"Giving an Answer to Unbelief"
(Delivered Sunday, May 25, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Do you ever lay awake at night thinking about the 'perplexing questions' of life? Well, I did a little looking on the Internet; and found a few for your consideration:
And here's my personal favorite . . .
Well; those are just for fun, of course. But we've been looking at a portion of Matthew's Gospel in which 'perplexing questions' were being put to our Lord Jesus Christ; and they weren't meant in fun at all.
Jesus was in the temple—just a few days before He went to the cross for us. And while there, He was confronted by the rules and religious leaders of the people. They asked some 'perplexing questions' of Him—questions that were designed to trip Him up in some way, and discredit Him in front of the people. And each time, He answered the questions that were put to Him in such a way as to silence His opponents and reveal their unbelief.
This morning, we look at the second of those questions. Matthew 22:23-33 says;
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Now; if I were to ask what the great lesson that the Lord would have us learn from this story might be, I suspect that most folks would immediately say, "It's that the Scriptures teach that there truly is such a thing as the resurrection of the dead. After all, the resurrection is what these opponents were disputing; and it's what the Lord proved in His answer." And, of course, I believe that's something that we should learn from this story.
But I believe that there's an even greater lesson involved. When these questions were put to the Lord, they were asked with an attitude of 'unbelief' in Him—unbelief on the part of religious leaders and authorities who should have known better. In the question we studied last week, we saw that the Pharisees and the Herodians asked the Lord Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. And it wasn't because they were sincerely seeking tax advice. Their real motive was to force the Lord into a difficult answer that would discredit Him before the people (Matthew 22:15-22). Their purpose was made clear in the Gospel of Luke; where we're told that they "sent spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words, in order to deliver Him to the power and authority of the governor" (Luke 20:20). They themselves didn't believe on Him; and they wanted to get rid of Him so the people wouldn't believe on Him either.
The whole theme of this section of Matthew's Gospel, then, is the unbelief that our Lord encountered from the leaders of the people. And so, I suggest that the thing that the Lord would most have us see in this story is how He answered those who asked Him tricky questions from the motive of sinful unbelief.
As believers, living in the midst of a fallen world, we get asked "perplexing questions" often, don't we? Sometimes, the questions come from unsaved friends who are sincere—and because they have a genuine desire to know the answers. I believe that the next question we'll be studying in this passage (vv. 34-40) was just such a question. But just as often, “perplexing questions” come from an unbeliever who has already made up his or her mind to 'disbelieve' before the question is even asked. In those cases, the questions are little more than "mental puzzles"; offered in an attempt to make faith in the Lord Jesus Christ look absurd, or to make people who hope in the promises of the Bible look silly.
That's the nature of the question we find in this morning's passage—the question about the resurrection of the dead. And so, in this morning's passage, Jesus gives us His own example of what to do in cases like that. He teaches us how to faithfully affirm the word and power of God when faced with the scoffing questions of unbelief.
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Now; first, let's look at . . .
1. THE ONES WHO ASKED THE QUESTION (v. 23).
Matthew tells us that, on the same day that the Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus the question about paying taxes to Caesar, others from a group called the Sadducees also came to Him.
Please pardon me if I insert a brief history lesson here. In the days that Jesus walked on the earth, there were three basic religious "parties" among the Jewish people. The first, of course, you already know as the Pharisees. They were careful students of the law of Moses, who sought to expand upon that law through rules and regulations in order to protect themselves from any form of disobedience. Their name suggested the idea of "separation", and so they sought to live a "holy" life that was distinct from common people. And yet, as we can see from the Bible, they were also very much involved in everyday social life. We might say that the Pharisees were "in the world", but not "of the world".
The second group was called the Essenes. No one is quite sure today what their name means; but some ancient writers have suggested that it emphasized an idea of "holy mystery". They were very much like the Pharisees; but they added a sense of mysticism to their doctrines and practices—along with some Greek and Oriental elements. They believed that a life of moral purity and abstinence from fleshly pleasures would lead them to greater closeness to God—which would also enable them to perform miracles and make prophetic utterances. We don't find them mentioned in the New Testament, because they formed groups that were largely separate from society. We might characterize them by saying that they are neither "in the world" nor "of the world".
Now; the third group were called the Sadducees. They were of the priestly-class of society; and at the time of Jesus, they were the group that was in the political majority. Their name is taken from a Hebrew word that means "the righteous" (although it may have its roots in the followers of a priest named Zadok; see 1 Kings 2:35). They were generally wealthy; and their influence was mostly among the upper classes of society. They rejected the oral traditions of the law that the Pharisees clung to; and believed that only the first five books of the Old Testament, written by Moses, had true authority. They insisted that we all have responsibility over the things that happen to us in life; and they tended to believe that we are all the captains of our own fate. You might say that they were not only "in the world" but were also "of the world".
