Cutting Through the Clutter
I love the exchange between Jesus and his "intellectual opponents" in Matthew chapter 22. Jesus demonstrated a profound understanding of the scriptures and a solid faith in their clear teachings. This passage should serve as a pattern for dealing with misunderstandings and false teachings.
Consider the Sadducees' challenges in Matthew 22:23-28. They believed they had the perfect hypothetical situation that demonstrated the absurdity of a resurrection. A woman had seven short-lived husbands. Which one would be her husband in the afterlife? It was a proof via reductio ad absurdum with the conclusion that there must be no resurrection. Their argument appeared to be unanswerable.
Jesus cut through the confusion and clutter of their hypothetical situation by pointing out the fatal flaw -- they assumed there was marriage after the resurrection. Christ simply asserted that this is not so. He didn't cite any scripture simply because there is no scripture to cite. However, His conclusion should have been obvious to them on two grounds. First, there is no mention in the scriptures of any marriage relationships in the heavenly realm. So to assume there is marriage in heaven is without authority. Second, their hypothetical situation points to the probability that marriage is an earthly institution, otherwise remarriage in the event of the death of a spouse would not be lawful. The fact that death severs the relationship should have led them to the conclusion that these relationships do not persist in the afterlife. It is interesting to me that an objection can provide its own explanation if you just shift your point of view.
Then Jesus definitively settles the issue with the simplest of arguments:
But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read that which was spoken to you by God, saying, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob"? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
Christ's argument was unanswerable.
I'd like to look Christ's words in detail briefly. His use of scripture tells us volumes of His respect for and confidence in God's word. First, the entire argument rests on the tense of the verb "am". God didn't say "I was the God of Abraham". He said "I am the God of Abraham". The tense of that verb leads to His conclusion that Abraham was still, in spirit, living. Jesus believed that this section of the word of God, written over 1,500 years earlier, had been accurately preserved to the degree that He could confidently rest His whole argument on the tense of one verb.
Furthermore, look at how He talks about this passage. "Have you not read that which was spoken to you by God?" In the text, God was actually speaking to Moses and through Moses to Israel. But Jesus was telling people who lived 1,500 years later that when they read that passage God was speaking to them. Jesus believed that God's word is relevant and His message is to all generations, not just the generation to whom it was given. Sure, we are not under the Law of Moses, but there are still things we can learn from the Old Testament.
I think we might also learn a few things from the Sadducees.
First, a seemingly bullet-proof hypothetical situation or logical argument is no match for a plain statement in scripture. When we fall in love with our reasoning, we often stop reading. We sometimes miss the fatally mistaken assumption upon which the whole structure of our argument is built. We need to keep it simple. The more you rely on simple statements in the scriptures, the more solid is your foundation. If you run across a passage that seems to plainly contradict a dearly held belief, stop and pay attention. You need to reconsider that belief.
Second, we need to look deeper and have more faith in God's word than the Sadducees did. Jesus didn't use an obscure, little-known passage to prove His point. He used a passage they should have known. Jesus looked deeper and had the confidence in the word that it meant what it said. He confidently drew conclusions from the language the writer used. The Sadducees could not because they had a lack of faith. Jesus said, "You do greatly err, not knowing the scriptures nor the power of God." They lacked depth of understanding, faith in the word, and faith in God's power. That led them to a great error -- the belief that there was no resurrection.
Finally, it is reasonable to consider more contemporary applications. We need to be very wary of theological views based on complicated logical arguments -- particularly when numerous passages need "special handling" to be harmonized with these teachings. In most cases the most natural reading of a passage is what the passage means. The more mental gymnastics we need to perform, the more likely we are getting it wrong. When faced with the choice of a complicated logical argument and a plain passage of scripture that contradicts it, I'll go with the plain reading of the passage every time.
- Patrick Gaughan