Resurrection, Marriage and Covenant

(Luke 20.27-40)

Jason Procopio

There’s a lot changing at Église Connexion these days. We’ve got new ministries starting up, new people taking on responsibilities, continued growth, new projects and challenges before us. We’ll see a lot of these things in our members’ meeting this afternoon. It’s a really daunting time, but it’s an incredibly exciting time as well.

But for all of the things that are changing here, there is an underlying reality to all of it that will not change.

And that is in ten million years, we will all be sitting back, simply marveling together at how God used an imperfect church like ours—and a million others—for his glory, no matter what our projects were.

You often hear churches talk about how our desire is to “change the world,” or “make a difference in the world”. We are under no illusions about our ability to do that. We can’t do that, and it’s not our job to do that. God does that. He changes the world.

And in ten million years, all of our projects—all of the things we worried about and fretted over and worked for during our lives and in our ministries—will take a back seat to what he did through those things. We will be together, and we will observe it all, and we will worship him forever for it.

What I just said probably doesn’t sound all that controversial to most of us, because most people know that Christianity believes in heaven, in an afterlife, in a resurrection.

But for some Jews at the time of Jesus, this subject was still (perhaps surprisingly) up for debate.

Over the last couple weeks in the gospel of Luke, we’ve seen the chief priests and the scribes coming hard after Jesus, challenging his authority. In our text today—Luke 20.27-40—we’re going to see the same thing, but it happens in a different way. In this text, it’s not the religious authorities in general who come after Jesus, but a specific subset of these authorities: a group of men called the Sadducees.

The Sadducees were descendants of Zadok—those who were granted the right to serve as priests after the Babylonian exile. So they already had a leg up on everyone else. The 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus described the Sadducees as “well-to-do” and “men of high esteem.” They were rich, and they were popular, and they were very attached to the material world. (Remember how Jesus cleansed the temple in chapter 19? This business of selling animals in the temple came from the Sadducees.) 

The big thing to know for our text today is that the Sadducees rejected the idea of any kind of resurrection. They had a very strict interpretation of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible)—they rejected most writings outside of those books—and they held that the Pentateuch doesn’t ever make mention of a resurrection. So for them, there was no life after death, there was no eternal judgment: the soul died with the body. 

Seeing how the other religious leaders kept striking out when challenging Jesus’s authority, it seems the Sadducees decide to try their hand at taking him down. But they’re going to do it their way: they decide to put Jesus before a theological riddle. 

There’s a lot to unpack here, so put on your thinking caps.

A Question of Resurrection (v. 27-33)

27 There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, 28 and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. 30 And the second 31 and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. 32 Afterward the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” 

Now, if you’re a new Christian, or an unbeliever, I understand how utterly bananas this puzzle of the Sadducees can sound. And you’re right—it’s nuts. 

But the foundational context of the question doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from a practice we see in the Old Testament, a practice called levirate marriage, which we see in the Law of Moses, in Deuteronomy 25.5-6.

The idea behind levirate marriage was to protect widows without children, and to keep the possessions of the family intact for her.

At this point in time, in this culture, women had no rights; all of their rights came through either their husbands or their sons. If a woman’s husband died, and she had no sons, everything she owned could be taken from her. She’d end up homeless and without a penny to her name. 

And so God commanded that the brother of the deceased—or the closest male relative—not let that happen. He would marry her, and she would come under the protection of his household. (We see one beautiful example of this in the book of Ruth: this is what happened in the marriage of Ruth to Boaz.) 

So that’s the idea. And on the basis of that idea, the Sadducees come up with this crazy story or a woman whose husband died before she could have kids; so his brother marries her, and the same thing happens to him; and so on, down the line until she’s married seven brothers, and then she dies.

(For the record, we never see anything like this actually happening in the Bible. The Sadducees may have gotten the idea from a story in the apocryphal book of Tobit, which isn’t in the Bible, but which the Sadducees would have known well. In Tobit 3.8, 15; 6.13; 7.11, we see a profoundly disturbing story of a widow who married seven brothers, and each time, her new husband is strangled by a demon in their bed on their wedding night. It’s a horrifying tale. But rest assured: that didn’t happen either.)

However they came up with it, they place it before Jesus as a test, asking him, essentially, Once they’re all dead, and they find themselves in heaven, whose wife will she be? She married these seven brothers, after all—will this be a case of heavenly incest? Will she be randomly assigned to one of the brothers? 

They’re clearly hoping that however he responds, he will have to excuse a ridiculous theological loophole, and thus prove that the whole idea of the resurrection is absurd. And that will take him down, because he’s spoken about heaven on multiple occasions in the past.

But as always, they forget whom they’re speaking to. 

Jesus answers their question in two different ways. He gives them first a theological defense of resurrection, taken from everything we know about God and heaven from the Bible; and then he gives them an exegetical defense of the resurrection, which comes from a quick analysis of the Scripture these Sadducees hold to so strictly.

A Theological Defense (v. 34-36)

34 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.

So when Jesus talks about “this age” and “that age,” he means in this world, and in heaven—in this life, and in eternal life in heaven. And he says very explicitly that those who receive eternal life in heaven neither marry nor are given in marriage. 

The question is, why? Why won’t people who are married today stay married in heaven? It all comes down to the question of why marriage exists, and what marriage is.

In Genesis 1.28, God gives the man and woman he created a mandate. He commissions them to  

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

In other words, part of our mission from God as human beings is to procreate. To multiply. To make babies, and to fill the earth with them, was one way of showing human beings’ dominion over the earth.

And later on in the next chapter, God creates a context in which that multiplication is to take place—the context of marriage. We read in Genesis 2.24:  

24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 

The marriage covenant between a husband and his wife is the context in which their charge to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth is to take place.

But in heaven, we’ll no longer need to do that. Married couples won’t need to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, because God will fill the new heavens and the new earth with his people. They will reign with God, and will no longer need multiplication to show that reign. 

That’s the first reason.

The second reason is very closely related. In Ephesians 5, the apostle Paul quotes Genesis 2.24 to explain why God created marriage in the first place. It wasn’t just to provide the proper context for men and women to multiply; marriage exists to point to something greater. 

He says (Ephesians 5.31-32):  

31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 

In other words, marriage isn’t an end in itself; when a man and a woman get married, that marriage isn’t primarily for them. Marriage exists to reflect a higher reality. It is a living symbol of the union between Christ and his church. 

Here’s why that’s important.

One day, Christ will return to earth. He will renew the earth, and he will present his church to himself—completely purified, completely perfect, like a bride being made beautiful for her wedding day. 

And when that happens, the higher reality that marriage is meant to reflect will be complete. It will have fulfilled its purpose. At that point, human marriage can take its retirement, sell its house and move to Florida.

Because when you have the real thing, you no longer need the reflection. No one sits at the lip of the Grand Canyon and spends their time admiring a painting of the Grand Canyon. If you’ve got the real thing in front of you, the symbol is no longer necessary.

And Jesus gives two more reasons in what he says.

He says in v. 26 that those in heaven neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore. 

Now what does death have to do with marriage? It can be hard for us to see, but the Sadducees would have seen it right away, in what we’ve already seen. God creates the man and the woman, gives them their charge to multiply and fill the earth, then gives them marriage in which to do it. This charge to multiply and fill the earth is necessary because the people with whom the earth is filled…die. So more people need to come and take their place.

But in a world where no one dies, no one needs to take their place.

He then goes on to say that those in heaven neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.

It is one of the foundational truths of the Christian faith: when Christ returns, the dead will be raised, and we will be like him. Our bodies—not just our souls or our spirits, but our bodies—will be renewed. Made perfect.

We will be “like the angels” in beauty and strength: glorified bodies, glorified minds, perfect character, always beholding the glory of God. 

We will be “children of God”—our identity will not be found in what we were able to be or do during our life on earth, but in what God has done for us.

Now the question is, what does that mean for marriage? Or let’s be specific: what does that mean for our relationships with our wives, or with our husbands?

We've had multiple weddings in our church this year (including one yesterday, and two more to come), and in pre-marital counseling with all of those couples, we saw the same thing: no matter how happy you are to be getting married to this person today, there will come a day when you are not married anymore. 

And that’s hard to hear. It’s hard to hear because you look at your future wife or your future husband (or your current wife or husband), and you love them. You want to be married to them, and you want to stay married to them.

So although the idea that marriage is a temporary reality is hard to hear, here’s what we need to keep in mind (and I’ve said this before). 

The fact that we will not die, but that we will be made perfect, like the angels, means that every good thing God has done for us and in us today will be made better.

My relationship with my wife will not be diminished, but made better because of this reality. Nothing in the Bible suggests that we won’t remember our marriage here on earth, or the time we spent falling in love or raising our kids. And we’ll have an eternity to build on that foundation to something even better.

I know Loanne better than anyone, and she knows me better than anyone. But we know each other imperfectly. There is still a lot about each other that we simply don’t understand. Sin clouds our reason, and will cloud our reason until we’re glorified.

But when we are glorified, there will no longer be any obstacles to our intimacy and union with one another. I will know her better, and love her more, in heaven than I do now. I will have an eternity to get to know her completely, to get to see her as God sees her, to get to enjoy her company and celebrate the grace of God in her life. I will be able to celebrate Christ with her, and he’ll be there with us.

And I’ll have millions and millions of brothers and sisters with whom I can share the exact same experience.

So this is not bad news. This is good news. Today our marriage paints a picture of Christ and his church; but one day, the picture we’re painting we’ll be made reality. And when you have the reality, you don’t need the painting.

An Exegetical Defense (v. 37-40)

So at this point, Jesus has responded to their question with a reasonable, theological response. But he knows that this probably won’t be enough for these Sadducees, because everything he’s said so far depends on their believing that there is a resurrection—and they don’t. They don’t believe in a resurrection because, in their interpretation, the Pentateuch doesn’t ever explicitly talk about it. 

And so Jesus knows he needs to go a little further. He needs to show them how the Scriptures they hold so dear actually do testify to a resurrection.

So he says (v. 37-38):  

37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”

The book of Genesis tells of God making a covenant with Abraham. God promised Abraham that he would make him the father of many nations, and that his descendants would be God’s chosen people (Genesis 17.1-8). 

And God keeps his promise: Abraham has a son, Isaac, and a grandson, Jacob, and God renews his covenant with these men, who are known as “the patriarchs” of Israel. It is through this line, through these descendants, that the people of Israel come to be. He renews his covenant once again with his people after the Exodus in Egypt, through the intermediary of Moses.

And when God presents himself to Moses for the first time, to send him to rescue the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God presents himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3.6). 

He refers to himself in this way multiple times throughout the Pentateuch—in the books that the Sadducees held to.

Now here’s why that’s important: God calling himself the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob makes no sense if they’re not alive. 

Think again of marriage. When I married Loanne, I made a legal covenant with her—Till death do us part. If one of us dies, the covenant is broken. If Loanne dies tomorrow, I’m not her husband anymore: I could say that I was her husband, but that I am still her husband.

God established a covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But even after their deaths, God continues to say he is their God. Present tense. 

The implication is that even after these men have died, they are still alive.

R. Kent Hughes put it this way: “These three patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—enjoyed a special covenant relationship with God that was so dynamic, so profound, that it demanded a continued living relationship with God after death.”

So you see, Jesus shows that the very question they’re asking is ridiculous. Interpersonal relationships in heaven? Is that really what you’re worried about?

What you should really be concerned about is the fact that if you’re right, then once you die, God is not your God anymore. Your religion is built on the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So if you are right, and there is no resurrection, then your religion—everything you’ve built your lives on—is absurd.

The Sadducees, after hearing all this, must have been beside themselves with anger, but no matter how they might have felt about it, they couldn’t argue with his analysis of their sacred texts. We see in v. 39:  

39 Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” 40 For they no longer dared to ask him any question. 

marriage, resurrection and covenant

Jesus’s argument here takes place in two different spheres: that of marriage, and that of the patriarchs’ relationship with God.

So what does Jesus’s teaching change about our marriages, and about our relationship with God? 

First: how does God call us to respond to this text in our marriages?

To put it simply: he calls us to build our marriages on that relationship which will last forever. For the Christian couple, the relational dynamic is a little more complex than for other couples, because we aren’t just husband and wife. God established his covenant with us in Jesus Christ, and in so doing, adopted us into his family, uniting us to himself as his children, and to each other as brothers and sisters. 

Loanne said it this way, and I’ve been repeating it ever since: the most fundamental relationship between the two of us is not that of husband and wife, but of brother and sister. Our relationship as husband and wife will last as long as both of us are alive; but our relationship as brother and sister in Christ will last for all eternity.

It is on that foundation, that we are called to build our marriage. 

And building on that foundation changes everything about our marriage.

It changes the way we speak to each other—there is a distinct way the Bible commands us to address one another as brother and sister in Christ, to encourage and exhort one another, and bring one another closer to him. 

It changes the decisions we make as a family—there is a distinct goal God commands us to have for everything we do, namely, the glory of God.

It changes the way we raise our children—not as our children, but as God’s children, whom he has lent to us for a time, to make disciples of them: if God answers our prayers, then Jack will be our little brother in Christ, and Zadie our little sister in Christ, for all eternity.

Knowing that we are first and foremost brother and sister in Christ changes everything. It takes everything we would have as husband and wife, and deepens it. Gives it a goal that will last forever. As I say in every wedding I perform, anyone can view marriage as an expression of love and commitment. But not everyone can say that their union has its roots in cosmic realities, that it reflects divine truths.

So if you’re married, if you’re engaged, or if you want to be married, then build your marriage on that relationship which will last forever. Don’t cheapen marriage by making it just about love. It’s so much bigger—and so much better—than that.

The second terrain on which Jesus’s argument took place was the covenant God had made with the patriarchs, with his people. 

Even if everyone tends to stop at what Jesus says about marriage here, if there is a key verse for this whole text, it is not v. 34-36, but v. 37-38: God is the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living…

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not perfect men. Far from it. If you read the stories of their lives, you’ll see that these guys are not guys you’d want your kids to emulate. 

But God, in his grace, established his covenant with them anyway—not because of them, but because of his own good will. And no matter how imperfect they were, no matter how flawed they were, no matter how dead they were, God gave them faith. He gave them the covenant. He gave them eternal life. God did what needed to be done so that he could call himself their God even after their death.

Here’s the point: your salvation, your eternal life, does not depend on you. It’s not up to you to earn it, and it’s not up to you to keep it once you’ve got it.

What God did for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he continues to do for his people ever since. He himself provides what we lack, and meets the conditions we can’t meet. He keeps the promises we can’t keep. He gives our bodies and our souls what we lost in the fall.

We have all broken his law. We have all rebelled against him.

So he sent Jesus Christ, to keep the law for us, to fulfill the covenant for us. He lived the life God orders us to live. He put himself in our place, as the perfectly sufficient sacrifice. And he was raised from the dead to obtain resurrection for us.

The covenant God made with his people—with us—does not depend on us. It has already been fulfilled in Christ, and we will keep on receiving the benefits of the covenant for all eternity.

So if you only remember one thing this morning, remember this: it is God who saves us, through his Son. He gives us faith, and he will bring us to the place where we will see the reality of our faith face to face.

Brothers and sisters, if you are in Christ, you will not die. Your death will not be a true death. You will be spiritually alive after your death, and physically alive after the final resurrection.

This is glorious news for those who are afraid of death, afraid of getting old, afraid of getting weak. Imagine the joy which would fill us if we truly believed that we had nothing left to fear!

So if you don’t know Christ this morning, you only have to ask God to know him: to give you faith in Christ, to help you repent of your rebellion against him, to help you follow him in response to his grace.

And if you know Christ, if you have faith in him, then your salvation, your eternal life, your resurrection, are assured.

So brothers and sisters, rest in the knowledge that God has made a covenant with us, and that he has fulfilled the conditions of that covenant in Christ, and that his covenant with us is so deep, and so intimate, that it assures us perfect, eternal life with him.