I’ve never voted a straight party Sadducee ticket. I’m not a rationalistic skeptic who denies the reality of the resurrection.
But I understand the doubt that undergirds a key plank in their party platform. Sadducee-like thoughts spring from my heart especially at those times when death has claimed one close to me. Four times now I have walked to a grave carrying a family member’s mortal remains. Amid committing my loved ones to the ground, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the Sadducee-like part of my natural heart loves to echo Job’s question: “If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14).
The Sadducees trumpeted such skeptical hopelessness as ultimate reality. In Sunday’s gospel (Luke 20:27-38), can’t you hear them snickering as they set a trap for Jesus? After baiting the trap with their hypothetical situation about a woman marrying seven brothers in a series of Levirate marriages, they spring the question they were sure displayed the ridiculousness of any hope in the resurrection of the body or life beyond death. “Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
But it was their snickering, not Jesus, that would be silenced that day! “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; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.’” It seems the Sadducees and Pharisees had argued from opposing ditches (either no life after death – or heaven as a rote duplication of this life), but Jesus provides the biblical middle. For those found worthy (in the Messiah) to delight in the age to come, many elements of this age are no longer in play. The Sadducees’ trap question comes unhinged since marrying and being given in marriage are only the experience for this age, no that age! Marrying and being given in marriage are not needed in that deathless age. The perfect fellowship of the family of God – with no additions needed by birth and no subtractions by death – will more than supersede the joys of marriage and family in this dying age!
But then comes Jesus’ most powerful statement as he does so much more than correct misunderstandings of resurrection-age-living-arrangements. Now Jesus establishes the glorious truth of the resurrection itself that springs from the heart of God’s identity. “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.” Jesus proves the resurrection from the very same books of Moses from which the Sadducees vainly sought to discredit it. And he does so in such a simple yet glorious way! He takes us to the holy ground of the burning bush. There, when God identified himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, those patriarchs had been dust in their graves for hundreds of years. Yet to God they were as alive that day on Mt. Sinai as they had been when they walked the earth. The grave had never touched their souls, and in God’s eyes it was also as good as done that their bodies would only for a time rest in the earth until, through his own Messiah’s death and resurrection, the day would come when that dust would spring to life to join the soul. In this living God of the living, those who have died in faith are in a very real sense more alive than those of us who still walk through this valley of the shadow of death!
From our limited and sin-clouded human vantage point, we live and then we die. We exist. And then we seem to cease to exist. But that is not how God sees it – and his perception is – in the fullest sense – reality! He is not the God of the dead. He is and always remains the God of the living. And that means that all who put their hope in him truly never taste death “for to him all are alive”! Unbelievers do nothing but pass from death to death as they pass from this age to the one to come – he is not their God! But for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all who share their faith, those who belong to the living God pass from life to LIFE! Not only will those who believe in him live even though they die, those who live and believe in him never truly die (John 11:25-26).
Sixteen years ago, as I struggled with my four older brothers and brother-in-law under the weight of my father’s casket from hearse to grave, my earthly father had one last gift to give. He had planned what we and the other mourners would sing as his body was carried to the grave. And so in the winter chill of that graveyard rose these death-defying words:
I am flesh and must return
Unto dust, whence I am taken;
But by faith I now discern
That from death I shall awaken
With my Savior to abide
In His glory, at His side. (TLH206:4)
He must have known that on that day the little Sadducee within us would be waiting to spring a trap in our hearts. And he knew only God’s gospel could silence that skeptic within. For then, as now, God “is not the God of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive.”