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Matthew 22:23-33

It has been a month since we were last in Matthew 22 so just a word to remind us where we are.  It is the middle of the passion week, just a few days before the crucifixion, and the Lord’s enemies are seeking to catch him in some kind of public gaff.  The Pharisees were the Lord’s leading antagonists but they had no difficulty getting others to help them with their work of either undermining the Lord’s popularity with the people or getting him into hot water with the Roman authorities.  The phrase “the same day” in v. 23 indicates that this was an orchestrated effort to trip him up.  One group after another took their turn.  First, they took a stab at his views on taxes, a subject of intense interest and controversy then as now.  Their question about paying the Roman poll tax was a cynical ploy on their part, but in reply they received an answer that has been the foundation of all subsequent thinking about the relationship between church and state.  Next the Sadducees sought to confound him with what they thought was a clever trick question concerning the resurrection:  a doctrine they knew he believed but which they did not.  And then the Pharisees had another go in the paragraph that we will read next Lord’s Day, Lord willing.

Text Comment

v.23     We have here another piece of evidence – of which there are a great many – that the historical information contained in the Gospels is accurate and reliable (whether information about first century Judaism, the geography of the Palestine, Roman law and procedure, or anything else).  The Gospels always give us accurate history in the ordinary sense of the term. They give us much more than that, but they do give us that.  They are, in fact, some of the most important evidence we have for life in first century Judea and Galilee under Roman occupation.  In this case Josephus also says about the Sadducees, “The Sadducees hold that the soul perishes along with the body.”  [Ant. xviii 16]

The Sadducees were the liberals of their day and, like liberals in many ages, they represented quite a small part of the whole population.  What is more, they were, as liberals often are, drawn in largest numbers from the wealthy and the powerful of society. They were the aristocratic party in the Judaism of that day. It is often those who are most comfortable in this world who have the greatest difficulty believing in the next.

v.28     The question that the Sadducees pose to Jesus was obviously not one they themselves took seriously.  Not believing in life after death they had no real interest in what supposedly happened to people in the world to come.  Rather this question amounted to a kind of reductio ad absurdum by which they mocked the faith of most Jews of their time in life after death.  They expected that Jesus would be flummoxed by their question – no doubt others had been – and that he would be publicly embarrassed.  However, as before with the question about taxes put to Jesus by the Herodians and Pharisees, the Lord took the occasion to offer some positive teaching.

Their question concerns the practice of levirate marriage (levir is the Latin word for brother-in-law) as it is set out in Deuteronomy 25:5-6.  The Sadducees felt they were on safe ground here as this is clearly part of the law of Moses.  The requirement, of course, was a way of protecting widows from poverty and ensuring that the property in a man’s family remained within his family upon his death.  If a man died without issue his brother was to marry his wife and raise up an heir for his dead brother.  But in this case brother after brother died without begetting a child and so the wife is married in turn by one brother after another until all seven brothers have died.  The woman had been married to all of them before she herself died. That is, each man was legally married to her; no man had any more right to call himself her husband than the others.

v.29     That is, while they certainly knew the Scripture in a superficial sense, like many people their understanding did not penetrate to the Bible’s true meaning and, as a result, they did not understand or appreciate what God can do.  They thought they were being biblical by quoting a text from the law of Moses, but they didn’t really understand the Bible.  It is one thing to be able to quote Scripture, another thing altogether really to understand the Word of God.  [Morris, 560] Their outlook, like that of so many today, was effectively secular, humanist, and rationalist, no matter the religious veneer. They were do-it-yourselfers. They did not have a living faith in God or God’s power.  It is interesting that the Sadducees did not believe in angels either.  They had a bias against the supernatural.

v.30     First the Lord deals with their specific question.  The problem was that they assumed that life in the world to come would be the same as life in this world. The thought that if there were to be life beyond death that life would be subject to the same conditions as life in this world; it would be merely a continuation of what we know and experience in this life.  As people of this world they measured everything by this world.  But the power of God creates an entirely new kind of life, an eternal life in which there will be no procreation and so need for the marital relationships that we have in this world.  [France, 317]

The question of the Sadducees may have been cynical, but it is a real question and, no doubt, has troubled godly people who have been married more than once.  How will I relate to both my first and second husband in heaven or first and second wife?  Take note that all the Lord says is that there will be no marriage.  He does not say that there will not be wonderfully fulfilling relationships of love in heaven.  But in heaven, of course, there can be neither jealousy nor any sense of being excluded.

