18 And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, 19 “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. 20 There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. 21 And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. 22 And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. 23 In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”
24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 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’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.” – Mark 12:18-27 ESV
Driven by their mutual hatred for Jesus, the Pharisees and Herodians had set aside their long-standing differences and joined forces in a vain attempt to bring His ministry to an end. But they had failed. They had tried to expose Jesus as a political insurrectionist who stood opposed to the Roman government and its excessive taxation of the people of Israel. But these men had misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ Kingdom. It was not of this world. He had not come to free Israel from slavery to Rome, but from slavery to sin and death. And His mission was spiritual in nature and not political.
When the Pharisees and Herodians returned to the Sanhedrin and reported the results of their less-than-successful mission, they were replaced by a contingent of Sadducees. These men would form the second phase of their well-orchestrated attack on Jesus. The Sadducees were a powerful religious/political sect made up of the wealthy and influential upper class of Israel. They held the majority of the 70 seats in the Sanhedrin and controlled much of what happened in and around the temple. Their aristocratic mindset caused them to disdain the common man and to elevate themselves as members of the religious and political elite.
In order to preserve their superior status within the nation, the Sadducees had become reluctant partners with Rome, willingly accepting their presence as a necessary evil. Compromise with Rome allowed them to maintain their control over the nation of Israel. The Sadducees were essentially a political party that dabbled in religion. And while they expressed strong belief in the books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy), they rejected many of the established doctrines of the Hebrew religion.
For instance, they denied any resurrection of the dead. And this led them to reject the concept of an afterlife. They had concluded that the soul perishes at death, so this eliminated any idea of rewards or penalties. Therefore, in their theology, there was no heaven or hell. And to top it all off, they discounted any belief in an invisible spiritual realm populated by demons and angels. In a sense, they were the religious progressives of their day, espousing liberal views on a wide range of important doctrines that put them at odds with the more traditional Pharisees.
But since the Pharisees and Herodians had failed in their mission to entrap Jesus, the more liberally minded Sadducees were given their chance. And they approached Jesus with a very carefully concocted and convoluted story that was meant to expose His more conservative and antiquated religious views. These men knew that the majority of the peasant class also clung to the more traditional views on the doctrines of the afterlife and resurrection. So, they made up a hypothetical story that was meant to reveal the absurdity of these beliefs.
But like the Pharisees and Herodians who preceded them, the Sadducees were going to meet their match in Jesus. While they viewed Him as nothing more than an uneducated peasant from the backwater village of Nazareth, He would prove to be far more knowledgeable of the Scriptures and more than able to defend the doctrines of the resurrection and the afterlife.
And it is important to remember that Jesus had made many comments about eternal life. In fact, Jesus had told Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). He had offered the Samaritan woman water that would permanently satisfy her thirst and provide her with eternal life.
“…whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:14 ESV
And most recently, Jesus had told Martha, the sister of Lazarus, that her dead brother would rise again.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” – John 11:25-26 ESV
These statements, and others like them, would have made their way back to the Sadducees. Jesus’ persistent claims regarding eternal life and the resurrection of the dead would have infuriated them. So, they decided to use their superior intelligence and vast knowledge of the Scriptures to expose Him as an uneducated fool.
They set up their trap by recounting a well-known law of Moses.
“Moses gave us a law that if a man dies, leaving a wife without children, his brother should marry the widow and have a child who will carry on the brother’s name.” – Mark 12:19 NLT
They were referring to the levirate law, as outlined in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. This law required that the brother of a man who died without a male heir was obligated to marry his brother’s widow. The primary purpose of the law was to preserve the name of the deceased and to prevent the widow from becoming destitute.
But in an attempt to expose the ridiculous nature of belief in the resurrection, they created a convoluted and highly unlikely story. It involved a woman who ends up marrying seven different brothers, each of whom dies unexpectedly and prematurely, leaving her a widow without a male heir. Their strange tale ends with the death of the woman who had the unfortunate burden of being widowed seven different times. And they summarize their story with a question:
“So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven were married to her.” – Mark 12:23 NLT
You can almost see the smug expressions on their faces as they drop this bombshell on the unsuspecting Rabbi from Nazareth. They had Him. There was no way He would be able to answer this confusing conundrum and maintain His naive belief in the resurrection.
Little did they know that their whole story was built around a false premise. Jesus was about to expose their ignorance regarding the doctrine of the resurrection and it was because they did not understand God”s Word.
“Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God. For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven.” – Mark 12:24-25 NLT
Jesus gave them a one-two combination that must have been a devastating blow to their overinflated egos. First, He accused them of not knowing the Scriptures. Then He added that they had no idea of the nature of God’s power. Because they could not fathom the idea of life after death, they had simply discounted it. And in spite of all their careful study of the books of Moses, they had been unable to appreciate the fact that nothing was impossible for God. They worshiped a God of limited power whose only interactions with mankind were relegated to this life.
They were trying to take an earthly-oriented law and apply it to eternal matters. But it was as Jesus had told Nicodemus: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12 ESV). These men were incapable of understanding eternal truths. They were trying to comprehend the ways of God by looking through the cloudy lenses of their earthly perspective. And, had he been around, the apostle Paul would have told them, “Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” (Romans 11:33 NLT).
Their limited understanding had led to a limited view of God. They could not conceive of an afterlife because they viewed it as implausible and impossible. They were intimately familiar with death and probably feared it. And since they could not see what lie beyond the grave, they simply refused to acknowledge that anything was there. This life was all there was. But the whole story they had concocted had been based on misconceptions and misinterpretations of the Scriptures. Jesus informed them that there would be no marriage in the afterlife. So, it really didn’t matter how many husbands the fictitious widow had in this life. There will be no marriage because there will be no need to procreate. By virtue of His vast power, God will give resurrected and glorified bodies to all those who live in His eternal Kingdom. Men and women will no longer be expected to bring new life into the world. Their God-given order to fulfill the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply will no longer apply.
And Jesus adds another not-so-subtle point of clarification that was meant to blow holes in one of the Sadducees’ other errant beliefs. He states that, in their eternal state, men and women will be much more like angels than human beings. They will be divine creatures who have the capacity to live in unbroken fellowship with God the Father for eternity. And like the angels, they will focus all their time and energy on His glory and offering Him their ceaseless praise.
Jesus ends His response with a lesson on the Old Testament Scriptures. He takes them back to the writings of Moses, recounting the story of the burning bush as recorded in the book of Exodus. It was there in the Midianite wilderness, that God appeared to Moses and called him to be the deliverer of His people. Out of the burning bush, God had declared to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6 ESV). By the time Moses had come along, all three of these men had been long dead, and yet God refers to Himself as their God – present tense, not past tense. Jesus was trying to reveal to these so-called experts in the Pentateuch what they had missed. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not gone, they had just been relocated. They were in the presence of their God.
Like the Pharisees and Herodian before them, the Sadducees failed. They proved no match for Jesus, the Son of God. They had put all their hope in this life, so when Jesus appeared offering the gift of eternal life, they could not bring themselves to believe what He had to say. But the doctrine of the resurrection was a central tenet of Jesus’ teaching. And it would be His own resurrection from the dead that would give His offer of eternal life validity. The apostle Paul summed it up well.
…if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.
But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. – 1 Corinthians 15:13-20 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.