And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, “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. There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”
Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 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’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”
Mark 12:18-27 ESV
In Hosea 4, we find the LORD pronouncing judgment upon Israel for reasons that seem quite similar to our present series of passages from Mark’s Gospel. In verses 4-6, God declares:
Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest. You shall stumble by day; the prophet also shall stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.
The Pharisees are Exhibit A that mere intellectual knowledge of God’s law is not sufficient for salvation. Yet an effort to avoid the religious legalism of the Pharisees, many over-correct into the equally damning ditch of becoming anti-intellectual, placing personal experience always above God’s revelation. Yet God, through Hosea, did not applaud the priests for withholding God’s law from the people and thereby saving them from the dangers of legalism; instead, He declared His intention to destroy Israel for its ignorance of His Word. And the priests and the prophets would be squarely to blame for failing to properly teach the people.
In our present text, Jesus is challenged by the spiritual descendants of those priests, a group of religious leaders who claimed to be teachers of Israel. Yet they were themselves ignorant of the Scriptures and led others even further into ignorance.
AND THEY ASKED HIM A QUESTION // VERSES 18-24
After being challenged directly by the chief priests, scribes, and elders, Jesus was last challenged by the Pharisees and Herodians, who temporarily set aside their hatred of one another to unite around their even greater hatred of Jesus. Having successfully evaded their snare, Jesus is now met by another group: the Sadducees.
Unlike the Pharisees and the Herodians, we are not told that this group was sent by the chief priests, scribes, and elders. While Mark may be leaving that detailed to implication, we might also assume that the Sadducees were not given any particular order to trap Jesus but simply wanted to try their own hand at it. Regardless, we should begin by establishing who exactly were the Sadducees and what make them different from the Pharisees.
R. C. Sproul notes that, like the Pharisees and the Herodians, the Pharisees and the Sadducees basically only agreed on their mutual distain for Christ. He then lists the major points of contention:
First, the Pharisees stressed the sovereignty of God. They were the Augustinians and Calvinists of their day. The Sadducees believed that the affairs of men and of history were determined not by a sovereign God but solely by the unfettered free will of human creatures. They were Pelagians before Pelagius. Second, the Pharisees believed in angels and demons, while the Sadducees categorically denied the existence of both. A third point of dispute had to do with the canon of Scripture. The Pharisees believed that the Scriptures contained the Torah, which was the first five books of the Old Testament, plus the Prophets and the Writings, the Wisdom Literature and such. The Sadducees had a much more restricted view of the canon, recognizing only the Torah as the Word of God. So any writings beyond the book of Deuteronomy could not be used for the construction of theology as far as the Sadducees were concerned.
Sproul goes on to note that it is this disagreement on the canon of Scripture that led to their most sharp disagreement. The Pharisees taught that a resurrection of the dead was coming at the end of this world, while the Sadducees said “that there is no resurrection.” Of course, accepting the prophets as canon, the Pharisees rightly had explicit grounds for affirming the resurrection, for passages like the end of Daniel directly make such claims. Yet having denied the authority of some of Scripture, the Sadducees naturally proceeded to deny core teachings of Scripture.
This group of religious leaders came to Jesus with a question about the resurrection (which, let us continuously remember, they did not believe in), and like the previous questions, I am glad it was asked and answered by Jesus. Again, we could easily imagine someone approaching Jesus in sincerity, asking what would happen in the resurrection to such brothers and the wife that they all had, and we could imagine Jesus giving a similar answer, only minus His rebuke to the Sadducees. Indeed, while the Sadducees structure this question with a highly improbable series of events, the principle behind the question was very practical. Sure, one woman may not have been married to seven brothers, but plenty of people get remarried. And in Jesus’ time, such levirate marriages of a man’s sister-in-law becoming his wife after his brother’s death were not uncommon, for it offered protection to the widow and potentially yielded offspring on behalf of the deceased. Again, this is a question worth asking.
Yet like the previous two questions, this one also came from a wicked heart, for the Sadducees are not really interested in how life will work in the resurrection. Instead, they wanted to trap Jesus with a scenario that proved just how outlandish the idea of a resurrection was. This is kind of like if an atheist asked, “If a person prayed to the God of the Bible, the Tooth Fairy, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster and his prayer was answered, how could he ever know which one answered?” Of course, that question would be asked under the pretense that answered prayers were nothing more than a fairy tale anyway. So, in the same vein, did the Sadducees believe that they had trapped Jesus in an unanswerable question about the ridiculousness of the resurrection.
Jesus, however, does not begin His answer by addressing the question; instead, He begins by telling them the reason that they were wrong. “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?”
