Which angel told Jesus’ parents to take him to Egypt?

In general I am still not able to answer questions or add new posts to this blog because of personal circumstances, but this brief question that was recently submitted has an equally brief answer, so I’m able to offer it here.

Q. Which angel told the parents of Jesus to go to Egypt?

The biblical text does not tell us.  It says simply that “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream” and warned him that the family needed to flee to Egypt because Jesus’ life was in danger from King Herod.  So we don’t know which angel this was.

Taking a break

Because of personal responsibilities, I will not be able to add any new posts to this blog for a while.  But I do hope to resume writing again at some point in the future.  In the meantime, there are over 300 archived posts that I invite you to explore.  Many thanks to all of you who have contributed such interesting and helpful questions over the past three years.

Christopher R. Smith

How were Scriptures fulfilled in the case of Judas? (Part 4)

Despite everything I’ve said so far in this series of posts to suggest that Judas may have sincerely repented and been saved after betraying Jesus, there’s one more place where the New Testament says that Scripture was fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus, and it seems to state unequivocally that he was lost, and that God in fact intended him to be.

In the gospel of John, during his prayer after the Last Supper, Jesus says about his disciples, “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

This would, on the surface, appear to settle the issue.  However, when we dig a little deeper, we find that things are not quite so unequivocal.  The phrase that’s translated “the one doomed to destruction” in the NIV (compare NRSV “destined to be lost,” CEV “the one who had to be lost,” etc.) is literally “the son of perdition” in Greek (as in the KJV, RSV; ESV “son of destruction”). There’s actually a play on words in the original: “none of them was lost [apōleto] except the son of lost-ness [apōleia].”

Raymond Brown observes in his commentary on the gospel of John that “we are almost certainly dealing with a Semitism” here, that is, with a characteristic Hebrew way of speaking that has been reproduced in the Greek.  This idiom, “the son of,” appears in other places in the New Testament, for example, when Jesus nicknames James and John the “sons of thunder” because of their tempestuous personalities, or when the apostles nickname Joseph the Levite “Barnabas,” or “son of encouragement,” because of his generosity and help. In other words, in Hebrew, to be the “son of” something means to be characterized by that thing.

“Son of perdition” is such a distinctive phrase that it shouldn’t be hard to find the Scripture that Jesus says is being fulfilled here. The problem is, the phrase “son of perdition” (presumably ben shachat in Hebrew) appears nowhere in the Old Testament. And so no biblical scholar has, to my knowledge, pointed to any specific passage that Jesus purportedly had in mind when he spoke of Scripture regarding the “son of perdition” being fulfilled.

Rather, at least some scholars argue that Jesus is referring back to the Scripture he quoted earlier at the Last Supper, “He who shared my bread has turned against me,” as the one that is being fulfilled in this “son of perdition.”  (I discuss this other case of “fulfillment” in this post.)

But let me offer another alternative. The phrase “except the son of perdition” may actually be an aside or qualifier, and that the Scripture that is really being fulfilled is one about none of the other disciples being lost.  In other words, I think the passage should read something like this: “None has been lost (except the one who was lost of his own inclination), so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

The idea that no one and nothing can cause someone to be lost whom Jesus has saved is a theme that runs throughout the gospel of John, as Brown also documents in his commentary at this point.  Early on, in his interview with Nicodemus, Jesus says that “God . . . gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish [i.e. be lost, apōlētai].”  After feeding the five thousand and revealing himself as the “bread of life,” Jesus declares, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose [apolesō] none of all those he has given me.”  Later on, at the Festival of Dedication, after Jesus has identified himself as the “good shepherd,” he says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish [apolōntai]; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

There’s a strong suggestion later in the gospel of John that the “fulfillment” in view in Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper indeed has to do with his power to preserve and protect all who trust in him. When the soldiers, led by Judas, come to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemane, Jesus tells them, “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” John then notes, “This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: I have not lost one of those you gave me.'”

