The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached March 21st, 2021*
Sermon Audio: No sermon audio
Adoniram Judson was a precocious student. Born in 1788 in Malden, Massachusetts to an austere and strict Congregationalist minister, Adoniram could read an entire chapter of the Bible by the age of three. He mastered Greek and Latin by the age of ten, and attended Brown University at the age of 16, testing out of all the required classes for Freshman, starting as a Sophomore, and graduated valedictorian three years later. Though Adoniram was raised in a very strict religious home and was taught the Bible from a young age, once at college his intelligent mind was more attracted to the philosophical and logical bent of the small group of Deists present. Deism is the belief that rejected all revealed religion and only believed in a distant god who created the world and then abandoned it. One student in particular, Jacob Eames, became Adoniram’s best friend and guide to this new worldview, teaching him to use his mind to think for himself, exercise skepticism, and sluff off his father’s antiquated religion for a more enlightened perspective.
So, to his father’s horror, Adoniram became a pronounced Deist and decided to use his mind to achieve as much worldly pleasure as he could, and at 19 years old abandoned Christianity altogether. Living the life of the proverbial prodigal son, Adoniram travelled to New York City in hopes of achieving his dreams. However, in time, like the prodigal son, the dazzle and allure of the city began to dim, fade, and then sour. While travelling one night Adoniram came to a busy country inn looking for a room. He learned, unfortunately, that the only room available was one next to a room where a young man lay critically ill, perhaps even dying. Adoniram, exhausted and with no other options, took the room.
His biographer writes, “But though the night was still, he could not sleep. In the next room beyond the partition he could hear sounds, not very loud; footsteps coming and going; a board creaking; low voices; a groan or gasp. These did not disturb him unduly—not even the realization that a man might by dying. Death was commonplace in Adoniram’s New England…What disturbed him was the thought that the man in the next room might not be prepared for death. Was he, himself?…He wondered how he himself would face death. His father would welcome it as a door opening outward to immortal glory. So much his [faith] had done for him. But to Adoniram the son, the freethinker, the Deist, the infidel, lying huddled under the covers, death was an exit, not an entrance. It was a door to an empty out, to darkness darker than night, at best extinction, at worst to—what? On this matter his philosophy was silent.” (Anderson, To the Golden Shore, 42-43)
Today Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is worth celebrating for a number of reasons, but one of them is that it holds forth the promise that for Christians death is not “an exit” but a “door opening outward to immortal glory.” I wonder what your view of death is today, friend? Perhaps you are like Adoniram’s father, confident and at peace with what lays beyond the grave. Or maybe you are like young Adoniram huddled under the covers, clueless and terrified of what may come. Whoever you are, the resurrection of Jesus Christ offers you hope today.
Our church has been steadily working through the gospel of Mark and, in God’s providence, our text today deals with the issue of death and resurrection. And in our text, we see Jesus interacting with a group of people who shared views similar to the young Adoniram, confident that the traditional religious view of “life after death” to be wrong. Turn now to Mark 12:
And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, 19 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. 21 And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. 22 And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. 23 In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”
24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.” – Mark 12:18-27
Mark opens this text by introducing us to a new group of people: the Sadducees. We are told that they “say that there is no resurrection.” The Sadducees were a group of priestly aristocrats. They differed greatly from the other group we hear of more commonly, the Pharisees. The Pharisees were far more conservative in their interpretation of the Bible, while the Sadducees denied a great deal. Sadducees rejected everything from the Old Testament except the first five books of Moses, denied any kind of life after death, and many more things. But Mark specifies that it is particularly the issue of resurrection they have come to discuss with Jesus. So they request Jesus to answer their carefully crafted question:
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother,” Mark 12:19.
The Sadducees are referencing the command of what was known as “levirate marriage” from Deut 25:5-10, where God commands single brothers of deceased men to marry the widow if they have no sons, so that the wife would be cared for and the family name would carry on. In their story, a very unlucky woman keeps burying her husbands and then eventually dies herself. “In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife,” Mark 12:23. The “resurrection” that they are referring to is the resurrection that all other Jews (besides the Sadducees) believed in, the final resurrection at the end of the age when God would raise everyone’s bodies from the dead, and then judge them.
The Sadducees, of course, are not asking this question out of a genuine desire to learn anything. They are asking the question in order to demonstrate that Jesus’ belief—and every other conservative Jew’s belief—in the resurrection and afterlife is ridiculous. Every Jew knew that marriage was designed to be between one man and one woman. So how, the Sadducees reasoned, could God command a man to marry his brother’s widow if it meant that in the resurrection something would persist that violated God’s design? This must mean that Moses did not believe that there was such a thing as an afterlife or a resurrection. That’s their reasoning.
Jesus response is unusually sharp: “Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” Mark 12:24. At the close of his explanation, Jesus will give another stinging rebuke: “You are quite wrong,” Mark 12:27. Why is Jesus so pointed with them? This was something we discussed a few weeks ago, but when we read the gospels we find that Jesus is usually the most stern with people who are arrogant. The Sadducees are not asking this question in good faith—they think the doctrine Jesus believes in is silly and laughable, so Jesus responds firmly and clearly. But let’s take a deeper look into Jesus’ response.
