What happens after death? What happens between death and the return of Christ? Where are our loved ones?
I want us to understand that God is the God of the living because to him all are alive.
We will start by reading Luke 20:27-38, then discuss the Sadducees, an ancient marriage custom and resurrection questions.
Who were the Sadducees? Under King David temple liturgy was organized by a high priest named Zadok. Possibly under that Zadok or a later name-sake, a group formed to support temple worship. Their name Sadducees refers to Zadok. In Israel there was no separation of church and state, so any such religious party was also a political party and Jesus’ comments about them were also political criticisms. Sadducees were conservatives believing that preserving temple worship would perpetuate God’s blessing. After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, they lost followers and disappeared. They opposed the more liberal Pharisees who believed that people could worship God anywhere. The Sadducees also did not believe in a resurrection as this discussion shows. The Pharisees and Sadducees were not often in agreement but they were united in opposition to Jesus.
Trick levirate question
In ancient times marriage meant survival and was often more a business arrangement than romantic. Ancient law gave agricultural inheritance through the males. This was because females would usually marry and thus be partners in their husband’s farmland. Israel inherited this practice but made exceptions where the general rule created an unfair situation. The necessity for a male heir created the levirate marriage, where a man married his deceased brother’s wife so as to ensure the family inheritance. This is the background to the trick question the Sadducees asked Jesus. Whose wife would she be in the resurrection? The question was not sincere but designed to trick Jesus about the resurrection, something the Sadducees did not believe in. Important beliefs in Christianity are repentance, faith, baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection, and eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:1-3).
The mocking marriage puzzle
The Sadducees’ questioned Jesus perhaps with mocking humor: Moses perpetuated a Ugaritic and Hittite custom that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, he must marry the widow and raise up offspring to inherit his brother’s land. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a horrible woman and rather than live with her he died in self-defense, childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way each of the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her? Was it meant to humorously disprove the resurrection? Jesus did not answer the question but pointed out how ridiculous it was because there is no marriage in the resurrection.
How will life be for eternity? Our passage gives us a few hints. How will we look at the resurrection? Luke reveals that we will be very different from how we are now. There will be no childbearing or human-style family life. Will we recognize our earthly families? Though Jesus did not directly address that question, he did say that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be recognizable. So, it is reasonable to assume that we would know family members who are also there. It is also reasonable to speculate that current close bonds of love between family members on earth would naturally continue. What about body and spirit? Whatever happens in the meantime, whether or not body and spirit are separated for a time, completeness of resurrection will mean body and soul together for eternity.
Abraham, dead or alive?
In our text Jesus spoke of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and that God is the God of the living. Some Bibles explain this as “to him all are alive” but others say something closer to a literal translation of the original Greek like “all live to him.” As we humans perceive things, people are either dead or alive, but obviously God perceives the reality of things beyond our physical ability to know. Does this mean that Abraham is literally alive now in heaven or just that God counts him as being alive because he will be in the future or that after death a timeless eternity has already begun? There are people who believe different sides of that discussion. But does it really matter since eternity is something beyond our understanding anyway and in that eternity all are alive?
They can no longer die
What does it mean that those who are accounted worthy to partake of that age, and are resurrected from the dead can no longer die? The Sadducees were not so different from us, in that they tried to obtain eternal life through their children by perpetuating family lineage or family names. It is a worldly version of eternal life. Even today, some conversations tend to sideline those who cannot have children or have the gift of celibacy and so choose to remain single. Marriage is indeed honorable, but so is celibacy. We do not then, need to be married and have children to be assured of everlasting life with God. When we reorient our thinking away from the values of this world to those of the next, then we begin to see things as God does.
Many people have attempted to find cheap immortality by experiencing unrestricted sexual love. Our world continues to suffer the consequences of breaking sexual taboos. Sexual restrictions are for this life and create a safety zone which perpetuates family units and healthy societies. Yet in the resurrection there will be no need for restrictions on love, because marriage and sexual love will no longer exist. To those who have suffered horrible sexual experiences this may be good news. It is also good news to those who have had wonderful marriages with lifelong joy. The joys of human sexuality are only a pale foretaste in comparison to the eternal pleasures of the resurrection. There will be no such boundaries to our relationships in God’s presence forever because in the resurrection there will no monogamous marital relationships, just unrestricted love.
God of the living
Presumed dead but alive seems to be a theme regarding the patriarchs and matriarchs of antiquity in the Gospel message according to Luke. Many Sadducees were wealthy priests who did not believe in the resurrection. Luke quoted Jesus as saying that God is the God of the living. Phrases similar to God being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are repeated often in the Old Testament. Yet were they not all dead? If so, then God would be called the God of the dead. So, they must be alive to God, even though we call them dead. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) also shows Abraham as alive. God is the God of the living implies something more than just a future life. It implies that our lives today are already blessed with eternity.
Between death and resurrection
Is the soul as well as the body asleep until Christ’s return (1 Corinthians 15)? How could that square with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) or Stephen’s prayer “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59)? Are passages referring to death as a sleep literal or figurative? Is purgatory the place of judgment (Hebrews 9:27) and where atonement may be made for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:43-45)? Is resurrection instantaneous after death where believers receive a spiritual body (2 Corinthians 5:1-10)? Is the spirit absent from the body and consciously present with the Lord in heaven (Philippians 1:19-26) but awaiting a body at the return of Christ (Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)? All die and by God’s grace we can enter his joyful presence forever (Luke 20:27-38).
God is the God of the living because to him all are alive. Therefore, let us stand firm. Let nothing move us. Always give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because we know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.