Saturday 14 July 2012

The God of the living (Matthew 22:23-33)

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Cause they’re so sad, you see?

I don’t wanna be a Sadducee,
I don’t wanna be a Sadducee,
‘Cause they’re so sad, you see?
I don’t wanna be a Sadducee.

The reason why they are sad, you see, is because the Sadducees “say there is no resurrection” (verse 23). That is, Sadducees believe that God will not raise you from the dead. Now it is important to note that these weren’t atheists. The Sadducees believed in God and moreover, they believed in the bible. Yet, what differentiated them from the Pharisees, whom we’ve been meeting these past few weeks, is that the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of Moses from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Which is why their question begins with Moses.

“Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us.  The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died.”
Matthew 22:24-27

They begin with a command from Moses about levirate marriage, where the Hebrew word levir refers to the “husband’s brother”. The command says that in the event of a man’s death, the man’s brother is to marry the widow for two reasons - to provide for her, but also, to bring up children in the dead man’s name. That’s what Moses told them to do, say the Sadducees, but then the ask Jesus: What if. They propose a what-if scenario, where there is a family of seven brothers. The reason I call this a what-if scenario is because even in Jesus’ day, this law was no longer practiced. Still, it may be that this scenario really happened, because in verse 25, they say to Jesus, “There were seven brothers among us.” And the scenario is this: The first brother dies without any kids, so the law kicks in: the second brother steps up  to marry the widow. But then he dies, and she gets passed down to brother number three. But he dies as well. This happens seven times such that the poor widow ends up getting married to seven men and mourning over seven husbands. The saddest verse is, I think, verse 27, which reads, “Finally, she dies.” Childless and alone, she goes to the grave.

“Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”
Matthew 22:28

Hence, the question from the Sadducees about the resurrection. “Whose wife will she be?” It isn’t just a question about the resurrection, is it? It is also a question about the permanence of marriage. That is, marriage poses a serious problem for the resurrection. This is not a case of someone being unfaithful in their marriage. This is not a case of someone who got divorced again and again, whose marriages broke down again and again, seven times. No, this is an actual command in the bible from Moses himself, which if obeyed to the letter as God’s word revealed in the Scriptures, would pose a serious problem for the resurrection.

The Sadducees point was this: Moses was very clear about marriage. Moses gave commands about getting married - even strange ones like the one we have here about marrying your dead brother’s widow - but Moses said nothing about the resurrection, and the truth is, a situation whereby God would raise dead people from the grave, would pose serious problems not simply about the improbability of such an event, but would contradict God’s own word revealed in the bible.

“Whose wife will she be of the seven?” The Sadducees weren’t looking for an answer. They thought they knew the answer; that there could only be one answer. None. God would never allow such a preposterous problem to exist because the Sadducees believed that God does not raise the dead.

How does Jesus answer them? He tells the bible experts, they don’t know their bibles.

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”
Matthew 22:29

Because the Sadducees pose to Jesus a two-part question - on marriage and the resurrection - Jesus gives them a two-part answer - on the word of God and the power of God.

Two kinds of raising

At the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.
Matthew 22:30

People are permanent, marriage is not. I realise how risky it is to say something like that, and how likely a statement like that can be easily misunderstood. But I will say it again, people are permanent, marriage isn’t. Marriage is a good thing, but it is, for all the good it does and for all  the joy it brings, a temporary thing, when set against the full scope of God’s plan for redemption.

What do I mean? Look back to the law of Moses in verse 24. The reason why the widow marries the brother-in-law, isn’t companionship and love, though those form part of the reason for the marriage - that she is looked after and provided for. The reason is children. If a man died without children, the brother-in-law marries his wife in order to raise children. And here I need to point out that the word for raise is exactly the same for resurrection. Two kinds of raising is being compared and contrasted. On one hand, there is the raising of children within godly families. That’s an important element for marriage we tend to overlook today - the raising of children by both the father and mother - because we tend to put it off or some of us would rather not think about it at all. Yet in Malachi Chapter 2, God says about the married couple, “Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring” (Malachi 2:15). The purpose for levirate marriages is the same for all faithful marriages, to raise godly children. And actually, this was a risky thing for the brother-in-law to do, to fulfil the command and marry the widow, because the children that they raised would not be in his name, it would be in his dead brother’s name.

If you remember, that is precisely what happened in the book of Ruth. One moment, the kinsman-redeemer says, “I’ll marry her,” thinking the widow he is taking on is old-grandma Naomi, who couldn’t possibly produce any more children. He’ll look like the hero, stepping in to save the day by giving the poor lady a roof over her head, when in actual fact, he would be inheriting all the fortune of her dead husband. But then Boaz says it’s not grandma Naomi he is to marry, but Ruth, her daughter-in-law, who is a foreigner and who is still, in fact, young of age. Immediately the kinsmen-redeemer goes, “I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate.” What was he saying? He was risking his own fortune by marrying Ruth because the whole point of the kinsman-redeemer levirate marriage law was to produce a son in the widow’s dead husband’s name, and doing that, might mean that this son, who isn’t yours, who wouldn’t even bear your name, would inherit both his father’s estate and yours. That is what he meant when he said, “I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate.”