v.32     Now Jesus turns to the real issue, the Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection.  It is interesting that the Lord cites Exodus 3:6.  Though there is some debate about this in Jewish scholarship, it does seem that the Sadducees denied the scriptural authority of everything except the Pentateuch, the first five books of what we call the OT.  They either did not regard the rest of the OT – the histories, the wisdom books, and especially the prophets – as holy writ or they attached a lesser authority to those writings.  Their denial of the resurrection stemmed from their belief that it was nowhere taught in the Torah, the Pentateuch, Genesis through Deuteronomy. Interestingly, the Samaritans, who also accepted only the first five books as Holy Scripture, likewise denied the resurrection.  [Sanh. 90b]  So Jesus cites a text from the Pentateuch to demonstrate that the resurrection is the teaching even of that part of the Bible that they accept as normative.

The citation in context affirms the point that the Lord is making.  To be the God of someone presupposes a living relationship.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were long dead when the Lord said to Moses that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  He did not tell Moses that he had been their God, but that he was then, at that moment, their God.  But that could only be if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were still living.  The present tense is important.  “I am the God of Abraham…”  Even the Sadducees didn’t say that Yahweh had been the God of Abraham, which they should have said if, in fact, there is no afterlife.  [Morris, 561]

v.33     The “crowds” refers to the large number of people in the temple courts who were listening in on these exchanges between Jesus and the various groups who came to test him.  They, by and large, agreed that there was a resurrection and they were amazed at how effectively Jesus had silenced the vaunted Sadducees by bringing new insights out of a familiar text of Holy Scripture.  People’s amazement at Jesus’ teaching is a frequent theme in the Gospels. This was quite unlike anything they had heard before both in his insightful interpretations of Holy Scripture and in the authority with which he taught them.  He cited no rabbinical authorities; he went straight to the Scripture itself and unpacked its true meaning.  Obviously the Lord intended his remarks not only for the Sadducees themselves but for the crowds who were listening in.

I suspect for many Christians through the ages this paragraph, this piece of the Lord’s teaching, has been the most disappointing in the Bible.  They don’t deny that what the Lord says is true.  He is the Lord!  But they wish it were not.  Most of the teaching they find in Holy Scripture – teaching about life in this world and life in the next – they happily agree with.  They believe that it is true and they believe that it ought to be true.  Even the more difficult parts they accept as good and necessary. But I have spoken with many Christians through the years who accept this teaching about there being no marriage in heaven with a sigh.  They don’t want to be like the angels when they get to heaven, at least not in this respect.  The a-sexual life does not appeal to them. They want to be married.  They want to be in love in the way in which husbands and wives alone can be in love. I confess to being one of those who thinks this way.  My marriage has been the source of great happiness to me and it is hard for me to accept that, for eternity to come, this happiness will not be part of my life.  It would make me very happy to know that I would be married to Florence for ever. Now, for honesty’s sake, I should tell you that this paragraph in Matthew 22 about there being no marriage in heaven is Florence’s favorite text in all of Holy Scripture.  But for me, and I know for others, it comes as more than something of a disappointment.  Happily married Christians find it a disappointment to think that they will not still be married in heaven.  I’ve heard a great many say precisely that.  But, nevertheless, that is what the Lord says.  We shall be like the angels in this respect, that we will not marry or be married.  Our life in heaven, true and authentic human life though it will be, will not be precisely like our human life in this world and this is one grand difference.  It will not be a sexual, romantic, married life as it has been here.

Now, I think this fact, that there is something about life in heaven that startles and even disappoints faithful Christians when they hear about it, is a point of great importance.  For most people, belief in life after death is nothing but instinct reinforced by sentiment.  The instinct comes from their being made in the image of an eternal God.  They can’t help but think of their existence in eternal terms, much as that thinking may well be corrupted by sinful patterns of thought, by worldliness, by selfishness, and by unbelief.  The sentimentality is also typical of human beings: this tendency to believe what one wishes to be true.  For most people – and make no mistake, virtually all human beings believe in some form of life after death – these beliefs are little more than wishful thinking.  They want it to be so, they want death not to be the end, and so they indulge themselves in the belief that it is so.  There are many proofs of this but one of the most striking is that among the vast majority of people who believe in existence after death – and among that great number are a vast number who believe in the existence of hell as well as heaven – hardly anyone worries that things might not go well for him or her in the world to come.  After all, existence here is both good and bad; people here in this world are punished for their sins.  Why do they so cavalierly assume that all will be well in the next life?  If there is a next life there is a God, but if there is a God, why do they not worry more about what God thinks about their lives here and what he might do in consequence when they reach the next world.  They are, in vast numbers, content with a vague, unexamined, and undemonstrated confidence that things will be fine on the other side no matter how one has lived his or her life in this world.

