By Rev. Glenn Pease
One of the greatest romance stories of all history is that of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Elizabeth was a normal active girl up to age 15, but then life ceiling tumbled in for her. She became an invalid, who for the next 20 years was confined to bed in a darkened room. She was a prisoner of pain and loneliness. Her mother died when she was 22, and she was left in the hands of a cruely stern father. Later, her favorite brother was taken by a drowning accident. Few people have ever written of the depths of despair as she did.
In spite of her tragic and lonely life, she managed to write poetry of such quality that it was published. She made a name for herself among the world of poets. In 1845, after her 38th birthday, a poet six years younger than her, by the name of Robert Browning, wrote to her, and asked if he could visit. Her spirit was willing, but her flesh was weak, and she was reluctant to let any man see her frail and tortured body. He was insistent, however, and so the day came when he entered her darkened room.
The light of love altered the darkness of her life almost instantly. They began to write letters to each other, and her health took a sudden positive turn. She wrote later that love drew her gently back from the gates of death. Her father fought this love, and forced them to carry on their friendship in secrecy. After a year of this, with a friends help, she stole away, and was married to Robert Browning. Her father never forgave her, and they never met again.
Her wedded life was a taste of heaven. Love lifted her from 20 years in bed to a life of adventure with her husband. They went to Italy, and together wrote great poetry. She bore Robert a son, and she became famous for the poetry her love inspired. One day she handed him a little pile of poems and said, "Read these, if you don't like them tear them up." These were the now famous Sonnets From the Portuguese. It is said of them, "No purer expression of a heart on fire with love has ever been written." The most famous of all is this one which introduces us to our subject.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to depths and bredth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quite need, by sun and candle light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
The question is, was her hope of a better love after death a vain hope? Is this merely poetic dreaming, with no foundation in fact? Does love last forever? Does death become the dividing line that divorces all true lovers? These are not minor questions, but ones which all loving mates ask at some time or another.
It is fascinating to study the marriages of great men of God, and see how the hope of reunion with their mates is such a vital force in their lives. When William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, stood at the side of his wife's grave, he spoke these words, "I have never turned from her these 40 years for any journeying on my mission of mercy, but I longed to get back, and have counted the weeks, days, and hours which should take me again to her side." After some other words concerning his sorrow he said, "When I have served my Christ and my generation according to the will of God, ....then I trust that she will bid me welcome to the skies."
Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest preachers and theologians America has ever produced, did not die speaking of books and theology, but rather, of his dear wife, Sarah. His final words were, "Give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her that the uncommon union which has so long subsisted between us has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever."
The fascinating book, The Courtship Of Mr. Lincoln, ends with these hopeful words of Mary Todd, that great president's devoted wife--"The only consolation left me, is the certainty, that each day brings me nearer my loved and lost....I shall not much longer be separated from my idolized husband, who has only gone before and I am certain is fondly watching and waiting for our reunion, nevermore to be separated." We could go on and on quoting the hopes of lovers through the ages, both great and small. It is a universal conviction that what the Song of Solomon says about love, is true. In 8:6 it says, "Love is strong as death," and in verse 7 is says, "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it." The context makes it clear that this is the love of a man and woman. All else may be washed away in the flood, but love endures forever. Christina Rossetti expressed the universal hope of lovers in poetry-
O my love, my dove, lift up your eyes
Toward the eastern gates like an opening rose.
You and I who parted will meet in Paradise
Pass within and sing when the gates unclose.
This life is but the passage of a day,
This life is but a pang and all is over,
But in the life to come which fades not away
Every love shall abide and every lover.
This universal hope would, no doubt, be unquestioned by Christians were it not for the interference of the skeptical Sadducees, who asked Jesus the difficult question we read in our text of Matt.22:23-33. The Sadducees were a sect of the Jews started in 250 B.C. by Sadok, a president of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Judaism. They did not believe in any resurrection at all. They knew they couldn't convince those who believed in a restored paradise to give up the idea as nonsense, so they tried the next best thing. They tried to make the idea look so complicated and ridiculous that men would have to laugh at it. Ridicule has always been a powerful tool in theological debate, and the Sadducees were skilled at it.
They had, no doubt, watched many a pious Pharisee squirm as they presented this problem, which seems to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of marriage forever. The Pharisees were the largest of the Jewish sects and they did believe in the resurrection. Keep in mind, the motive behind this question is not the desire to find truth, but to make the hope of the resurrection look foolish. How amusing the whole thing was to them. How delighted they must have been to have thought of this example. Imagine one wife bewildered as to which of her seven husbands she should choose in the day of resurrection. How hilarious to imagine the other six walking away rejected to enjoy paradise alone. Their sides must have ached from the laughter, as they reviewed their question, and it's implications. Trying to hold back the smile, and look solemn, the Sadducee hit Jesus with this question, "Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?"
At first glance, the answer of Jesus seems to shatter the hopes of lovers through the ages. In verse 30 Jesus says, "At the resurrection people will neither marry or be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven." It would appear that the Sadducees came off with a considerable victory here. Even if they did not destroy the hope of the resurrection, they appear to have robbed it of one of it's greatest joys.
This passage had disturbed many who fear that Jesus is saying, husbands and wives will not be united in eternity, and all the hopes of eternal love are mere human sentiments, and of no interest to God in His eternal plan. Such fears are unfounded, however, if we see that Jesus is only concerned about destroying the Sadducees basis for ridicule. Jesus is not eliminating reunion and love, but only those aspects of earthly marriage which would make it as complicated and ridiculous as the Sadducees suggest.
The Sadducees have painted a picture of heaven that is filled with conflict that is worse than what we see in time. The seven husbands in time were had one at a time, and so there was no conflict. But now, in the resurrection, they are all there at once, and they will be fighting over which one is to have this woman as their wife for eternity. This picture is based on the assumption that in our resurrection bodies we will still have sexual needs, and that no man is going to want to be without a sexual partner for all eternity. Thus, heaven will be filled with civil wars, with millions of men fighting to possess a woman who was also married to another man in time. If nothing is different from time, between the sexes, then you can see the mess there will be in heaven .
But the answer of Jesus eliminates the problems the Sadducees foresee, that make heaven such a mess. Jesus says people will be like angels in heaven. What does this mean? It means the whole issue of sex is taken away. Angels are sexless beings, and they do not have conflict over relationships. You never read about Mrs. Gabriel, or of any angel having a mate. Their is no adultery among angels. Their is no jealousy or lust, nor any the problems that sex leads to in this life. Jesus is saying that sex is not necessary in heaven. There will be no death there and no need for reproduction to keep the new heaven and new earth populated. Sex is what makes marriage an exclusive relationship in time, and it leads to a lot of emotions that will not be a part of eternity.
The Sadducees were trying to carry over all the baggage of sexuality in time, into eternity. If this was what eternity was to be, they had a point. But Jesus makes all their objections irrelevant by making it clear that the conflicts of sexuality will not exist in the resurrected bodies. James M. Campbell in his book, Heaven Opened, writes, "True marriage is something more than a civil contract, a partnership of convenience, a legalized indulgence. Where it represents only those things it has in it no element of perpetuity, and can have no existence beyond the present. But that which underlies all true marriage, the union of souls, the ever deepening companion of souls, abides. 'The children of this age' marry in a conventional fashion only for earth, but 'the children of the resurrection,' who 'marry in the Lord,' are united forever. They are 'as the angels,' that is to say, they have reached that androgynous condition in which sex distinctions are transcended, or rather, in which the qualities of both sexes are blended together."
This means that the millions who have had two or more mates in this life need not worry about making choices in heaven. Their will be none of that says Jesus. The millions of singles need not worry that they will be left out, as if heaven will be a continuation of the couple oriented society of time. All angels are single, and Jesus is single, and all of the redeemed will be single. Marriage, in the sense of an exclusive relationship, will be no more. We may love millions without any jealousy on the part of others we love, for the sexual and exclusive is no more. We will be like brothers and sisters to millions with Jesus as our Elder Brother. Their will be no jealousy or envy in the family of God. All will dwell in perfect harmony in the Father's house.
But what about the universal hope of lovers? Does the answer of Jesus eliminate all these hopes? Not at all. It only eliminates the problems, but it does not eliminate the dreams of lovers of having a special relationship in the eternal kingdom. We shall be like the angels. Are we to suppose that this means some kind of demotion to a state where love is less than what we know in earthly marriage? Jesus is not letting the Sadducees rob heaven of love. He is telling them they are ignorant of the power of God, and they have too small a view of God's potential to see that He will make love even greater in eternity than it is in time. They have tried to limit God to their concept of love, but God is not so limited. He has a higher level of love for those in the resurrection. It will be a promotion to a love level enjoyed now by the angels. We will be moving on up to a level of love where all the problems, the Sadducees could conceive, are gone forever.
We are not to read into this that there will be no unique love relationships in heaven. Jesus is not saying, that in the restored Paradise, Adam will have no special relationship to Eve. Will Eve pass her former husband on the streets of gold and say to her companion, "He looks familiar but I don't know him from Adam?" If so, then all that Scripture says about reunion of families, retention of memory, and maintaining our identity is meaningless. Jesus said in Matt.8:11 "I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." But what about Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel? Is heaven to be for men only? Of course not! These couples in the Bible will not lose their identity. If they did, there would be no meaning to knowing them in eternity, for they would be a bunch of total strangers. It is the retaining of the memory of who they were in time that gives meaning to meeting them in eternity. You can eliminate conflict over sexuality and exclusiveness, but you cannot eliminate the relationship of married couples in heaven. Once you do that you destroy all that the Bible says about recognition and reunion in heaven. This makes heaven meaningless, for then it is just a mass of beings who are in paradise, but with no identity. This is a rejection of the Biblical hope.
So, what do we conclude? Marriage as we know it will be no more, but the relationship of married people will not be eliminated. Just as friends and family will have a special relationship in eternity, so married people will have such a relationship. If it was an unhappy or mediocre marriage, the couple will not have to be in any relationship in heaven, even though all hostility will be gone. But for those who want to go on forever in a special love relationship, there is no reason, whatsoever, why this should not be so.
Rachel and Leah are not going to go on for all eternity fighting over which one gets Jacob to sleep with them, but there is no reason to doubt that they will both have a very special relationship to Jacob, which they will not have with you and me, even though we might become the best of friends in heaven. It can never be that these people were not married, and so, even though they will not be married in the sense of having an exclusive sexual relationship, they will be married for all eternity. Will marriage be forever? The answer is both yes and no. It is no, to the Sadducees limited concept of marriage, but yes, to the concept of marriage, as a quality love relationship that the redeemed want to possess forever.
I might find myself greatly interested in Sarah. I have preached sermons on her, and I might want to spend long hours hearing her story in heaven. She would become a special friend to me and a sister in the family of God, but she would always be the wife of Abraham. He would not be jealous of the time she spends sharing her story with me, or millions of other men, for there is no reason for jealousy, and no basis for fear that their unique relationship can be stolen. This means the marriage relationship is more secure in heaven than it could ever be in time. In time there are many things that can change the best relationships, but in eternity they will be what they are forever, with no possibility of change, except to get better. Their is no decline of anything good or loving in heaven. Progress is forever, but regress is never.
This means that marriage will be forever for those who have a love they want to enjoy forever. Not all married couples have such a love, but for those who do, heaven will be the fulfillment of their hopes. Everyone will be married in heaven, in at least one sense, for all will be married to the Bridegroom, who is Christ. Matthew Henry, the great commentator, says, "The joys of that state are pure and spiritual, and arise from the marriage of all of them to the Lamb, not of any of them to one another." He may be overstating the case, and be implying that there are no joys in any other relationship than that we will have with our Savior, but his point is good. Just as all will love Christ without any jealousy, so any love in heaven will not present any problem as it often does in time.
A husband was consoling himself and his wife who was on her death-bed. He said they would meet again and be together in heaven. But she replied that she would not even notice him in heaven for she would be occupied forever in praising her Lord. This sound super-spiritual, but it has no basis in fact. We will be ever in our Lord's presence and worship will be a perpetual state of the redeemed, but to suggest that all other relationships have to be denied is going against the grain of all Christian hopes. We are to love God now with all our being, but this in no way detracts from loving others. In fact, the second commandment is to love our neighbor as ourself. God is to be our number one priority, but He expects us to love others as well. There is no reason to suppose this will be changed in heaven where we will finally be able to obey God's commands completely. We will be able to love God fully and still be able to love others in a special way, as well as love all the redeemed. We must love others here to really love God. It will be even more so in heaven. Our total love for God will make us all the more loving to others.
Charles Spurgeon, considered by many to be the greatest preacher in history, had a very interesting and unique perspective on this issue. He writes, "I expect to see and know all the saints, to recognize them, and rejoice with them, and that without the slightest prejudice to my being wholly absorbed in the sight of my Lord. Let me explain to you how this can be. When I went the other day into a friend's drawing-room, I observed that on all sides there were mirrors. The whole of the walls were covered with glass, and everywhere I looked I kept seeing my friend. It was not necessary that I should fix my eyes upon him, for all the mirrors reflected him. Thus, brethren, it seems to me that every saint in heaven will be a mirror of Christ, and that as we look upon all the loved ones, gazing round upon them all, we shall see Christ in every one of them, so we shall still be seeing the Master in the servants, seeing the head in all the members. It is I in them, and they in me. Is it not so? It will be all the Master. This is the sum total of heaven." Spurgeon saw no problem in loving one's mate forever, for it would not be a conflict with loving one's Lord supremely.
The Sadducees tried to make love a problem in order to make the whole idea of the resurrection a problem. Jesus made it clear, their limited idea of love and marriage was not the only concept of love and marriage God was capable of designing. Failure to evaluate the answer of Jesus in the context of this attack of the enemies of the resurrection has led some to conclude that Jesus rejects the idea of love forever for mates.
This is not so, and Christians all through history have never doubted that true loving relationships will be eternal. Charles Kingsley wrote, "All I can say is, if I do not love my wife, body and soul, as well as I do here, then there is neither resurrection of my body nor my soul." This is the conviction of many who have given this issue any thought. In the famous Pulpit Commentary, widely used by pastors, we read these words on this passage, "Our Lord says nothing here concerning mutual recognition in the future state; nothing about the continuance of those tender relations which he sanctions and blesses on earth, and in the absence of which we cannot imagine perfect happiness existing....Love will continue, purified and deepened; husband and wife, once joined together by God, cannot be put asunder." Herbert Lockyer, author of numerous Christian books, says, "What kind of home would it be if its members are to be strangers to each other for ever? ....the beautiful but broken relationships of earth are resumed in the Father's house above where, as members of the same family we dwell together in perfect harmony."
It is no contradiction to the words of Christ to affirm that marriage will last forever. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that the relationship and love of married people will last forever, after marriage itself has passed away. Marriage is an earthly concept, but love is heavenly and eternal, and that is what lovers want. The old puritan theology of marriage put it this way--"husband and wife are to help each other to live together for a time as co-partners in grace here, that they may reign together forever as coheirs in glory hereafter." The idea that we will be like angels ought not to cause us to reduce our concept of love. Are we to suppose for one minute that angels are less loving than we are, and that to be like them is a step down from our level of love. For all we know angels have a pleasure in love that is far superior to what we know of in sex. All we know is that there will be no jealousy and conflict in angelic love.
There is a land where beauty will not fade,
Nor sorrow dim the eye;
Where true hearts will not shrink nor be dismayed
And love will never die.