The purpose of the levirate marriage was to raise children. Children who would know and love their parents. Children who would know and love their God. But, Jesus says, one day there will be no need for such raising, because God will raise his children from the dead. People will neither marry nor be given in marriage, because it is not parents who will produce children in heaven, but God. He will raise his children and they will bear his name. God is the ultimate kinsman-redeemer. This is what Jesus meant when he said we will be like the angels, not that we will be able to fly, not that we will no longer be male or female, not that we will all be dressed in white robes and play golden harps all day, but that they will be with God in heaven.

So, the first part of the answer has to do with the power of God. God raises his children from the dead, the same way God raised Jesus, his Son from the dead. But the second part of the answer has to do with the Word of God. Whereas the Sadducees were saying, “We’re just listening to what Moses said to us,” back in verse 24, Jesus answers them by saying, “Are you listening to what God is saying to you through Moses?”

The God of the living

“But about the resurrection from the dead - have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
Matthew 22:31-32

This comes from Moses’ very first encounter with God at the burning bush. In Exodus Chapter 3, Moses is looking after some sheep in the desert, he goes up a mountain where he sees a strange thing: a bush that was burning and burning, but didn’t burn itself up. As he steps closer to have a look at this strange thing, God calls out from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Exodus 3:4-5

God is telling Moses that he is the same God who spoke to Abraham, then Abraham’s son, Isaac, and then Isaac’s son, Jacob. I am that same God, God is saying. But then Jesus adds, “He is not the God of the dead but of the living,” and the point Jesus is drawing our attention to is God’s name which is “I AM”. God reveals, through his name, that he is everlasting and eternal. “I AM WHO I AM” is the name that God reveals to Moses. God is self-existent, self-sufficient and everlasting.

But what God also does in revealing the eternal nature of his name, is to extend a part of that nature to his children. “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He doesn’t say, “I was” - as in, I was the God of Abraham. He says, “I am”. Meaning, God who is eternal, has a relationship that is also eternal and ongoing with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, even though, they had been dead for over 400 years. Jesus says that God is not the God of the dead but he is the God of the living, implying that, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were very much still alive with God.

God is their God

Now I will admit that it is a rather strange argument that Jesus uses here to prove his case. But if you understand what he is getting at, Jesus is telling us something that is quite marvellous. At the heart of the resurrection is relationship. It isn’t simply believing that God will be able to raise a dead man to life again. He can and he did with Jesus. But that the reason why God raises us as Christians from dead to life eternal is so that we will have a relationship that surpasses all other relationships in this lifetime.

You see, I suspect that the bigger problem for many of you reading this passage isn’t the bit of being raised from the dead. Not if you’re young. Not if you’re healthy or if you’ve just graduated from university, and there is so much promise and hope ahead of you. No, you’re still hung up on the first part of Jesus’ answer on marriage. When Jesus says there will be no marriage in heaven, many of you went, “What? No marriage? What kind of heaven is this? Why would I want to go there?”

As it is, marriage is a touchy subject for many single Christians, who stay up all night praying to God, “Lord, when will it be my turn to experience happiness and companionship?” But let me tell you, married couples have an even bigger problem with this verse. If you love your husband and wife deeply - I’m not talking about a bad marriage or a broken marriage - but the best of marriages, whereby you cherish one another, and you experience a relationship that growing in trust, submission, love, sacrifice and togetherness, this verse is tough, because Jesus is saying that at the resurrection people will neither marry, they will not be given in marriage, and by extension, they will no longer be married.

But Jesus also promises us that God is no one’s debtor. In the resurrection, God gives us something that is so precious, so fulfilling, so wonderful, it will trump even the best of marriages. He gives us himself.

Do you remember the story the Sadducees told and the question they asked in the end? “In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?” They think that the wife will have to be divided up between the seven brothers, that each man will get only a part of her - one-seventh - in the resurrection. But here is God saying, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” It doesn’t mean that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob get one-third of God. Rather, it means they get all of him. He is their God, and it is amazing that God is willing to say that. He doesn’t simply say, “These are my servants. They are my messengers,” or even, “They belong to me.” No God says, “I belong to them. I am their God.”

“Don’t you know this?” Jesus says to the Sadducees as a kind of wake-up call. Don’t you know that the greatest promise God has in his word is the promise of himself? That’s the tragedy of the Sadducees. For all their learning and piety, for all their dedication to God and for all their discipline towards God’s word, Jesus says to them, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” They are sad, you see, because they don’t know God. They are sad, you see, because unlike Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I’m not sure that God would say of them that he is their God.

Is he yours? That’s the real question, isn’t it? Would God say of you and me, “I am the God of Calvin, the God of David, and the God of Wei Mun?” Jesus gives us the answer. God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Only those who have been raised in Jesus, as sons of God, as daughters of God; only those who are living in newness of life empowered by his Spirit; only those who look to Jesus who was raised from the dead, will know God as their God. This week, Winnie, Lisa and Sarah led us in the study of these verses from Romans Chapter 6 at Rock Fellowship, and I commend them to you.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
Romans 6:8-10

Have you been raised with Christ? For Christians, the resurrection isn’t a future uncertainty, a what-if scenario. Christians look back to one resurrection and know that they will be raised. Christians look back to one life and know they, too, have eternal life. Christians look back to Jesus Christ on the cross and say, “If we died with him, we believe we will also live with him.”

Jesus lives and so shall I
I’ll be raised from the dust with Christ on high
Jesus lives no more to die
And when He returns with Him I’ll rise
Jesus lives
(“Jesus Lives” by Sovereign Grace Music)

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