Jesus says the Sadducees are wrong for two reasons: (1) they do not know the Scriptures and (2) they do not know the power of God.
Of course, because the Sadducees only accept the first five books of Moses as authoritative, there is a great deal of Scripture that they do not know. The teaching of the resurrection and afterlife is taught most clearly and abundantly outside of the first five books of Moses and are found in the Prophets (Isa. 26:19; Ezek. 37:1–14) and Writings (Dan. 12:2; Pss. 16:9–11; 49:15; 73:23–26; Job 19:26). But, rather than point to these sources, Jesus decides to use an argument from a source that they do trust and find authoritative: Moses. Jesus cites one of the most famous and popular passages: Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” Jesus concludes, “He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong,” Mark 12:27. God did not say, “I was the God of Abraham,” but “I am the God of Abraham.” As in, Abraham is still alive now. Therefore, there is an afterlife and there will be a resurrection.
The second reason they are wrong is that they “do not know the power of God,” by which Jesus means the power of the resurrection. The Sadducees assume that the resurrection life is going to be exactly the same as life is on earth, but Jesus corrects them: “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven,” Mark 12:25. One of the ways that life after death is different is that there will no longer be marriage. Jesus teaches that marriage is truly “till death do us part,” and after death marriage is no more—otherwise no one would ever be permitted to marry again if their spouse died.
In the Bible the purpose of marriage is to provide children (be fruitful and multiply), companionship, and to serve as a parable of God’s love for His people (Eph 5:22-33). After death, children will no longer be born, since death will no longer exist; companionship will be provided through our perfect union with God and our fellow saints; and the parable will no longer be needed because we will have the consummate reality directly in front of us.
While Mark has probably only recorded a summary of the whole interaction, what we find in the encounter are the Sadducees being left speechless. They have no response to Jesus’ rebuke. It isn’t as if they do not respond because Jesus was just so sweet and kind that they feel too flattered to respond—no, Jesus has just made them look like fools. The Sadducees were authoritative, priestly figures and considered themselves experts in the first five books of Moses, but Jesus just publicly used their own source of authority—Moses—to contradict and correct them. And it isn’t as if the issue they are debating is some abstract, unimportant argument that has no consequence on their life.
You see, if the Sadducees are wrong on there being life after death then that means they are wrong on one other issue as well: judgment. The traditional Jewish teaching—which the Sadducees had rejected—was that at the end of the age there would be a final resurrection where all people would be raised to life, and then judged by God. It is this scene that is described in one of the final chapters of the Bible:
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Rev 20:11-15
The wealthy, educated, aristocratic Sadducees had been living as if that kind of judgment simply did not exist. Paul summarizes their worldview well, “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” 1 Cor 15:32. If there is no resurrection, if there is no life after death, let us eat and drink and be merry now—you only live once, so live it up!
How would you be living your life if you were certain that on the other side of death there was nothing but annihilation? And let’s say you live the majority of your life that way. What would it then be like for you to then realize that you were wrong, that there was life after death? And that the nature of the rest of your eternity was going to be determined by how you lived your life? It would be as if you were convinced that you had some terminal illness and were given only a few months left to live, so you decide to live as recklessly as you could for those next few months, taking out massive loans and saddling yourselves with debt to pursue whatever pleasure you want, only to then be told that you were misdiagnosed. You have many, many more years left to live, but now you will spend the rest of those years dealing with the consequences of what you did in this short time.
It was this possibility of life after death that assaulted the young Adoniram as he lay huddled under his covers. His biographer writes:
“As Adoniram lay in bed that night, agonizing over what would happen when he would die, he suddenly chided himself, These are nothing more than midnight fancies! “What a skin-deep thing this freethinking philosophy of Adoniram Judson, valedictorian, scholar, teacher, ambitious man, must be! What would the classmates at Brown say to these terrors of the night, who thought of him as bold in thought? Above all, what would Eames say—Eames the clearheaded, skeptical, witty, talented? He imagined Eames’s laughter, and felt shame.
When Adoniram woke the sun was streaming in the window. His apprehensions had vanished with the darkness. He could hardly believe he had given in to such weakness. He dressed quickly and ran downstairs, looking for the innkeeper…He found his host, asked for the bill, and – perhaps noticing the man somber-faced – asked casually whether or not the young man in the next room was better. “He is dead,” was the answer.
“Dead?” Adoniram was taken aback. For an instant, some of his fear of the night made itself felt once more. Adoniram stammered out the few conventional phrases common to humanity when death takes someone nearby, and asked the inevitable question: “Do you know who he was?”
“Oh yes. Young man from the college in Providence. Names Eames, Jacob Eames.” – (Anderson, To the Golden Shore, 43-44).