Unlike the Pharisees who had a foundation of biblical orthodoxy yet veered away nonetheless, Jesus makes explicit that the very foundation of the Sadducees’ belief system was in shambles. And this was so because of their twofold lack of knowledge, first of the Scriptures and second of the power of God. They set themselves apart as teachers of Israel, yet they were willfully ignorant of both God’s Word and God’s might.
As to being ignorant of the Scriptures, J. C. Ryle tells us why knowing the Bible is so important:
The truth of the principle here laid down is proved by facts in almost every age of church history. The reformation in Josiah’s day was closely connected with the discovery of the book of the law. The false doctrines of the Jews in our Lord’s time were the result of neglecting the Scriptures. The dark ages of Christendom were times when the Bible was kept back from the people. The Protestant Reformation was mainly effected by translating and circulating the Bible. The churches which are most flourishing at this day, are churches which honour the Bible. The nations which enjoy most moral light, are nations in which the Bible is most known. The parishes in our land where there is most true religion, are those in which the Bible is most studied. The godliest families are Bible-reading families. The holiest men and women are Bible-reading people. These are simple facts which cannot be denied.
Indeed, we should take care to note the following principle. While mere intellectual knowledge of Scripture is not sufficient (as the Pharisees exemplify for us), an ignorance of Scripture altogether is wholly so. Both are certainly dangerous and damnable pits to fall into, but at least an intellectual knowledge has the ability to become experiential knowledge. Ignorance of God’s Word is always and eternally destructive. All of this means that we should not let the dangers of a legalistic understanding of Scripture keep us from knowing Scripture at all. It is far better to study Scripture deeply and pray for God to sink its truths deeply into our hearts than to dismiss all such efforts as vainly religious and follow our own sinful hearts instead.
Also, the Sadducees were ignorant of the power of God, which makes sense given their beliefs. You see, the Sadducees champions of the Enlightenment almost 1700 years before the Enlightenment began. Like so many Enlightenment thinkers (Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin being among the most well-known), the Sadducees were essentially deists, meaning that they consented to the existence of God yet thought He had virtually no involvement in everyday life. For them, God is the great Watchmaker, the One who set all things in motion and is now letting them play out as they wish. Because they did not expect to find God involved in the affairs of the world, they did not look for His hand of providence. They were, therefore, willfully blind to the power of God being displayed all around them.
Of course, we should also not neglect to note that an ignorance of Scripture and of God’s power go hand-in-hand, for it is only through God’s divine revelation of Himself that we can ever learn to recognize His sovereign power at work, even today!
LIKE ANGELS IN HEAVEN // VERSE 25
The fact that Jesus gives such a short response to the actual question shows us, again, that marriage in the resurrection was not the real issue here. Yet Jesus does give an answer, and we may be incredibly thankful for that. Furthermore, we ought to take a few moments to discuss it.
Jesus answers simply that such a woman and brothers would not be an issue in the resurrection, for no one will marry or be given in marriage. Thus, she will not be married to any of the brothers, nor will any of them be married to her. Instead, we will become like the angels who likewise do not marry.
We should note that this comparison to angels is what led to the cultural idea of people becoming angels whenever they die or, at least, floating around on clouds with halos and harps. Yet Jesus very clearly did not say that we become angels, nor that we will become like angels in every respect. Rather, we will simply be like the angels in that there will no longer be marriages among us, just as there are no marriages among them. As humans, we are in an entirely separate category of creature than the angels and will never become one of them any more than an animal could become human or a human could become an animal.
But why will there be no marriages in the resurrection, especially whenever God clearly established the institution of marriage for humanity within Eden? The reality is that marriage itself will not pass away in the resurrection, but marriages very much will. In Ephesians 5:32, after citing Genesis 2:24 (which is the biblical definition and institution of marriage), Paul says, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” A man and woman becoming one flesh (aka marriage) refers to Jesus and His bride, the church, which is the Marriage. Each marriage in this life will pass away because these marriages are simply shadows of the reality that is still to come.
Indeed, our earthly marriages are a bit like the Lord’s Supper, for that meal points to realities far beyond itself. As we eat the bread and drink the cup, we look back upon the death of our Lord to redeem us from our slavery to our sin, and we also look forward to Christ’s return and the marriage supper of the Lamb that we shall share. The cross and the second coming are the substance; this sacrament is our present shadow of those realities, kept to remind us that they are indeed real. Earthly marriages are a similar sign of the great and everlasting marriage that is to come.
Also, the importance of the Lord’s Supper is not diminished by noting that it points to realities greater than the elements themselves. Indeed, Paul warned the Corinthians that many have died by partaking of the sacrament in an unworthy manner. Again, this is not because there is anything inherently special about this particular bread and cup, except what they signify. The same is also true with marriage as an institution. Each marriage matters because each marriage is meant to testify of the ultimate marriage.
