What You Can Learn from the Logic of Jesus
- Thaddeus J. Williams Author
- 2017 24 Feb
Jesus in Jerusalem
We begin in Jerusalem on the steps of the temple. It is the Tuesday before Jesus’ execution. A lawyer asks him to define the greatest of the 613 commandments from the Jewish Law. Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”1 Jesus cares enough about our minds to include them in his first and greatest commandment.
But what does it mean to love God with all of our minds? Jonathan Edwards provides an important clue. In Jesus, says Edwards, “is found the greatest spirit of obedience to the commands and laws of God that ever was in the universe.”2 Jesus not only talked the greatest commandment, he walked it better than anyone. The greatest commandment is best under- stood, therefore, not as an abstract principle, but in the flesh-and-blood Jesus as he walked the earth. How, then, did history’s Greatest Keeper of history’s greatest commandment love God with his mind?
Moments before answering the lawyer’s question, Jesus demonstrates what a mind that fully loves the Father looks like in action. The Sadducees, a group of politically savvy Jewish thinkers, confront Jesus on the crowded temple steps to test his mind. As the historian Josephus tells us, the Sadducees “think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent.”3 These veterans of debate pool their collective genius to construct a clever logical trap for Jesus. They begin with a sad story. A woman loses her husband. The dead husband’s brother steps in to marry and support her. He dies too, and she marries yet another brother-in-law. The sad story repeats down to the seventh and last brother. Finally, the widow dies.4 Like a Shakespearian tragedy, the Sadducees’ story concludes with everyone dead on the stage.
Jesus does not retreat, cop out, or bully.
With this grim tale of seven weddings and eight funerals, the Sadducees have pulled back the steel teeth of their logical trap. Then they lay the bait and carefully set the trigger with a simple question: “In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”5 To appreciate how skillfully the Sadducees had constructed this intellectual trap, it is helpful to look at its logical structure. The Sadducees were forcing Jesus into the middle of what philosophers call a “destructive dilemma.”6 The logic of a destructive dilemma goes like this:
1. If x is true, then either A or B must also be true.
2. A and B are both false.
3. Therefore, x is also false.
If that seems abstract, the dilemma becomes clear when we fill in the blanks with the specifics of the Sadducees’ argument. The x they were trying to prove false is Jesus’ belief in life after death. As Josephus tells us, “The doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies.”7 Their destructive dilemma against Jesus’ belief in the afterlife runs like this:
1. If (x) the dead will one day rise, then the woman will either (A) be married to all seven when she resurrects, or (B) she will only remain married to one of the seven when she resurrects.
2. (A) is false because a woman married to all seven brothers would violate marriage as a monogamous institution, and (B) is false because it would be totally arbitrary for the woman to remain married to only one of her seven husbands.
3. Since A and B are both false, x —Jesus’ belief that the dead will rise—is also false.
The Sadducees knew that if Jesus answered with either A or B then his credibility as a rabbi would be left bleeding and twitching for all to see. There seemed to be no way out.
What does a mind that fully loves the Father do in such an intellectual fix? Does Jesus say, “Hey! What’s that over there!” and run to hide in a nearby cave? Does he condescendingly pat them on the head and say, “Quit asking silly questions, close your eyes, and take a leap of faith with me”? Does he threaten to smite them with fire from the sky for questioning him? None of the above. Jesus does not retreat, cop out, or bully.
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He answers, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”8 Jesus instantly dismantles the Sadducees’ trap. He exposes a hidden assumption of their argument, their false assumption that resurrected people will be married. Since the resurrected will “neither marry nor are given in marriage,” there is no need to worry about whom the widow will call “sweetheart” for eternity. Jesus articulates what philosophers call the tertium quid, meaning the “third thing,” not the false A or the false B, but the true C.
Having exposed the fallacy of the Sadducees’ anti-life-after-death argument, Jesus sets forth his own pro-life-after-death argument: “And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”9 Jesus recalls a well-known scene from the book of Exodus where God tells Moses that he is the God of three men whose hearts had long stopped beating. How does this support Jesus’ belief that physical death is not the terminus of human existence? In short, if the God of the living is the present-tense God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then they must still, in some sense, be alive. Follow the logic of Jesus:
1. If (x) “souls die with the bodies” then (A) God could only say that he was (past tense) the God of three dead men, or (B) God is the God of the dead.
2. (A) is false because God says in Exodus 3:6 that “I am” (present tense) the God of three dead men, and (B) is false because God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
3. Since A and B are both false, x—the Sadducees’ belief that “souls die with the bodies”—is also false.
Do you see the brilliance of a mind that keeps the greatest commandment? Jesus used the same style of logical trap that had been set for him—a destructive dilemma. Only there was no escaping Jesus’ logic without embracing the reality of life beyond the grave. The scholars blushed.10 The crowd that the scholars had hoped would be astonished by a blundering Jesus is astonished by something else altogether—his sheer brilliance.11
Dallas Willard adds, “‘Jesus is Lord’ can mean little in practice for anyone who has to hesitate before saying ‘Jesus is smart.’ He is not just nice, he is brilliant.”12 This exchange with the Sadducees helps us to appreciate at least nine features of Jesus’ brilliance. As we circle around Jesus on the temple steps to explore his mind from these different angles, we see a living blueprint emerge for how the mind that worships him takes on new shape and dimensions.
Excerpted from REFLECT: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History, written by Thaddeus Williams, Ph.D. ©2017 by Thaddeus Williams; used by permission of Weaver Book Company, weaverbookcompany.com.
Thaddeus Williams, Ph.D., serves as assistant professor of systematic theology at Biola University in La Mirada, California. He is author of the new book REFLECT: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History.
NOTES from the chapter "Reason: Mirroring the Profound Thinking of Jesus":
1. Matthew 22:37.
2. Jonathan Edwards, “The Excellency of Christ,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000), 682.
3. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.1.4, in Josephus: Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1982), 377.
4. Matthew 22:23–27.
5. Matthew 22:28.
6. This section, in particular the logical breakdown of the Sadducees’ argument, is highly indebted to the work of my colleague Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary.
7. Antiquities of the Jews, 377.
8. Matthew 22:30.
9. Matthew 22:31–32.
10. See Matthew 22:34.
11. See Matthew 22:33.
12. Dallas Willard, “Jesus the Logician,” Christian Scholar’s Review, vol. 28, no. 4 (1999): 605–14.
Image courtesy: Flickr.com by James Shepard.
Publication date: February 24, 2017