What did Jesus mean when he said: “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive. (Luke 20:38)”?
The doctrines of Christ displeased the Sadducees, as well as the Pharisees and Herodians. He carried the great truths of the resurrection and a future state, further than they had yet been revealed. There is no arguing from the state of things in this world, as to what will take place hereafter. Let truth be set in a clear light, and it appears in full strength. Christ showed the truth of the doctrine of the resurrection from the books of Moses (cf. Mark 12:26; Matt 22:32; Luke 20:37). God declared to Moses that he was the God of the patriarchs, who had died long before; this shows that they were then in a state of being, capable of enjoying his favour, and proves that the doctrine of the resurrection is clearly taught in the Old Testament as well as in the New. But this doctrine was kept for a more full revelation, after the resurrection of Christ, who was the first-fruits of them that slept (1 Cor 15:20). All errors arise from not knowing the Scriptures and the power of God (Mark 12:24; Matt 22:29). In this world death takes away one after another, and so ends all earthly hopes, joys, sorrows, and connections. How miserable are those who look for nothing better beyond the grave!
It is common for those who design to undermine any truth of God, to load it with difficulties. But we wrong ourselves, and wrong the truth of Christ, when we form our notions of the world of spirits by this world of sense. There are more worlds than one; a present visible world, and a future unseen world; and let everyone compare this world and that world, and give the preference in his thoughts and cares to that which deserves them. Believers shall obtain the resurrection from the dead, that is the blessed resurrection (Matt 22:30-32; 1 Cor 15:42). We cannot express or conceive the happy state of the inhabitants of the afterworld.
God is the God of all men, however different from each other they may be. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to name three men so closely related to each other, and yet so conspicuously different from each other, as were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham is of the grandest heroic type — heroic in thought, in action, and, above all, in that faith which is the inspiration both of the highest thinking and of the noblest forms of conduct. But what a falling off is there in Isaac! He hardly seems his father’s son. Quiet, thoughtful, a lover of ease and good fare, with no genius for action, his very wife chosen for him as if he were incompetent even to marry himself, unable to rule his own household, unable even to die — it would almost seem, when his time was come, that he fades out of history years before he slips his mortal coil. Jacob, again, strikes one as unlike both his father and his grandfather. We think of him as timid, selfish, crafty, unscrupulous, with none of the innocence of Isaac, little or none of the splendid courage and generosity of Abraham. What we should note, then, is the grace of God in calling Himself, as He did for more than a thousand years by the mouth of His servants the prophets, the God of each and all of these three men. Different as they were from each other, they are all dear to Him. He has room enough in His heart for them all. Rightly viewed, then, there is hope for us and for all men in this familiar phrase. If God is not ashamed to call Himself their God, may He not, will He not, be our God too, and train us as He trained them, till all that is weak and selfish and subtle in us is chastened out of us, and we recover the image in which He created us (cf. Zech 13:9; Heb 12:7-11; Eph 4:24; Col 3:10)?
The text our Lord quoted was this: To Moses at the bush — between four and five hundred years, that is, after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were dead — Yahweh had said, “I am,” — not I was — “the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob.” But how could He still be the God of these men if they had long been dead? He is not the God of dead men, but of living men. The three patriarchs were very certainly not living in this world when God spoke to Moses. They must, therefore, have been living in some other world. Dead to men, they must have been alive unto God. Obviously, then, men do not all die when they die.
Because our Lord saw in God the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, He inferred that these men could not die; that even when they did die, they must have lived on unto God. And that after all is, I suppose, the argument or conviction on which we all really base our hope of immortality. “Are You not from everlasting, O LORD, my God, my Holy One? We will not die. (Habakkuk 1:12)” The eternity of God implies the immortality of man.
But our Lord at least reminds us by His words of another ground for hope. Nature has many symbols which speak of a life capable of passing through death, a life which grows in volume, in power, in beauty, by its submission to death (cf. John 12:24). Every spring we behold the annual miracle by which the natural world is renewed into a richer, lovelier life. Year by year it emerges from its wintry tomb into the fuller and more fruitful life of summer. We may not care to base any very weighty arguments on these delicate and evanescent yet continually-recurring symbols; but, nevertheless, they speak to our imagination and our hearts with a force and a winning persuasiveness beyond that of logic.
What is to hinder us from arguing that, if God is still their God, and they still live unto Him, then God must even now be carrying on the discipline and training which he commenced upon them here, and carrying it on to still larger and happier issues? If they live, and live unto God, must they not be moving into a closer fellowship with Him, rising to a more hearty adoption of His will, a fuller participation of His righteousness and love? I don’t think anyone will question the validity of such an argument. We will gladly admit that, since he still lives, Abraham must by this time be a far greater and nobler man than he was when he left the earth, and must be engaged in far nobler discoveries and enterprises.
The Apostle Paul once said: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. (Romans 14:8)” Though some are weak, and others are strong, yet all must agree not to live to themselves. No one who has given up his name to Christ, is allowedly a self-seeker; that is against true Christianity. The business of our lives is not to please ourselves, but to please God. That is true Christianity, which makes Christ all in all. Though Christians are of different strength, capacities, and practices in lesser things, yet they are all the Lord’s; all are looking and serving, and approving themselves to Christ. He is Lord of those that are living, to rule them; of those that are dead, to revive them, and raise them up.
Let us praise God with the song “Rise Up With Him”: