Recently, while doing a word study on the New Testament theme of worthiness (axios, anaxios, axioo, kataxioo), I ran across something in Luke 20:35 that had never caught my attention before:
“But those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage.”
I wondered what Jesus might have meant by saying that some will be counted worthy of the coming age. Isn’t it true that none of us is worthy, not even one (Rom 3:10)? Are we not all sinners who have fallen short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23)? If so, how on earth could there be any sense in which anyone is counted worthy to enter the kingdom?
One solution, that of G. H. Lang (cf. Firstborn Sons, p.72) and others, is that Jesus was referring to a special resurrection that only some believers will experience. According to this view only faithful believers will be resurrected at the end of the Tribulation and only they will enter the Millennial Kingdom. Unfaithful believers would not be resurrected until after the Millennium, at which time they, like their faithful counterparts, will enter the eternal kingdom.
Such a view has this to commend it: it handles this and other difficult passages in a way that does not contradict the freeness of the Gospel or the certainty of assurance. On the other hand, this view is called into serious question by verses like 1 Thessalonians 5:10 which says that whether we live in an alert and godly or somnolent and worldly manner, all believers will be resurrected together when the Lord returns for us.
Upon reflection I came up with a view which fits the immediate context and the context of the entire New Testament much better.
Jesus does not say here what such people do to be counted worthy. He is dealing with a question about the resurrection of the dead, not what one must do to obtain it. The listeners that day and the readers of Luke’s Gospel would have had to look elsewhere for the basis of the reckoning. The answer is not far away.
In Luke 18:9-14 and 19:9 (compare Gal 3:6-9) Jesus taught that in order to be justified one must recognize his sinfulness and need and look to Him for mercy in childlike faith. The Lord Jesus taught the doctrine of justification by faith before Paul did. Paul received that doctrine directly from the Lord Jesus (Gal 1:11-12).
No one is worthy to enter God’s Kingdom on the basis of his own works and merits. However, all believers are counted worthy to enter because they are in Christ, the Worthy One. While no one is righteous on his own merits, all believers are counted righteous because they have trusted in Christ, the Righteous One (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3-6; 2 Cor 5:20).
Are you worthy to go to heaven? Not on the basis of your feeble, flawed, and unfinished works. But, yes you are, if you have put your trust solely on the powerful, flawless, finished work of Christ.
Unworthy people can be reckoned as worthy. That is grace. That is the good news. That is justification by faith.
Luke 20:35 is not really a problem text. It is a text which drives us to the Lord Jesus to find our sufficiency and worthiness in Him.