Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Mark 12:18-27: Correcting Wrong Beliefs About the Life to Come

Audio here

There is one inescapable fact about the life each of us will live on this earth. It will come to an end. One out of every one person will die. No one can deny this, at least not for very long. And because of this undeniable reality, it is a universal phenomenon that in all cultures at all places and times in human history, there has been an interest in the idea of an after-life. I heard someone say that we spend the first eighteen years of our lives with our mothers who want to know where we’re going. We spend the next sixty years of life with our spouses who want to know where we’ve been. And it is only when we die that people begin to wonder where we are. This insatiable curiosity is not accidental. It is not a product of evolution. It was hard-wired into us by our Maker. The writer of Ecclesiastes said that God has set eternity in our hearts. We have the concept of eternity ingrained within us. So it is no wonder that beliefs abound concerning life after death.

The beliefs that people hold vary widely. There is the atheistic notion that this life is all that there is, and that when we die, there is nothingness. There is the agnostic notion that says there may be more after this life, but we could never know it. There is a materialistic notion that is so consumed by the concerns of this life that no thought is given to the next life at all. There are some who believe in heaven, and believe that everyone will end up there, regardless of the lives they lived on earth. This belief is called universalism, and is very popular at funerals. Many believe in reincarnation, where one returns to life in another form based on how he or she lived in the present. If the person lived well, they will return in a better state, and if not, they will return in a lower state. On and on it will go until one attains the ultimate state of enlightenment.

The Christian worldview stands in stark contrast to all these views. The Christian view of the afterlife includes the doctrine of resurrection. We believe that in a coming day, there will be a resurrection from the dead. In John 5:25-29, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” While none of us have done the good deeds necessary to obtain this resurrection of life, because of what Christ has done for us in His sinless life, His substitutionary death, and His own resurrection from the dead, those who put their faith in Christ are credited with His righteousness, so that God views those who are in Christ as if they were as righteous as Him. Those who have been made righteous by faith in Christ will be resurrected to eternal life in heaven. Those who have not been made righteous in Christ stand guilty in their evil deeds, as Jesus said, and are resurrected unto judgment; the judgment of eternal torment in hell. This belief is a foundational tenet of biblical Christianity. If one surveys the preaching of the Apostles found in the book of Acts, and the writings of the New Testament, it will be discovered that the resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of humanity unto eternal life or eternal judgment are essential components of Christian belief. Christianity minus the resurrection does not equal Christianity. It is a non-negotiable doctrine.

The belief in resurrection was not invented by Christians in the first century. A majority of Jewish people also held to this belief because they understood that it was taught in their Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament. There was one group of Jews that rejected the doctrine of the resurrection, however: The Sadducees. The first century Jewish historian Josephus referred to them as men of wealth and rank. They virtually controlled the priesthood and Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, the sale of goods and currency exchange in the Temple was a primary means of their significant wealth. Needless to say, when Jesus entered the Temple and began to chase out the moneychangers and salesmen, He got the Sadducees’ attention and aroused their ire. We don’t know much about the Sadducees’ beliefs. They vanished from the pages of history when the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and left no writings of their own. But we know something about their beliefs from the New Testament. As verse 18 indicates, they did not believe in the resurrection. That’s why they were Sad-you-see. That’s a joke, but it may help you remember that fact about them. In Acts 23:8 we also learn that they did not believe in angels. Their beliefs put them at odds with the Pharisees, but their mutual hatred of Jesus united them in the mission of eliminating Him.

In our text today, we find the Sadducees approaching Jesus, just one day after the Temple incident, with a question about the resurrection. Undoubtedly by this time, people were hearing rumors that Jesus had been saying that He would die and rise again, and people were talking. So the Sadducees seek to show Him up here by proving that there is no resurrection. They lead into the question with a story about a woman whose husband died, leaving her childless. In v19, they refer to the passage in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 which allows for the husband’s brother to marry his widow in order to father a child who would take the name and become the heir to the deceased husband. We call this the law of “Levirate marriage” from the Latin word levir, which means “brother-in-law.” This practice was in place long before God gave the law to Moses, as we see in Genesis 38 with the episode involving Tamar. The most well-known instance of a levirate marriage in Scripture is the story of Ruth, who found her husband’s relative Boaz to be her “kinsman redeemer.” Now, this seems like a strange custom to us, but that is because of the cultural distance that separates us from the ancient world. The teaching in Deuteronomy 25 emphasizes the reason for this law being to preserve the name of the deceased. Family honor was a much more important matter to the ancients than it is to us.

Now, from this Law, the Sadducees develop a rather unlikely scenario about a widowed woman who married seven brothers in succession, all of whom died leaving her childless. They ask, after all seven brothers have died, and the woman dies, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Their argument is something like this: If Moses gave this law about remarriage, how could there be a resurrection from the dead? Wouldn’t it just create a big mess of things? If there really were a resurrection from the dead, then Moses would have never given this instruction.

In responding to the question, Jesus says in v24 that they are mistaken, they are in error about the resurrection. In fact, in v27, He says they are greatly mistaken! And why are they so mistaken? He says, “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God?” Remember now, that the Sadducees control the priesthood and the temple. If they are experts in anything, it should be the Scriptures and the power of God. Otherwise, their service in the Temple is hollow and meaningless. And that is exactly what Jesus is saying when He says that they are greatly mistaken and that they understand neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. And with the following verses, He corrects their mistaken notions about the life to come. As I have already pointed out, we are surrounded today by people who have wrong beliefs about the life to come. And why are they so mistaken? Same reason: they do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God. Like the Sadducees, they need to hear and heed the corrective words of Jesus that are found in His words here in this passage. How do we correct wrong ideas about the life to come? By pointing people to the Scriptures which are God’s inspired and infallible word, and by pointing them to the power of God.

I. The Power of God Transforms Life As We Know It in the Life to Come (v25)

A common assumption among the people of Jesus’ day was that the after-life would be an eternal and more glorious extension of the familiar conditions of earthly existence. The Pharisees believed that if a person had a physical defect in their bodies, they would have it forever in the life to come. They believed that relationships would go unchanged in eternity. They would have likely answered the Sadducees by pointing to the fact that the duty of the Levirate marriage was to raise up a son for the deceased brother, and therefore, the second, third, or seventh marriage were secondary to the first one, meaning that the wife would belong to her first husband in the resurrection.

Many today also believe that if there is a resurrection to eternal life, it will merely be the more glorious and pleasant extension of present realities. I heard about two men who were arguing about whether or not there is golf in heaven. They agreed that the first one to die would send word back to the other one about golf in heaven. After the first one died, the other was awakened in the night by a vision of his departed friend. “I have good news and bad news,” he said. “The good news is that there is golf in heaven, the bad news is that you have a tee time in the morning.” I once had a woman tell me that there better be cats in heaven, because if there weren’t, she didn’t want to go. I told her that if I died and found myself surrounded by cats, I be pretty sure I was in hell. But the life to come is not about more golf, or more cats, or more of anything we do and enjoy here.

Jesus says, “When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven.” Notice He did not say that they are angels in heaven. He said they are LIKE angels in heaven. There is no room in biblical Christianity for the notion that the righteous dead become angels when they die. Angelic beings existed before ever death entered the human race. Jesus said we will be like the angels in the resurrection. There will be similarity, but not sameness. Angels do not have the same sort of family relationships that human beings have.

And one of the ways in which we will be like the angels is that there will be no marriage in the resurrection.

Now, for some this may be good news, for they view it as a time when they will finally be released from a burdensome marriage. But if you have a happy marriage, as I do, then we are taken aback by this at first glance. In fact, some flat out deny this, and pretend that Jesus never said it. But He did. And you will notice that Jesus does not say what our relationships with each other will be like. He only says what they won’t be like. Imagine trying to explain your vacation in the tropics to someone who had never left the Arctic Circle. You might say, “Oh there were palm trees, and sandy beaches, and warm, clear blue water, and crashing waves.” They won’t get it. They don’t know what those things are! So you describe it in terms of what it doesn’t have: no igloos, no snow, no fur coats, no polar bears. And your Arctic friend might think, “Oh that doesn’t interest me at all,” because he only knows his familiar sphere of existence. That’s like this. We know marriage to be the state of highest union between individuals. We can’t fathom an existence where it isn’t. But herein is the key to understanding it. Jesus is saying that in the resurrection, the power of God will transform life as we know it and elevate it to an infinitely higher plane where the things we treasure in this life evaporate into unspeakable glory! Hard as it is for us to fathom here and now, whatever our relationships to one another (even to our earthly spouses), will be in heaven, we can only say that it will be better by far than what it is now. Marriage is a great and precious blessing, but it is a brief and momentary blessing, intended for this age only. What will your relationship with your spouse be like in heaven? Apart from this brief word, the Scriptures are silent. All we can say is that it will be better. Infinitely and eternally better. James Edwards writes, “The glorious realities of the life to come can no more be accommodated to the pedestrian routines of earthly life than can butterflies be compared to caterpillars.”[1]

John Piper writes, “If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and al the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”[2] And our answer must be a resounding NO! We do not want to merely have an enhanced version of all THIS. We want to see Him face to face and to be with Him forever! And the power of God in resurrection is such that all we know in this life will be transformed and lifted to an infinitely higher plane where seeing Him, worshiping Him, and serving Him alone is the consuming desire of His people. That is glory. That is the power of God that the Sadducees and so many others in our day misunderstand. That is what is awaiting those who hope in Christ for the resurrection from the dead unto eternal life!

