Jesus Christ as the unique God-man is the all-wise interpreter of the Bible, so learn from him that marriage is an institution in this age only, that resurrection is a reality in the age to come, and that every Bible passage contains important doctrinal and practical implications for life and godliness.
Introduction – Imagine you are in a room with Jesus. Just you and him. You’ve got his undivided attention. He’s with you to be with you. Given such a special opportunity, and not wanting to squander it with frivolity, vanity, or stupidity, what would you say? People who knew Jesus in person, and those who know him today by reading his words in the Bible, could easily see he was supremely wise. He had an unrivaled understanding of the Bible, incisive insight into human nature, and he was never ever stumped by a question. If you could ask Jesus just one question, what would it be?
I. One Hypothetical Bible Question
A. Historical context: the Sadducees and Passion week (v. 27)
1. The Sadducees were a rationalistic priestly sect that formed the majority religious-political party of the Jewish Ruling Council. They were aristocratic and willing to compromise with secular and pagan leadership in order to protect their interests and position. Thus they were socially conservative in wanting to preserve the status quo, but theologically more liberal that the Pharisees. Unlike the Pharisees, they rejected the Jewish oral tradition, revered the five books of Moses more than other books in the OT, and did not find warrant in these books for belief in the resurrection (or angels or spirits for that matter; cf. Acts 23:8). Josephus tells us they also rejected divine providence, preferring to attribute the affairs of men to free will alone. The implications of these rejections are mammoth. No afterlife, no heaven, no hell, no angels or demons, no judgment day. Just this life to live, without God’s guiding hand, and then you die, gone forever. No wonder they weren’t popular with the people.
2. Jesus is at the temple in Jerusalem during the last week of his life when tension between him and the religious leaders is reaching its high point. Hence the question and answer dialogue meant to trap Jesus in his words. Jesus’ enemies are seeking a way to at least discredit him, and at best implicate him in a crime to arrest him. This is the last time a group of religious leaders try to trap Jesus with a carefully-crafted question.
B. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? (vv. 28-33)
1. Levirate marriage (levir is Latin for “a husband’s brother) was a practice commanded in the Law of Moses. A man would marry his brother’s widow if the brother did not have children. The first son from the levirate marriage would be reckoned legally as the heir of the deceased, and thus the dead brother’s “name” would be preserved (Gen 38:8; Dt 25:5-6; Ruth 3:9-4:10). Levirate marriage was not a cruel joke requiring a man to marry his sister-in-law. It had a redemptive purpose: to protect inheritance rights and guard against poverty. Thus it was concerned with social justice. God is good, even when we have a hard time seeing his purposes.
2. The Sadducees attempt to trap Jesus with a hypothetical and absurd scenario meant to disprove the resurrection. Seven brothers all had the same woman as wife as they practiced levirate marriage, but none had children. When the woman, who outlived them all, finally died, none of the brothers had a special claim to her as wife. If this is the case, who will have her as wife in the resurrection? The Sadducees saw the absurdity of this considering how life in this world is sometimes (usually) not tidy.
C. Jesus’ wise answer (vv. 34-40)
1. Jesus shows that the Sadducees’ question was irrelevant because they mistakenly assumed the afterlife will be something like a repetition of this life. If anyone knows what the sons of the resurrection will be like, it would be Jesus. He knows because he is God’s Son and has personal knowledge of heaven. Jesus says marriage laws do not apply to the eternal age because marriage is not an eternal institution. When the history of redemption progresses from this age to the next, there must be appropriate and necessary changes to the way we will experience life.
2. Jesus also knows because he understands the Bible better than anyone. He draws the fullest possible meaning from the burning bush passage to prove the resurrection (Ex 3:4-6). He argues if the living God can have a living relationship with the patriarchs who have been physically dead for centuries, then they must in some sense still be alive. The Sadducees are mistaken because they don’t know the Bible well enough.
Philip Ryken explains how Jesus’ argument works. If I say to you, “I was a friend of your father’s,” then either your father is dead, or there has been a change in relationship between me and your father. But if I say to you, “I am a friend of your father,” then it is clear that your father is alive. If God is (not was) the father of the patriarchs, then they are still alive.
3. His answer was so well-argued and well-spoken that some of his religious enemies (the scribes) felt compelled to compliment him. Because of Jesus’ superior answer to their best effort to discredit him, no one dared ask him any more questions. This was a good strategy, since every time his enemies challenged him, they walked away losing credibility!