There is certainly a broad Old Testament background to the idea that like a good shepherd, the Lord will protect and preserve His whole flock. The background is so broad that no one passage needs to be singled out, but statements like these are likely among those in mind as “fulfilled” by Jesus in his protection of his own: in Jeremiah, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture“; in Micah, “I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel. I will bring them together . . . like a flock in its pasture.”

So we may conclude once again that Judas, as a specific individual, betraying Jesus was not an integral part of the unfolding of God’s plan, as understood through the fulfillment of Scripture.  Nevertheless, we must find it significant that Jesus refers to Judas as a “son of perdition,” when “perishing” (the same root in Greek) is contrasted so directly in John’s gospel with having “eternal life.”  Even if Judas being a “son of perdition” isn’t a fulfillment of Scripture, isn’t it evidence that Judas was indeed lost?

I hope to explore that question further in a future post. However, for the time being, because of personal responsibilities I will not be able to add any new posts to this blog for a while.  But stay tuned, as I hope to resume writing at some point in the future.

How were Scriptures fulfilled in the case of Judas? (Part 3)

Another place where the New Testament says that Scripture was fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus is found near the end of the gospel of Matthew. As I noted in my first post in this series, Judas had apparently intended to deliver Jesus only to arrest and imprisonment. But when he saw that Jesus had been condemned to death instead, he “repented” (or was “filled with remorse”) and returned the thirty pieces of silver he’d been paid to betray Jesus. He threw this money down on the temple floor at the feet of the chief priests and elders who had employed him. Matthew then notes that:

The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

Biblical scholars puzzle about much of what Matthew says here. The quotation is actually from Zechariah, not from Jeremiah, and the Old Testament passage is not reproduced very exactly. The people have been unwilling to follow Zechariah as their “shepherd” or spiritual leader, so he asks them to give him his pay and dismiss him. They give him thirty pieces of silver, which may have been an intentionally insulting amount, since it was the compensation specified in the law for accidentally causing the death of a slave. The prophet seems to have taken it as an insult, since the account in Zechariah then says:

And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.

Why Matthew quotes this passage so differently from the original, and why he attributes it to Jeremiah rather than to Zechariah, are matters that biblical scholars will continue to debate. (There are some general reminiscences of Jeremiah in Matthew’s quotation, as some scholars have noted: that prophet did buy a field, although he paid seventeen silver shekels for it, not thirty, and he did visit a potter, although this was to illustrate a parable about divine judgment.) But we do not need to resolve these matters for our present purposes. We can simply note the two significant parallels between the life of the earlier prophet and the experience of Jesus at the hands of Judas, which constitute the “fulfillment” in this case.

(1) A spiritual leader of Israel was undervalued at the price of a slave. And in the case of Jesus, this insult is “escalated” in that he was not just one of the prophets, he was the promised and long-expected Messiah. So for Judas and the high priests to bargain over him (according to Matthew, Judas asks them, What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?”) and settle on thirty pieces of silver is a far more egregious rejection of Jesus’ identity and mission than it was even in the case of Zechariah, a prophet whom God had sent to the people.

(2) The money used to set a value on the leader is not retained. In Zechariah’s case, the leader himself is paid the money and he “throws it to the potter at the house of the Lord.” Biblical scholars are not sure exactly what this phrase means; it may indicate that the money was used to pay for earthenware utensils for use in the temple, and not even put directly into the temple treasury. In Jesus’ case, the one who was paid the money to betray the leader similarly throws it down in the temple, at the feet of his fellow conspirators, who buy a “potter’s field” (i.e. a plot that had been a source of clay for potters, and so could no longer be used for agriculture) to use as a burial place for non-Jews.

This is, for our purposes, the really significant part of the fulfillment.  While, as I’ve argued, these fulfillments are not so much predictions come true as statements that take on a fuller meaning in light of later developments, the fact remains that Judas fulfilled Scripture by returning the money he got from betraying Jesus.  And if his ultimate motivation for the betrayal was greed (as I’ll discuss in a future post), then this is the surest evidence that he repented sincerely.

