I experience a certain glee when I read sections of the Gospels that record Jesus’ conflicts with the religious leaders of His day. It’s like watching a sporting event where your team is so statistically assured of a win that the normal spectator anxiety fades away, leaving only anticipatory confidence—a taste of victory before it arrives. But there is one passage that has always been hard for me to savor.
In Matthew 22, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, tried to catch Jesus in a theological trap with a question about a woman who had been married to seven brothers in succession after each died. Whose wife would she be in heaven? Before Jesus gives a brilliant answer in verses 31–32, He says, “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (v. 30). Jesus’ point in this passing comment is that the familial structures that exist during our time on earth, before Jesus’ second coming, are not simply replicated in the heavenly economy.
Two Things to Consider
In addressing the tension of this passage, I’m assuming two things:
First, that you understand that our families are in some measure affected by a breakdown of the biblical ideal for the family. The West has increasingly abandoned the biblical model for the family over the past decades (consider this study from Pew Research, for example). Other studies abound with similar statistics, and it’s all rather depressing. We have all felt the pain of family dysfunction in one way or another. Divorce is the most obvious example, but every sinful conflict and selfish word within our families is a reminder of the dysfunction.
Second, that you have also experienced the joys that family can bring. I have an amazing wife and four incredible sons. They are often, for me, a retreat from the dysfunctions of life. Perhaps, though, you’re not married or you don’t have children. Still, there are for you cherished moments with extended family or friends, classmates, roommates, or team members, moments that are like memorabilia that we store away to bring out in times of sadness to remind us of what real connection feels like. Humans savor relational joy. We are made for it.
These two things, taken together in tension, lead me to want to take the best of my relational joys here in this life and use them as a bulwark against the relational degradation that is seemingly all around. In the end, I project them onto my present life and even my future life, thinking they will be eternal. Thus, I often want to be a husband and a dad in heaven.
Yet Jesus says that is not what I will be in heaven. I will be something different. I do, however, know this: I will not be disappointed in heaven. Or to put the same thing in more theological and positive language, in heaven “I will be made perfect in the full enjoyment of God forever.” But how can this be? How can my longings for familial fulfillment be met when the best of what I experience in my current family is wonderful but temporary? The answer is: the church.
Our Adoptive Father
Before we can get to the church, we have to back up a bit and try to understand how the Bible talks about God’s people. To paraphrase B.B. Warfield, “The New Testament is the Old Testament with the lights on.” God has always been jealous for His people and their salvation. That is to say, God alone does the saving and takes an intense delight in those He saves. This is clear in both the Old and the New Testaments. In the New Testament, these characteristics of God are made especially clear in adoption. Adoption is that declaration of God that those whom He saves through faith in Jesus have not only obtained a new status as righteous in Christ but have also been given the identity of sons and daughters of God. God is now not only merciful Savior and covenant Lord but also—and stunningly—“Abba, Father.” This means that the Christian with a fantastic earthly father, as well as the Christian who had an abusive earthly father, both have a perfect heavenly Father whose unending love and paternal care are givens forever.
Saying that God’s adoption is a tremendous gift is an understatement. But it doesn’t end there. Adoption not only secures an incredible relationship with God, but it also provides for us an eternal family. Adoption is both vertical, between God and us, and horizontal, between each of us as disciples of Jesus. This is why I said above that the church universal, and its tangible manifestation in the local church, is the answer to the tension we feel between familial strife and the best of what we feel between spouses, parents and children, and other familial relationships. Where biological life brings temporal family joys, eternal life brings eternal family joys. Where blood relations provide measured fulfillment, the bond of Jesus’ blood brings perfect relationships that never end.
Hope for the Future
Though this life is still riddled with the consequences of Adam’s fall into sin, we have this hope to look forward to: our earthly relationships do not point us to anything less than what will be in heaven. Instead, they point us to something more. Jesus does not say that “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” because somehow heaven will include less than the joys of marriage. Instead, the joys will be greater. The joys will be transcended in the community of the saints as it dwells together before the face of God in the new heavens and new earth.
I wonder if you’ve tied those things together before—dysfunction, quality family relationships, adoption into God’s family, and the church. They form a structural call and response, a tension and resolution that runs from garden to celestial city. But more than a nice metanarrative of what is real “out there” and “someday when,” it is also a real comfort now.
I’m working as hard as I can to cherish family memories, heal family hurts, invest in my marriage, and love my children into adulthood. I am husband and father, and I’m failing and succeeding in these roles in various ways and at various times. But my wife and sons share with me more than a last name. They share a common faith in our crucified and resurrected Lord. I am husband and father for them in the moment, but I am their brother in Christ forever. And that family tie we also share with all who call on the name of Jesus for salvation—His church. Now that is a Christian family.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on December 8, 2017.