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The resurrection from the dead and marriage

This is the report of a dispute that Jesus has with the Sadducees. It is about the resurrection. The Sadducees, who were the spiritual aristocracy of the time, didn’t believe in the resurrection. They only accepted the first 5 books of the Bible as having authority, and they argued that you live on, but in the nation, in your children and grandchildren

And they think that they have got a pretty good argument against resurrection.

They point out that the law says that if a man dies without children, his brother must marry the wife and the first children born to the marriage would take the name of the brother who had died. ‘Now’, they say, ‘A woman marries 7 brothers. They all die. She dies. So in heaven’, and notice the words because they are important, ‘whose wife will she be?’

And Jesus responds to their challenge

  1. He challenges them on the fact of the resurrection
  2. He challenges them about the nature of the resurrection
  3. He speaks about being ‘considered worthy’ of taking part in the resurrection

  1. Jesus challenges them on the fact of the resurrection

The Sadducees begin with human experience. OK, the story of the woman with 7 husbands is exaggerated, to make a point. But there must have been women who had been married to more than one husband. So, in the resurrection, to whom will they be married? To the Sadducees it just showed how silly the idea of a bodily resurrection really was.

Jesus argument is pretty radical. He appeals to scripture. In fact when Matthew reports this story (Matthew 22:23-33), he includes the fact that Jesus also says to the Sadducees: ‘You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God’

Jesus does not start with experience. ‘There was this person I know who had a near death experience. He saw a bright light etc.’

Of course inner experience is extremely important, but the only thing that my inner experience tells me is about my inner experience. That is why we can never deny or rubbish another person’s experience, although we may wish to explain it in a different way to the way that they explain it. But equally, we can never make another person’s inner experience authoritative or definitive for ourselves.

My aunt was, for many years, a missionary in India. Towards the end of her time there I went to visit her, and met Saiffee, a young man who had been a Moslem but was converted. Jesus came to him in a dream. For Saiffee the experience of the dream brought him to Christ. But it was only good for him. He could not go to another person and say, ‘Become a Christian because I have had a dream about Jesus’. It wouldn’t work.

So Jesus here does not appeal to his experience: ‘I know that there is a resurrection’. Instead he appeals to scripture, to the bible. He says: “But in the account of the burning 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.”

This is a radical God-centred, word-centred vision of the world. The reason that there is a resurrection is because God is, and if God speaks of a person as living, they live.

There is the saying, ‘Where there is life there is hope’. It usually means that while someone is still breathing there is a chance that they can be healed. But as Christians we can look at it in a different way. Where there is LIFE, God, there is hope. The reason for that hope is that if God knows you and your name, you cannot die

Jesus’ argument here reminds me of Karl Barth’s argument for the existence of a material world. He says he does not believe in a solid world that is outside of me, because I experience it – because my experience could be wrong. It could all be a dream going on in my ‘head’; it could all be a set up, like the film the Truman show. The reason he says that he believes in the existence of the material world is because he has put his faith in God, and in a God who has revealed himself. And God has revealed himself, in scripture, as a creator God. Therefore there must be a creation.

Of course, for us as Christians, living after the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have additional evidence for the resurrection – and that, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are pretty convincing proofs that Jesus rose from the dead: the empty tomb, the grave clothes, the appearances, the changed lives of the disciples, the testimony of the disciples.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German theologian, writes, ‘The evidence for Jesus resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: first it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live’ 

But even with all the convincing proofs for the resurrection of  Jesus, in the end we have to each make a decision as to where we will put our trust, who we will believe. And a person who chooses to put their trust in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, also puts their trust in the Word of God.

  1. Jesus challenges us about the nature of the resurrection

Today there are many different understandings of what happens after death

Nothing: Few really actually live as if that is the case, because if we really believed it, it would transform how we live. If this life is all there is – then we should be getting out there and enjoying life and making sure that we are OK and the people we love are OK. Other people, generally, do not matter. They can be quite useful to us, but if they get in the way of our well being, then we should have no qualms about crushing them. 

Reincarnation: Meaningless for me: if my consciousness dies when I die, then what difference does it make to me if I come back as an insect or a prince.

Sloppy, sentimentalised view of death

Many modern films are based on the idea of someone dying and then coming back to look after or move on the person left behind.

It is expressed in popular literature:

Heaven ‘is somewhere you believe in .. it’s a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk to other people who are there. At night you can sit next to the stars, which are the brightest of anywhere in the universe .. If you’re good throughout your life, then you get to go to heaven .. when your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you up to Heaven to be with him … [And Grandma is] alive in me .. Most important, she taught me to believe in myself … She’s in a safe place, with the stars, with God and the angels .. she is watching over us from up there …  ‘I want you to know’ [says the heroine to her great-grandma] ‘that even though you are no longer here, your spirit will always be alive in me’. (Maria Shriver)

And to be honest my understanding of the resurrection had drifted into a sort of Christianised version of that. It certainly was that when die, our ultimate destination is some other place called heaven.

My understanding of the resurrection has been transformed by reading Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope. He points out, from passages like this, that the Jewish hope of resurrection was incredibly this-worldy. It was about the reign of the Messiah in a transformed creation, in which there would be no more sin or death.

That is why Jesus here talks of ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come’. And the ‘age to come’ is identified as being the age of the resurrection from the dead.

