Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 12/10/1995
Luke 20:27 Now there came to him some of the Sadducees (who say that there is no resurrection), 28 and they questioned him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife, and he is childless, his brother should take the wife and raise up offspring to his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers, and the first took a wife and died childless, 30 and the second, 31 and the third took her, and in the same way all seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally the woman died also. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, which man’s wife shall she be? For all seven had her as wife.” 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 the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 For neither can they die any more, for they are like angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. 37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed in the passage about the burning bush, where he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ 38 Now, he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” 39 And some of the scribes answered and said, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” 40 For they did not have courage to question him any longer about anything.
Have you ever been witnessing to someone and the unbeliever asks a question like “Where did Cain get his wife?” “What about those who have never heard the Gospel?” “Can God make a stone so big he can’t lift it?” “Why do innocent people suffer?” The purpose of such questions is usually not to seek truth but to evade it, not to find truth but to ridicule it, as you discover pretty quickly if you actually try to answer them. Well, the Lord found himself in just that kind of conversation in the passage that is before us today. From the way he handled it we can learn something about God, something about the resurrection, and something about how to handle questions.
The most important thing we learn is something about God himself: He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. That this is so flows from his own inmost nature. He is uniquely “the living God,” contrasted throughout the Old Testament with the false gods “made with hands.” But this God is different: powerful, active, dynamic—alive. “The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; yes, the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young ox. The voice of the Lord hews out flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord makes the deer to calve and strips the forests bare, and in his temple everything says, ‘Glory!’” (Psalm 29:4-9). This God is no mere abstract idea, no mere idol whether made with mind or hands. He actually does things! “Has any people heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire as you have heard it and survived? Or has a god tried to go take for himself a nation from within another nation by trials, signs, and wonders and by war and by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm and by great terrors, as the Lord did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown that you might know that the Lord, he is God, and there is no other besides him” (Deut. 4:33-35). He is not only alive, but he is the source of all life, from the day he first breathed it into us at the Creation. Because he is alive, his Word also lives, and is living, active, powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12). Supremely this life is seen in his Son, for “in him was life, and that life was the light of men” (John 1:4). He is the living God, the Lord and giver of life.
If that is who God is, then of course he must be the God, not of the dead, but of the living. For to be in relationship with him is to receive life from him! So if this is who God is, then it says something also about we who are his people. Throughout the Scriptures, salvation is described in terms of life, and damnation in terms of spiritual death. This theme comes into special focus in John’s Gospel. “Truly, truly I say to you, an hour is coming in which the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear shall live. For just as the Father has life in himself, even so he gave to he Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26-7). “To whom shall we go?” asked the disciples, “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). And in his great high priestly prayer he gives the classic definition of salvation: “This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Because salvation is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and because God is the living God, therefore we will live forever. You cannot know him and not live. He is the living God; life rubs off on us when we are near him.
If all this is true, then what does it say about the Christian life here and now? Our God is not the God of the dead but of the living! Therefore, we of all people should be full of life. Think of the adjectives that derive etymologically from various words that mean “life”: vivacious, vivid, lively. Funeral homes have sanitized death and anesthetized us to some of the contrast between death and life. But we can still see it. Life is beautiful; death is ugly. Life is good; death is evil. Life is wholesome; death is decadent. Life is joyous; death is sorrowful. Life is healthy; death is diseased. Life is whole; death is decayed and rotten. Life is active; death is impotent and immobile. Hear in this context once again the words of Jesus: “I am come to bring life, and that more abundantly” (John 10:10). Therefore, for a Christian (or a church) to be cold, dull, and passive, for a Christian (or a church) to take the path of least resistance, for a Christian (or a church) to be apathetic, boring—in other words, dead—is for that Christian (or that church) to deny the Lord who bought them! He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Therefore, let us live for him!
Because God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, we also learn something about the resurrection. First, we learn the certainty of it. Because he is both the living God and the God of the living, nothing can stop it. Death is the strongest natural force we know of. Life (in the natural order of things) can be reversed, but death cannot. Every life comes to an end, but death (in this world) lasts forever. The utmost that science can do is to put it off for a little while. Once it has come, nothing can undo it or reverse its work. But though it is strong, it is not stronger than the living God! He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
We learn not only the certainty of the resurrection, but something of the nature of it as well. Jesus’ argument from the nature of God strictly and by itself proves only the immortality of Abraham: if Abraham is one of God’s people, and God is the God of the living, then Abraham must live; indeed, he must live forever. The form in which he will live is not specified by the argument as such. But Jesus does not stop with immortality, but goes on to argue for the resurrection of the body. Why? How does he get there? Because he has added or assumed something as background which does indeed yield that conclusion when combined with the stated premise. (In logic, this is technically known as an “enthymeme,” a syllogism with one premise left unstated or understood.) And that unstated premise is the unity of human nature. We are not just a body, as in modern secularism; we are not just a spirit which happens to live in a body (or be trapped in it), as in paganism. We were made to be the unique point in the universe where matter and spirit come together, a unity of body and spirit that integrates those two parts of God’s creation as one. Sir Thomas Browne called us “that great and true amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live, not only like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds.” Therefore, if Man was created to be a unity of body and spirit, he cannot be fully alive without his body. And therefore, the resurrection is necessary for us to enjoy eternal life as fully human beings.
