In Acts 23 we read about a strange controversy which became apparent when Paul was arrested. The Roman commander, wanting to know what all the ruckus was about, had Paul appear before the chief priests of the Jews.
Acts 23:1, 6-10, Then Paul, looking earnestly at the Council, said, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the Council, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided.
Paul knew what his audience believed. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection- and no angels or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both (verse 8).
Take note what this uproar was about: the Sadducees, one of the leading religious groups of that time, did not believe in a resurrection. What a strange concept! How could you be a religious leader of the day and not believe in a resurrection? The high priest, himself, was a Sadducee.
The first question that comes to my mind is: Why would you bother? Why would you be religious if there was nothing beyond this life? Didn’t they know the Scriptures? If you were present at the time some Old Testament verses that would settle the matter very quickly might come to mind, such as:
Daniel 12:2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt.
Job 14:14 If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait, Till my change comes. You shall call, and I will answer You;
Psalm 49:15, But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He shall receive me.
The only possible reason someone might justify a religion that didn't believe in the afterlife is if there were some big advantages to being religious in this life now. That was the case for the Sadducees.
History tells us that the Sadducees were a small group of the highest echelons of society at the time of Jesus Christ. While another religious group of the time, the Pharisees, are well known historically and in one form or other have continued to this day, the Sadducees are not that well known, are not mentioned in the Bible very much at all and disappeared from history after the destruction of the temple in 70AD.
What we do know from history and Josephus is that the Sadducees were the extremely wealthy and influential aristocratic ruling class. Putting any thought of resurrection aside, there was a great deal of benefit in being a Sadducee at that time. The chief priests, the high priest, the higher priestly families were all Sadducees, as well as the majority of the Sanhedrin, which was the supreme judicial, ecclesiastical and administrative council in Israel.
The Sadducees were reportedly pro-Roman during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, possibly because of financial benefits, and were no doubt reluctant to upset the status quo. They were so wealthy because they ran the temple concessions and managed the money-changing and the buying and selling.
As you might imagine, the Sadducees were not popular with the people. Wealthy people often have a tendency to do things for their own personal gain, which doesn't endear them to others. Secondly, the theology of the Sadducees was not that of the people. It denied the hope of the resurrection and there was nothing to look forward to after this life.
So why didn't the Sadducees believe in a resurrection?
If we could describe the Pharisees as self-righteous hypocrites, we could describe the Sadducees as self-righteous legalists. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees rejected an oral law and acknowledged only the written law as binding. According to Josephus, the Sadducees were very strict and harsh in their judgements and did not like the way the Pharisees found ways around the law by their traditions.
Because the Sadducees believed in the purity of the law, they believed they were not required to accept any article of faith unless it had been proclaimed by Moses, the great lawgiver. In other words, regardless of what David or Daniel or anyone else might imply, all beliefs had to be based in the Pentateuch (the books of Moses from Genesis to Deuteronomy) or there was no foundation for that belief.
And so the Sadducees rejected the resurrection because they could find NO reference to it in the first five books of the Bible. And they were sort of right! You can read all the way through Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy and you will NOT find any real reference to the resurrection!
The Pharisees, who did believe in the resurrection, tried very hard to come up with at least one verse from Moses, but couldn't find anything to satisfy the Sadducees, who mocked them for their belief.
So what does this mean? Is there no written revelation of God's teachings of the hope of something beyond this life?
Let us see how Jesus addressed this matter:
Matthew 22:23-28 The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection, and asked him, Saying, Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother: Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. And last of all the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? For they all had her. Jesus answered and said unto them; Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God.
The Sadducees came to Jesus and presented what they saw as a logical absurdity about the concept of a resurrection. We may think this was a foolish question, but the Sadducees didn't think so. They equated the resurrection with being raised again as a human and restoring the same conditions of life as we know it.
Jesus knew exactly where they were coming from and He addressed the matter head on by saying to them in verses 29 and 30 "You are in error, because you do not know the Scriptures".
Jesus knew the way the Sadducees were reading and applying the Scriptures was invalid. He was telling them that if they really understood the Scriptures and thought beyond the printed words, they would realise they were missing the whole point, the big picture of God's plan for humanity.
Then Jesus got right to the heart of the matter and addressed the Sadducees directly on their beliefs regarding the resurrection, the spirit realm and the importance they placed on the written law of Moses.
Matthew 22:30-32. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
Knowing what the Sadducees believed, Jesus didn't quote from Psalms or Daniel, instead He zoomed straight into the heart of the books of Moses and quoted Exodus 3:6: Moreover He said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.
When God spoke these words from the burning bush, Abraham had been dead for hundreds of years, yet God said I AM (present tense) the God of Abraham. It is irrefutable isn't it? God is NOT the God of dead people. God is not worshipped by corpses. He is not the God of people who do not exist. Therefore there must be a resurrection of the dead! The Sadducees would have been taken aback and tried to counteract, but the logic was irrefutable.
Those people standing nearby were astonished at His teaching. Matthew 22: 33-34 And when the multitude heard this, they were astonished at his doctrine. But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together.
Even some of Jesus' enemies could not help but admire the answer, and in Luke's version of what happened some of the scribes said, "Teacher, You have spoken well." The Sadducees, though, were unconvinced and still arguing their position years later.
This discourse between Jesus and the Sadducees, however, would have had a real effect on the people who were present at the time. It would have given them great hope. It may well have laid the groundwork for a later calling after the day of Pentecost.
We can learn at least a couple of things from what occurred here.
It shows the importance of knowing where someone is coming from before we just dismiss their opinions. Jesus knew full well the importance the Sadducees put on the writings of Moses, so He answered them with those Scriptures.
If we are going to be able to answer a matter properly, then we need to take the time to understand where the question originates and what the beliefs of the person are who is asking the question. It often happens that when you look at why a person believes what he does, it may not be as simple as we think to dismiss their arguments.
God did not make a mistake with the books of Moses or any other part of the Bible. People criticise the Bible all the time for being convoluted in places and confusing at times, but Jesus clearly shows, with His answer, that to understand the deep things of God, you and I must meditate and think beyond the simple words of the text. The Bible is written in such as way as to require deep thought and meditation to truly understand God and His plan for this earth.
God wants you and me to have a strong faith and to learn wise judgement and discernment. These things all come from His word, the Bible, when it is studied properly.