" />
Recent Announcement:

Update About Coronavirus or COVID-19

Christ Confounds with the Word of the Kingdom, Part 2: Not Knowing the Scriptures

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 9, 1999

Matthew 22:23-33

Download Audio

If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 22. Last week we began a study of a series of new conflicts and exchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. In each of those conflicts and exchanges He reveals His divine wisdom and goodness while He simultaneously exposes the evil of their hearts. In Matthew 22, verses 15 through 22, which we studied last week, Jesus faced and answered a question meant for entrapment put to Him by the Pharisees and Herodians. This week the Sadducees are the questioners. The pattern is the same though. They ask a question, Jesus answers, even while He diagnoses their hearts and then the crowd responds. So we turn then to Matthew chapter 22 beginning in verse 23. Let’s hear God’s holy word.

Matthew 22:23-33


Our Lord and our God, we love Your word and we ask now as we read of a story, an event, which occurred 2000 years ago that You would remind us again that this book is written to us today and the instructions of this passage are just as surely for us as they were for those to whom Jesus first spoke these words. We ask, O lord, the enlightenment of the Spirit in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Sadducees were the skeptics of their day in Israel. Just as there were skeptics then, so also we have skeptics now. And just as there were skeptics within bounds of the confessing church then, so there are skeptics within the bounds of the confessing church today. And so though this exchange took place 2000 years ago, it is just as fresh today as it was when it was first spoken. As we said just a few moments ago there are three parts to the exchange, this question, this ‘question’ put to Jesus by the Sadducees. Then Jesus’ answer to that question. And before He gives his proper answer He actually diagnoses their heart. And then there is the response of those crowds, those multitudes who are around them. But I’d like to look at two things in particular with you today.

I. Hardened hearts fixate on speculative questions in order to avoid gospel realities.

First of all in verses 23 through 28 you see the question. This is the question that the Sadducees are going to put to Jesus. And I want you to understand it’s a silly question. It’s a ridiculous question. This is a question intended to mock the doctrine of the resurrection. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, we’re told that in the very first verse, and so they are asking a question to Jesus with the intent of embarrassing Him. Basically this question is being ask to Him in this spirit, "are you so foolish to believe in that doctrine of the resurrection? How could an intelligent person believe in that doctrine of the resurrection?" And even, even in the recounting of this question there is spiritual truth for us to learn.

For this passage in verses 23 through 28 teaches us that hardened hearts fixate on speculative questions in order to avoid gospel realities. Hardened hearts will often fixate on speculative questions and difficulties in order to deflect the need to wrestle with the claims of Christ in the gospel. Let me put that another way. People will often grasp hold of Bible difficulty or a doctrinal difficulty in order to keep from having to deal with the clear claims and invitation of Christ in the gospel. They will do it as a way to deflect the claims of Christ and perhaps you have experienced that in your witness. You’re talking with a friend, a friend that you know pretty well, a friend who is not a Christian. Or perhaps a friend who is part of a Christian church and yet who does not seem to embrace any of the fundamental truths of Christianity. And you’re discussing one of those fundamental truths and every time you want to bring up that serious issue He or she brings up some trivial obscure question and they want to talk about that. This is exactly what the Sadducees are doing in this passage. It is Tuesday of the Passover week and that remarkable Tuesday in which Jesus exchanged over and over again with the chief priests and the scribes and the Pharisees and the Herodians and now the Sadducees. In order, the chief priests and the scribes and the Pharisees and the Herodians had all approached Him on that Tuesday attempting to trip Him up, attempting to trap Him. And they had all failed and all the crowds knew that they had failed. And now the Sadducees are stepping up to the plate. It’s their turn and they want to have their shot at Jesus.

Now you need to understand the Sadducees were the theological liberals of the day. If we had to compare then and now you would say the Pharisees were the fundamentalists and the Sadducees were the liberals. And they were constantly in theological discussion with one another and they held one another both in suspicion. The Sadducees thought the Pharisees were backwards and ignorant. The Pharisees thought the Sadducees were heretical and unbelieving. And there were some very heated exchanges. In fact, most of the literature after the destruction of Jerusalem comes to us from those rabbis who followed in the stream of the Pharisees and so their picture of the Sadducees is not a flattering one. But there is reference to the Sadducees throughout that rabbinical writing and we’re told of some of the conflicts that the Pharisees and the Sadducees had in that particular writing.