The resurrection has implications then for the way we conceive ourselves and the way we conceive the Christian life. The body is not our problem; the will is. Full humanity includes the body, and forms of spirituality that denigrate or despise it are sub-Christian. The spirit does not feel itself imprisoned in the body because spirit is good and the body is evil. It feels the body as a burden only because in a fallen world the body is perishable. That is why it groans for redemption—but not redemption from the body, but rather the redemption of the body. Gerard Manley Hopkins put it well:
Like a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage, Man’s mounting spirit in his mean house, bone house dwells— That bird beyond the remembering his free fells; This in drudgery day-laboring out life’s age. Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage Both sing sometimes the sweetest, sweetest spells, Yet both droop deadly sometimes in their cells Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage. No that the sweet fowl, song-fowl needs no rest— Why hear him, hear him babble as he drops down to his nest, But his own nest, wild nest, no prison. Man’s spirit will be flesh bound when found at best, But uncumbered: meadow down is not distressed For a rainbow footing it, nor he for his bones risen!
There are, finally, some important lessons here about how to handle this type of insincere question, usually asked as a sidetrack, an attempt to avoid the real issue. The first is, do not get sidetracked by accepting the assumptions implied by the question. The Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection, had heard this chestnut from the Sadducees before, and they had a standard answer: the woman would belong to the first brother. But look what they have done. They have tacitly accepted the assumption that the next life will be just like this one, a mere continuation of it into a limitless future. Because they have accepted that assumption, their answer is not really an answer at all. For the Sadducees want to make the point that the doctrine of the resurrection is absurd—look at the absurdities that follow from accepting it! And the standard answer left them still able to maintain that attitude. Jesus cuts deeper by getting past the assumption and showing how little any of his opponents really understood about that time which is so fresh and new that it has not even entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for us, that time to which the sufferings of this life are not even worthy to be compared.
The second thing we learn from Jesus’ example is, do not ignore or evade the evasive question, but answer it in such a way that you focus the conversation back on the real issues of the Gospel, especially who God is. This is exactly what Jesus did here. Does it really matter whose wife the lady would be? No, as it turns out, the Sadducees are asking the wrong question. But Jesus uses the topic to raise the question they should be asking. Who is God? Do we have a low or a high view of God? If we think of God rightly, the resurrection will take care of itself. Do we have a high and exalted view of God? Ultimately, the gospel hinges on this. We will never be properly convicted of sin, and so we will never see the necessity of the Cross, until we see the holiness, justice, and righteousness as well as the love of God. We are not ready to talk about anything else until we see that he is not the God of the dead, but of the living. So don’t be thrown off by the question, and don’t ignore it, but use it to get back to the central issue, as Jesus did.
So, where did Cain get his wife? We do not know specifically, but we do know that ultimately he got her from the same place that Adam did, from the God who supplies all our needs. What about those who have not heard? Well, of course we are very concerned about them, and we know that God wants them to hear—that’s why I’m telling you! Can God make a stone so big he cannot lift it? God is a God not only of power but also of wisdom and of truth. He can do anything that is consistent with his own character. Contradicting himself is not one of those things—so, no, he cannot make a stone so big he cannot lift it. But he can do something even more astounding than that: he can forgive our sins, cleanse us from all unrighteousness, give us eternal life, and—most astounding of all—make life worth living for an eternity. Why do the innocent suffer? Who is innocent? I’m not—are you? I’m afraid we’re all sinners. Why do the guilty enjoy life? Because God is gracious! And you have no idea how gracious, but let me tell you. There is only one documented time in history when an innocent man suffered, and that was Christ on the Cross—for my sins and yours.
Do you see? The point is not for you to memorize these responses—though there’s no harm in that if you think it would help. But the real point is to learn to think about all of life as related to God and his Gospel so that we can naturally practice following Jesus example in this encounter, and point people to the One who is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, because he is the living God. And therefore we who are the people of God should not be the dead, but the living. Part of that life in us should be the ability to respond to questions and objections as people who know the living God, people for whom all of life revolves around him. For the purpose of our answers is the same as the purpose of the resurrection itself: that men and women might be brought into the presence of the living God.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams