Jesus taught the Sadducees some lessons about the Kingdom. Let’s learn from them.
I’ve been fascinated with the story in Mark 12 where Jesus schools the Sadducees. They came to test him (it seemed to be the popular thing to do in those days), to try to get Jesus to agree with their heretical doctrines. Unsurprisingly, Jesus didn’t play along. But His reply is worth learning from, particularly in these “Last Days” which Jesus himself described as “Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.” The periphery of the Church contains so many self-appointed Guardians of the Truth, but many (or most?) of them seem to be speaking with the error of the Sadducees, or the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Jesus’ response here is a wonderful lesson on identifying Truth.
The fact that Jesus takes the time to teach the Sadducees, rather than rebuke them publicly (he wasn’t afraid of that; see Matthew 23 for a blistering example), indicates something significant, I think. There were two primary theological camps among the teachers of those days: Pharisees and Sadducees. The interesting thing here is that the Pharisees actually had the better doctrine: they acknowledged the resurrection from the dead, they acknowledged the presence and ministry of angels, they acknowledged spirits, and therefore the Holy Spirit. The Sadducees did not acknowledge any of these (see Acts 23:8).
But it was the Pharisees that Jesus blasted publicly, not the Sadducees. Here, the Sadducees come to test Jesus with a hypothetical scenario, and Jesus responds gently, and shows them their error. I observe that when Jesus points out the error of the Pharisees (for example, Luke 12:1), he does not address their doctrine, but their hypocrisy.
I learn from this that I can be theologically sound, and completely messed up: I can have my doctrines correct, and earn the castigation and judgment of Jesus. Apparently, correct doctrine is not the highest and most valuable treasure to the Son of God.
The Sadducees must have had a more teachable attitude; they missed several key doctrinal points, but Jesus gently instructs them. Since I aspire to be teachable more than I aspire to doctrinal perfection, I suspect I can learn from his schooling of these teachable heretics.
The first thing that Jesus does in instructing these guys is that he completely rejects their whole foundation: they came to him with an elaborate hypothetical situation to convince him: he ignores it completely, focusing on the truth instead. I confess: I want to deal with the real world (as Jesus did here) more than with hypothetical situations which can only generate hypothetical theologies.
Before Jesus corrects their erroneous theology, he points out the source of the error: they’re mistaken (the word also means “deceived”) because they lack knowledge of two things: the Scriptures and the power of God.
It is an amazing thing to me that Jesus accuses the Sadducees of not knowing the Scriptures: these men spend their lives studying the Scriptures, and yet, Jesus says, they don’t really know them. Apparently it is possible to study the Word, to know theology, to earn advanced theological degrees (for that is what it meant to be a Sadducee), and still be deceived. Apparently book-learning isn’t enough.
The second thing that the Sadducees missed, which led to their deception, was that they didn’t have a working knowledge of the power of God. It makes sense that not knowing the power of God would be a contributing factor towards a theology that denies the supernatural. If you don’t ever heal the sick, or see people who do, then it’s easier to say, “God doesn’t heal the sick anymore.” I know of one seminary professor who declared, “Well, I don’t experience miracles, so God must not do miracles any more,” as he taught his poor students about the virtues of cessationism.
I believe that the reverse is also true: the reason that people come up with theologies – or excuses – to explain away the power of God is specifically because those people have not experienced the power of God in the way that Jesus expects us to.
For the scholars among us, the word “power” here is indeed the Greek work dunamis, the root word of “dynamite.” This is the same word that is used for healing (Luke 5:17), for resurrecting the dead (Romans 1:4) and for casting demons out (Luke 9:1), and which Jesus assigns, delegates, imparts to those of us who are His disciples (Luke 10:19). Jesus is describing signs and wonders when he describes the reasons for their deception: because they don’t know the signs and wonders of God, they are mistaken, in error, deceived: we must know the supernatural power of God to stay out of deception.
That leads us to a necessary corollary: we must use these two foundations in order to have our theology right: we must really understand the Scriptures – not just study, but letting the Author teach us – and we must have a working, experiential knowledge of the power of God. Indeed, a perusal of the Gospels will reveal that most of the time when Jesus taught the people, he then also healed them, or when he started with healing, he followed up with teaching. Theology teachers and Bible teachers whose ministry doesn’t include the power of God are – according to Jesus’ correction of the Sadducees – missing one of the two pillars of complete theology. Powerless theology teachers cannot teach theology well. That’s a scary conclusion, and it’s driving at least this teacher to pursue supernatural signs and wonders more passionately than ever before: I decline to fall into the deception of he Sadducees.
It is at this point in the conversation that things get really interesting. Jesus has explained what they were doing wrong that led to their deception; now he goes on to correct their theological errors. I’m not going to examine the theology that he’s teaching (it is self-apparent); rather, I want to look at the way he teaches it: He corrects their theology using the same two tools, the same two reference points – the Scriptures and the power of God – that he has just accused them of lacking, though he does so in the opposite sequence.
Second (I’ll cover the “First” in a second), Jesus refers to the Scriptures, using Moses’ reference to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to affirm the resurrection. While he’s using the Scriptures as his foundation, his interpretation and application of the Scriptures is prophetic, rather than the usual inductive or deductive tools more commonly used both then and now.
But first, he speaks as the Son of God, whose residence and throne are in Heaven, and he speaks to a situation that neither the Sadducees nor we have any way to understand apart from either a resident of Heaven comes to explain it to us, or us journeying to the heavenly realms to see for ourselves. Jesus’ declaration cannot come from earth when says, “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” He’s describing eternity from the point of view of someone who has seen first-hand what the resurrection is like. “This is what it’s like on the other side of death and resurrection.”
That knowledge, of course, is impossible apart from the supernatural. I can think of a few ways that I could have learned those things, but not a one of them comes from studying well. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:4), Jesus (John 3:13) and John (Revelation 1:10 and 4:2) appeared to travel to Heaven while on Earth, though there’s very little teaching on the topic in church today. A whole number of people had things explained to them by angels (beginning with Hagar [Genesis 16], and including Moses [Exodus 3], Balaam [Numbers 32], Manoah [Judges 3:17], Elijah [2 Kings 1:15], Zechariah [Zechariah 6:5], Zacharias [Luke 1:13], Mary [Luke 2], Cornelius [Acts 10:22], and of course, John [Revelation 17:7].
I make two applications from this fact: A) I need to get used to supernatural revelation of information – whether it’s my visiting heaven or angels instructing me. And B) I need to not be afraid of basing theology on that revelation: Jesus did, and he taught it as theology – not just as a testimony – to unbelievers, based on his own revelation of Heaven.
(Of course the usual caveats apply: don’t use personal revelation – or prophetic interpretation of Scripture – to contravene Scripture’s clear teaching [how many cults have started that way?]. But at the same time, don’t run from it either!)
Jesus, of course, has a fine conclusion to this brief teaching. Verse 27 says, “He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. You are therefore greatly mistaken.” He summarizes the whole conversation in a single, very obvious generalization of the nature of God: “He’s the God of the living.” If the Sadducees were as open to new understandings about God as it seems, then I can imagine two or three of them slapping their forehead and muttering, “Of course! Duh! God of the living! Why didn't I see that?”