Luke 20:27–40 . . . Bible Study Summary with Questions

Seven Brothers — One Bride

Today's passage covers another argument between Jesus and the Jewish leaders about the Torah. In Luke, Jesus has been arguing with them since he was nearly at the bar mitzvah age and the times when he stayed behind in the temple to argue with the teachers of the Law. These Torah arguments shouldn't surprise us since, to both arguing factions, there's very little that's more important or enjoyable to argue about, especially since Luke has established Jesus as a Torah-observant Jew, concerned with ancestral traditions.

This argument or contest is different than earlier arguments wherein Jesus and his conversation partners went back and forth: They asked Jesus a question; Jesus countered by asking them another; sometimes they replied with yet an additional question; sometimes Jesus continued the questioning further. The extended discussion in chapter 10, which contains the parable of the Good Samaritan that we covered in our summary of Luke 10:25–37, is an excellent example of this. However, today's contest is quite different, which will be revealed immediately when we compare this passage's historical and contemporary elements.

Historical Elements

For the first and only time (at least in Luke's gospel), Jesus argues with Sadducees who, despite their accomplishments and activities, are identified not in terms of what they've done or what they believe, but only in terms of what they deny: They are anti-resurrection. As far as Luke is concerned, it puts them outside of the family of Israel. The Sadducees were of course Jewish, but some Pharisees (as well as Christians such as Luke) didn't think so, all because of the importance of resurrection. Possibly the eyes of other groups, the Pharisees in particular, were rolling when this interrogation began. Imagine one Pharisee saying to another, Oh, for goodness sake, here they go again. What joy these Pharisees likely had, watching the Sadducees go down in flames. While the Pharisees hadn't ever successfully challenged Jesus, they at least had the pleasure of watching one of their rival groups be discredited, publicly by him.

Why would resurrection be so important to Pharisees and other Jews? Part of the answer deals with which books in the Bible were considered to be "inspired by God." The Sadducees worked only with the Torah — a.k.a. the Pentateuch, which included the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. However, the Pharisees and others read also the Prophets and Psalms, and it was in those extra books that the Pharisees found justification for trusting in a resurrection of the dead.

In our passage, the Sadducees (those who denied resurrection as being God's ultimate justice) approached Jesus with a case meant to make resurrection look ridiculous. Jesus brushed them off with a theological shrug that simply rejected the premise of their case and they vanished. In the next scene, some scribes (presumably Pharisees, surely believers in both justice and resurrection) appear and warmly approve of Jesus' argumentative finesse. With that, all questioning ends. Jesus has won the approval of those Jews who expected the most from God.

Look closely at the terms of Jesus' argument. He's been handed a case involving the complexities of "levirate marriages," i.e., a patriarchal institution that protected women by passing them from brother to brother. Jesus says that in the eventual resurrection and restitution event, the marriage institution will be unnecessary. Thus, women won't be passed along as property because, as Jesus said in v. 36, with resurrection, people "are unable to die." Luke suggests that Jesus understood that the eventuality of resurrection and restitution will set aside the entire patriarchal structure, making possession of women as property unnecessary and inappropriate.

Contemporary Elements

Whatever the historical concerns that caused Luke to retain and present this story, its text may certainly address some of the questions and concerns that we contemporary Christians have about resurrection. At least two questions in particular might be addressed.

First, what is resurrection like? Further, and perhaps more to the point, how much will our resurrection life be similar to our worldly life? And what will our relationships be like? This passage gives few specific answers to such questions, though it does stress that we shouldn't limit our imagination — let alone God's design — for life after death by our own experiences. Eternal life will be qualitatively different from what we know in our temporal existence. Time itself — and with time, death — will have ceased. Because we're such creatures of time — ceaselessly aware of the present that continues to pass — that's hard for us to comprehend. As a result, we should resist describing resurrection and heaven in temporal terms, instead favoring spatial and relational references which, while also limited, at least draw attention to qualitative rather than quantitative differences. We might say, for instance, that in resurrection we'll live in the "nearer presence" of God. Further, while we don't know what our relationships will be like then, we know that we'll be related to each other in and through our relationship with God.