So the first corrective is this: The Power of God Transforms Life As We Know It in the Life to Come. And the second one is …

II. The Word of God Declares Truth About the Life to Come (v26-27)

Jesus said that the Sadducees were mistaken about the resurrection not only because they do not understand the power of God, but also because they don’t understand the Scriptures. In fact, they did not accept the entire Hebrew Bible to be equally authoritative Scripture. The Sadducees only accepted the first five books, the Torah, to be binding. And one of the reasons that they rejected the doctrine of resurrection was that they believed it wasn’t taught in the Torah. That’s interesting, because they also didn’t believe in angels, and they are definitely found in the Torah. But they rejected the resurrection because the passages that most Jewish people used to affirm the resurrection were in other portions of the Old Testament: portions that the Sadducees did not accept. They found support for the resurrection in the Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Hosea, and other passages. But rarely if ever did anyone point to the Torah to demonstrate belief in the resurrection. So, when Jesus discusses the resurrection with the Sadducees, where did He go? Where would you go? You and I would probably turn to First Corinthians 15. But it wouldn’t be written for another 20 years or so. But Jesus turns where? He said in v26, “Regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses?” What’s the book of Moses? Do you have that book in your Bible? Yes you do. In fact it is five books of your Bible. It is the Torah – the very portion of Scripture that the Sadducees accepted.

The passage in the Torah that Jesus points to is “the one about the bush.” That’s how people used to refer to Scripture, by pointing to a familiar element in the passage. The chapter and verse divisions that we have today came about in medieval times. But we know the passage, don’t we? It’s the story of Moses and the burning bush that we find in Exodus chapter 3. And in that passage, Jesus points out that God spoke to Moses and identified Himself as, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” So what? What does that have to do with the resurrection? Well, Jesus says, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

You see, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been dead for centuries when God spoke to Moses at the bush. But God did not say, “I used to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He said, “I AM” – present tense. He was just as much their God after they had died as He was when they walked the earth – in fact, even more so.[3] You see, God had called each of these men, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, into a covenant relationship with Himself. And once that relationship with God is established, it is secured by the promise of God, and cannot be nullified, not even by death. In fact, God’s covenant promises would be of no value if they were cancelled and shattered by death. This is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” All the promises that God made to us would disappear like the dew. But God’s promises are made to last, and to last forever. God is faithful, and we can depend on Him to keep His promises to us in life as well as in death. This is one of the most important reasons of our assurance of the resurrection to life eternal: God has made a covenant promise to us and called us into an eternal covenant relationship that is stronger than death. The Lord is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, even centuries after they emptied their lungs for the last time of the air of this earth. They are still alive, even though they have died. And God is still their God. And the same could be said of your loved one who has died believing in Christ. They aren’t dead. They’re still alive, on a higher plane of existence than this one. And God is still their God, and He has promised even to raise up their transformed and glorified bodies from the grave. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

Oh, if you think there is no resurrection from the dead, or if you think that the life to come is just an extension of what you know here and now, then like the Sadducees, you are greatly mistaken. And the reason you are mistaken is that you have not understood the Scriptures or the power of God. You haven’t comprehended that the power of God transforms life as we know it in the life to come. You haven’t read, or have misunderstood all that the Word of God declares truthfully about the life to come. You need correcting, just as Jesus corrected the Sadducees. Well, you ask, did they believe Him? Matthew says He silenced them. Luke says they did not have the courage to question Him any longer about anything. But they still didn’t believe Him. But just a few days later, all that He had spoken to them would ring in their ears like a deafening blast. This was Wednesday. On Thursday, they would take part in the trial that would sentence Jesus to death. On Friday, they would see Him nailed to a cross. Finally, they would think they had put an end to this troublemaking Jesus. He was put in a grave, sealed with a stone, guarded by soldiers, and there He would lie, all night Friday, all day Saturday. But then came Sunday. And on Sunday that stone was found to have been rolled away and the tomb found to be empty. Christ was risen, just as He said. You see, He didn’t just announce that there is a resurrection. He accomplished it. Peter said in his Pentecost sermon, “God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.” But you see, Jesus not only announced the resurrection. He not only accomplished the resurrection. In John 11:25, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies; and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” And Jesus asked, “Do you believe this?” Oh, we want to know if the Sadducees believed it. In fact, they never did. Even after they saw the empty tomb, they continued to cling to their empty religion. And just about forty years later, the Romans came and toppled their Temple, and the Sadducees disappeared from history. But, when you stand before Jesus at the end of your life, He won’t ask you if they believed in the resurrection. He will ask, “Do you believe this?”

Jesus said there are two resurrections. One to eternal life, and one to everlasting judgment. None of us deserve everlasting life, but because God loves us, He has come to us in the person of Christ. He has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. He lived the sinless and perfect life that God requires, but at which all of us failed. And then He laid down His life for our sins, that in His death, our sins were placed upon Him and He endured the judgment of God for us, so that we wouldn’t have to. And in His resurrection, He conquered sin and death on our behalf, so that if we will put our faith and trust in Him, we will be forgiven, declared to be righteous in Christ, and promised a resurrection unto eternal life in the presence of God when this life is over. Do you believe this?

[1] James Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 368.

[2] John Piper, God is the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 15.

[3] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 16-23 (Chicago: Moody, 1988), 333.

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