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The Life of Jesus - Series 11: Episode 10

A question about the afterlife

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 22:23-33
Mark 12:18-27
Luke 20:27-40

Sadducees, who did not believe in the afterlife, tried to trick Jesus with a hypothetical question. Using the Old Testament, Jesus responded and taught about the afterlife.

Sadducees, who did not believe in the afterlife, tried to trick Jesus with a hypothetical question. Using the Old Testament, Jesus responded and taught about the afterlife.


Hello and welcome. This is Series 11 and Episode 10 and we're in the last week of Jesus' life. We're going to discuss a trick question that was asked of Jesus, 'a question about the afterlife'. The text is Matthew 22: 23 - 33, and you can also find this incident recounted in Mark's Gospel and Luke's Gospel.

Introduction and Recap

I hope many of you will have been following Series 11, and will get the general gist of the story that's unfolding, as we look closely at the last week of Jesus' earthly life. We're well into the story now, and I'm going to describe that context to you very precisely in a moment. More broadly, we need to remember the wider context which is that Jesus has spent three years of his ministry based in the north of the country, in Galilee, his home area, very successfully. Luke describes very specifically, that he made a decision at one point that he was going to leave Galilee; he wasn't going to return and he was going to head to Jerusalem for a final showdown with the religious authorities, who'd already shown their hostility to him, and their desire to get rid of him, and had already accused him of being a false messiah. This visit to Jerusalem is filled with significance, with danger, with risk, with incident, and with conflict.

The conflict has been increased by the fact that Jesus has gathered quite a significant following of supporters as he's gone on his journey. Two things in particular contributed to that. One was a remarkable miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead in the village of Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, and it was inevitable that that event, which was a spectacular miracle, would become very well known in the city, and would be understood by many to represent Jesus' claims to be the Son of God, and the Messiah. That happened just a short time before Jesus entered the city. When he came up to the city for the last time, he came from the city of Jericho, where huge crowds attended him and where people were hugely excited by the thought that when he came to Jerusalem, he might bring about some kind of spiritual, religious, or political revolution. They thought the Kingdom of God was going to appear at once, according to Luke 19: 11. By the time Jesus comes into the city, on what we call Palm Sunday, with the Triumphal Entry, as recorded earlier at the beginning of Series 11, there was a massive number of people who were really hoping something dramatic was going to happen in the city, and there was hardened opposition from the religious establishment. They were keen, at this point, to get rid of him quickly, because they felt he was dangerous. His popularity could be a real threat to them. It was a very tense situation from the beginning of this week. That tension and conflict is only getting more significant and serious as time goes on. Unfortunately, nothing diminished the hostility of the religious leaders. They were digging their heels in well and truly against Jesus. Luke summarises what happens during these early days of the week, which starts with Palm Sunday, the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, by saying in Luke 21: 37 - 38:

37Each day Jesus was teaching at the Temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, 38and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the Temple.’

Luke 21:37-38, NIV

It seems like he established a pattern. The Mount of Olives is just a very short distance outside the city walls, and Jesus retreated there every night. He obviously had a home, or a base he could stay, and then he came into the city every single day. It's almost certain that the incident we're looking at today took place on the Tuesday of that week. If we recount the events briefly we'll remember that on Sunday there was the great Triumphal Entry, where he came into the city through the city gates with a huge crowd acclaiming him as the Messiah, the Deliverer of Israel, and there was a kind of carnival atmosphere on the streets of Jerusalem, when people thought he was going to do something really wonderful.

He then left the city, later on that day, and came back on the Monday, and went straight to the Temple compound and, as we saw in an earlier episode, he confronted the market traders operating in the Temple, who operated under the jurisdiction and leadership of the priests. Many of them were members of their families or business associates, and were changing money between the Roman coinage and the Jewish Temple coins, in order to help people pay the Temple tax in Jewish money. They were also selling birds and animals for sacrifice, according to the sacrificial system. This was well known to be a market trading operation that was hugely profitable, where people could really be exploited because there was a monopoly situation operating. Jesus confronted them. He overturned the tables and challenged their hypocrisy in making money out of religion.

