On that day there came to him Sadducees, they that say that there is no resurrection: and they asked him, saying,
“Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother.’ Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first married and deceased, and having no seed left his wife unto his brother; in like manner the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. And after them all, the woman died. In the resurrection therefore whose wife shall she be of the seven? For they all had her.”
But Jesus answered and said unto them, “Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as angels in heaven. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:23-32).
The Sadducees no doubt loved their “gotcha” question for all those who believed in resurrection. How could they expect to be thoroughly upstaged and humiliated by this Man from Galilee?
After Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph He threw down the gauntlet in Matthew 21:12-13, overthrowing the tables of the money-changers, uttering forth the same condemnation on the Second Temple as Jeremiah had done on the First (cf. Jeremiah 7:11). The Sadducees, named from Zadok the High Priest in the days of David (2 Samuel 8:17), were one of the three principal Jewish sects of the late Second Temple period; most of their number primarily included the priests and others who had a vested interest in the perpetuation of the Temple and the status quo. They were not many in number, but they had great wealth and prominence among the people. Jesus’ challenge to the Temple could not go unopposed; the Sadducees were going to put this Galilean in His place.
The Sadducees accepted the legitimacy of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Since they found nothing explicitly in it regarding the resurrection of the dead, they rejected it; their views on this issue were one of the frequently disputed matters between them and the Pharisees, who believed in the legitimacy of the Prophets and the Writings and thus the resurrection of the dead as well (Matthew 22:23; cf. Acts 23:6-10). It is highly unlikely that this was the first time this “gotcha” scenario in Matthew 22:24-28 had been posed; it was quite likely a common question to a Pharisee or to someone else who believed in resurrection. The purpose of the question was to put Jesus in an awkward position, humiliate Him before the crowds, and cause Him to lose legitimacy.
The scenario is outlandish and to the extreme but one that nevertheless remains possible. The Sadducees focus on Moses’ legislation regarding levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25:5-10: if a man dies without offspring to inherit his property, his widow shall marry a brother or a near kinsman so as to raise up offspring to inherit the dead man’s property. Therefore the Sadducees posit a family of seven brothers with extraordinarily bad luck: the first marries a woman, but dies before any offspring are born. The woman then marries the second brother with the same result; the same happens for brothers three through seven (Matthew 22:24-28). So they pose their “gotcha” question: if this resurrection of the dead is possible and true, to whom will this woman be married? To all seven brothers? Just the first? After all, they all had her as wife!
No doubt this question had caused great embarrassment and consternation to many Pharisees and others over the years, yet it rested on an assumption and presupposition that Jesus immediately exploits. The Sadducees presume that marriage would continue in the resurrection; Jesus declares it is not so (Matthew 22:29-30). In the resurrection there is no need for marriage; all who obtain the resurrection of life will share in fellowship with God and each other, and since they will never die, there is no need for further procreation (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:50-58, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Instead, those who share in the resurrection are like the angels who have no need to marry or procreate (Matthew 22:30).
Jesus then expertly turns the tables with a masterful piece of exegesis. The Sadducees intended to cause Him consternation, embarrassment, and thus humiliation before the crowd on account of their “gotcha” scenario; upon their own ground Jesus exposes their lack of understanding and faith in God’s Word and power. He does so by quoting Exodus 3:6 in which YHWH declares He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Exodus, as the second book in the Torah, was held as sacred by Jesus and the Sadducees alike. Jesus points out the implication of YHWH’s declaration: how can God “be” the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob if those three patriarchs are dead? If they were no more, then YHWH was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Thus Jesus declares that God is not the God of the dead but of the living; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still live and await the day of resurrection (Matthew 22:31-32). The crowd was astonished at this teaching (Matthew 22:33). The Sadducees were put to silence, having no ability to respond to what Jesus had declared (Matthew 22:34). It must have been a bitter pill to swallow; not only would every Pharisee and anyone else who believed in resurrection give a similar answer to their “gotcha” question, now they would also get called out on the basis of Exodus 3:6. Little wonder many of the scribes thought Jesus had answered well in Luke 20:39; they now had ammunition against the Sadducees!
We can gain much from this story. We see that outlandish scenarios are the desperate last stand of false doctrines; they frequently rest on assumptions and presuppositions that are easily challenged and undermine the legitimacy of the doctrinal position of the one posing it. We learn about the nature of the resurrection: there will be no marriage in the resurrection, nor will their be any need for procreation. While some may have great desire for sex in the resurrection, Matthew 22:30 suggests this is but wishful thinking. Greater glory and joy, after all, awaits us in the resurrection (Revelation 21:1-22:6). Jesus affirms the power of inference: it would be easy to miss the detail of God’s present standing as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and to not automatically connect such with the resurrection. Jesus proves willing to rest His entire affirmation of the resurrection before the Sadducees on this inference since they all affirm the canonicity of Exodus.
Jesus proves willing to depend upon Exodus 3:6 to support His argument not because it is the only way to defend resurrection from the Torah but because of the great importance of the revelation of God in Exodus 3:6. God is revealing Himself for the first time to Moses; in Exodus 6:2-3 God reveals Himself to Moses as YHWH. YHWH is a nominal form derived from the Hebrew word for “to be,” thus, something akin to “Is-ness”, “Being,” “the Existent One,” and thus “the Eternal One.” As the Creator, Source, and Sustainer of life (Genesis 1:1-2:4, Colossians 1:17, Hebrews 1:3), YHWH is the God of life and thus of the living. God is not the God of the dead; in Sheol there is no remembrance of God or praise for Him (Psalm 6:5). If God is the God of the living, then He will give life to those whom He loves.
Exodus 3:6 therefore is not properly “proof” of the resurrection; instead, resurrection is perhaps the unexpected but absolutely the logical conclusion of the fact that God is the God of the living, that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If God is the God of the living, then those who stand before God must do so in life, and that is precisely what God has promised all people who serve the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:16, 36, 6:40, 10:10, 11:25).
The Sadducees’ great error came long before they stood before Jesus with their “gotcha” question; it came when they did not properly understand the Scriptures, the power of God, or really the essential nature of God. God is YHWH; God is, and is thus the God of the living, not the dead. In God there is life; those who are in God will share in life, both spiritual life in Jesus and life in the resurrection on the final day. Let us put our trust in the YHWH, the God of the living, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and glorify Him in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry