Since my student days I have kept on my shelves a book that I have never properly read. Actually there are quite a few of those. It was the title of John Stott’s Christ the Controversialist that struck me and stuck with me. With a simple, punchy phrase Stott highlighted an aspect of Jesus’ ministry that it is easy to let pass you by. Jesus spent quite a bit of his time in theological arguments with people. Today’s text consists of three such incidents. Two follow the usual pattern – Jewish teachers try to catch Jesus out. In our third story the tables are turned. Jesus pushes back.
The Sadducees only accept the first five books of the Bible. Since these don’t mention the resurrection, they try Jesus out with an unlikely story with a sting in its tail. They are trying to ridicule the idea of bodily resurrection. A woman marries seven brothers in a row each of which die in turn. Then she dies herself. Surely after the first two or three untimely deaths someone in the family would have whispered: ‘this woman is dangerous.’ Which of these increasingly courageous brothers will she be married to in the resurrection?
In reply Jesus does not deny the resurrection but he denies the working assumption behind the question – that the life of the new creation will be the same as now. You only need marriage, sex and children if people die and – to put it bluntly – need to be subbed in with a new generation. Since, Jesus says, we will be raised as immortal beings – like the angels – there won’t be any marrying going on. ‘You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures or the power of God.’ They deny the validity of much of the Bible and don’t believe God can raise the dead. It’s a classic recipe for wishy-washy religion. Within a few days of this conversation, at the first Easter, God will amply demonstrate both the truth of Scripture’s promises and his mighty power to raise the dead. It is a truth and power recorded for the readers of the Gospel then and now.
The Pharisees agree with Jesus about the resurrection and probably quite enjoy seeing the Sadducees put in their place. They have their own go: What is the most important commandment? Jesus doesn’t pick one of the 613 specific commands of Moses but replies with a two general principles that motivate the law quoting the Jewish daily prayer: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God the LORD is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And he adds from Leviticus: love those not just of your own community but those around you. It is a basic principle echoed by Augustine of Hippo: love and do what you will. Jesus summarises the purpose of the ten commandments without conceding the idea that some things God requires matter less than others.
Then it’s Jesus turn: What do you think of the Christ? he asks. Whose authority does he have? ‘He is David’s son.’ But in Psalm 110, says Jesus, the anointed Messiah, David’s son, is called Lord and sits at God’s right hand. So whose authority does he really have? The obvious conclusion is that the Lord Jesus Messiah is great David’s greater son. He has all the authority not just of the promised King of David’s line but of God himself. The Pharisees too fall silent. This is the last time people try to put him on the spot: ‘from that day no one dared ask him any questions.’
I have spent my adult life immersed in theological ideas, discussion, books and teaching. I still count it an enormous privilege to go most weeks to a research seminar in one of the best Theology Faculties in the world. But soon after I read my first serious theology book at the age of 20, I came to a clear and abiding conclusion, shared by many theologians: Jesus comes first. It is Jesus who really matters. He has the words of eternal life. He has shown us the face of God. In light of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done everything else pales into insignificance and can be set aside. Some love theological discussion (and Jesus the Controversialist was really, really good at it). Some run a mile (‘oh – just tell me the right answer’). But Jesus comes first. He has won our love and our loyalty. He is the one to live and die for. He is the one to live and die for because he chose to die and lives again for you and for me.
Lord Jesus Christ, you are the source of truth and life. We run to you again knowing you are not only the teacher of truth, but truth itself. You are not only the life, but life itself. You are the king in need of nothing. We run to you empty handed. As the old hymn says:
Nothing in my hands I bring,“Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” lyrics by A. M. Toplady
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace:
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.