Jacob Eames, Adoniram’s dearest friend and guide to the philosophy that had led him to shed his childhood Christian faith, in a matter of spectacular providence, had died one room away from Adoniram that fateful night. Of course, if Eames was right, then his death was senseless, pointless, and empty. He was now swept off into the infinite nothingness, as a puff of smoke is lost into the infinity of air. The fact that he just so happened to die in the room next to Adoniram, in a random country inn, was ultimately meaningless, created by an impersonal machine of random chance. But what if, Judson thought, Eames was wrong? What if Eames now stood before the God he had denied? What if he was now left with the consequences of that denial? What would he do?
Friend, what would you do? What happens when we die? If you were to be judged, held accountable to how you have lived your life, would you measure up? Adoniram, panic stricken, knew that were a great reckoning to occur, his life would be find wanting. He urgently began to read his Bible to see if there was, in fact, good reasons to believe in the faith that his father held onto so tenaciously. In time, slowly, Adoniram’s skepticism gave way to belief, and one year later, Adoniram finally professed faith and found peace.
What was it that convinced Adoniram’s skeptical mind? What was it that brought relief to his terrified heart? The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We must remember that this hypothetical conversation about resurrection Jesus is having here with the Sadducees is taking place the Tuesday before Good Friday. In three days Jesus will be nailed to a cross, and then in three more days He will resurrect from the dead.
The resurrection is significant to our faith for a whole host of reasons, but one reason it is so significant is that it vindicates and verifies Jesus as God’s Son and proves that His work was effective. If Jesus simply died on the cross and never resurrected, He may have been a fantastic teacher of morality who taught that His death would be significant, but He would be lost in the halls of time or simply placed alongside other religious teachers and martyrs. But Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates that He was no mere religious teacher, and that His death on the cross was not an accident.
Reasons for the resurrection:
1. There could not have been a group of people more resistant to believing that a human being could be worshipped as God as the Jewish people. After Jesus’ resurrection, all of the early church, who were all Jewish, worshipped Him as God in the flesh.
2. Before the resurrection all of Jesus’ disciples had abandoned him and were left hiding, terrified of what may happen to them, and in despair because they believed that in the death of Jesus the whole movement had ended. After the resurrection the disciples become confident, zealous, and willing to risk their very lives. Eventually, every disciple will die for their belief in Jesus Christ—no one dies for something they have manufactured or lied about.
3. After His resurrection Jesus appears to hundreds of people in public places over the course of 40 days, not just to individuals in trance like visions.
4. The earliest manuscripts we have recording the resurrection are written so close to the event that were the stories fabricated the officials and public at large would have written them off as fantasies—but they were not.
5. The first witnesses to the resurrection are two women. Women’s testimony back then was not admissible in court, so if the resurrection story was a fiction created to look real, the authors of the story wouldn’t have included women as the first eyewitnesses, since that would have made Christianity look less believable according to contemporary standards.
What happened in Jesus’ death? Jesus’ death was a substitute. The Bible teaches that at the final day there will be a great judgment where we will be sifted and judged according to our works, and if we are found righteous, we will go to heaven, and if we are found unrighteous, we will go to hell. Now, if we were to think who belongs in heaven, we may be able to think of a handful of extraordinary persons who have lived remarkable lives. And when we think of who belongs in hell, we can think of a handful of terrible persons who have lived horrible lives. But where does that leave us? Who gets to draw the line?
The Bible’s answer is surprising because it is far more severe and far more gracious than we would anticipate. It is more severe because it tells us that the standard of righteousness is total and absolute perfection—perfect obedience to God in our actions, thoughts, and affections. Friend, if you think you can ride into Heaven on your ramshackle sled of stuttering, self-defined goodness, you will be sorely disappointed. What is so severe about this is that none of us, not even one has been able to meet this standard.
Well, actually, One Person did. Jesus, “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin,” Heb 4:15. Jesus never cratered to temptation, never thought an impure thought, never lost control of His temper or frittered His time and money on pointless things. He loved God wholly, followed Him devoutly, and cared for others deeply. Jesus was always willing to serve others, even when they were ungrateful and difficult, and even when it cost Him dearly.
But this brings us to how the Bible’s answer is far, far, far more gracious than we realize. Jesus’ death was not some mere accident, but Jesus taught that His death was a substitutionary death. If you could, imagine the acts of your life have been recorded on paper and then placed into a manila folder. Everything you have done is contained within. Imagine Jesus has a similar manila folder containing a record of His life. If you have trusted in, submitted to Jesus as your Lord, if you follow Him, those two folders get swapped. Your sins are handed over to Jesus, and His righteousness is given to you. At the cross, here is what we are told what happens: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross,” Col 2:13-14. As Jesus goes to the cross, he picks up your manila folder, your record of debt with all of its punishments it requires, and stands before the Father and says, “I am guilty, I’ll take the punishment” so that you, the guilty one can one day stand before the Father and say, “I am righteous, I’ll take the reward.”
This is far above and beyond what we would expect or anticipate, far more gracious than the assumption that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be good enough to make it into heaven. The only people who are in heaven will be people who are righteous. The problem: no one is righteous. The solution: Jesus and His righteousness freely offered to sinful people like us.