II. One Paradoxical Bible Question
A. Historical context: ancestors and descendants
The Jews, as a traditional culture that honored its elders, generally believed that sons were not greater than their fathers (i.e., fathers were greater, wiser, and more important than sons, and therefore ancestors were greater, wiser, and more important than descendants).
There is an old story relating how boys become men. A boy approaches his father, wanting to know when he will become a “man”. Will I be a man when I get my driver’s license? No. When I have a girlfriend? No. When I get married? No. When I turn 18? No. 21? No. When I get a job? No. When I move out on my own? No. Then when will I be a man? His father replies, “When I say you’re a man.” The story illustrates the generational hierarchy common in traditional cultures that give high honor to their elders.
B. If the Christ is David’s son, how is he also David’s Lord? (vv. 41-44)
1. With his magnificent answer Jesus permanently ended their malicious questioning. But to keep the dialogue going he asked them a question about the paradoxical notion that the Christ, acknowledged by all as the son of David, is also the Lord of David. How can the Christ be David’s son, since a father (ancestor) is usually considered greater than his son (descendant)?
2. Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1 to show how David himself describes the Christ as his Lord. This is not just a helpful verse to show the religious leaders they aren’t very clever. It is a foundational gospel verse, quoted or alluded to more than any other Psalm in the NT (cf. Acts 2:34-35; 7:56; Rom 8:34; 1 Cor 15:25; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12-13; 1 Pet 3:22; Rev 3:21). Jesus’ question leads them to consider his identity.
3. The Lord left the question unanswered, because he meant for them to think it through and believe it to be true. The only logical answer is the son of David is also the divine Son of God. The religious teachers affirmed that the Christ would be David’s son, and the Christ would be David’s Lord. They got these Bible truths right. But if the Christ is not both man and God, then these truths appear contradictory. On what basis are they true together? That is the question.
III. Seven Important Implications
A. Answer to persuade in love rather than to just win an argument (vv. 37-38, 41-44)
Notice the method Jesus answers theological and biblical questions is aimed at persuasion, not rhetorical victory. He meets his questioners on their ground and according to their rules. Jesus cites a passage from the books of Moses so that cannot merely dismiss his argument. Christians can do the same when making their case with theological opponents. We must remain faithful to the Bible, and should certainly cite it as authoritative, but we can strategically show how our opponents’ presuppositions, applications, and conclusions are inconsistent with their standards of authority. To make such a case is to be innocent as doves and shrewd as wolves.
The way Jesus answered the Sadducees is a tremendous encouragement to Christians today. Sadducees were the “modern people” of an ancient era. They were skeptics. They didn’t believe in angels, the afterlife, or the resurrections. Not everyone in the ancient world was gullible, unsophisticated, or non-empirical. Jesus exposed the unrealistic skepticism of the Sadducees with his understanding of Scripture, his miracles, and finally his resurrection from the dead. In the same way, Jesus exposes the beliefs of skeptics today. Christians should lovingly dialogue with their skeptical friends, confident in the Holy Spirit’s power to transform the skeptical mind.
B. The Bible is completely consistent and absolutely trustworthy (vv. 37-38)
Jesus believed the Scripture cannot be broken (Jn 10:35), and that it is authoritative even to the tense of verbs! His argument is not sound if the text says, “God was (past tense; not is, present tense) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” To remove the force of Jesus’ argument, some have suggested the text means that God was the God of Abraham when he was alive. But other OT passages teach the existence of an afterlife for God’s people (Pss 16:10-11; 17:15; 73:23-26), and the NT is explicit (1 Cor 15). The Bible is the inspired word of God, without error, without fail, and therefore trustworthy of deriving conclusions from the most minute detail (Mt 5:18).
C. Marriage has no more significance than God gives it (vv. 28-33, 40)
Marriage is a blessed but non-salvific institution. Worldviews and theologies that ask marriage to carry more purpose, value, and meaning than it was meant to bear turn it into an idol, and thus end up hoping to get more out of marriage than God means it to give. Conversely, worldviews and theologies that don’t recognize or affirm the God-given purpose, value, and meaning of marriage end up redefining it into something completely different than God intends and thus working at cross-purposes against God’s good design for husband, wife, and family.
