5 December 2011

Matthew 22:23-33

"Jesus answered them, 'You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob"? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.'" (vv. 29-32)


This is one of five controversies between Jesus and the religious authorities which Matthew places on the last day of public ministry, and which are reported in the typical Jewish style of question and answer.

The question in this case is put by some Sadducees. These were a group of Jews who had high social standing and fulfilled many political responsibilities along with priestly duties in regard to the Temple. Josephus, a Jewish historian of the period, tells us that they believed both soul and body perished at death, so they did not believe in resurrection. In part this was because they only accepted the five books of Moses (the first five books in the Old Testament) as authoritative, whilst the texts that suggest resurrection are found in the later books, such as Daniel 12:2 andIsaiah 26:19. Their question is therefore more of a statement of their view that resurrection is a nonsense, by which they seek to trick Jesus however he answers.

The law which required the brother of a deceased childless man to marry the widow and have a son who would become heir to the deceased is found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. We cannot tell how much it was actually enforced, but it was a discussion topic among the rabbis, and a story with many similarities to this passage is found in the apocryphal book of Tobit (Tobit 3:8-15).

Jesus gives a two-fold answer. Briefly he says that relationships between people in heaven don't just pick up the earthly ones. Resurrection is not a 'bringing back to life' but a taking forward to immortal life, where marriage, seen primarily as a means of procreation, therefore has no purpose. We don't know enough about angels to deduce anything more from Jesus' answer, although we might note that the Sadducees didn't believe in angels either!

Then Jesus proves that there is resurrection by reminding them that the scriptures they do accept have God saying, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" long after those characters had died. This is not simply a subtle argument from the present tense of "I am". Rather it is directing their thoughts to the hugely important passage in Exodus 3 where God meets Moses, reveals his name to him, and calls him to be the one through whom God will establish a covenant with Israel. In effect Jesus is asking them the question: do you really think God would so reveal God's own saving presence with people and establish an enduring promise with future generations, only for death to terminate it for each individual?

To Ponder

Having an heir to inherit a family name as well as estate is very important for some people. Why might this be? How important is it to you?

No marriage in heaven. How do you feel on learning that?

Jesus suggests that knowing the Scripture and knowing the power of God go together. If you agree, how have you personally found Bible study gives you access to God's power?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Mosedale

Stephen Mosedale is a retired Methodist minister living near Exeter, enjoying walking, gardening, and membership of a vegetable-growing co-op. He fulfils responsibilities for ministerial candidates, local preachers and worship leaders, and as a school governor. He has a particular interest in the natural world and its significance to faith, especially in the context of climate crisis. A former New Testament tutor at Cliff College, he has a passion for helping others use the Bible as our main way of knowing what God has to say to us in the world of today.

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