Marriage existed in the first Paradise and God declared that it was not good for man to be alone. God provided a partner for Adam, and Paradise was only complete when he had his partner. Certainly, the final Paradise will not be less than the first. There will be no widows or widowers in heaven. There will be no lonely singles. Not all singles are lonely, but the fact is, many are so in time. This will not be the case in heaven. Everyone will have a partner, for if it was not good for Adam to be without a partner, it certainly will not be good for anyone in the everlasting paradise to be without one. Christ will have His Bride, the Church, and every man will have a companion, if not a wife, and every women a companion, if not a husband. Nobody will be left out of a perfect love relationship in that eternal Paradise. This would be a contradiction to all we know of God in the Bible.
It is a problem to grasp just what the relationship of mates will be in heaven, because we are limited, like the Sadducees were, in our understanding. But it will be something special. C.S.Lewis wrote, "About the nature of the relation between spouses in eternity I base my idea on St. Paul's dictum that 'he that is joined with a harlot is one flesh.' If the lowest, most corrupt form of sexual union has some mystical 'oneness' involved in it,...the married and lawful form must have it par excellence. That is, I think the union between the risen spouses will be as close as that between the soul and its own risen body."
Richard Crashaw put the following epitaph on the tomb of a young married couple who died and were buried together.
To these, whom death again did wed,
This grave's their second marriage bed;
For though the hand of fate could force
Twixt soul and body a divorce,
It could not sunder man and wife,
Cause they both lived but one life.
The last line is the key to the hopes of lovers. If they are one in Christ, that unity will be everlasting, but if they lack that oneness, they have no basis for eternal oneness. All oneness, and all love that will be eternal, will be so, because of a oneness in time in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is love for Christ that makes every other love eternal. That is why Christians have always known that their earthly loves will be a part of heaven. David knew that he would love his son, he lost as a child, in heaven.(IISam.12:23). Dr. Lee Roberson, the great preacher in the South, said in a message on this text, "This verse tells me that we shall see our loved ones in heaven and know them." Martha knew she would know and love her brother Lazarus, in heaven.(John 11:24). Paul expected to know his Christian friends in heaven. In I Thess.2:19-20 he wrote, "For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when He comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy." See also, II Cor. 1:14 and 4:14. How can we possibly think that all relationships, but those of mates, will continue forever? All of our problems with this reality revolve around the same issue the Sadducees saw, and which Jesus eliminated-sex. Ellicott in his commentary says, "The old relation may subsist under new conditions. Things that are incompatible here may there be found to co-exist. The saintly wife of two saintly husbands may love both with an angelic, and therefore a pure and unimpaired affection."
The answer of Jesus, to the trick question of the Sadducees, does not, in any way, rob heaven of one of the great hopes of Christian lovers through the ages. On the tomb of Charles Kingsley and his wife are three Latin words which give a message that millions of mates feel is true. The three words say, "We have loved, we love, we shall love." This has been the hope of Christians through the centuries. St. Augustine, one of the greatest theologians of all time, wrote a letter of consolation to Italica, a Roman lady of rank who had lost her husband, way back in 408 A.D. In it he said, "We have not lost our dear ones who have departed from this life, but have merely sent them ahead of us, so we also shall depart and shall come to that life where they will be more than ever dear as they will be better known to us, and where we shall love them without fear of parting." This was also the conviction of Ambrose, the famous bishop of Milan from 340-397 A.D. He wrote of his brother who died, and imagines the happiness of Theodosius, "when he receives Gratian and Pulcheria, his sweetest children, whom he had lost here; when his wife Flacilla, a soul faithful to God, embraces him; when he rejoices that his father has been restored to him;...." Recognition of, and reunion with, loved ones has been the universal hope of believers. There is no way you can leave mates out of this hope. John Greenleaf Whittier in Snow Bound wrote these famous words of the Christian hope,
Alas for him who never sees
The stars shine through his cypress trees;
Who hopeless lays his dead away,
Nor looks to see the breaking day
Across his mournful marbles play;
Who has not learned in hours of faith
The truth to flesh and sense unknown,
That life is ever Lord of Death
And Love can never lose its own.