And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, (Luke 20:34–35 ESV)
Levirate Marriage and the Promise
The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection from the dead. Luke plainly tells us this. From other sources, we learn that they didn’t believe in angels either, or providence. And they only accepted the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) as scripture. But it’s the resurrection that they challenge Jesus on. They try to pit the resurrection against the Law of Moses. In Deuteronomy 25, we read:
“If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. (Deut 25:5–6 ESV)
It seems a strange law to us today. But Israel had come out of slavery in Egypt, and had been given the promised land. Each family had a stake in it. It was their heritage. It was their inheritance. That little bit of land was the marker of their place within the people of Israel. And that land was passed down from generation to generation. If a generation died without an heir, that family would be “blotted out of Israel.” So God established a law, by which a dead man could still obtain an heir.
The land was the emblem of their place in the covenant. It was a picture of heaven. The promised land wasn’t the final hope of Israel. It pointed beyond itself to the ultimate hope, a new heavens and a new earth. But the land was an emblem of their hope. There was almost a sacramental connection between the land and the object of their hope. And since the inheritance they longed to obtain was a permanent one (1 Peter 1:3-5), the emblem needed to be permanent, too. And that’s what the Levirate law was intended to do, to picture the permanence, the imperishability, the un-lose-ability of the promise foreshadowed and depicted in the land.
Continuity and Discontinuity
But the Sadducees want to use this for their own purposes, to discredit the idea of a resurrection, and thereby discredit Jesus before the crowd.
They present Jesus with a story, a hypothetical situation where seven brothers, each in turn, marry a woman and die childless. Finally, the woman, too, dies, leaving the family with no hope, leaving the family “blotted out of Israel.” It would be an exceedingly sad situation, but their interest is purely academic. “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” Each of the brothers had become “one flesh” with her, and each had died childless. They think they’ve got an unassailable stumper for Jesus.
But they’ve made a faulty assumption. They assumed that everything would continue in the age to come just as it was in this age. But they miss a critical difference between the ages:
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4 ESV)
Will there be continuity? Sure. We are an eternal family. I’ll still be me, and you’ll still be you (only the sinless versions of you and me), but not everything will be the same. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 15
35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.
42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (1 Cor 15:35–44 ESV)
The Sadducees assume that if you believe in the resurrection, then you believe everything goes on as it was before the resurrection. But the one big difference Jesus seizes on is death. There won’t be death anymore. The Sadducees’ question about the levirate law only makes sense in a world where death exists.
Marriage is a Picture of Christ and the Church
But there’s a deeper truth in Jesus’ words. Marriage is, itself, a picture. It’s a picture of God’s covenantal relationship between Himself and His people. It’s a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church.
Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:28–32)
The closeness that you have with your spouse, that total oneness (or at least the dim approximation of it) is meant to be a picture of our relationship with Christ. We who know Christ, who are reckoned as worthy to attain the resurrection have the beginnings of that oneness with Christ and with one another now, but we’ll have it in its fullness then.
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. (1 John 3:2 ESV)
There will no longer be a need to symbolize our relationship to Christ, because that which we hold by faith now, will be sight then. And when we realize that the oneness we have with our spouses is only a dim reflection of the oneness we have with Jesus and with everyone else who’s in Christ, a oneness that will be perfected when sin and death are finally destroyed, then we can understand why there will be no marriage in heaven. Our exclusive bond will be with Christ alone. And each of us will have an equal share in it. We will all be united to Him and to one another in the deepest love possible.
There won’t be marriage in heaven. But we won’t miss it. We’ll have the fullness that our marriages only dimly point to now.
Of course, Jesus goes on to prove the Sadducees wrong on the resurrection. And he does so from a text that they knew and accepted as scripture. In Exodus 3, God identifies himself to Moses as the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Such a designation only makes sense if the patriarchs still exist. And such a designation highlights the covenantal relationship that God has with his people. They are wrong about the resurrection. They are wrong about the scriptures. And they are wrong about God.