When it comes to our hope of eternal life, which is more dangerous: to say too little or to say too much? To say less than Scripture says or to say more? Or, to use terms from Sunday’s gospel (Lk 20:27-38), is it worse to be the skeptical Sadducee or the literalistic Pharisee?
Of course, we’d rather not stumble into either camp. Either path jeopardizes our hope of enjoying the Lamb’s wedding feast. Yet, the thinking of both parties can (and often does) plague our hearts and confuse our thinking about eternity.
That’s why I understand the Sadducees’ skepticism. I have been placing flowers on my parents’ grave for 23 years, and when I do, the skeptic in me often whispers: “Do you really know whether this will ever change? Perhaps this life is all there is, and you have placed your hope in something empty. Saints triumphant? Hardly! Dead is dead! And what’s worse, my gullible friend, is that you’ve devoted your life to proclaiming an empty dream.” As Paul confirms, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor 15:19).
But while the Sadducean say-less-than-Scripture skepticism may be the most obvious danger to our eternal hope, the pharisaic saying-too-much ditch is never far away and carries with it its own unique hope-threatening traps. In addition to their arrogant presumption about who would be “considered worthy” (34) of being there, the Pharisees held a grossly earthy view of heaven. They pictured the structures of this life, in particular marriage and family, essentially continuing for eternity.
And if you think we’d never fall into this “saying too much” side of eternal confusion, just consider how easily we can allow ourselves and our hearers to think of heaven primarily in terms of an earthly family reunion. “Just think, you will enjoy once again being with your husband or wife, your grandma or your grandpa, that long-lost brother or sister.” And while there certainly is a joyful communing at the eternal marriage feast with those who’ve gone before, have we waxed too romantic in descriptions of something about which Scripture says relatively little and about which it never shines the brightest spotlight?
That saying-too-much creates questions that trouble hearts. If the greatest joys of heaven are our reunions with those we love, what if those we love are forever missing from the reunion? What will heaven be like for those whose family was shattered by sin and strife or for whom family and friends were effectively non-existent? By saying more than Scripture, we paint eternal scenarios that can make our eternal hope seem frail and foolish!
Which is precisely the angle of attack the Sadducees took in Luke 20! They seem to have presumed that this Jesus – who talked so much about heaven — was a gross literalist like the Pharisees. So they hit play on their favorite YouTube seven-act musical farce: One Bride for Seven Brothers. As their story ends with this pitiful seven-time widow finally arriving in heaven, only to be greeted by seven would-be eternal husbands, were they barely able to conceal sarcastic grins and stifle rationalistic snickers?
But any grins or snickers didn’t last long. Jesus began answering the Sadducees’ skeptical smirk by first making it clear he was not a Pharisee with a grossly literalistic view of heaven. “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” (34-36). With those words Jesus pierces through the pharisaical foil that set up the “gotcha” of the Sadducees’ sarcasm. Yes, God created marriage and family and childbearing as the basic social structure of life in this age. Through marriage and family God would enable mankind to fill the earth and subdue it. And even in a fallen world, the structure of marriage and family, for good or ill, still provides much of human beings’ core sense of who they are and what they are doing here.
But the deathless world of the resurrection needs neither marriage or childbearing to fill it up or to provide a sense of identity and purpose. The God-designed contribution of marriage and family will have finished its work. Instead, as we should expect in the now-and-not-yet world of eschatology, something far greater takes their place! Those “considered worthy of taking part in that age” will find themselves lost in the endless wonder of the new perfect family that by faith in Christ they had only begun to taste now. That reality overwhelms with its eternal and lasting joys the best that could be offered in this life by even the strongest believing family.
This is not loss. This is the temporary earthly shadow and masks of God being replaced by the full visible splendor of heavenly reality! It is family as we cannot even imagine it now! In the resurrection we will bask in the visible presence of the eternal Father who created us and even after the fall never stopped loving us. There we will see with our own eyes our eternal Brother, the lion-like Lamb, who covered with his own worthiness the guilt of all our doubts and all our too-smart-for-our-own-good eternal guessing games. There we will see the eternal seven-fold Spirit, our Counselor, who at our baptism gave birth to us as God’s children. Everywhere you look, your God is your visible delight and, as if that were not enough, around you in every direction are many you knew in this life, and even many more you did not, all in whom you now delight forever as your perfect brothers and sisters. Such is the new family life of God’s children. Such glory is ours as children of the resurrection!
But of course, that was only the first thrust of Jesus’ answer. Jesus proceeds to answering the skeptical Sadducee in our hearts. “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” (37-38). Jesus points us to Moses who doesn’t tell us that “back in the day” God “used to be” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s God. Speaking centuries after the patriarchs’ bones were dust in Ephron the Hittite’s cave, God is still their God. In him those patriarchs were – and are – still alive. And, as surely as Jesus would gloriously step out of his grave only five days after he spoke these words, so surely will Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in their own glorified bodies step out of the cave of Machpelah.
And when our skeptical hearts still want to quarrel about how this can be, remind those hearts that this is the promise of our God who calls things that are not as though they are (Ro 4:17). This is the God whose eternal Son says that we will live even though we die. More than that: this is the God who promises us that whoever lives and believes in him will never die (Jn 11:25-26). In him we live ever since our baptism. And, in the most real sense imaginable, we never stop living because we belong to the ever-living God.
With that Jesus tells us what we can know with certainty. And he does so while still guarding what we cannot yet know (1 Jn 3:2). So, this much we know: living as God’s children in the age to come will far, far outshine the highest joys of marriage and family in this age.
Thank you, Sadducees, for voicing before Jesus the kind of question my heart only whispers. And then, thank you, Lord Jesus, for purifying my eternal hope!