Second, how does resurrection compare with immortality? Though a Greek notion, many Christians today and throughout the centuries have confused immortality with resurrection. While immortality of the soul promises that some spiritual element of a person persists beyond the physical death of the body, resurrection insists that the whole person will in some way be united with God (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:35–49). It's the whole person, not an essence, that God promises to redeem. We do, in fact, die; there's no escaping that. But because of the One who died on the cross and was raised from death, we live and die with the promise that God will similarly raise us from death to new life where, in the words of Jesus today, we "can no longer die; for [we] are like the angels. For [we] are God's children, since we are children of the resurrection" (v. 36).

This is, of course, only one passage, and so it shouldn't be taken to be either the first or last word on resurrection. Yet given how much talk is going on in other circles about life after death, this might be a good occasion to insert a Christian voice into the ongoing dialogue. Next, let's probe a couple of key elements of today's text.

The Purpose of the Sadducees' Question (v. 27)

The "one bride and seven brothers" question isn't a search for truth. The Sadducees didn't expect nor want an answer. They hoped to stump Jesus, and thus demonstrate the "foolishness" of the idea of resurrection from the dead. The purpose of their question wasn't to "get Jesus into trouble," but was to further the Sadducees' dogma. If Jesus, who was the most noted and unstumpable teacher alive, could be stumped by their question, then he'd become (reluctantly) an endorsement for their view.

This scene bears witness not only to the authenticity of Luke's gospel record, but also to the predictable humanity of mankind. Even though both rival groups had come to some kind of alliance (formally or informally) to rid Judaism of Jesus, they still had their own pet dogmas and practices, their own "sacred cows," that they couldn't leave alone, even for a short period of time. The rivalry and competition remained evident, even in the midst of this "one bride, seven brothers" inquisition.

The main thing that Luke wants us to be aware of is that the Sadducees, who were pressing Jesus for an answer concerning the resurrection, didn't really believe in it themselves. The hypocrisy of the Sadducees is thus apparent and undeniable. They were asking Jesus about something in which they didn't believe. Indeed, they were trying to establish their premise that belief in a resurrection from the dead is both unbiblical and impractical.

The Actual Question (vv. 28–33)

Theirs was a question which the Sadducees had found effective in promoting their particular anti-resurrection doctrine and practice. It wasn't new to the Pharisees. The question was based upon a command given in the Law by God through Moses. You can see that command in Deuteronomy 25:5–6.

The purpose of this legislation was to assure that each family and tribe in Israel was perpetuated by the bearing of children. When the oldest brother married, but died before having any children, the younger brother was to take the widow as his wife so that their first son would carry on the name and the leadership of the deceased. Other legislation assured that the inheritance of land would remain in the tribes and families. How crucial it was for the tribes of Israel to perpetuate, for from such the Messiah would be born.

The Sadducees didn't have this purpose in mind when they posed their question. They saw their inquiry as a proof-text for their denial of the resurrection of the dead. Since, by this law, Moses made provisions for the perpetuation of a dead Israelite's family line, the Sadducees seemed to have made two conclusions. First, they seemed to conclude that immortality wasn't attained by resurrection from the dead, but by the carrying on of an Israelites' family line and name through his offspring. Second, they concluded that since a man's younger brother had to assume the duties of his deceased brother, Moses must not have believed that men would someday be raised from the dead. Why would such provisions need to be made for the perpetuation of a man's offspring if he were someday going to be raised from the dead?

At first glance, it would seem that the argument had considerable weight. Did this legislation imply that men wouldn't rise from the dead? The Sadducees thought so, while the Pharisees disagreed strongly. Jesus didn't argue every point of error, but he highlighted two crucial errors in his opponents' thinking, i.e., as shown in vv. 34–36 and 37–38.