Or, as one writer has said, “in a real way, conjugal marriage is the end of the world. It connects this world to the next, it unites Heaven and earth, and it is a sign that read, ‘This is the way the world will end, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with wedding bells.'”
THE GOD OF THE LIVING // VERSES 26-27
Speaking of the end of the world, Jesus quickly moved on to the topic that the Sadducees clearly were intending to question: the resurrection. Jesus addressed their unbelief by saying, “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’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”
Jesus’ answer is brilliant because it bypassed the typical excuse that the Sadducees used for rejecting the doctrine of the resurrection: that it was not mentioned in the Torah. They argued that Moses knew nothing of this teaching but that it was conceived later by the non-inspired prophets. So, Jesus answered them from the Torah, leaving them without excuse.
Notice how Jesus drew from one of the most well-known passages in all of Scripture: God meeting Moses through the burning bush. He then brought up God’s self-identification as the God of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) as evidence for the resurrection. The argument here is as simple as it is profound. God would not have presently identified Himself as the God of the patriarchs if the patriarchs were not still alive beyond their earthly deaths.
Yet notice how Jesus returns to their ignorance of Scripture by grounding His answer with the question, “Have you not read…?” John Piper writes about this, saying,
Exodus 3:6 does not say explicitly, “My covenant people will be raised.” So, evidently, when Jesus said, “Have you not read?” he meant, “Have you not read and pondered and drawn out of Exodus 3:6 the implications of what it means for God to be a person’s God?” The answer is no, they had not read the Scriptures that way. Not the way Jesus expects us to read.
Reading, in the mind of Jesus, is not just seeing surface things–like the connection of words and phrases and clauses–but the things implied more deeply by the realities involved. Thus reading is thinking through what is said not just grammatically but—how shall we say it—essentially, or substantially. That is, reading includes asking about the implications of the realities signified. In this case God is a reality. And his relationship to the patriarch is a reality. And from the nature of God and the nature of the covenant relationship, there is an implication–resurrection! If we don’t see it, Jesus says, “Have you read?” The Sadducees did not see it.
Let us from these final two verses draw two main points off application. First, may we learn from and avoid the error of the Sadducees. Let us hold fast to God’s trustworthy Word and read it as Jesus would have us to read it, meditating over it day and night. Indeed, let us hear Ryle’s plea and take it to heart:
Let these things sink deep into our hearts, and bear fruit in our lives. Let us not be ignorant of the Bible, lest we fall into some deadly error. Let us rather read it diligently, and make it our rule of faith and practice. Let us labour to spread the Bible over the world. The more the book is known, the better the world will be. Not least, let us teach our children to value the Bible. The very best portion we can give them, is a knowledge of the Scriptures.
Second, let us take comfort in the reality of the resurrection from the dead. When God made His covenant with Abraham and his descendants, that promise carried even beyond the bounds of this world. The man of faith will one day be raised to life again to live forever in the everlasting Promised Land. Likewise, we are children of Abraham through Christ as well as benefactors of the new covenant, which Jesus sealed not with blood of animals but with His own blood, grafting us into the household of God as adopted sons and daughters of the Father Almighty.
Therefore, we have a far larger testament to God’s faithfulness than the patriarch Abraham had, for Paul in Colossians 1:18 calls Jesus “the firstborn from the dead.” Or in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul calls Jesus’ resurrection the firstfruits.
Both of these descriptions mean that Jesus is the first and, for the present, only person to be resurrected, but His resurrection ensures that He will not be the last. Every saint that sleeps, from Abel to Abraham to Isaiah to Peter to Augustine to Calvin to Lloyd-Jones and Sproul, is for the time being separated from their bodies in heaven. Yet theologians call this time the intermediate state because life as spirits in heaven is not the final dwelling place of God’s people. Instead, Christ’s return will result in a destruction of heaven and earth and the remaking of both, and He will raise us up with new, resurrected bodies like His own resurrected body.
It is of this blessed hope that we hear Jesus’ words to Martha: “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. Do you believe this” (John 11:25–26)? And we respond to our Lord’s question with the words of Psalm 118:17, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.” For our God is God of the living, not of the dead; therefore, He will leave us in the grave.
As we come now our King’s Table, let us cast our minds both forward and backward to what this bread and cup signify, giving praise that the richest love and the deepest sorrow met upon the cross as Jesus carried our sins upon Himself, that they would die upon His death. And let us also look forward to the coming resurrection that Christ will bring with Him and to our eternal life with Him that will begin with the great marriage supper between the Lamb and the bride for whom He was slain.
 Ryle, Mark, 203.