When it comes to Tuesday, the day that we're talking about here, almost certainly if we follow the chronology that seems the most obvious in the Gospels, then we've already had a very intense day of debate, discussion and Jesus teaching some very hard-hitting truths through parables. He's in the Temple compound, which is a huge area, lots of space to walk round, lots of space to pray, lots of space for socialising in the wider compound area, and so big crowds could gather there. Jesus is there, and we see that some of the priests, the chief priests and some of the elders, which are the most senior religious leaders, came to debate with him. That's described earlier on in Matthew 21. Trick questions have been asked about his authority, about paying taxation to the Romans, and Jesus has spoken out three different parables in succession to the religious authorities gathered there, and the huge crowd that is gathered round. The authorities are really looking for a way of tricking Jesus, so they can arrest him legitimately. They've failed to do that. They want to find a way of taking him away from the crowds, but he's sort of embedded in the crowds. Wherever he goes a big crowd is following and they're hanging on his every word. He's issued three very hard-hitting parables: the parable of the two sons, the parable of the tenants in the vineyard, and the parable of the wedding banquet. We've looked at those in earlier episodes, and you can look back over those if you haven't seen them. They're very important teachings because they point out the rejection of the religious leaders of Jesus' Messiahship, and the consequences that will happen. They also point out that unexpected people are entering into the Kingdom, and those you'd expect to be the first to follow Jesus, actually turn out to be his biggest opponents, and they'll be facing God's judgement for that. These were really challenging parables, and everybody listening will immediately know that Jesus was talking about the religious leaders, who were basically leading the people astray in the nation of Israel.

The Religious Factions Collaborate

That brings us to our text for today, which we're going to read in small sections, in Matthew 22. Let's just read the opening section, Matthew 22: 23,

23That same day the Sadducees,who say there is no resurrection,came to him with a question.’

Matthew 22:23, NIV

This is interesting. The Sadducees are one of the religious factions but there are other religious factions involved in this questioning too. If we compare this text with 22:15, it says,

15Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.’

Matthew 22:15-16, NIV

The previous trick question about paying taxation was set by the Pharisees and the Herodians, two factions. This one is set by another faction, the Sadducees. So, what's going on here? All the religious factions and the political factions of the day have turned against Jesus, and are forcefully opposing him for slightly different reasons. They're collaborating together to try and find a way of arresting him, trying him, handing him over to the Romans for execution. It's a kind of conspiracy, and we discussed this a little in the last episode. Luke 20: 20 has this telling statement of what was going on at this particular time.

20Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere.’

Matthew 20:20, NIV

People were spying on Jesus, and delegations of some of the religious factions were going with very clear set questions they were asking him, in order to trip him up and in order to make him say something that would incriminate him, either with the Jewish religious system or with the Roman political system. I explained how that operated in the last question about paying taxes to Caesar, and how Jesus evaded and avoided the trap, and gave a subtle and wise answer to the trick question. The Sadducees were very strong supporters of the Temple and the priesthood. Many of them were involved in administering and maintaining the Temple compound, and the organisation of the Temple, and the economics of the Temple. They had perceived Jesus as a direct threat to them, because of his challenge to the way the Jewish Temple operated in those days, as seen by the cleansing of the Temple, which we described in an earlier episode. All these groups have clubbed together and decided this is the time that we must get rid of Jesus.

The Sadducees

The Sadducees not only supported the Temple, but they were a slightly unusual religious group in Israel, because they had a couple of significant beliefs that made them different from many of the other groups. They rejected two major beliefs that were part of mainstream Judaism. They rejected the belief in a formal afterlife and a physical resurrection. They actually felt that life ended when the body died, and they saw no direct evidence for the resurrection. They were quite sceptical about the afterlife. They also doubted the existence of angels, and other supernatural beings, that were firmly believed to exist by the majority of Jews at the time. In fact, the Sadducees appear later on in the book of Acts, when Paul appears before the Sanhedrin, and Luke notes, in Acts 23: 8,

8The Sadducees say there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.’