Because they held only to the first five books of the Bible, the Sadducees denied that the dead would be raised unto eternal punishment or eternal rewards. They didn't believe that such a thing was taught in the books of Moses. Instead, they believed that the promises of "rewards" from God in the Bible were only 'temporal', and were only concerned with matters of life on this earth. And what's more, they denied that there were any such things as angels or spirits that could affect people (Acts 23:8). Their view of life was, for the most part, 'materialistic' in nature.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were rival religious parties. They didn't get along with each other. And so; when these Sadducees watched and saw that the Pharisees failed to trap the Lord, they stepped in. Matthew tells us, "The same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection" (v. 23), came to Jesus and asked Him a question; seeking, like their enemies the Pharisees, to trap the Lord.
Isn't it amazing how unbelieving people can have so many differences between themselves—and yet, be together in their singular opposition to the Lord Jesus Christ?
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Now; look with me at . . .
2. THE QUESTION THAT THEY ASKED (vv. 24-28).
They came to Him with a courteous greeting—calling Him "Teacher"; but they had warfare in their hearts against Him. They said, "Moses said that if a man dies, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up offspring for his brother" (v. 24).
Now; remember that they only held the first five books of the Old Testament to be authoritative. And so, here, they quote from a law that was found the Book of Deuteronomy. It was something that is often called "the levirite law"—taken from the Latin word for 'brother-in-law' (levir). Deuteronomy 25:5-6 says;
One of the greatest tragedies that the Jewish people could imagine would be that of a man dying without any offspring to carry on his name and preserve his inheritance of land. And this law was meant to provide for the widow who remained, and for the perpetuation of the dead man's name and inheritance. (We know of at least one great instance in the Bible when this law was put into practice—in the case of the Old Testament widow Ruth, who became the wife of her near-kinsman Boaz.)
Now; the Sadducees believed in this law, because it was found in the Scriptures given through Moses. But since they denied the resurrection, they sought to craft a "trick question" from it in order to trap our Lord in His words.
Have you ever seen the musical "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers"? Well; here's a new twist: "Seven Brothers for One Bride"! The Sadducees said that these seven brothers had been "with" them; but it's pretty safe to assume that they were only speaking rhetorically. After all, can you actually imagine all seven brothers willingly marrying this woman, when each of the brothers before them kept dying? We might be able to excuse the recklessness of the second and the third brother; but by the fourth brother, some serious questions should have been asked! We'd either be talking about the craftiest "black widow" that ever lived, or the dumbest set of brothers in all of history!
So, this is just hypothetical. The Sadducees made-up the story of these seven brothers who married this one woman—one after another—until she had gone through the whole bunch. And then she died—much to the relief, I suspect, of some nephews who may have been next for consideration! And then, they ask the Lord, "So; in this 'resurrection' that you claim that God speaks of, whose wife will she be? All seven had her." What an awkward reunion in the 'sweet-by-and-by' that'd be!
Now; the technical name of this form of argument is reductio ad absurdum. It was meant to follow a speculation about the resurrection all the way through, until it was reduced to the level of absurdity. It's a little like how one famous atheist used to ask if, when God bodily raised us from the dead on the last day, He was planning to resurrect all our old haircuts and fingernail-clippings as well. It was not a sincere question. It was simply a question asked out of a spirit of unbelief—one that was designed to make our Lord scramble around for some answer to a ridiculous question in an effort to save face.1
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Well; our Lord didn't scramble around trying to answer it. Instead, look at how He exposed . . .
3. THE ERROR BEHIND THEIR QUESTION (v. 29).
First, note that Jesus tells them right away, "You are mistaken . . ." The word that He used2 is one that meant "to be led astray" or "to be made to wander about". The idea is that they were "deceived" in their thinking.
And what's interesting to me is that their having been deceived is presented by our Lord as something done to them (passively) as a consequence of something else. Jesus says that they were led astray by the condition of their thinking—"not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God" (v. 29).
Look at that word "knowing". In its normal use, this particular word3 simply refers to having information about something in such a way that understanding is the result. But it can also refer to having a close and intimate relationship with a thing. And it can even, in some cases, refer to the recognition of a thing for what it is—to the point of having respect for, or an attitude of reverence for a thing's true worth. A very good example of this is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:12; where Paul writes to his believing friends and tells them, "We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you . . ." (ESV, emph. added).
So put it all together and you can see the nature of their error. It was all in the attitude of their hearts. The Scriptures and the power of God had been set before them; but they didn't first choose to "know" these things in such a way as to respect and reverence them according to their proper worth. They didn't want to; because the truths of these things would have been a light shining on their sin at the most fundamental level of their commitments. And because they didn't begin with an attitude of respect for God's word or God's power—or more to the point, because they chose to "disbelieve" these things at the very start—they were led astray in their thinking and were "mistaken".