People Can No Longer Die (vv. 34–36)

Jesus was arguing for a "new age," as very distinct from the "old" order. However, the Sadducees thought of the kingdom in terms of the present, not in terms of the future. The kingdom to them (especially since they didn't believe in the resurrection of the dead) is now. Consequently, there's no future age. The entire argument of the Sadducees was predicated on a single premise: Life in the kingdom of God will be just like it is now. Consequently, the present institution of marriage was assumed by the Sadducees to continue on in the kingdom. Thus, a woman who was married to seven brothers would be in a terrible predicament in heaven, for she would have to choose one of them to live with.

Jesus' answer was both direct and devastating. He spoke of two ages — "this age" and "the age to come" — which are very different from each other. The coming kingdom of God will be very different from the way things are now. There will be no death, no bearing of children, and no marriages. Thus, the theoretical problem posed by the Sadducees is erroneous and non-existent. Resurrection will pose no problem for husbands and wives. Marriage is for now, but not for heaven.

Moses and the Resurrection of the Dead (vv. 37–38)

The second error of the Sadducees was their assumption that Moses rejected the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Jesus, however, demonstrated that Moses was a believer in the resurrection of the dead, contrary to the belief of the Sadducees. There were a number of clear Old Testament texts that spoke of the resurrection of the dead, to which our Lord could have referred, and to which the apostles will refer after our Lord's death and resurrection (cf. Acts 2). Here are two of the clearest: Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2.

If the Sadducees were wrong to think of the "kingdom" in "present terms," they were also wrong to think that Moses didn't believe in the resurrection. It wasn't enough for our Lord to prove the resurrection of the dead was taught in the Old Testament; he was intent on showing that Moses believed in it, for it was Moses on whom they focused.

The God who is greater than death is the One who has assured mankind that all will be raised from the grave, some to their rewards, and others to retribution. Because of this, as Jesus taught, God views all men as "alive," which is why our Lord often referred to the dead as "sleeping." The resurrection was no small matter. It was, and is, one of the fundamental and foundational truths of the Bible.

The Sadducees were wrong on two counts: (1) in their assumption that life in the future, in the kingdom of God, would be but a continuation of life here in this age. This led them to reject the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead because it seemed that it would be impossible for men to continue living as they'd been living on earth; (2) in supposing that Moses rejected the hope of resurrection, based on their erroneous understanding of the Law of Moses, and particularly of the legislation pertaining to the preservation of the oldest brother's line of descendants.

Jesus Is Praised (vv. 39–40)

What irony in the two closing verses! The expressed purpose of some of the Jewish rulers was to discredit Jesus by his own statements and words. And yet, we now find other Jewish leaders praising the Lord for his spoken statement, words that were especially tough on the Sadducees. His answer was so powerful that his adversaries had to commend him. While they differed with him in many respects, in opposition to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were firmly in agreement about the resurrection of the dead. Their hearty praise will be short-lived, however, for in next week's study, our Lord Jesus will himself ask a question to the Pharisees that will document the fact that the Pharisees didn't understand the Scriptures.

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  What was "levirate marriage" and what was its purpose in the Israelite society?
  • Q. 2  In what way does Jesus' reply destroy the Sadducees' carefully constructed assumption?
  • Q. 3  How do you deal with someone who wants to argue a point in the Bible? What if the person has honest questions and you don't have answers?

This Week's Passage
Luke 20:27–40 (Lukas)

New International Version (NIV)
[To view it in a different version, click here; also listen to chapter 20.]

The Resurrection and Marriage

27Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28"Teacher," they said, "Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30The second 31and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32Finally, the woman died too. 33Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?"

34Jesus replied, "The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord 'the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' 38He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive."

39Some of the teachers of the law responded, "Well said, teacher!" 40And no one dared to ask him any more questions.