Acts 23:8, NIV

The particular significance of this is that the question they're going to ask is about the afterlife. We need to know that they didn't actually believe in an afterlife. They claimed that the Old Testament did not clearly indicate that there was going to be an afterlife. 

The Question

Let's see what question they ask Jesus. Reading 22: 24 - 28:

24“Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. 25Now 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. 26The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right down to the seventh. 27Finally, the woman died. 28Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”’

Matthew 22:24-28, NIV

This is a hypothetical situation; it isn't a true story. It is based on something significant in the Law of Moses, which actually gave the responsibility in the family for brothers of a man who's died and leaves a widow, to offer, if they're not married, to marry that widow in order to provide for her, and in order to have children by her, if that is possible. It's clearly stated in the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 25: 5 - 6:

5If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to her. 6The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.’

Deuteronomy 25:5-6, NIV

This was a common practice amongst Jews who follow the Law of Moses, and of course not all of them did, which was to try and preserve the family line from one generation to another and try and find a way of providing protection and economic security to widows, and provide children to women whose husbands had died, particularly before they'd had any children. This is the law that the Sadducees are referring to when they say ‘Moses told us’, this is the Law of Moses. Deuteronomy is one of the books of Moses. It's Moses who articulated this law.

They're trying to make the resurrection look absurd by painting the story of seven brothers, and one brother marries but he dies. All the subsequent six brothers followed the tradition of this law, from Deuteronomy, and marry this woman and then die, and then the next one marries her and then dies, until all seven of them have died and then she finally dies. ‘And if there's a resurrection life,’ the Sadducees are saying, ‘a ridiculous situation will emerge. This woman will have seven brothers as her seven husbands. That makes it ridiculous to think that there's such a thing as a resurrection.’ That's the force of their question. They believed that resurrection was an absurd idea. They believed that God was the God of this life. That we had one life to lead and it was our job to lead it serving God, so that we could be blessed by him in this life, and so that our family could be blessed by him after we have died. Essentially that was their position. A very odd position, you might think, but that was firmly what they believed and Luke in Acts makes it very clear that that was their position.

Jesus' Answer

What's Jesus going to answer? They're trying to trap him in this question. Verses 29 - 33 give Jesus' answer.

29Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31About the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob?’ He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” 33When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.’

Matthew 22:29-33, NIV

Jesus says the Sadducees are wrong. They're in error for two reasons. First of all, they ‘do not know the Scriptures’ and secondly, they do not believe in ‘the power of God’. Let's look at that first reason, they ‘do not know the Scriptures’. What's ‘the Scriptures’ referring to in this context? It's the Old Testament, the established Scriptures of the Jewish people. Jesus is implying that the Old Testament makes clear that the resurrection, the physical resurrection after death, is a reality. Where could we find this demonstrated in the Old Testament? Many other Jews could point to quite a few different Scriptures. Let me give you two of the most prominent ones, which I'm going to read. First of all, Psalm 16, and a psalm that's quoted in the New Testament by Peter, Psalm 16: 9 - 11. This is David speaking, he's the writer of this Psalm.

9Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body will also rest secure, 10because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. 11You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.’

Psalm 16:9-11, NIV

This psalm clearly indicates that David had the hope of physical resurrection after the end of his life. Interestingly enough, Peter takes this up in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, (Acts 2) quotes it and says that it's fulfilled to an even greater extent, through Jesus' resurrection from the dead. But that hadn't happened at this point, and the truth of this text concerning David's faith in the afterlife and in the resurrection is extremely clear from the text. The second one is Daniel 12: 1 - 2. Daniel prophesying about the end times, the end of history, the great culminating events of history:

‘“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. 2Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake:some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”’

