For the last few months I have been thinking with you about the way Jesus reasoned from the Scriptures and applied them to the situations and questions He and His disciples faced. So far we have seen that Jesus drew upon the direct commands found in Scripture (Matthew 22:34-40), and that He looked to the divinely approved precedents recorded in Scripture (Matthew 12:1-8). In this article, I want to look at an argument Jesus made from a truth necessarily implied by the Scripture. But first I want to say a bit about the idea of “necessary implication.”
A truth that is implied is one that is not explicitly stated, but rather is suggested by other truths and logically follows from them. When I was a kid I often heard preachers talk about “necessary inference.” My old hermeneutics professor (Almon Williams) would want me to point out that technically, God implies and we infer. All this means is that there are some truths that are not spelled out in the Bible, but that we are forced to conclude must be the case because of the relationship between other explicitly stated truths.
A good example of a crucial doctrine that is necessarily implied but not explicitly stated is the trinity. The Bible teaches that there is one God (Deuteronomy 6:4), and it also teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God (1 Corinthians 8:6; John 1:1; Ephesians 4:4-6). From these two sets of propositions one is forced to conclude that there is one God in three persons.
Now let’s take a look at an argument that Jesus made involving this sort of deductive reasoning. In Matthew 22:23-33, the Sadducees confronted Jesus during His final day of teaching publicly in the temple. The Sadducees were the aristocratic, priestly party of the Jews. Unlike their Pharisaic counterparts, they did not embrace all of the Old Testament as God’s word, only the Law. As a result of this, since the most explicit statements about the resurrection of the dead are in prophetic books like Isaiah and Daniel, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection (again, in contrast to the Pharisees – see Acts 23:8).
Apparently the Sadducees believed that Jesus’ teaching regarding the resurrection of the dead provided a weakness they could exploit, and so they presented Jesus with a situation that would seem absurd on its face in view of the concept of a bodily resurrection. The situation (which they claim was not hypothetical but actual – “there were seven brothers among us” – v. 25) involved a woman who was married to a man who died without having any children (and thus jeopardizing the family line). In keeping with the law found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, his next brother in line married her, but also died. This happened five more times, seven brothers for one woman, until she also died. After laying out this scenario, they posed this question to Jesus: “In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be?” (v. 28).
Jesus was not stymied by this question in the least, and responded to it in two moves. “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (v. 29). For His first move, Jesus explained how they lacked knowledge of God’s power. “For in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (v. 30). The Sadducees were assuming that the future life in the resurrection state would be exactly like life as it is here. This is a great illustration of drawing an inference that isn’t necessary! But God’s power is not limited to what we can observe in this life. He can transform the dead into a new mode of existence, comparable to the angels (“for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels” – Luke 20:36). And since there will not be death in the resurrection state, the need for procreation to continue a family line (much less a provision like the levirate law in Deuteronomy) will no longer apply.
For His second move, Jesus exposed their ignorance of the Scriptures by drawing on a passage from the Law which the Sadducees would have accepted as God’s word. “And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” (v. 32). The passage Jesus presented was Exodus 3:6, part of the dialogue between God and Moses at the burning bush. This took place many centuries after the passing of the three great patriarchs. Jesus then combined this passage with a simple observation: “He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (v. 32).
One commentator summarizes Jesus’ argument like this:
Drawing on Exod 3:6, 15, he
(1) notes that when God was speaking to Moses he was still the God of the long-dead patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;
(2) infers the absurdity that God would broadcast a covenant relationship with persons whose existence had expired;
(3) concludes that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must therefore still be alive; and
(4) Deduces that, in relating the story about the bush, Moses himself attested resurrection-belief. (Joel Green, Luke, New International Commentary. p. 722).
Another commentator summarizes the argument like this:
The phrase implies that God was the saviour of the patriarchs in accordance with his promises to them… But more is implied than this. On the one hand, there may be the thought that if God spared the patriarchs from danger during their life, he would not forsake them in the greater danger of death. On the other hand, the timing of the statement shows that God is still the God of the patriarchs after their death, and therefore they either must be still alive in some way and/or can confidently expect that he will raise them from the dead. (I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a Commentary on the Greek Text, p. 742).
What an astonishingly brilliant argument!
- God is not the God of the dead but of the living.
- God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
- Therefore Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not cease to exist at death but are alive to God, and await a resurrection from the dead to enjoy the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises.*
This argument is a great example of the proper use of reasoning and deduction to draw out truths God has not explicitly but implicitly revealed.
*Someone might counter that a bodily resurrection is not necessarily implied by Exodus 3:6, only an afterlife of some kind. But it would have been completely foreign to the Old Testament view of creation to imagine a perpetual immaterial existence. Human beings were made to be in bodily form. Once Jesus demonstrated that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob survived death, that was the end of the chess match with the Sadducees. As N.T. Wright explains, “The patriarchs are still alive, and therefore, will be raised in the future. Prove the first, and (within the worldview assumed by both parties in the debate, and any listening Pharisee) you have proved the second” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 425).
For an interesting article written by a philosopher on Jesus’ abilities as a logician, see Jesus the Logician, by Dallad Willard.