Now we’re told right here in this passage that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. And in fact, the question that they decide to ask Jesus is designed to make light of the resurrection. So this isn’t really a question. The Sadducees don’t care what Jesus says in response to their question. What the Sadducees want is to produce a snicker from the crowds who are around them. They want people to say, "Good heavens, does Jesus believe in the resurrection? What a foolish thing to believe in." The Sadducees desire to mock the resurrection in this question and, of course, to mock Jesus’ teaching. Jesus and the Pharisees both in their teaching explicitly affirm the biblical doctrine of the resurrection of the body from the dead. And the Sadducees think that that is a foolish doctrine and so they desire to ridicule it. And so they come to Jesus with a question concerning Levirate marriage.

Now that is an interesting law that comes to us from the time of Moses. And you’ll find it in Deuteronomy chapter 25. In fact I’d invite you to turn there with me. Deuteronomy 25, verses 5 and 6. The whole section is about Levirate marriage but I want you to look particularly at those two verses because they quote from them. This law as given to ancient Israel. The normal law in Israel was, of course, one man, one woman. That is, marriage was to be between one man and one woman. The one exception to that was in Levirate marriage. When in the case of the premature death of a husband, his spouse, if there were no offspring, was to be married to his brother. Here’s where Moses describes it. Deuteronomy 25, verse 5. "When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go into her and take her to himself as wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel."

Now this is a law that is very obscure to us, it is strange, but it is one which was very common in ancient cultures. And the law is designed to do at least two things. First, it was designed to protect woman in a society where they were not able to be wage-earners. A woman who is a widow, especially at a relatively young age, was in an extremely precarious position. And this was a way to force the family to take care of her. Even though she was not one of them, the family had to take care of her. Secondly, this law protected the inheritance and the line, especially in connection with the land, of faithful Israelites. The design is, of course, to perpetuate the family name of Israelites and to make sure that the land which they have inherited is entrusted with their descendants.

Now presumably this law would not have been in practice for hundreds of years in Israel’s life, at least since the captivity, because the connection of land had been broken during that time. And so the Sadducees are raising a question which probably has absolutely no practical significance whatsoever for a contemporary Israelite. At least the questions that the Pharisees asked Jesus made sense. But these questions that the Sadducees were asking here had no practical significance for the daily life of the Israelites. And of course in the story the Sadducees mention seven husbands and they do that not because they are recounting a specific event, I suspect, but because they want to ridicule the resurrection. I mean, seven husbands makes it a much funnier story. It makes it a much more obscure, ridiculous and improbable story and of course they are trying to attach that absurdity and that improbability to the doctrine of the resurrection.

Do you see the pattern of their questioning? Often people who do not want to face up to the claims of Christ will grasp at any difficulty they can find. They will grasp at any problem that they can raise in order to keep from dealing with the gospel. It’s not a new thing when skeptics mock at the Bible. You know, sometimes when you run into a skeptic who makes some sort of irrationalistic comment about the virgin birth or the deity of Christ or the resurrection of the body from the dead you may think, "Oh, that’s the result of new contemporary enlightenment and post-modern thinking in our society." No! It’s been around for at least 2000 years. The Sadducees were way ahead of the liberals of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. They were already asking the same unbelieving things. J.C. Ryle, in the last century, said this, "Supposed cases are often 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 then fight with it as if it were 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 single difficulty which it fancies to be unanswerable. The talk and arguments of people of this character should never shake our faith for a moment."

And it’s interesting here, isn’t it, how the Sadducees attached their argument, fastening it to obscure law and then using it as an argument against a central Bible truth? The truth of the resurrection. They go to an obscure law which would have raised questions in the mind of many sincere believing people, and then they use those questions to argue against God’s truth elsewhere. They raise a difficulty about a practice about which the believing mind may have had questions and then they use it against belief. So often that is exactly how skeptics act as they relate to us. They raise some question that they don’t think you’re going to have an answer to. It may not be a very profound question but at least it’s one you haven’t thought about before. And having raised that question they use it against your belief in God and the scriptures. They say to you, perhaps, "Well have you ever considered the problem of the longer-ending of Mark? Why, if you look in your Bible you’ll notice that there are some verses that have been left out of the gospel of Mark! Why it must have been lost somewhere along the way! Which one is right? Which answer is the truth? Oh no, you can’t trust God’s word because you don’t know the answer to the question of the longer ending of Mark."