Daniel 12:1-2, NIV

That very clearly portrays the fact that, in some end time moment, there'll be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. This is something that Jesus teaches plainly in a number of places. His point here is, they didn't know the Scriptures. They didn't know their own Scriptures nor did they know the power of God. God has enough power that he can easily bring about the physical resurrection of those who have died. Jesus goes on to say, in verse 30, to explain something that the Sadducees needed to understand, that

‘“At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”’

Matthew 22:30, NIV

Jesus points out that human relationships, and the dynamic of human relationships, will change significantly in the next life. There won't be any exclusive relationships. There won't be any marriage, in the sense that we understand it now. There won't be closed, nuclear, or extended families that exist as groups with their kinship relationships that are the same as on the earth. No, in the eternal life, in the resurrected life, the primary focus of our relationships will be on Christ himself. We'll be brothers and sisters together in a broad family of the redeemed. The exclusivity of marriage will no longer exist, and there'll be no more procreation, no children to be born. Something different will happen. Therefore, the scenario that the Sadducees anticipate, of the seven men who've died, and the woman who dies, and who's she married to in heaven, is a non-existent scenario. Those kinds of relationships won't happen. If they're redeemed people, she won't be formally married to any of them in the afterlife. There'll be no exclusive relationships. Marriage as we know it will end. Marriage ends at death, as the marriage service says in the English language ‘till death us do part’. The commitment we make to marriage partners is for this life.

Jesus goes on to say, quoting the Old Testament,

‘“I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”’

Matthew 22:32, NIV

Even after they have died, God identifies his relationship with them because they are still alive. This trick question didn't work. This is the third trick question we've looked at that hasn't worked. The one about what authority Jesus has, it didn't work. The one about paying taxes to Caesar, that one didn't work. The one about the resurrection didn't work. The crowds were amazed, but the Sadducees were humbled. This tension and conflict is going to continue.


Let's pause for a moment, and reflect. What have we learnt from this particular text? It's interesting that people who show themselves to be very religious, can be very unbelieving. The Sadducees were religious in one sense, but they were very sceptical in another. Some of the supernatural dimensions of the Jewish faith they didn't believe, and therefore they came into conflict with Jesus who affirmed those things. He affirmed the resurrection, and he affirmed the existence of angels and spirits and demons.

Another thing that we can learn from here, is how important it is to know the Scriptures. Jesus criticised them. Although they were religious, they didn't know their own Scriptures. In Christianity this same criticism can sometimes be made. People can go to church, appear very religious, but be very ignorant of what the Bible truly teaches. It's always good to be very focused on trying to learn as much as we can from the Bible, which is the foundation of our faith.

Let me conclude this episode with a quotation from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. We've spoken about the resurrection. The hope of the resurrection is one of the central realities of the Christian faith and it's based, primarily, on the fact that Jesus himself rose from the dead. When we talk about resurrection here, we don't mean a temporary resuscitation. We don't mean the spirit living in an un-embodied form. We mean that the physical body of the believer will be reconstituted again, in a physical way, but without the defects, or deficiencies, or decay that affects our physical bodies in this life. This is an amazing belief. It's a fundamental belief of Christianity and it's essential that we understand clearly what this belief really means. Let me give you a glimpse into this, by quoting from Paul when he's talking to the Corinthians and talking to people, some of whom doubted the physical resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15: 12 - 20:

12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; and you are still in your sins. 18Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.’

1 Corinthians 15:12-20, NIV

The foundational belief in the resurrection is central to Christianity. Jesus clearly affirms that belief in this dialogue with the Sadducees. The story continues and I hope that you'll join us for the next episode as we follow Jesus through the spectacular and exciting events of the last week of his life.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How important is it to believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? What do you believe about your own resurrection from death?
  • Discipleship
    1. Jesus condemned the Sadducees for not believing their own scriptures. Do you agree that it's easy to be lazy about studying the bible and to go along with the flow, not taking it in and letting it change you. Give examples.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. List the different factions that were against Jesus at this point.
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