Lessons from a Childless Widow

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  • 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.” 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.” – Mark 12:18-27

    Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly, hailed as the long-awaited Messiah. He disrupted official temple business, claiming the house of prayer had become a den of thieves. The people celebrated these controversial acts. The religious leaders were determined to get rid of Jesus once and for all. But they needed a way to discredit Jesus with the people and charge him before the Roman government. 

    That is the setting of our text. In verses 13-17, the Pharisees and Herodians conspire to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes to Caesar. Now the Sadducees take their shot. The Sadducees were a smaller sect than the Pharisees. But they were more powerful. The Sadducees were the religious aristocracy– the holy upper class from which the high priests came. They were the most theological conservative group in the Sanhedrin Council. Pharisees added the traditions of the elders to the word of God. The Sadducees only accepted the Pentateuch – the books of Moses – as God’s word and rejected the Writings and Prophets.

    After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the Sadducees disappeared from the pages of history. They are featured here because of their opposition to Jesus. The Pharisees failed to bring Jesus down. Now the Sadducees try to kill two birds with one stone. They ask a question to make Jesus and the Pharisees look bad. The question was not a question. It was a trap. They baited the trap on the assumption that when you are dead, you are done. Verse 27 rebukes them: “You are quite wrong.” Jesus’ response to their question exposed their grave error and affirmed a glorious truth: Heaven is real.

    Job 14:14 asks, “If a man dies, shall he live again?” It is one of life’s biggest questions. We are born into a world filled with sin, strife, sickness, sorrow, and suffering. Hebrews 9:27 asserts: “It is appointed for man to die once.” We do not need the Bible to know that. We are constantly reminded how frail and brief life is. We do everything to ignore that truth. We spend too little time asking the question of eternity: Is there life after death? In our text, Jesus addresses the subjects of life, death, and eternity. The text does not answer all the questions we have. But it gives one blessed assurance: Heaven is real. In this passage, the reality of heaven is denied and defended.

    A Godless Denial of the Resurrection 

    The wisdom of Jesus is revealed in his teaching of the disciples and preaching to the crowds. That wisdom is seen more clearly when Jesus corrects his enemies. Our text is a perfect example. Here Jesus responds to a godless denial of the resurrection. 

    The Resurrection Rejected. Verse 18 says, “And Sadducees came to him, who say there is no resurrection.” This is Mark’s only reference to the Sadducees. Mark does not formally introduce them. And he does not make a statement about their motives. Mark gives one detail about the Sadducees: “who say there is no resurrection.”

    The Sadducees believed only Genesis through Deuteronomy was divinely inspired. In the first five books of the Old Testament, they found no reason to believe in life after death. Acts 23:8 says, “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledged them all.” The Sadducees were materialists. They thought life should be long, godly, and blessed – which included having children to carry on your legacy. What they thought about life did not include anything spiritual or eternal. They said there is no resurrection. When you’re dead, you’re done. From their position of unbelief, they came to Jesus with a question about the resurrection from the dead. 

    Verse 19 says: “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.” They addressed Jesus with the honorific title “Teacher.” But they did not come to learn from him. Their reference to Moses was correct. It is the danger of false teachers. They quote scripture but misinterpret it. 

    The reference is to the law of Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. If a man died childless, his brother was to marry his wife. Their first child was to be named after the deceased brother to continue his line and legacy. This law is the basis of the scandalous story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. It is also the basis of the redemptive story of Ruth and Boaz. In mercy to the deceased and his widow, Moses commanded the brother to marry his sister’s wife to produce offspring. The Sadducees used this command to reject the truth of the rejection. 

    The Resurrection Ridiculed. After citing Moses’ law concerning levirate marriage, they posed a hypothetical situation in verses 20-22: “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.” Jesus often told parables that did not make sense to the religious leaders. Here the religious leaders tell Jesus a parable that does not make sense. It wasn’t meant to make sense. That was the point. They expected this ridiculous scenario would stump Jesus and expose his biblical ignorance. 

    A man and woman married. He died before they had children. In obedience to the law of levirate marriage, his brother married his widow. He died before they had children. Moses did not address the matter beyond this. But the Sadducees kept going. A third brother married the woman. And the same thing happened to him. At this point, if this story were true, we would have to conclude something nefarious was afoot. But to strain credulity, the Sadducees kept going. All seven brothers married this one woman. All died without leaving any offspring. Finally, the childless widow died. 

    After this ludicrous storyline, the Sadducees pose their question in verse 23: “In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be?” They said there is no resurrection. Yet they ask Jesus what will happen when they rise again in the resurrection. Their question denied resurrection but affirmed monogamy. Heaven does not endorse hookup culture. The woman could only be married to one of these men. Which one? 

    In Latin, this type of argument is called a “reductio ad absurdum” – a reduction to the absurd. In verse 14, the Pharisees craft a compelling question to trap Jesus. The Sadducees thought they could trip Jesus up with this silly question. The problem with smart people is that they think everyone else is dumb. 