But for Christians belief in life after death, in the continuing existence of human beings after they have left this world is no mere sentiment.  We believe – as most people did then and most people do now – in the existence of life after death.  But we have reasons for our confidence in the life to come and, what is more, we take the prospect seriously.  We understand that, just as there is justice here in this world there will be justice – and much more perfect justice – in the next.  We accept that there are moral consequences to be faced in the next world for one’s life in this world.  We believe that God will not be mocked and that whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap.  We do not believe that it will go well for all people no matter how they have lived, no matter whether they embraced God’s offer of salvation through his Son Jesus Christ.  We do not believe that heaven is the only destination.  But we most certainly do believe in heaven.  And, as I said, we have reasons.  As Christians our belief is not sheer sentiment as it is in the case of so many people.  We do not believe that life continues after death because we want it to continue after death or because we hope it will.  We believe in life after death because God has promised that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord;” because Jesus Christ himself, our Savior, rose from the dead, the first fruits of those that sleep; and because he promised that he was going to prepare a place for us so that where he is we might be also.  We are not like the Sadducees.  We have a well-grounded hope in the reality of life after death.

In other words, we know about heaven because God has told us and Christ has shown us.  Heaven is a fact of divine revelation.  And some important proof of that is furnished by the fact that there are things about heaven that are not as we might have thought, some features of life there that surprise us and even, from our present vantage point, disappoint us.  Our belief in life after death is not simply our projecting our wishes into the future; it is a matter of believing what God has said.  Christ Jesus tells us that there will be no marriage in heaven. I was surprised to learn that.  Important as marriage is to God’s plan for human life, I wouldn’t have thought it so. Important as marriage is in this world to the happiness and fulfillment of human life, I would have thought it would be a feature of our lives in the next world.  As pure and magnificent as is the love of man and woman in a faithful marriage – and God himself has made it so – I would have thought this a part of human life certain to be continued on the other side. I have to admit that I was disappointed to learn that it would not be so.  As much as marriage has figured in my happiness as God’s child, as large a part of the goodness of life as it has been for me, I would have assumed that it would continue in heaven, the place of perfect goodness. But it is not to be.  Heaven is not our invention it is God’s home.  He alone can tell us what life will be like there and he has.  How inevitable, then, that in certain respects it should not be as we imagined.  A made-up heaven would not be an a-sexual place, I guarantee you.  But the real heaven is.  And we Christians know it because Christ said it and we understand that we must adjust our thinking accordingly.

The Lord made short shrift of the question the Sadducees thought was so clever.  After all, where was it written and who should have thought that life in heaven would be little different than life on earth, that perfect life, sinless life, life in the immediate presence of God would be little different than the life we live here by faith?  The Sadducees should have understood – even if all they believed were the first five books of the Bible – that the law of levirate marriage would not keep the living God from blessing his faithful children according to his own wisdom and that God’s ways are far above man’s ways.

But that was not the Lord’s main point.  His problem with the Sadducees was not first their quibbles about the manner of life in the world to come but their denial of the reality of life in the world to come.  The remark about there being no marriage in heaven is what arrests our attention, but the Lord’s interest lies elsewhere.  He strikes at the main issue by citing Exodus 3:6 and proving from that text that God is the God of those who live on, that those who are his people continue to live even after they have died.

C.S. Lewis once criticized Rudyard Kipling for lacking what he called a “doctrine of ends.”  That is, he did not look at this life – nor did he write about this life in his books and poems – in view of the ultimate issue of things.  He had no doctrine of the end of the world, of the world to come, of the connection between this world and the next. That was the Sadducees’ problem.  They had no doctrine of ends, or, better, they had a false doctrine of ends and that false doctrine prevented them from a true understanding of this life and this world.

