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Seven Brothers

Seven Brothers

Luke 20:27-38

I want to talk about the subject of resurrection this morning because I want us to be clear about what it is, what it is not, and where it comes from theologically. Because the concept of bodily resurrection is so prevalent in the New Testament and particularly central to the story of Jesus, we sometimes take it for granted that belief in physical, bodily life after death was also the belief of the Old Testament saints. And then, when we go looking for belief in resurrection back in the Old Testament because we assume it must be there, we often find it in verses that are ambiguous at best.

Take our reading from Job this morning. “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26). On the surface, that sounds rather unambiguous, but if you look in your pew Bible, you’ll notice that after the word “in” there is a number three. That is a translator’s note, and if you’ll look down at the bottom, you’ll notice the translator’s footnote that says, “or without.” This means that the translation committee was basically split on whether the translation should be “in my flesh I shall see God” or “without my flesh I shall see God,” and those two phrases have drastically different meanings. The translation “in my flesh” comes into English from the King James Version and was made famous by Part Three of Handel’s Messiah, which begins with these verses from Job. But the preposition מִן means “away from, out of,” so “without (or away from) my flesh” is a better translation.

If you want further proof, consider the fact that no New Testament author ever quotes or alludes to this verse from Job in reference to the idea of resurrection at all. Take, for example, our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus is talking to the Sadducees, who don’t believe in resurrection, and the reason they don’t believe in resurrection is because they don’t believe it’s in their Bible. And to answer their objection that there is no Old Testament basis for the belief in resurrection, Jesus doesn’t go back to this passage in Job, nor does he go back to any of the other passages that well-meaning preachers and teachers have used in the past to try to demonstrate this doctrine’s Old Testament origin. Instead, he goes to Moses and the burning bush and says, “But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him” (Luke 20:37–38).

Jesus’ argument is that God does not say he was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but that he is their God, present tense, and this implies that they are alive in some form, and presumably, that they will rise again. And if you’re saying to yourself, “that doesn’t sound like a very strong argument,” then you’re tracking with me. Based on the Old Testament, the Sadducees kind of have a point.

So then, where does the doctrine of resurrection come from? In the Old Testament, the idea of resurrection is ambiguous at best, with maybe the ending of Daniel as an exception, but when you come to the New Testament, the doctrine is commonplace. In fact, it’s so commonplace in first-century Palestine that it’s notable that the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection. So, how do you get from the Old Testament to the New? In this case, you get there by way of the Apocrypha, particularly the book of 2 Maccabees. 

About the Apocrypha, the 39 Articles say, quoting Jerome, that “the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” So, the 39 Articles does make a clear distinction between the Apocrypha and Scripture, yet it does include them among the books that “the Church doth read,” so it also distinguishes them from all other books. If you don’t have a copy of the Apocrypha, I would strongly encourage you to get one because not only are they included among the books that “the Church doth read,” but they also provide some of the closest contextual information for understanding Jesus and Paul that we have, as is the case with the doctrine of resurrection.

When you turn to 2 Maccabees 7, what you find is a story about Seven Brothers. This is the story being alluded to by the Pharisees. And this story is graphic, so I won’t go into detail. But in the story, the wicked Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes arrested a mother and her seven sons and tried to force them to eat pork. They refuse, and he kills the woman’s sons one by one, but only after torturing them first. The second son says just before he dies, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws”  b(2 Macc 7:9). The second brother says of his hands and tongue, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again” (2 Macc 7:11).

The fourth brother says to the King, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!” (2 Macc 7:14). The mother says to her sons, “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws” (2 Macc 7:22–23). She says to her youngest son, the last brother alive, “Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers” (2 Macc 7:29).

The last brother says, and this is fascinating in connection to Jesus, “I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation” (2 Macc 7:37–38).

The point I’m trying to make is this. The mother in this story, and her seven sons, are not comforted by the idea of escaping this world and going off to some non-bodily existence in the heavens. Their hope isn’t life after death, but life after life after death. Their hope is bodily resurrection because that is what it means to be alive. That was Jesus’ hope too. The Sadducees come to Jesus with a trap, combining the seven brothers from this story with the concept of Levirate marriage, but Jesus won’t play their game. Because it doesn’t matter whether there is or is not a textual basis for belief in resurrection in the Old Testament. What matters is this: (1) God is the God of the living, not the God of the dead and (2) because God is the God of the living, and because God is a God of mercy, and because God is a God of justice, and because God did not create us to be disembodied spirits but living beings with flesh and blood, for those who die in Christ, death and those who wield its power do not get to write the last words of your biography, God does. And the words he speaks are this: “eternal life,” bodily, resurrected, eternal life. That is our hope. That is what we mean by “resurrection,” and nothing less. God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, and if you will give your life to Christ and be found in him, then God will raise you bodily from the dead too. Death does not get the last word in our lives. God does.

Amen.

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