This, it seems to me, is one of the most important things we can take from this passage. Our Lord gives us an example of not simply jumping into an attempt to answer an unbeliever's "tricky question." That's what we're naturally inclined to do; but to do so would only send us running around in whatever circles of argument they wish to make us run around in. Rather, our Lord teaches us to begin by exposing the heart attitude—the presumption of unbelief—from which the question sprang in the first place!
What a surprising rebuke that must have been to the irreverent and disrespectful attitude toward the things of God these Sadducees were displaying!
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So then; having exposed the attitude of unbelief from which the question was raised in the first place, notice . . .
4. THE ANSWER THE LORD GAVE (vv. 30-32).
The Lord said that they didn't properly "know" two things: the Scriptures, and the power of God. And so, He sets them straight, first, on the power of God with respect to the resurrection of the dead.
The Sadducees had assumed that, when the Bible taught about the resurrection, it meant a resurrection into exactly the same state of being that the person was in before he or she died. And so, obviously, such an assumption would create a ridiculous picture—seven resurrected brothers having to arm-wrestle over whose wife the resurrected, seven-fold widow would be. But Jesus says, "For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven" (v. 30).
"Marriage" is something that God made for temporal life on earth. During their time on earth, people die; and God provided marriage for the perpetuation of the humankind during that time. It was the means by which God's commandment to Adam and Eve was to be fulfilled—to be fruitful, and multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it (Genesis 1:28). It was also the means by which He ordained that a "godly offspring" would be preserved in this dark, fallen world (Malachi 2:14). And what's more, because God decreed that it is not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18), marriage is His gracious provision for the deep human need for a companion and fellow-heir in "the grace of life" (1 Peter 3:7).
But in the resurrection—when God's people are raised from the dead to enter into the full experience of eternal life—this "temporal" arrangement will no longer be needed. We will be "like angels of God in heaven". We won't "be" angels, of course; but we will be "like" angels in that we will have none of the limitations and needs that we experience now in these unglorified bodies of ours. At that time, there will be no need to perpetuate the human race, because we will be living eternally in a place where there is no death. There'll be no need to seek a "godly offspring", because we will all be continually beholding the Lord Jesus in perfect glory—having been transformed by God into His own image. And there'll be no need for the same kind of companionship we needed through the struggles and trials of earthly life; because there'll be no more struggles, no more trials, and no more loneliness in heavenly glory We will all be together, forever, in perfection and in perfect joy.
Now; I of course love my dear wife, and want to be with her forever in heaven. And I will. I believe that I will always have a special relationship with her, and her with me. It may not be in the kind of relationship that we understand marriage on this earth to be; but it will be in a relationship that is deeper and more profound than what we can understand even from what we experience in marriage. And from what Jesus is saying, I believe that it will be a deep relationship that my wife and I will share together with all the beloved saints in glory.
It seems to me that Jesus is saying that, in that glorified state—so different from this earthly state that we can't even begin to imagine it—the heavenly love that a woman shares with one of her former husbands in glory wouldn't have to exclude her from sharing the same heavenly love with another of her former husbands in glory; any more than a mother's love for one child would exclude her from equally loving another child on earth, or than a man's earthly love for his brother would exclude him from also equally loving his sister.
Well; these are tremendous things to speculate about, and they're beyond our ability to grasp right now. But the point is that the Sadducees erred in not giving proper respect and reverence to the power of God in their thoughts! They didn't allow themselves to truly "know" just how great God's power is to transform his people from the state of humility and fallenness, which characterizes us now, into a state of heavenly glory that is like that of the angels!
And by the way; do you notice that Jesus, in speaking to these Sadducees who didn't believe in angels, doesn't accommodate their disbelief? He builds His argument on the very thing they didn't believe in— that the resurrected "are like angels of God in heaven".
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Second, Jesus sets these Sadducees straight about the Scriptures with respect to the resurrection of the dead. As you remember, they only regarded the five books of Moses as authoritative. But Jesus shows them that they didn't even really respect the Scriptures that they claimed as authoritative; because He shows them that these very same Scriptures support the very doctrine that they denied. He says, "But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God . . . ?" (v. 31).
He then quotes from Exodus 3:6; and from the story of how God met Moses at the burning bush. God introduced Himself as the God of Moses' ancestors—that is, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And even though those three men had physically died centuries before Moses' time, they nevertheless still existed before God; because God said that He was—right then—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
From the very Scriptures they claimed to esteem, Jesus shows that these three patriarchs didn't cease to exist when their bodies died. They existed still; and even then owned God as their God. "God is not the God of the dead," Jesus says, "but of the living." As it says in Luke 20:38, “[F]or all live to Him.”