So it is not the case that Judas must be seen, in light of earlier Scriptures, as someone who was destined to betray Jesus and be lost. The fulfillment of this Scripture, at least, suggests just the opposite.

How were Scriptures fulfilled in the case of Judas? (Part 2)

I now return to the series of posts in which I’ve been exploring the possibility that after betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot may have sincerely repented and been saved.  I considered the gospel narratives in my first post, and then turned to look at all the places where Jesus and the apostles say Scripture was fulfilled in the case of Judas, to see whether this means he was destined to play the role of betrayer and be lost.  In my second post I argued that Scripture being “fulfilled” actually means not that a foreseen future event has come to pass, but that an earlier statement has taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical developments. And so in the following post, I explained that the phrase in Psalm 41, “He who shared my bread has turned against me,” cited as an example of fulfillment in all four gospels, illuminates the identity and experience of Jesus as the “greater David,” but it does not specifically identify Judas as his betrayer in advance.

In this post I’d now like to look at another place where the New Testament says Scriptures were fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus. I’ve already mentioned it in my second post: It’s the place in the book of Acts where Peter says, “The Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”  Peter then quotes two Scriptures that he sees being fulfilled, citing “the Book of Psalms” as his source: “May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it” and “May another take his place of leadership.

As I explained in that earlier post, these two Scripture citations, which come from what we now know as Psalm 69 and Psalm 109, respectively, are not predictions about the future Messiah, but rather “imprecations,” or calls for judgment on present-day enemies, in two of David’s “psalms of supplication.” Nevertheless, they provide an inspired precedent that help the fledgling community of Jesus’ followers solve what would otherwise be a vexing problem.

They want to honor Jesus’ intention to have twelve apostles, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel, who can serve as witnesses of his life and especially his resurrection.  But Judas is now gone. Still, Jesus chose him as an apostle; on what authority can the community choose someone else to replace him?  Peter recognizes that if they do, they will be fulfilling Scripture, and this provides the divine imprimatur they need to bring the number of apostles back up to twelve. In other words, the specific fulfillment here is not that Judas betrayed Jesus and was lost, but that he was replaced.

Once again a parallel is being recognized between the experience of David and that of Jesus, his “greater Son.”  We don’t know what former friend David had in mind in Psalm 109, but he seems to have held some position of trust, because David says, “May another take his place of leadership.”  Judas also held a position of leadership and trust–“he was numbered among us” as an apostle, Peter observes–and in his case, as happens in these fulfillments, this role was escalated from the situation in David’s time.  It was not merely a civic office in the ancient Israelite kingdom, but a foundational office of the kingdom of God breaking into this world. (The book of Revelation envisions the names of the apostles written on the foundations of the New Jerusalem!)

For Judas to lose such a vital place (for it to become “deserted,” as Psalm 69 puts it) was a momentous occurrence in the life of the covenant community, one that Peter sees foreshadowed in an earlier experience of David. Still, this all has to do with Judas’s office–not with his eternal disposition.

Indeed, Peter pointedly does not quote another part of the imprecation in Psalm 69, where David says of his enemies, “Do not let them share in your salvation. May they be blotted out of the book of life!” He apparently does not have this in view as something that applies to Judas, any more than some other phrases in these psalms, such as “when he is tried, let him be found guilty” (Judas was never put on trial for what he did) or “may a creditor seize all he has” (this never happened to Judas, either).  As we saw earlier in the case of Psalm 41, where David was sick because he had sinned, not every detail from these psalms carries over from David’s life into Jesus’ experience.

So we should conclude that the “fulfillment” of Scripture cited by Peter at the beginning of Acts is that Judas forfeited his apostolic office when he betrayed Jesus, and we can consider this a definitive judgment–even if Judas had lived and repented sincerely, he would not have been restored as an apostle.  But we do not have here a prediction in earlier Scripture that Judas also definitively forfeited his soul when he betrayed Jesus, as if there were some sins that were beyond the power or willingness of God to forgive.

The Twelve Apostles, from an Ethiopian Bible manuscript. It was important to have twelve to echo the number of the tribes of Israel. Jesus chose all of the apostles to begin with. When one of them, Judas, forfeited his position, on what authority could the church choose a replacement?

Does God plan every move of our lives if we ask Him to?

Q. Many present-day follows of Jesus, including myself, believe that God is with us once we invite Him into our hearts. That said, I wonder at times how much He is directly involved in our day-to-day lives. Does He plan my every move if I invite that? The thought that God can be in complete “control” of our lives as we “tune out” seems to be a modern concept developed over the last hundred years. A verse often quoted to support His complete direction in our lives is “I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” But it seems to me if we just rely on this as our basis for this argument we may have applied its message too literally. The passage was written to the exiles but it is often quoted out of context as if it applied to every one of us today. I am thankful God gave us His word, the Bible,  the Holy Spirit, and a thinking brain. Would love your thoughts.

I haven’t actually encountered myself the teaching that we can and should “tune out” ourselves and allow God to control our day-to-day lives directly, but let me share some thoughts about this teaching as you describe it.

First, I agree with you that that often-quoted statement from Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles does not really support such an approach.  In context, that statement actually means something like this:  “You might not think that I have good plans for you based on your present circumstances, but long-term, big-picture, I really do.”  The Judeans of Jeremiah’s time thought that those who had been carried off to Babylon were lost from the community and doomed to a dismal future, while those who remained in Judea had excellent prospects.  Jeremiah wrote his letter to the exiles to assure them that just the opposite was true:  that they had a “hope and a future” as remnant that would eventually restore the nation, while those left in Judea were doomed to destruction.

So this statement can appropriately be cited to people today who are in difficult and troubling circumstances, to assure them that long-term, big-picture, God will work things out for His glory in their lives.  But it should not be quoted to support the idea that “God knows the plans He has for us” if we will just “let go” and let Him run every detail of our lives.

I wonder how that would actually work, in fact. How are we supposed to know where to go and what to do to fulfill these “plans” of God?  Are we supposed to be simply passive and trust that anything that happens to us reflects God’s plans?

I’m much more inclined to agree with you that “God gave us His word, the Holy Spirit, and a thinking brain,” and God expects us to develop wisdom and mature character so that we can make good decisions that reflect His values and purposes–not try to chase down His supposed “plans” for the tiniest details of our lives.

I talk about this more in my post entitled, “Should I be looking for ‘God’s will for my life’ in every decision?”  There I encourage us to pursue an approach of “co-operation” with God, which I believe Jesus modeled for us, and which I describe this way: “Within the context of his overall life mission as he understood it, Jesus discerned where God was already at work and considered how he could join in.”  As I see it, this honors God, as we take responsibility for using the gifts and opportunities God has given us, guided by our sanctified sense of His own working in and around us.

I hope this is helpful!

Why didn’t Jesus destroy demons when he cast them out?

Q. In any of the situations where Jesus cast out demons, why didn’t he kill them so they would not enter another person?

Matthew’s gospel relates how, when Jesus was casting out demons in the region of the Gadarenes, they cried out, “Son of God, what do you want with us? Have you come here to punish us before the time for us to be judged?” The encounters between Jesus and demons described in the gospels are typically brief and cryptic, but we can at least tell from this one that God has set a time for demons to be judged and punished. But as these demons knew, that time had not yet come during the ministry of Jesus, and they successfully appealed to be sent into a herd of pigs instead.

The reasons why Jesus allowed such demons to continue to roam the earth, at least for a while, have to do, I believe, with the need for there to be freedom in order for people to make the choice to love God and others. God could have removed all sources of suffering and discord in the world, but this would have been at the cost of making true freedom impossible and depriving the world of the fruits of freedom, including love, courage, creativity, and so forth.

One of Jesus’ parables shows how God wanted people to respond instead to the fact that demons remained at large even after they had been cast out of their victims.  Jesus said, “What happens when an evil spirit comes out of a person? It goes through dry areas looking for a place to rest. But it doesn’t find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives there, it finds the house empty. The house has been swept clean and put in order. Then the evil spirit goes and takes with it seven other spirits more evil than itself. They go in and live there. That person is worse off than before.”

Jesus actually told this parable about his own generation as a whole, to illustrate how, by rejecting his true message of the kingdom of God, they were leaving themselves open to the influence of false messiahs who would lead them astray into destruction.  (This happened during the two Jewish-Roman wars in the decades that followed.) But for the parable to make this point by application, its story needs to make a valid point of its own, and that is that people who have been freed from a demon are responsible themselves to fill their lives with godly and wholesome influences that will discourage any demons from ever returning.

In other words, while Jesus didn’t destroy the demons he cast out, he brought the truth of the kingdom of God, and ultimately he sent the Holy Spirit, to occupy the place the demons had left so that they would never try to fill it again.  And I think this is how we need to think about all of the evil and destructive influences around us as we live in these “in-between times,” when the kingdom of God has already been inaugurated but not yet completely established.  God has not yet removed all these influences from the earth.  But he has sent other influences that can effectively displace them in our own lives, and increasingly in our world, if we recognize and accept our responsibility to welcome and cultivate these life-giving endowments.

A painting by Vangelo di Marco of Jesus casting out the demons from the Gerasene demoniac. Why didn’t Jesus destroy the demons instead of allowing them to remain at large afterwards?

How were Scriptures fulfilled in the case of Judas? (Part 1)

In this series of posts I’ve been exploring the possibility that Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, may have sincerely repented afterwards and been saved.  In my first post, I argued that there is enough evidence in the gospel narratives, particularly in Matthew, to conclude that this is a possibility.

But I also noted that some might object that Jesus and the apostles said Scripture was fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus, and that presumably this means he was destined to play the role of betrayer and be lost.  To address that concern, in my last post I discussed what it means for Scripture to be “fulfilled.”  I showed that it actually means not that a foreseen future event has taken place, but that an earlier statement has been recognized to have a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical developments.

In this post I’d like to begin applying that understanding to the places where the New Testament says that Scriptures were fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus, to see whether the implications are that Judas may not necessarily have been lost.

I’d like to begin with an instance that’s found in all four gospels.  According to John, during the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “One of you is going to betray me,” and he specified that “this is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’”  Matthew records similarly that Jesus told his disciples, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.”  Mark reports almost the same thing: Jesus told his disciples, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me . . . one who dips bread into the bowl with me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.”  Luke does not use the specific language of Scripture and fulfillment, but in his gospel, Jesus says effectively the same thing: “The hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed.”

So John quotes the exact Scripture that is being fulfilled in this case, while the other gospel writers offer a paraphrase of it.  The quotation is from Psalm 41, “a psalm of David” according to its inscription, which is a prayer for healing from illness. “Have mercy on me, Lord,” David prays, heal me, for I have sinned against you.” He then notes that his enemies are seeing his illness as a chance to be rid of him (even if they haven’t been able to kill him, this sickness might, they hope), and he adds with particular anguish that one of his friends has turned against him as well: “Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.”

So how was this statement “fulfilled” in the case of Judas?  The New Testament writers see Jesus as the “greater David,” the promised Messiah who would sit on David’s throne and judge the world in righteousness, and accordingly they often see parallels between David’s life and Jesus’ life. In this case, the parallel is not exact in every detail: Jesus did not have a deadly illness, and he certainly had not sinned.  But the broad lines of similarity are that Jesus’ life, like David’s, was endangered, and some of the danger came painfully from a former friend who had been so close as to share table fellowship with him.