This is, in fact, the problem of our world.  It explains Terri Schiavo’s death, it explains Europe’s declining birthrate, it explains abortion and euthanasia in the modern Western world, it explains so much about crime and divorce and television and the internet and the worldliness of ordinary human life; it explains so much about how ordinary people live every day in our world.  They have no doctrine of ends.  They do not see the present in terms of an eternal future.  They measure the present by the present only and that changes everything, distorts everything, corrupts everything.  You cannot know the truth about today, about your life today, unless you connect today to tomorrow, the eternal future.  You cannot rightly measure anything in the present unless you measure it in terms of eternity, your life after death, your existence that continues forever in either heaven or hell.

We do not make this mistake, you and I, at least not in the sense of embracing the Sadducees’ naked unbelief in life after death, but, at the same time you know and I know that, nevertheless, we make their mistake every day we live.  Too often we also live as if we had no doctrine of ends.  Too often we live as if there were no world to come, as if we were not to continue our lives after we died, as if heaven and hell were not real, or, as if heaven were not to be as glorious as Holy Scripture says it will be.  We rightly reject the Sadducees’ unbelief, but, alas, there is the Sadducee in everyone of us, however heartily and sincerely we reject their secularism and their unbelief.

The remark about their being no marriage in heaven has this great benefit.  It forces us to think about heaven as a real place, not an imagined place, but a real place, a place where we are going, where we will soon be, where we will soon live if we have living faith in Jesus Christ.  We can indulge vague illusions about heaven, too vague to leave their mark on our daily lives, but here we are confronted with the real thing, the real place, the real life – a life different in some ways that we expected, even than we may have hoped.  That is how real heaven is.

The first time I ever preached on this text – actually on its parallel in the Gospel of Mark – was in November of 1987.  What made that date significant was that it was the first anniversary of the death of Jack Paist, a spiritual father to me, a beloved elder, a man I believe that God sent to us from Philadelphia after his retirement and a man who made an immensely important contribution to the rebirth of this congregation.  Only a few of you can remember Mr. Paist, or even his saintly wife who lives on in Lacey, Washington.  But I remember him very well and love him still for all he meant to me and to this church.

But Mr. Paist has been in heaven these nearly 18 years.  I have often thought of him there, and my father, and my sister, and some of the choice saints who have left us here and gone to glory.  What an absolutely inexpressible difference it makes, it must make, to believe that. Really to believe that!  How can your life or mine remain the same, how can the daily round of our existence not be supercharged with meaning, with purpose, with gladness, with expectation, with living hope when we know, really know that heaven awaits and that when we come there we will be there forever.

                        O think!

To step on shore

And that shore heaven!

To take hold of a Hand,

And that, God’s Hand!

To breathe a new air,

And feel it celestial air;

To feel invigorated,

And know it immortality!

O think!

To pass from storm and tempest

To one unbroken calm!

To wake up,

And find it – GLORY.

It was but a few days before he was so cruelly put to death that Jesus began to teach us in a concentrated way about the reality of existence after death, about the last judgment, about heaven and hell.  Just as he was leaving the world, as his life’s ministry came to its fateful climax, over and over again in those last few days he turned to people and said to them, “Remember, this is not the end.  It is not the end for anyone.  Human existence continues beyond the grave for good or for ill.  And that fact determines everything about your life.  It is that fact that sent me into the world to save sinners; that fact that made me willing to bear the cross to make a way to heaven for my people; that fact that kept me going in the teeth of so much opposition, so much hatred, so much blind misunderstanding and it is that fact that must make you take me seriously and believe in me and follow me.  There is a world to come.  And unless you reckon with that world to come, it will be a world of woe for you instead of weal.”  That is what Jesus said over and over again in the last few days of his early ministry.  We will come again and again to that teaching in the paragraphs that follow this one in the Gospel of Matthew.

Heaven is a real place, not a place of human imagination.  It is a real destiny.  Some proof of that is furnished by the fact that it isn’t, as it turns out, everything we thought it might be; even everything, in our limited and earthly viewpoint, we hoped it might be.  We will be like the angels even in ways that many of us don’t now find altogether attractive to contemplate.

But then I know, as every Christian knows, that when I am in heaven, and my heart is perfectly pure, and I am with the Lord and with his saints, and I see an eternity of sinless joy stretching before me, I will miss nothing, regret nothing, wish for nothing else but what the Lord Christ has given me.