Commentary on Matthew 22:23-33

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



A. The Questioners. The Sadducees make their first appearance since 16:1-12 (the only other prior reference is 3:7). On their beliefs pertinent to the present discussion, see Appendix A. The Sadducees appear alone, not (as in Mt 16) with the Pharisees. Their question to Jesus is very likely one they have raised against the Pharisees.

B. The Motive.

The Sadducees are not expressly said to approach Jesus with hostile intent (contrast v. 15). Yet such a motive may reasonably be ascribed to them. For one thing, in the earlier passage they joined the Pharisees to test Jesus (16:1). For another, Jesus has said enough in his public teaching to make it clear that he - like the Pharisees and unlike the Sadducees - believes in life after death and in the resurrection of the dead: see 8:11 (addressed to the crowd) and 12:39-40 (addressed to Pharisees and teachers of the law); cf. Lk 14:14 (addressed to a Pharisee), a verse with no Matthean parallel. (Jesus makes the three predictions of his own resurrection, 16:21; 17:23; 20:19, in the hearing of disciples only.) On the present occasion the Sadducees tell their story and ask their question in order to show the crowd how awkward it is to speak of life in the resurrected state, and how absurd it is to believe in resurrection at all.

C. The Case.

1. The story itself. The situation described, while not impossible, is almost certainly hypothetical (the phrase "among us," v. 25a, lends verisimilitude to the account). The case is deliberately far-fetched to serve the Sadducees' apologetic purpose. Whether by design or not, the reference to the woman's death, v. 27, strikes the reader as amusing: how could the poor woman do anything but die after enduring seven marriages? or is it that she dies because there are no brothers left?

2. The background. The inspiration for the illustration may well be the apocryphal book of Tobit (Lane, Mark, 427). In this story Sarah, daughter of Raguel, was married to seven husbands, all of whom died childless (Tobit 3:8, 15; 6:13; 7:11). The Mosaic teaching in question is that of Deut 25:5-10, concerning levirate marriage (see Craigie, Deuteronomy, 313-15). The term "levirate" comes from the Latin levir, "a husband's brother." "The law concerned brothers who lived together and its purpose was to keep property in the family by raising up an heir to inherit it" (Marshall, Luke, 739).

The custom antedates Moses; cf. Judah's words to Onan in Gen 38:8, "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother." For levirate marriage, see also Ruth 3:9-4:12; Tobit 6:9-12; 7:12-13.

II. JESUS' RESPONSE. 22:29-33.

A. Introduction.

Jesus first responds, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God" (v. 29). Marshall, 738, suggests that Jesus' reply (according to Mk and Mt) is chiastic in structure, i.e. that "the Scriptures" and "the power of God" of v. 29 are considered in reverse order in vv. 30 (resurrection life is effected by God's power) and 31-32 (where the Scriptures are quoted), yielding an a-b-b-a arrangement. This suggestion is acceptable, so long as the witness to God's power is not confined to v. 30 - i.e., so long as Jesus' exposition of Scripture is recognized as a further witness, indeed the decisive witness, to God's power. The Sadducees' ignorance of the Word and the power of God, manifests itself in erroneous thinking of two kinds.

B. The Resurrection State.

1. The Sadducees' error. As is clear from Jesus' reply, vv. 25-28 envisage a situation in which resurrection life (assuming there were such) would restore present life and conditions. For expressions of such a view in the Jewish apocalyptic of the time, see D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, 286-90, 374-79.

2. Jesus' new revelation. "At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven" (v. 30). Jesus thus asserts his belief in the resurrection, confirming what the Sadducees already knew of his thinking. The words en ts anastasei refer not merely to the moment of resurrection from the dead, but to the state of being that is thereby introduced (NIV's "at" is misleading, and should be changed to "in"). Jesus' words about the resurrection itself, echo OT teaching (e.g. Job 19:25-27; Dan 12:1-2). But his words about the nature of life in the resurrected state are not anticipated in the OT; they are new revelation. Jesus declares that the resurrection brings much more than a resumption of present conditions; it will not simply be "this world all over again" (Dorothy L. Sayers, The Man Born to be King, 224; she well the spirit of this and the other debates). Life in the resurrected state will be new and different. But exactly how?

