Summary: Will there be marriage in heaven? Jesus suggests there will be something better. Scripture points us to a bodily resurrection, with believers bound in intimate relationships to God and each other. Death has lost its sting! We will live forever with God!
Today’s scripture might hit some of you kind of hard. “What do you mean I won’t be married in heaven? I’ve been looking forward to seeing my spouse again. That’s all that keeps me going!” Or, “What does it mean to be like an angel? Am I going to be stuck playing a harp and wearing a white robe, sitting on a cloud?” No, I don’t believe the text is intending to say any of these things. Let’s look more into what Jesus is teaching here about the afterlife. But in order to understand the context, we need first to start with the Sadducees.
I pick on the Pharisees a lot, but the Sadducees were another religious political party in Bible times. They were more the aristocratic Jewish party. They controlled the high priests and most of the seats on the presiding Jewish High Council called the Sanhedrin. They liked to argue with the Pharisees, and really only came together with them over their common enemy, this trouble-maker rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus. “My enemy’s enemy is my friend,” right?
The Sadducees only believed in the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, and there they found no hints of an afterlife, a resurrection. This was their basic theological difference with the Pharisees, who believed strongly in a resurrection. You can remember their name and theology if you reflect on this: The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife. That is why they were “sad—you see.”
It reminds me of a story I heard. The boss asked one of his employees, “Do you believe in life after death?”
“Yes, sir!” the new recruit replied.
“Well, then, that makes sense,” the boss said, “because after you left early yesterday to go to your grandmother’s funeral, she stopped in to see you.”
The story the Sadducees use in today’s scripture is probably a well-worn attack on what they consider the foolishness of resurrection. If there is an afterlife, and if people practiced the ancient Israelite custom of “Levirate marriage” prescribed in Deuteronomy 25:5—that is, to give your deceased brother a survivor to carry on his name—then who is going to be married to whom in heaven? What a mess!
Never mind that polygamy had not been practiced among the Jewish people for hundreds of years by this time, nor that Levirate marriage was an ancient law to protect the bloodline of a young developing nation. The Sadducees found it a convenient way to put Jesus to the test publicly on this matter of an afterlife.
And Jesus used it as an opportunity to teach on the nature of relationships in the life to come. He contrasted this age—the life we now have in the flesh on earth—with the age to come—the afterlife, particularly for those who are “considered worthy to take part,” i.e., those who have joined God’s family forever through their faith in a Savior, his only son. Jesus said of these “resurrection children” in verse 36, “They can no longer die; for they are like the angels.” He didn’t say we become angels; he said, we become like the angels in our immortality. We don’t even have the option of dying, because the whole notion of death will be wiped out in the new life ahead.