D. Marriage has a specific, limited, and temporary purpose (vv. 28, 34)
Marriage is for this age and not the next. This transforms the way a husband and wife look at each other. If marriage is for this life and not the resurrection life, then what is marriage for? We infer from this passage that marriage has a functional purpose: the building of a godly society through the procreation of children who inherit everything from their parents. Weddings need to continue until funerals cease. But marriage is not only functional. It is also relational in purpose. God gave us marriage for spiritual friendship, for playing a part in God’s plan of sanctifying your spouse.
Tim Keller writes in The Meaning of Marriage:
Within this Christian vision for marriage, here’s what it means to fall in love. It is to look at another person and get a glimpse of the person God is creating, and to say, “I see who God is making you, and it excites me! I want to be part of that. I want to partner with you and God in the journey you are taking to his throne. And when we get there, I will look at your magnificence and say, ‘I always knew you could be like this. I got glimpses of it on earth, but now look at you!’” Each spouse should see the great thing that Jesus is doing in the life of their mate through the Word, the gospel. Each spouse then should give him- or herself to be a vehicle for that work and envision the day that you will stand together before God, seeing each other presented in spotless beauty and glory. [page 121]
The Bible says we will continue earthly relationships in heaven (1 Thess 4:17-18). But the peculiar covenant relationship that marriage establishes will not be necessary in the resurrection age to come. The need for love, fellowship, and whatever else is necessary for never-ending happiness will be ours in abundance in the age to come. Therefore you ought not to lament the fact that your marriage is only for this age. Remember that something better awaits us!
E. Get your information about the resurrection from the Scriptures alone (vv. 37-39)
When building our understanding of the nature of resurrection life in the age to come, we must use only the Scriptures. Ignore the tabloids and mass-market bestsellers. You don’t need Heaven is For Real to know heaven is for real. But we must also be careful to not use biblical truths about this life and extrapolate them to resurrection life. That’s where the Sadducees erred. We make the same kind of mistakes when envisioning heavenly marriage, or trusting our families will be together forever as distinct households. Even though there is much about resurrection life in the age to come that is still mystery to us, the Bible tells us what we need to know. If anyone adds to what the Bible says, they’re just making it up. So use the clear and explicit passages about the resurrection (all of which are found in the NT) to interpret less clear biblical passages.
Scripture interprets Scripture; the clear interprets the less clear; the new interprets the old—this is reading the Bible responsibly. So what do we know? Resurrection means that death is not the end of a person’s existence. The Bible does not teach soul annihilation. Jesus says the sons of the resurrection cannot die anymore. This is saying more than they will not die. They cannot die because death cannot touch them. The nature of our future resurrection life is patterned after Christ’s resurrection—he has the same body that died, but it has been transformed in glory.
F. The resurrection in the age to come means everything in this age matters (vv. 35, 36, 43)
The future resurrection means everything you do matters. There is life after death. Not reincarnation—a sort of spiritual do-over. There will be no second chances, so you must pay careful attention to your life and doctrine in this life, united by faith to Jesus the resurrected one, so you will be counted by God among those who attain to that age and the resurrection of the dead. Souls are eternal, which means everyone is accountable to God. No one escapes justice by escaping justice in this world. Therefore judgment and eternal life hang on the doctrine of the resurrection. Without the resurrection, there is no final justice or salvation.
G. You must decide who Jesus is (v. 44)
The way we identify Jesus reveals our understanding of him. He is the son of David, but not only so. If we merely say he is the son of David, then Jew and secular historian will not object. This title for Jesus is accurate but inadequate for describing who Jesus actually is and claimed to be. He is also the Christ who is David’s Lord because Jesus is God’s anointed King and Son. He is Son of God and therefore King of kings and Lord of lords.
Lots of people try to define Jesus by giving him a title, a label, a description to categorize him and file him away. “He’s a good man. He’s a reformer. He’s a preacher. He’s a healer. He’s a religion-founder.” But none of these are adequate to describe Jesus. He will not be filed away. The Bible tells you about Jesus, what he taught, what he did, and who he claimed to be. Everywhere God’s word presses you to answer Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?”
Conclusion – Identifying who Jesus is, and then believing and living accordingly, is the central question of life. If Jesus of Nazareth is not God in the flesh, if he did not rise from the dead, if he isn’t still alive today in his resurrection body, if he did not promise to return, then “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor 15:32)! But if Jesus is who he claimed to be, and did everything the Bible says he did, then nothing else is more important than answering the question: how can Jesus Christ be David’s son and also David’s Lord? If Jesus is both, then that changes everything! What is your answer?