3. From mortality to immortality. Underlying Jesus' assertion that the resurrected "will neither marry nor be given in marriage," is the conviction that they will have become immortal, no longer subject to death. On the immortality, or eternality, of resurrection life, see 1 Cor 15:53-54 ("the mortal puts on immortality" and "death is swallowed up in victory"). Herein lies one (though not the principal) explanation for the comparison between resurrected human beings and the angels (Marshall, Luke, 741). Cf. 2 Baruch (a Jewish apocalyptic work from the 2nd century A.D.) 51:9-10, "And time will no longer make them older. For...they will be like the angels...."

4. The end of procreation. "In the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage." Given the vast number of the redeemed in the resurrection (Rev 7:9), and their immortality (3.), the procreation of the race which is an essential function of marriage under present conditions (Gen 1:27-28; 2:24; 1 Tim 5:14), will no longer be necessary. Here lies the principal reason for Jesus' comparison between resurrected human beings and angels: the latter do not "marry and give in marriage." "The similarity to angels, we may presume, applies only to the point being made, not to the absence of physical bodies. Jesus' teaching here does not necessarily imply that there will be no sex differences in the life to come. What we do that the institution of marriage will no longer be in existence, since there will be no need to bring new children into the world" (Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 252).

5. The deepening of relationships. What are the implications of Jesus' words, v. 30, for persons presently married? And what about people who have been married more than once - such as the woman in the Sadducees' story? (One thinks of Elisabeth Elliot, who is now married to her third husband following the deaths of the other two.)

a. Jesus declares that there will be no place for the commencement of marriages in the new order, which is not the same as saying that present marital relationships will be abolished.

b. But if Jesus does not say that present marriages will be annulled, neither does he say that the new order means a resumption of the present experience of marriage. In this respect, as generally, the resurrected state will not simply be "this world all over again." On the contrary, reading this passage in the light of the Bible generally we conclude that in the resurrected state marital relationships will be transposed into a higher key, incorporated into a new order of existence and made part of a deeper reality. See Peter J. Kreeft, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, But Never Dreamed of Asking, Part 1. In other words, marriages will be transformed as part of the larger process by which the whole earth will be made new: cf. Rev 21-22; Hoekema, 274-87.

c. In that Day when sin is abolished - and with it our alienation from God and from each other - spouses shall become capable of relating to one another with far greater freedom and intimacy than is now possible or tolerable - or even imaginable. Such freedom and intimacy are disconcertingly elusive even in the best of marriages; and they are sometimes woefully lacking even in marriages that remain formally intact. That Day will bring an immeasurable deepening of these relationships. As pride will then have been fully and finally conquered, the woman who in this life has been married to seven husbands, will be free to love all seven of them without exhibiting the slightest favoritism, exploitation or manipulation. And for the same reason, there will be no room for jealousy or suspicion on the part of the seven husbands - only room for returning her love in full. In that Day, the question "Whose wife will she be?" will have become irrelevant. Cf. Carson, 461-62.

d. It is not only marital bonds that will be strengthened. Such will be the power of God to glorify and fully to sanctify his people, that the unity, freedom and intimacy now most fully experienced in Christian marriages will flood all relationships among the people of God. The agaps which will have (so to speak) gained momentum within marriages, will freely and fully carry over into all other relationships as well. We know from our previous study of Mt that Jesus expects the citizens of the Kingdom to aspire to an unprecedented level of unity and intimacy: how else could we understand his teachings about personal relationships in such passages as 5:17-48 and chs. 18-19? (For expressions of the same basic principle, see Gal 3:28; Col 3:11.) But the degree of intimacy that is honored in principle has thus far never been fully realized in practice.

The Kingdom that has been inaugurated is yet to be consummated (Mt 6:10); we have not yet attained to "unity in the faith" and to "the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13). But in that Day such freedom and love and intimacy will be more than a concept and more than an ideal. It shall have become our normal way of relating to one another - our daily routine. That which we now "know in part" (both in our thinking and in our experience), we shall then know in its fullness; see 1 Cor 13:8-13.

C. The Covenant Relationship.

1. The Sadducees' error. From the Sadducees' standpoint, the question raised in Mt 22:28 is purely academic. In their eyes, there will never be the need to raise such a question, for there will never actually be a resurrected state. This is their fundamental error - their disbelief in the resurrection.

