Sometimes people refer to God in a flippant way. He’s “the man upstairs.” Or (worst-case scenario) “Jesus is my homeboy.” Nearly everyone who is deeply religious bristles at such casual treatment of the one “who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).
Unfortunately, it’s also possible to devote yourself to a small, handcrafted god who is not the God you think you’re worshiping. You may be taking the one true God too lightly.
Jesus has drawn the attention of the religious leaders in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin. His teaching is a threat to their political power structure. So they’ve sent delegations to him to trap him in his words. Every time they do this, Jesus evades the trap and demonstrates that he is superior to his opponents.
This particular delegation from the Sanhedrin is composed of the priestly, upper-class Sadducees. They are a group that is skeptical of most of the Old Testament; they only accept the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as scripture. As a result, they deny many doctrines which the Pharisees, most Jews, and Jesus himself affirm. One in particular is the resurrection from the dead. There isn’t much Old Testament teaching on this subject (though see Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:12), and there seems to be none whatsoever in the Torah. So the Sadducees believe that once you die, that’s it. If there’s any afterlife at all, it’s found in the gloomy confines of Sheol, the underworld.
The Sadducees deny the resurrection for another reason as well. They’re convinced that it’s logically incoherent. To prove their point, they present Jesus with a hypothetical situation. What if a woman marries a man who dies? According to the Jewish custom of Levirate marriage, the man’s brother is required to marry her and raise up an heir for him. The Sadducees take this to the point of absurdity—suppose seven such brothers died!—but it would only require one death for the woman to have married two husbands in this life. So “in the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be?” they ask.
Note that, once again, we have Jesus’ enemies asking a question when they’re not genuinely interested in learning from him. They just want to humiliate him. They’ve already decided they’re not going to believe.
Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush here. “Is this not the reason you are led astray, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” he tells them. Now, this is a slap in the face! The Sadducees were fanatic students of the scriptures, and they stood in positions of great political and religious power. Yet Jesus is saying to their faces that they are wayward and ignorant.
Jesus explains what he means. The Sadducees clearly don’t know the power of God because they have made wrong assumptions about the resurrection. They’ve assumed that the next life will be an extension of this one; people will get married and raise families and go on living like they do now. Jesus is telling them that God will reorder everything; those who are resurrected will no longer marry. In fact, marriage will no longer exist; it’s a temporary institution that will pass away. God is powerful enough to recreate the world in a way that exceeds the wildest dreams of man.
Jesus continues to pile it on. He quotes Exodus 3:6, in which God told Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”—his ancestors. The eternal, self-existent I AM had chosen to identify himself with these patriarchs, to bind himself to them with an eternal covenant, to make promises to them which had not yet been fulfilled. None of this makes sense if they have simply ceased to exist. Would God really identify himself with something that no longer exists? Would his promises to Moses be reliable if he had no intention of fulfilling his promises to the (living) patriarchs? No! “He is not God of the dead, but of the living,” Jesus says. Then he adds, “You are led greatly astray.” And he’ll drive his point home in the final chapter of Mark, when he himself rises from the dead.
The Sadducees are a monument built for us, a warning that it’s possible to be a devout person, to be a student of the Bible, to be in a position of power in the church, and yet to be ignorant and easily deceived. Jesus insists that all of his followers contemplate and adhere to the words of scripture—all the words, not just those which we want to believe! Jesus wants you and me to expand our understanding of who God is. When you try to grasp who God is, do not be quick to draw conclusions about what he can’t or shouldn’t do. He is powerful, and you are in no position to question him. Instead, align your thinking with his written Word, lest you stray from the path and into deadly error.