Now, by the way, there’s a very good answer to that question. You want to come by my office I’ll be happy to give you the whole story. But they raise a question in your mind that you haven’t thought about and they use it to argue against a central truth that is a biblical authority. That’s what the Sadducees were doing. And we have our Sadducees with us today. And we have those who are raising questions about the resurrection. I think of the bishop of Durham, who had called the resurrection "conjuring tricks with bones." I might also mention to you that three days after his investiture in York Minster, lightning struck York’s Minster and it almost burned to the ground. And the really interesting thing about that is they don’t have electrical storms in the northeast of England. But then maybe you’ve read of bishop Spong of Newark? He is liberating us from all of our old-fashioned biblical literalism. And in one of his very forgettable books he says this, Spong asks these questions; "What does the physical bodily resurrection mean? The Bible tells us of a risen Christ that can appear and disappear as if out of thin air. Is that physical or bodily? The Bible tells us that the risen Christ can appear in a room where the doors were shut. Can a physical body walk through a door? The fourth gospel, in one instance, has the risen Christ say to Mary Magdalene, ‘touch Me not,’ and in another instance it says to Thomas, "reach your finger here and touch My wounds.’ That would seem to indicate, in the mind of John, that the unascended Lord was not touchable but the ascended Lord was." It is a strange image not easily understood and certainly not capable of being literalized. How can something be real and not physical? Paul wrestled with that and coined the phrase ‘physical or spiritual body to embrace it.’ Paul was quite sure that flesh and blood couldn’t inherit the kingdom of God but did Paul believe in the physical resurrection of the body? I cannot tell."

Well, if bishop Spong would meet with us for a Bible study for young Christians we could give him many answers to the questions that he asks. Nevertheless, there are people in our own day and time who offer such silly questions to us. Let me just say in passing, have you ever noticed the fact that this is the only direct encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees recorded in the gospels? Could it be, could it be that Jesus had no time for skeptics? At least the Pharisees believed in the authority of the word. At least there was something that you could argue with them. But the Sadducees, this was the only time He spoke with them.

II. Ignorance of the Bible and doubt of God’s power are enemies of saving faith.

And so we move to the second point of the passage as we look to verses 29 through 33. Here we see Jesus’ biblical and pastoral response to the Sadducees and we learn in that response that ignorance of the Bible and doubt of God’s power are enemies of saving faith. Let me say that again. Ignorance of the Bible and doubt of God’s power are enemies to saving faith! A failure you see, a failure to reflect on the meaning of scripture. And a skeptical attitude towards God’s omnipotence keep many from faith. Jesus responds immediately to the Sadducees by diagnosing their spiritual condition in two parts. He tells them in verse 29 that they don’t understand the Scriptures and they don’t understand the power of God. In other words, they have failed to comprehend and submit to the Scripture because of their moral rebellion against God in His truth. This is not an intellectual problem. It is not a lack of work and exegesis. Their problem is not intellectual. It is moral. They’re in rebellion against God and so they refuse to submit to His word. They use His word for games. They use His word to ask mocking questions but they do not submit themselves to the authority of the word. They do not bow the knee and recognize this as the word of the Lord spoken and written.

And He goes on to say they don’t understand the power of God. They have failed to acknowledge the power of God because of their unbelief. Their god, their god is too small to effect the dramatic change of the resurrection and so they doubt the doctrine. They join with the skeptical Greek philosophers of their day who reject the doctrine of the resurrection as being irrational and illogical, something that’s only held by those who hold to primitive beliefs.

Now it’s very interesting, if you look in verse 30, in His answer He refers both to the resurrection and to angels. Now remember, the Sadducees didn’t believe in either of those things. They didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body and they didn’t believe in angels. The Pharisees did. Jesus, even in his answer, is saying, "Now, by the way Sadducees, I know what you believe and you’re wrong and the Pharisees are right. The Pharisees have at least got this right: there is a resurrection of the body and there are angels. And you haven’t even gotten that right." And so He goes on to answer them and say, "regarding in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven."