2. Jesus' appeal to Scripture. "But about the resurrection of the dead - have you not read what God said to you, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living" (vv. 31-32). Jesus addresses the Sadducees' fundamental error by quoting the Bible. Consider his choice of text: (i) He quotes from Ex 3:6, i.e. from the Torah, the Sadducees' principal (though not exclusive) canonical authority (cf. Appendix A.). Note the irony in Jesus' question, "Have you not read...?" (ii) He quotes a foundational covenantal passage rather than (what we would consider) an OT proof text for the resurrection (e.g. Job 19:25-27 or Dan 12:2). "Jesus brings the problem of belief in the resurrection back to the problem of belief in God" (Herman Ridderbos, Matthew's Witness to Jesus Christ, 71). Moreover, he draws attention to the basic question concerning the relationship of Yahweh to his people.

3. The covenant God. Yahweh speaks the words of Ex 3:6 to Moses at the Burning Bush (as made explicit in Mk 12:26). By identifying himself as the God of the patriarchs, Yahweh declares that he is about to act - in the Exodus - to fulfill his covenantal promise to the Patriarchs (Gen 12:1-3; 15:4-21, etc.). Cf. Ex 6:3-4, "I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.... I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan...."

4. Yahweh and his people.

a. The faithfulness of God. At the heart of that covenant is the promise of the closest relationship between Yahweh and his chosen people: cf. e.g. Jer 31:33b, "I will be their God, and they will be my people"; Mt 1:23, "'Immanuel,' which means 'God with us'"; 28:20, "I will be with you always," words spoken by Yahweh incarnate. While explicit OT promises of personal resurrection are relatively few and late, they arise directly out of what the Bible reveals from the very beginning about God's relationship to his people. It is inconceivable that the God who uttered the promises of Gen 12:1-3 would ever break that covenant (in Gen 15:8-21, Yahweh invites destruction upon himself should he fail to keep his covenant with Abraham), and it is unthinkable that he would ever allow death to sever that bond and bring that fellowship to an end. "If God has assumed the task of protecting the patriarchs from misfortune during the course of their life, but fails to deliver them from that supreme misfortune which marks the definitive and absolute check upon their hopes, his protection is of little value.... If the death of the patriarchs is the last word of their history, there has been a breach of the promises of God guaranteed by the covenant" (Lane, Mark, 430). Even before the story of Abraham, Genesis offers a strong hint that death will not be allowed ultimately to sever God's communion with his people: Enoch's walk with God was so close that there was apparently no room for death to disturb the communion (Gen 5:24). "It is in fidelity to his covenant that God will resurrect the dead.... It was the failure to appreciate the essential link between God's covenant faithfulness and the resurrection which had led the Sadducees into their grievous error" (Lane, ibid.).

b. The hope of God's people. Based upon their personal knowledge of God and of the promises that he has uttered, his people have sure and certain hope of resurrection. The experience of Abraham provides a focus for such hope. If at the time of the revelation to Moses (Ex 3) Yahweh identifies himself as the God of Abraham, "then Abraham cannot be finally dead: either he is in some sense alive, or he will be raised from the dead" (Marshall, Luke, 738). The parable of Lk 16:19-31 suggests that Abraham is already "in some sense alive." And he is sure to partake of the life of the Age to Come: for Jesus foretells that Gentiles will come to "take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 8:11). This scene presupposes the reunion of soul with body - the reintegration of the person following the disintegration caused by death. (That we sense the abnormality of this disintegration is shown by our discomfort or fright in the presence of both corpses and ghosts.) To imagine those participants feasting in a bodiless state, would be to make the experience not more enjoyable, but far less enjoyable, than our present times of feasting.

c. The experience of Jesus. With the resurrection of Jesus the logic of the covenant becomes plainer than ever. Such was Jesus' closeness to the Father, that "it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (Acts 2:24) - and the same can be said for those who are united to him. Moreover, the hope of the covenant becomes stronger than ever. The ringing declaration of Rom 8:38-39 is immediately rooted in Jesus' own resurrection (v. 34; 1 Cor 15); and it (like Jesus' resurrection) is ultimately rooted in Gen 12:1-3 and in the heart and the will of the God who uttered those covenantal promises.