Now I am not going to get into pre-millenialism, post-millenialism or a-millenialism: partly because they are quite complicated, but also because they can end up being disputations about words that do not lead to godliness. What is important is that one day Christ will appear, and heaven will come down to earth, and creation will be transformed.
The Christian hope is of the resurrection of the body. It is real and solid.
Joni Eareckson Tada writes: ‘I have hope in the future. The Bible speaks about bodies being glorified. I know the meaning of that now. It's the time after my death here when I, the quadriplegic, will be on my feet dancing.’
Last year we both looked at art: Stanley Spencer’s, Resurrection in Cookham graveyard;
CS Lewis, The Last Battle.

Of course we cannot know what sort of resurrection bodies we will have. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:35-36
“But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” There will be continuity, and there will be great difference

But these verses give us a glimpse. Jesus speaks of how

1. There will be no more death in the age to come
In this age, decay and death reign. In the age to come, life will reign

2. We will be defined in terms of our relationship with God, as children of God, and not as objects. Here we are defined by our whatness (she’s married, a professor; he’s a minister), or by our human relationships. A husband is defined by his wife, and a wife by her husband (even to the extent of taking his name). In this story the woman is defined as the wife of the 7 brothers; the men are defined as brothers fulfilling their duty. But in the age to come we will be defined by our relationship with God and our likeness to his Son.

3. There will be no more marriage in heaven
That is not because marriage is not important here in this age. Far from it: Jesus reinforces the Jewish teaching about monogamous, faithful, lifelong marriage between man and woman. It is the only right place for sexual intimacy, and it is the foundation for society and the bringing up of children.

But Jesus is saying that marriage is provisional and in the age to come there is no marriage – because we will be like the angels (v36).

Now here I am going into the realm of speculation, although I would argue that it is justifiable speculation, because this is how many men and women of God have interpreted these and other passages from the Bible, throughout the centuries.

Angels are a-sexual beings. They are never described as male or female. In heaven, and here I am following many of the church fathers and how they have understood what the bible to teach, we will be beyond gender and sexual attraction. There is another hint in Galatians 3:28, where Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

And before we think that the loss of gender and sexuality will be a profound loss, we need to remember that in the resurrection, there will be absolute joy in the presence of God. Sexual desire, intimacy and love only gives us a glimpse of the desire and intimacy and ecstasy and love that awaits us in the age to come

So what does that mean for marriage

  1. Marriage is good, but it is not God. It is a gift given to some but not to all. And do not make marriage the be-all and end-all. Do not make marriage God.
  2. Do not define yourself simply by your marriage. Of course our relationship with our marriage partner is absolutely critical, but in our most important relationship is with God. We should cherish and nurture our marriage relationships, but we should even more so, cherish and nurture our relationship with God
  1. How do we attain the resurrection?

Jesus says, ‘But for those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come ..’

This is really important. Who are those who are considered worthy?

It is a very strange sentence.
So far in Luke it is the people who know that they are unworthy who are commended
John the Baptist: ‘I am not worthy to untie the sandals of the Messiah’ (Luke 3:16)
The centurion who sends friends to ask Jesus to heal his servant, ‘I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you’ (Luke 7:1-10)
The prodigal son, who in preparing his speech, says, ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son’’ (Luke 15:21)
The tax collector who prays in the temple (Luke 18:9-14)

And we would want to affirm that we are saved by faith in Christ alone and certainly not because we are worthy of salvation.

If you think that you are worthy of the resurrection because of the good life that you have lived, because you are a respected person in the church or in society – you need to think again.

No, the reason that we can have confidence in the resurrection is because God has called us to become citizens of the new age. And he has called us because we could never be worthy of it, we could never merit it. It is all of grace.

That is gloriously liberating: God’s calling does not depend on how good or able we are. It is all about God’s absolute grace. People worry if they have been called. If you worry about it, then listen, you have been or are being called. Spiritually dead people do not worry about their spiritual state. I strongly suspect that if you are here tonight (unless you have been dragged screaming and kicking here), then God is at work in you.

The danger is when you couldn’t care less whether you have been called.
So, Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 1:11, “I pray that our God may count you worthy of his calling.’

God has called us to be citizens of the new age. We have to respond.

We can respond like the Jews to whom Paul and Barnabas spoke in Antioch. They rejected this message of the mercy and love of God shown in Jesus. So Paul and Barnabas say, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.” (Acts 13:46)

Or we can respond as people who receive the forgiveness and grace of God, and seek to live lives worthy of that calling. That is the emphasis of the New Testament, when we are called to live lives worthy of the Kingdom of God (Romans 16:2; Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 1:27; Colossians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Revelation 3:4).

Of course, we will fall, but if we live lives worthy of that calling, we will come back to God in repentance and receive again his forgiveness, mercy and power to change.

So my dear brothers and sisters. Be confident. Not in yourself, but in God.

Be confident of the Bible, the word of God: it is the rock which points us to The Rock
Be confident of the resurrection
Be confident of the goodness of the age to come
Often people think, but I want to be with my husband or wife in heaven! Well, I guess you will have a different relationship with the one who you love specially and uniquely here and now. And although you will not be married to them there, you will love them more there, in the presence of God, than you love them here. But it will not be an exclusive love.
And be confident, not of your goodness, but of the goodness and love of God – of his forgiveness and calling – and live lives worthy of that calling.


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