As He begins to answer you’ll see that His answer has two parts. The first part in verse 30, the second part in verses 31 and 32. Basically His answer parallels His diagnosis but in reverse order. In His diagnosis, in verse 29, He had said that they didn’t understand the Scriptures or the power of God. In His answer He shows how they don’t understand the power of God first and then He shows how they don’t understand the Scriptures. They don’t understand the power of God because they don’t believe that God is able to raise from the dead. Their god is too small, Their god is too small to transform. The saying of verse 29 indicates that God has the power to change the nature of life at resurrection so that marriage is no longer necessary. Immortality makes procreation needless. And so, He responds to them that they have not grasped that. Calvin says, "The resurrection is far beyond the grasp of human sense. We could not believe it until our minds rise to envisage the unbounded power of God by which He is able to subject all things to himself as Paul teaches." The resurrection is a doctrine that you don’t learn from looking out in nature and seeing how things are. The resurrection is a doctrine that you learn from the lips of your lord. And it’s a promise, a covenant promise, from God. And you can’t embrace it until you understand. You look up and you see the unbounded power of God.

Then Jesus goes on to say they don’t understand the Scriptures. In verse 30 He goes to a central passage. He takes you back to Exodus chapter 3, verse 6, and basically He says this to the Sadducees, "you want to take Me to Deuteronomy 25 and talk about Levirate marriage? Let’s go to the burning bush! Now if you know the Torah so well, if you know the Pentateuch, if you know the five books of Moses so well, then surely you will know that central, that fundamental, that foundational passage in which God speaks to Moses and reveals who He is and His name."

Maybe you will recall the name that He reveals to Moses at the burning bush. He says, "I am," and Matthew stresses "am" just like the Greek version of that passage does. He says "I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." And then Jesus says, "Men, God is not the God of the dead but of the living." In other words, Jesus is saying that when God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush He was not saying, "Moses, I was the God of Abraham who is now dead and no longer exists. And I was the God of Isaac who is now dead and no longer exits. And I was the God of Jacob too who is now dead and no longer exists. And I’ll be your God until you die and no longer exist." That’s not what God was saying to Moses. He was saying, "Moses, I want to tell you something. When you go back to the people and you tell them who met you at this burning bush, you tell them that the God of their fathers who are still alive, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has spoken to you. Because I am the God of power and I am the God who bestows immortal blessedness of life upon My people." And so Jesus says, "Do you remember that account. You know your Pentateuch so well, surely you know that account!"

No, Jesus goes to those first five books because He knows the Sadducees reject the rest of the Old Testament. They thought that the first five books were inspired and the rest of the books were simply commentaries and they were expecting Jesus maybe to turn to Daniel or to one of the prophets to argue for the resurrection. They didn’t know that the Pharisees had any arguments from the first five books of Moses about the resurrection and here is Jesus standing before them and saying, ‘Here’s an argument right from the five books of Moses for the resurrection of the dead.’

And the response of the people is they were absolutely astounded. They had never heard a Pharisee speak like that. He cuts the Sadducees down in one stroke. But even though the people are astounded they do not worship Him and in a few days they will call for His crucifixion. You know, it’s a dangerous thing to say "I will only believe when I have figured it out." Does this mean that faith has to be blind? Not at all! It just means that there are some things clearer than others. And we may never understand many things in this life. In fact, it is certain that we will not understand everything in this life or in the life to come because we’re not God. Our minds are finite, His is not. We’ll never be able to understand everything in the mind of God. But, the things that are necessary for salvation are so clear that a child can understand them.

And those central things force us to accountability. We cannot argue from our questions and difficulties to the deflection of those central claims. We must accept them or reject them. Are we readying ourselves for the life of the resurrection? We may believe in the resurrection but are we readying for the life of the resurrection? J.C. Ryle says, "Our hearts must be heavenly on earth while we live if we hope to go to heaven when we rise again in another world."

You see the question isn’t whether we’re going to be resurrected or not. We’re all going to be resurrected. The question is, are you going to be resurrected to life Or to condemnation? We will all be resurrected. The question is, will we be resurrected to life? R.A. Finlayson, great professor and preacher from the Free Church of Scotland, made a very provocative statement a few years ago and I want to share it with you. He said, "Hell is eternity in the presence of God." I didn’t misread that. "Hell is eternity in the presence of God. Heaven is eternity in the presence of God with a mediator."

Do you have a mediator? If you have embraced Jesus as your mediator, you will enjoy, you will enjoy an eternity of presence with God. If you don’t have a mediator you will face His wrath. And if you don’t have a mediator then the only thing to do today is to look up in faith to Jesus who is the lamb of calvary and embrace Him so that you will be resurrected to life. Let’s pray.

Heavenly father, by Your grace draw us to Christ and so to the resurrection to eternal life. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.