    A Godly Defense of the Resurrection 

    Verse 24 asks, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” There is an indictment in this question: “You are wrong.” “Wrong” means to wander from truth, virtue, or safety. The grammar indicates self-deception. These leaders had led themselves astray. The reason is twofold: “You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” Here is the biblical explanation for all biblical errors. It is a parallelism that describes the same problem in two different ways. 

    • If you do not know the scriptures, you do not know the power of God. 
    • If you do not know the power of God, you do not know the scriptures. 

    Jesus confronts both errors in verses 25-27. 

    An Affirmation of God’s Power. Verse 25 explains, “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” This verse tells us two things about heaven. 

    A Definite Place. The Sadducees asked about when they rise again in the resurrection. They did not believe in a personal or general resurrection. Their language assumed its existence for the sake of argument. Jesus affirmed the truth of the premise the Sadducees did not believe. Verse 25 says, “When the rise from the dead.” We have questions about heaven this text does not answer. No text answers all our questions. 1 Corinthians 2:9 says, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” The hope of heaven is invisible, inaudible, and incomprehensible. Here is what we can know: 

    • Heaven is real. 
    • Death is not the last word. 
    • We will rise from the dead. 

    Job 19:25-26 says, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” We have more reason to believe in the resurrection than Job. 

    John 14:2-3 says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Take Jesus at his word because he died on the cross and rose from the dead. 

    A Different Place. The Sadducees assumed if heaven was real, it was just an eternal version of present reality. Many are guilty of their error. They reject heaven because it does not fit their notions of reality. Unbelievers and believers make this mistake. Many Christians have their theology of heaven shaped by cartoons rather than scripture.

    Verse 25 says, “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Men married. Women were given in marriage. Neither will take place in the resurrection. Marriage is a covenant of companionship through which procreation takes place to continue the human race. Because there will be no death in heaven, marriage and procreation will not be necessary. 

    Verse 25 says we will be like “angels in heaven.” We do not become angels when we die and go to heaven. We will become like angels in that they neither marry nor are given in marriage. Angels don’t procreate. There are the same number of angels now as there were when God created them in eternity past. Angels don’t marry. They have a single-minded devotion to God. Matthew 6:10 says, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We will do God’s will in heaven like the angels.

    There will be no sense of lack or loss in heaven. We will maintain our identity and individuality in heaven. But our supernatural existence will be holy, glorious, and eternal. There will be sex or marriage in heaven. But everything will be better! 1 John 3:2 says, “Beloved, we are god’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” 

    An Affirmation of God’s Word. Verses 26-27 affirm God’s word in two ways. 

    God’s word corrects us. In verse 26, Jesus quotes Moses and God. 

    Jesus quotes Moses. The Old Testament is filled with references to the resurrection. The Sadducees only believed in the Pentateuch. So Jesus quoted Exodus 3 to them. Jesus’ citation sounds like a churchgoer who forgot what the sermon was about: “In the book of Moses, in that passage about the bush.” This was how scripture was quoted before chapter-verse divisions. Jesus points these theological scholars to the limited biblical texts they affirmed and asks, “Have you not read?” This is how you find answers to questions about life, death, and eternity. Go to the word of God. Isaiah 40:8 says, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” 

    Jesus quotes God. Go to the Bible for answers to life’s questions. Don’t get caught up in speculationabout esoteric texts or truths. Focus on God in your study of the scriptures. Jesus pointed the Sadducees to Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush. God introduced himself, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Jacob, and the God of Jacob.” 

    God did not say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The three patriarchs had been dead for centuries. Yet God said, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”Lawrence Richards said, “What a tremendous confidence we can have in scripture! Even the tenses of words are rooted in reality, and one can trust each phrase to express divine truth.”

     God’s word comforts us. Verse 27 concludes, “ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” The hope of the resurrection is rooted in the nature, character, and authority of God. 

    • Don’t stumble over what you do not know about the future. 
    • Stand firm in the unfailing truth of what you know about God.

    On April 8, 1966, Time Magazine published its most controversial edition. The cover was black. In bold red font, the cover asked, “Is God Dead?” Let me report breaking news: God is not dead, sick, or hurt! God is alive and well. And he is the God of the living. Psalm 16:11 says, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

     Verse 27 ends with an indictment: “You are quite wrong.”

    • You can be wrong about things that don’t matter. 
    • You cannot afford to be wrong about God. 

    Acts 17:30-31 says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Your view of God is everything! Are you right or wrong about God?

    Two men lay dying in the same hospital. One weeps, “I am about to lose it all.” The other weeps, “I am about to gain it all.” Which one are you? If you run to the cross, repent of your sins, and trust in Christ, you can die with the blessed assurance that to live is Christ and to die is gain. 



    H.B. Charles Jr.

    Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.