 See Philippians 1:6.
 See 1 Peter 1:3.
 Philippians 1:21 (ESV).
Copyright © 2023, 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.