The Sadducees were known for their disbelief in the idea of resurrection. The Bible even paints them as thinking the whole thing is a joke.
And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.” (Mk 12:18-23)
It’s here that the Sadducees play their trump card and tell a story they have probably used in countless debates before to prove the ridiculousness of the idea of resurrection. The question is fairly simple: “If a woman gets married a bunch of times in this life, who will be her husband in the next life?” The idea is absurd to them, not only because the world of the resurrection has a woman practicing polygamy instead of a man, but also because the very concept is laughable. Even we have to laugh at the idea a little bit, right?
“Oh, hey John. Uh… look… So you were gone for like a real long time, so I kind of got remarried. I’d like you to meet my other husband Steve! Wait—what am I saying—you know Steve! You are brothers after all! Oh, and speaking of which—Steve, after you died, I kind of got remarried again. But again, you need no introductions since you both know Benjamin. He’ll be taking the guest room I think. And look you guys… there’s actually a few more people I’d like you to meet. You may want to consider sitting down for this—after all, we’re all family now—I mean we already were, but now that I’ve slept with you all, there may be a little bit of a soap opera thing at play here.”
The Sadducees believe they have hit a home run. “This whole resurrection thing falls apart when you really think about it, doesn’t it?” they propose.
“No,” replies Jesus. And the reason isn’t because of the hilarity of their proposition—it’s because of how badly they misunderstand what resurrection is like.
Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.” (Mk 12:24-27)
Now this was an answer the Sadducees surely didn’t see coming. They had most likely used this story on others plenty of times and had never heard such a response before. Others had probably responded that the woman would have been with her first husband, since from a Biblical standpoint all of the other brothers were meant to give her children from the genetic line of her original husband.
But Jesus flips the whole conversation on its head. He is so assured of resurrection that He uses the strongest language He can muster. He walks right up to the religious authorities of His time and tells them that they don’t know Scripture or the power of God and that they are quite wrong. He does not let them down easy.
His rebuttal is two-fold. First off, resurrection is completely different from life as we know it now, so their entire story is way off base in the first place. They are completely missing the point as they believe that life as we currently have it will carry over exactly as it is into the resurrection. But Jesus makes it clear that the two forms of life are completely different. Resurrection is not the same thing as this life. In fact, they are so different that even sex and marriage—the basic pleasures and ways of life—are nowhere to be found. These things, even in their God-ordained goodness, do not carry over into the new life which is to come.
Secondly, Jesus gives them a theological smack down by showing them that resurrection is proved in Scripture, and He even does so by specifically quoting one of the five books the Sadducees held as truth. He explains that God told Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” In other words, even though Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had passed away, God spoke about them as though they were still alive. He did not say, “I was” their God, but “I am” their God. Jesus then makes the point clear, “He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” In other words, the righteous are apparently still alive in some sense and therefore, resurrection is real. Jesus has just opened the Sadducees eyes to see a Scripture in a light they had never seen before—just as the Holy Spirit often does to us today.