But what about the body? Some people have argued; "When someone dies, their body becomes decomposed. The particles that made up their body separate from one another. How could we be asked to believe that God could reconstitute the particles of the body and raise it in life again?" Very easily; by the fact that He constituted its particles and gave it life once before. After all; which is the more amazing thing—that He had organized the particles of matter together from out of the dust of the earth to form a human being the first time; or that He would do so again after it had already been formed once? We're all here today as living proof of what He can very easily one day do again!
And if Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph still existed before God apart from their decaying bodies; then He is absolutely capable of keeping His promise to them and giving life to their dead bodies once more.
Now again, this is a tremendous thing to speculate about—the way that God will reconstitute the body and raise it to eternal glory. And we have to be content for now with the little our Lord tells us about it. But the point once more is that the Sadducees erred in not giving proper reverence and respect to the Scriptures. They trifled with it; but didn't allow themselves to see the truths of the resurrection that were revealed in it—or in the other portions of Scripture that they arrogantly rejected.
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So; there we have the Lord's answer to their "perplexing question". And so, finally, notice . . .
5. THE RESPONSE TO THE ANSWER (v. 33).
It's interesting that we don't read her of the Sadducees' response. Instead, we read of the multitudes that listened.
I suspect that the multitudes had heard this kind of debate before; don't you? They had probably heard the Sadducees whip out their favorite "perplexing question", and watched them stump the scribes and Pharisees with it. They probably wondered many times how they themselves would answer it; and concluded that they weren't able to. But when they heard the Lord's answer, we're told that the multitudes "were astonished at His teaching" (v. 33). The word that is used1 literally means that they were "struck out of their wits" by it.
And what's more, Luke, in his Gospel, tells us that the scribes—the experts in the Scriptures—answered and said, "Teacher, You have spoken well." (Luke 20:39). But more to the point, we don't hear of the unbelieving Sadducees saying anything further!
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So; what do we learn from our Lord's answer to this "perplexing question"? Certainly, we learn that we can trust what the Bible teaches us about the hope of the resurrection. Most of all, we can trust it because our Lord proved it in His own experience just a few days after this question was asked. But I believe that the greater thing we're to learn from this passage is how the Lord dealt with the unbelief of those who asked the "perplexing question" in the first place.
When confronted with unbelief's "questions", I believe the Lord would always have us respond with courteousness and love. But when the question is coming from someone who is clearly committed to unbelief, and whose motive is to discredit the faith, I believe our Lord's example teaches us not to simply jump to the question first—as we're so easily inclined to do.
The Lord's example teaches us that, first, we should lovingly but resolutely—in the power and authority of the Holy Spirit—expose the unbelief in the heart of the one asking the question. We should be bold and honest; saying, "You are mistaken, friend. You are led astray by the fact that you have chosen to begin in the wrong place. You have chosen from the outset to neither rightly esteem God's power nor His revealed word as you should. You have chosen to begin in disbelief in these things; and then to reason from your disbelief. And because you've begun on the wrong path, you've ended up in the wrong place."
And then, the Lord's example teaches us that we should lovingly but resolutely—and again, in the power of the Holy Spirit—affirm what God's word says. We're to put His revealed word forth to them plainly, and let it speak for itself. They may hear it and repent. Or they may hear it and harden their hearts against God even more. But the outcome is not our business. That's up to the Holy Spirit. Our job is to simply give them God's truth from God's word; and let it do its work.
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The apostle Paul summed this up for us very well. He said,
May our Lord's example teach us how to faithfully answer the "perplexing questions" of unbelief.
1Bishop J.C. Ryle's comments on this are worth considering: "It must never surprise us, if we meet with like objections against the doctrines of Scripture, and especially against those doctrines which concern another world. There never probably will be wanting 'unreasonable men,' who will 'intrude' into things unseen, and make imaginary difficulties their excuse for unbelief. Supposed cases are one of the favorite strongholds in which an unbelieving mind loves to entrench itself. Such a mind will often set up a shadow of its own imagining, and fight with it, as if it was a truth. Such a mind will often refuse to look at the overwhelming mass of plain evidence by which Christianity is supported, and will fasten down on some one singular difficulty, which it fancies is unanswerable. The talk and arguments of people of this character should never shake our faith for a moment. For one thing, we should remember that there must needs be deep and dark things in a religion which comes from God, and that a child may put questions which the greatest philosopher cannot answer.—For another thing, we should remember, that there are countless truths in the Bible, which are clear, and unmistakable. Let us first attend to them, believe them, and obey them. So doing, we need not doubt that many a thing now unintelligible to us will yet be made plain. So doing, we may be sure that 'what we known not now we shall know hereafter' (J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on The Gospels, vol. 1, p. 288).
2Πλανάω in the present passive form.
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