All Saints’ Day
TEXT: Luke 20:27-38
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” (Luke 20:27-33)
Most likely, the Sadducees’ question leaves modern readers scratching their heads. So let me try to unpack it.
Here’s what’s going on.
Jesus’ journey toward the cross is nearing its conclusion. He has already entered Jerusalem—riding his little donkey—as the multitudes waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna!”
He has already overturned the tables of the merchants in the Temple courts, accusing the money-changers and the sacrifice-sellers of turning his Father’s house into “a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46).
Now he has taken up residence in the Temple, teaching there “daily,” as Luke tells us (19:47).
And he has made some powerful enemies.
Among them are many from the religious party known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection, and the bizarre question they put to Jesus is intended not only to ridicule the idea, but to make Jesus himself look silly. It’s almost like a political debate!
However, Jesus answers the question so well that the Sadducees are dumbstruck by the astuteness of his answer.
But who were the Sadducees? And why were they so opposed to Jesus?
Here’s a short history lesson.
The Sadducees had primary authority over the Temple. They recognized as fully authoritative only the original five “books of Moses”—called the Pentateuch. Because the resurrection is not referenced in those first five books, the Sadducees poured scorn upon it.
What was their problem with Jesus? Well, remember that incident I alluded to earlier, when he denounced the merchants and money-changers in the Temple? The Sadducees would have seen this as an attack on the sacrificial system—and by extension, a challenge to their own authority. So they were looking for a way to discredit Jesus.
The law they referenced—called “levirate marriage”1 comes from the Book of Deuteronomy (25:5-10). It was intended to ensure the preservation of one’s family name by stipulating that a man should marry the childless widow of his brother. The question is hypothetical, meant to take an ancient practice to the extreme in order to show that the whole idea of resurrection was foolish.
Jesus upends their trap by making two moves. First, he demonstrates their failure to understand the resurrection. Contrary to the assumption betrayed by their question, resurrection life is qualitatively different from life here and now. Second—by using another passage from the Pentateuch—he demonstrates their failure to understand the Scriptures.
Referencing the story in Exodus (3:1-6) of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush, Jesus establishes the validity—and indeed, the certainty—of life after death.
The passage declares that God is—present tense—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It doesn’t say he was their God; it says he is their God. Therefore, Jesus concludes, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must somehow still be alive; hence, the necessity of resurrection.
As for the question—as for all our questions—about precisely what resurrection life is going to be like … Perhaps deliberately, neither Jesus nor any other voice in Scripture goes into much detail.
The Bible does caution us, however, against confusing resurrection with immortality.
The “immortality of the soul” is a Greek idea. It theorizes that some spiritual element of a person continues beyond the physical death of the body.
The Hebrew concept of resurrection, however, insists that the whole person will in some way be united with God.2
It is the whole person—not just some wispy essence—that God promises to redeem. We do, in fact, die—there is no escaping that. But because of the One who died on the cross and was raised again 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—we “cannot die … because [we] are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36).
It seems to me that this is what we are called to celebrate on All Saints’ Day. We are children of the resurrection. And resurrection is a truth we apprehend through faith.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, faith is defined in this way: “… faith is being sure we will get what we hope for. It is being sure of what we cannot see” (Heb. 11:1, NLV).
That’s Hebrews chapter 11, verse one. Actually the entire 11th chapter of Hebrews is an ode to faith—as well as a celebration of saints.
Here’s your homework: go read the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. For now, I’ll give you a synopsis.
In the King James Version, verse one is rendered thus: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Then follows a long list of Old Testament “saints”—beginning with Abel and ending with the prophet Samuel, with 14 names in between.
“By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice … he died, but through his faith he still speaks.” (11:4)
“By faith Noah, being warned by God … constructed an ark …” (11:7)
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac …” (11:17)
“By faith Moses … refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” (11:24-25)
A total of 16 names are listed, all of them long-dead faith-heroes from Israel’s history—people whose lives were distinguished by their triumphant faith in God.
Then, right at the beginning of chapter 12, there’s this famous verse: “… since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us … lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run the race with endurance …” (Heb. 12:1, ESV).
“All these many people who have had faith in God are around us like a cloud” (Heb. 12:1, NLV).
On All Saints’ Day, we contemplate the “great cloud of witnesses” which surrounds us—that is, all of the people of faith who have gone before us, who now stand before the throne of God, joining with us in worship as we gather here.
And, by the way, in Scripture, the word saint refers to an ordinary believer—like you and me, and all the faithful people we have known, whose lives have touched ours, whose Christian faith has informed our own.
So—besides those high-profile believers whom we usually think of when we hear the word “saint”—we need to remember that there are many, many more people in the “great cloud” whose names are not well-known.
That’s what All Saints’ Day is about. And that’s why this day is—above all else—a celebration! We celebrate the saints we have known and loved, remembering that we remain connected to all of them, because—whether they are with us in this world or with God in the next world—they, like us, are part of the “Body of Christ” which is his Church.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1 from the Latin levir (“brother in law”)
2 see 1 Corinthians 15, especially 35-49.