Sunday, October 16, 2011

Higher Than the Angels

Texts:   Hebrews 2:5-18; Matthew 22:15-33
IS THE RESURRECTION OF THE dead and the life of the world to come essential to Christianity?  Would following Christ be any less worthwhile if we had no hope of personally rising again at all?

    The Scripture teaches us absolutely, yes, without this hope, our faith would have no worth at all.  As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:19, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."  And in verse 32 of that same chapter he says, "If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'" Isaiah, St. Peter, St. John, St. Jude, and many more of the inspired writers of God's word also agree that we are meant for a life in God that does not end with our last breath, but continues in the power of the risen Christ forever more. 

    In the same way, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews  wants us to realize that Jesus Christ in His own body made the ultimate, perfect sacrifice in order that we might be raised with Him and live forever in the very presence of God.  Jesus' whole purpose on this earth was to live and die so He could destroy death for us, His brothers and sisters, and bring all of us together with Him into the glory of the kingdom of heaven.

     The Sadducees knew that the resurrection of the dead was key to our Lord's teaching, though they didn't believe in it at all.  If they could undermine Jesus' doctrine of bodily resurrection, they could demolish Him and His entire ministry.  St. Matthew records the encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees in chapter 22 of his gospel.

    You'll remember that Jesus is teaching in the Temple the day after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem And that the Sadducees weren't the first to come at Him that day with what they thought were sure-fire "gotcha" questions.  The Pharisees and the Herodians had failed, but the Sadducees thought they could do better.  Again, this Jewish sect didn't believe in life after death.  They denied the existence of angels and demons.  They maintained that only the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy:; that is, the Torah, were authoritative for God's people Israel.  They claimed to be more faithful to the exact words of Moses than the Pharisees were with their oral law.

    So that same day at the Temple, Matthew tells us, the Sadducees came to Jesus to challenge Him on the resurrection of the dead.  Their question was designed to make the doctrine-- and Jesus-- look so ridiculous and even so immoral as to blow Him and it away like chaff in the wind.  The question is based on the Mosaic law about levirate marriage.

    Briefly, levirate marriage (from the Latin word levir, meaning "husband's brother) was instituted by God to make sure that no Hebrew line would die out or lose their inheritance in the Promised Land.  Remember, under the old covenant given at Sinai, the promises of God were centered around possession of the land.  Here's how the command reads in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:

    If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.

    Usually, marrying your brother's widow could count as incest, but in this case, the need to maintain the family line took priority in the sight of God.

    Given all this, the Sadducees raised a hypothetical question concerning a whole family of seven brothers, none of whom can manage to beget children.  All of them in turn try to do their levirate duty towards one wife and widow, and all die childless.  Hey, Jesus, what about that?  "At the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?"

    They think they've got Him.  Jesus will have to deny the law of levirate marriage as given by God to Moses.  Or He'll have to overturn the principle that God makes marriages, as written in Genesis.  Or He'll condemn Himself by approving a vile incestuous arrangement where one woman has relations forever with seven husbands at once.

    Jesus confounds this immediately:  "You are in error, because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God!"

    Where were the Sadducees so wrong?  They were assuming that people who believed in life after death were looking forward to a mere continuation of this earthly existence, but without the disease, deprivations, and troubles.  The Sadducees claimed to be ever so exact and careful about the word of God as recorded by Moses, but they really didn't understand it at all.  If they'd really known the Scriptures, they would have seen God's wondrous power recorded there and recognised His ability to bless and favor His chosen people in ways they could never have imagined ahead of time.  They would even have discovered hints that man made in the image of God does not end when his body is consigned to the dust.

    No, responds Jesus, the life of the world to come will be wonderful, new, and different.  "At the resurrection," He says, "people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven."  Moreover, the same Torah that the Sadducees accept and claim to defend itself testifies that God's saints live on after physical death.  Had they not read what God said to them in Exodus 3:6?  The Lord testified to Moses at the burning bush, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."  Not, "I was," but "I am now and ever shall be their God," How?  Because by God's power His saints yet live.  So, declares our Lord Jesus, "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living!"

    Isn't it satisfying to see Jesus defeat His enemies?  May it satisfy us even more to hear Him uphold our hope for eternal life and blessing with Him.  When Jesus extinguished the argument of the Sadducees, He did it for us, and for all who believe in His name.  As Hebrews tells us, Christ was born and died to bring many sons to glory; that is, to resurrection life.  He claims you and me and all who believe as His brothers and sisters, and makes us holy like Himself.  We will be raised again in perfectly renewed bodies like His own, and then He will proudly present us to His Father and ours:   "‘Here am I,'" He will say, "‘and the children God has given me.'"

    Hebrews 2:14 says that by His death on the cross Jesus destroyed our fear of death.  Not as if to say, "Don't worry, death's nothing to be afraid of, it's only like a dreamless sleep." Rather, He gives us a firm and certain hope of new life with Him in glory.  How?  By Jesus' sacrifice of Himself, wherein He made perfect atonement for the sins of God's people.  Sin handed us over to the devil.  Sin brought upon us the wrath of God and condemned us to die.  But like a faithful high priest Jesus has ministered the sacrifice of His own body to God in our behalf, that our sins might be taken away and we might share in His life that nothing can destroy.

    The Sadducees erred with their limited, distorted view of what resurrection life would be.  But frequently, sincere Christians also carry around a mistaken view of the life of the world to come.  Again, in Matthew 22:30 Jesus told the Sadducees, "At the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven."  And from this many people mistakenly conclude that human beings are transformed into angels when they die.

    Should a preacher say anything against this?  After all, if it gives someone comfort to believe that his or her deceased loved one is an angel in heaven, why disturb it?

    But I must disturb that belief, because God's promises to us in the resurrection of the dead are so much greater, so much more marvellous, so much more comforting, that I would fail both God and you if I didn't tell you about them, if I caused you to miss out on the peace the Lord has for you, or robbed Him of the praise He is due.

    When Jesus says the resurrected saints will be like the angels in heaven, He is telling us that in the world to come, there will be no need of marriage.  The joy and communion happy married couples experience is only a foretaste of the holy union of spirit that all of us will know with God and one another when our bodies are raised and made new.  This is the joy the angels know now, and we will know then.

    But the writer to the Hebrews says even more about human beings and angels.  In 2:5 he reminds us that it wasn't to angels that God subjected the world to come.  No, it was to Man, to the Man Jesus and to all the human beings who like you and me are included in Him.  In verses 6 through 8 he quotes Psalm 8, which we used as our Call to Worship.  This psalm reminds us that at creation we were made a little lower than the angels-- which is to say we were different from angels, but still ranked very high in God's estimation indeed.  Everything was put under the feet of our first parents-- but as we know, they sinned.  So our Lord came from heaven and was born as the Son of Man.  He who was the King of angels was found in human flesh and became a little lower than they.  And now through His obedience unto death He is highly exalted, higher than all angels, archangels, principalities, and powers, crowned with honor and glory.

  Jesus has regained for mankind the rank we had at the beginning, and brought us higher still.  Jesus our Lord did not become an angel when He rose again, and neither shall we.  No, we become something better: glorified and honored human beings, whom Jesus the Son of God is not ashamed to call brothers and sisters, members of His holy family.

    And see what it says in verse 16 of this chapter: "For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants."  Remember, all who receive the promise of God in faith are children of Abraham, and by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that includes us.  Again, "It is not angels [Jesus] helps." Knowing that, is there anyone who would still wish to become an angel when they die?  Do they not want to be helped by Jesus who died for them?  Do they not want to live forever in a renewed and glorified human body like His own?  The blood of Christ was never intended for the fallen angels, the demons, and them it cannot save.  The holy angels are without sin, and don't need a Savior.  But we are frail and fallen human beings, born in sin and doomed to die.  We do need His sacrifice and for us-- for you!-- He shed His blood that you might be raised to new and eternal human life in Him. 

    Claim your humanity!  Wear it proudly, for your risen Lord sits in heaven forever as the glorified Son of Man, and you are His flesh and blood, a member of His own family.  Honor the holy angels and accept with thankfulness their ministry to you, but do not worship them or desire to take their place.  No, the place you have in Christ is so much better, so much higher, so much closer to the heart of God.  For you are His redeemed, born again to give Him eternal praise and glory, and in the resurrection His power will create for you a new life more wonderful, blessed, and truly human than anything we can think, conceive, or imagine.

    To Christ who sits on the throne be all honor, glory and majesty, with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.

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