In Romans 10:17, in the New Testament, the apostle Paul says that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Every Sunday in most churches at worship around the world, in this century as it’s been during the twenty centuries that came before, after God’s Word is proclaimed, pastors and priests, confident that this Word from God about Christ has the power to bring or deepen faith in Christ within those who hear it, invite worshipers to confess their faith.
In the Apostles’ Creed, we say that we believe “in the resurrection of the dead.”
In the Nicene Creed, we say that we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
And in the barely used Athanasian Creed, we say that at Jesus’ return to this word, “all people shall rise bodily to give an account of their own deeds.” (The only “deed” that will matter, of course, is whether we have believed in Jesus. As Jesus Himself puts it, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent [that is, to believe in Jesus] (John 6:29).”)
But for all this talk of the resurrection life with God that you find in the New Testament or in the Church, there are few passages of Scripture, except maybe in Daniel and Revelation and a few other scattered places, that talk about what that resurrected life with God will look like.
That’s undoubtedly as it should be.
For one thing, our call is to trust that anywhere Jesus is will be wonderful. Period.
Our call is to turn to Jesus and trust Him to take care of both the journey and the destination.
As Jesus told Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness [This refers to when, in the Exodus, God instructed Moses to forge a bronze snake like the ones that were biting and killing the people, so that the people could, in looking on the bronze representation, acknowledge their sins and look to God for forgiveness and life.], “so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him." (John 3:14) Our call is to turn to Christ when His Word calls us to faith in Him and live, knowing that He’s got us in His hands even beyond death. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus tells us. “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
When you live in a world in which death seems to have the final word though--when you listen to the sin and death of the world more than you listen to the Word of Christ--belief in the resurrection of the dead can be hard. I have even heard church-goers say things like, “When you die, you die.”
The second-largest bloc of Jewish believers in Jesus’ day, the Sadducees, thought in just this way. Jesus encounters them in today’s gospel lesson, Luke 20:27-40. Like the Pharisees, who, unlike the Sadducees, believed in the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees were concerned that Jesus’ popularity, demonstrated in the welcome He had received on what we now call Palm Sunday just a few days before our lesson takes place, would cause the Romans to come down hard on all of God’s people. The Pharisees and the Scribes have gone up against Jesus, hoping to discredit or even kill Him, just before our lesson begins. Now it's the Sadducees' turn. Take a look at the lesson, please.
Verse 27: “Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. ‘Teacher,” they said [In Luke’s gospel, the only people who call Jesus teacher are enemies who use the term sarcastically or to butter Jesus up with fake respect.], ‘Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way 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?”
The Sadducees only accepted the first books of the Old Testament--Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Pentateuch, all thought to be from Moses--as God’s Word. So they loved to appeal to Moses whenever they were engaged in religious debate. And the Sadducees are right here: The law God gave to Moses, concerned with ensuring that every one of God’s ancient people received their inheritance in the promised land, said that if a husband died before he and his wife had a son who could be an heir, the next unmarried man in the deceased husband’s family was obligated to marry his sister-in-law. Their first son would become the heir of the dead man. But, trying to ridicule notions of a resurrected life beyond death, the Sadducees create an absurd scenario of a woman who has married seven brothers. Then they ask Jesus, in the resurrection Jesus talks about, whose wife will this poor woman be?
If the Sadducees with their tall tale here appear to have vivid imaginations, Jesus shows them they’re not vivid enough. They can’t imagine what the resurrected life God has in mind for His people will be like. Like most people in the history of the world, from the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, the Mayans, Buddhists, and Hindus, right on through to modern people who bury their loved-ones with six-packs of beer and money, when the Sadducees imagined a resurrected life, they imagined it as being pretty much like this one.
Jesus’ response to them shows that, for the disciple of Jesus Christ, the resurrected life is in some ways beyond our imagining. (Which may be another reason why Jesus and the Scriptures spend so little time telling us what it will look like.)
Verse 34: “Jesus replied, ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.’”
Marriage won’t be a thing in the resurrected life, Jesus is saying. God instituted marriage in this world, in part so that mortal humans could live on in their offspring. In an eternity composed of people “considered worthy of taking part in the age to come” because they believed in Jesus Christ, there will be no chance that his new human race, made new and eternal by grace through faith in Jesus, will ever die out. Marriage, in that sense, will be unnecessary.
In the resurrection, the raptures of marital intimacy, sometimes plagued by difficulties, disagreements, and griefs, will be replaced in by the eternal ecstasies of immediate intimacy with God and His everlasting kingdom of perfection.
In the Old Testament, there are hints about life in the resurrection that Jesus brings.
- Job, the man who suffered much but kept trusting in God says centuries before Abraham and Sarah “I know that my redeemer [God] lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes--I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27)
- Also in the Old Testament, Daniel 12 gives a vision of the resurrection of the dead.
But, since the Sadducees only believed in those first five books of the Old Testament, Jesus decides to show them that the resurrection is real by referring to Moses.
Verse 37: “[Jesus says] But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ [that’s Exodus 3:6] He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
The living God of the universe isn’t the God of dead people, but of people made alive by grace through faith in Him, the One revealed to us even today in Jesus.
The living God is the God of the resurrected life.
While those imperfect old saints--Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--haven’t yet risen from the dead, they are alive in the presence of the God in Whom they believed.
They’re like Moses and Elijah, who could confer with Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration though centuries dead.
They’re like the thief on the cross who begged repentantly to be part of Jesus’ eternal kingdom and was told by Jesus, “Truly I tell you, today [not tomorrow or some day] you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
They’re asleep and dead to this world, but awake and alive to God, and one day bound to rise when Jesus closes down this tired old creation and brings the new one in its fullness.
The resurrected life we who daily persist in turning from our sin and trusting in Christ are going to one day enjoy will be, in the apostle Paul's phrase, “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
But even now, the resurrected life, the fully burgeoning and consummated Kingdom of God that Jesus gives to all who believe in Him has invaded our world and give our lives God’s hope, peace, and joy. Wherever the Word of Christ is heard and believed, wherever the sacraments are administered and received, that invasion takes place.
In His high priestly prayer, offered to God the Father on the night of His betrayal, Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) If you trust in Jesus, the resurrected life He died and rose to bring to sinners like you and me has already begun. The “resurrection of the body” is just around the corner!
For that, you can trust Jesus, the risen One. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]