But it’s important to realize–and this is another key characteristic of “fulfillments” in the New Testament–that the details in Jesus’ life are “escalated” from those in David’s.  Fulfillments are not simply parallels between two ordinary things, but between something ordinary and something later that is extraordinary because it has heightened redemptive-historical significance. For example, David’s enemies (along with his former friend) were not active, but passive–they were simply waiting for him to die and hoping he would.  But Jesus’ enemies were actively conspiring against him, and so for his former friend to join them in deadly actions is an escalation, taking things to the next level. For that matter, while the death of David would have had significant implications for the covenant community (the ancient kingdom of Israel, at that point), the death of Jesus was the culminating event of redemptive history.

However, the escalation most in view here has to do precisely with the phrase that is “fulfilled”: “one who shared my bread.” Judas Iscariot wasn’t just someone who had a meal with Jesus, like Zacchaeus or Simon the Pharisee. Judas was one of the privileged few who was invited to share in the inauguration of the meal that would become a sacrament for all followers of Jesus, a commemoration of his saving, sacrificial death.  To share in that, and then immediately go out and betray Jesus, was a tremendous escalation of what David’s former friend and table companion did to him.

Still, we should observe that this Scripture itself is not sufficient to identify Judas as Jesus’ betrayer.  It does not, for example, identify the “close friend” as coming from Kerioth (many interpreters believe that Iscariot is derived from the Hebrew îsh-Qerîyôth, or “man of Kerioth), the way Micah’s prophecy about a ruler coming from Bethlehem is understood to identify Jesus as the Messiah by reference to his birthplace. Instead, according to John’s gospel, when Jesus said that this Scripture would be fulfilled, his disciples were “at a loss to know which of them he meant.”  According to Luke, “They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.” And according to Mark and Matthew, they each asked Jesus, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?”

So the most we can say is that this Scripture, when understood as having a fuller and deeper meaning in the escalated events of Jesus’ life, points to “one of the Twelve,” as Mark’s gospel puts it. Sharing the bread only becomes a sign pointing specifically to Judas when Jesus turns it into that in real time, by answering John’s question “Lord, who is it?” by saying, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish”–and then passing the bread to Judas.  So it appears that it was settled that Judas would be the “one of the Twelve” who would betray Jesus only when Judas made that choice shortly before this.  His identity as the betrayer, in other words, was not specifically foreordained and predicted in Scripture.

Finally, we should address Jesus’ statement, recorded in various forms in Mark, Matthew, and Luke’s accounts of the Last Supper, “Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”  Since this follows directly after Jesus’ statement that the Son of Man would go just as it had been “written” or “decreed” about him, and it announces a drastic judgment against his betrayer, should we understand the eternal damnation of the betrayer as part of what was “written” or “decreed”?  In light of everything I have observed to this point, I would argue that we should not.  We should rather see this as the kind of warning of future consequences that God gives throughout the Scriptures, in order to turn people away, if possible, from their intended evil and destructive courses. In other words, I believe that even at this late hour–literally the last minute–Jesus was still seeking in love to save Judas from a tragic course of action.

In my next post in this series, once I’ve answered a couple of other questions that have come in to this blog, I’ll look at a couple more instances where the gospel writers say that Scripture was fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus.

A portrayal of Judas at the Last Supper. In this case he very much looks the part of the betrayer. But in reality the disciples were “at a loss to know which of them he meant” when Jesus said one of them would betray him.

What does it mean for a Scripture to be “fulfilled”?

In my last post I explained why I believe there is enough evidence in the gospel narratives about Judas to conclude that he may have repented sincerely for betraying Jesus and been saved. But I also noted that many readers might wonder, “Didn’t Jesus and the apostles say it was predicted in Scripture that Judas would betray Jesus and be lost? Doesn’t that settle the question?”  I’d like to begin addressing that concern in this post.

When we look carefully at the New Testament passages that say certain Scriptures were fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus, it doesn’t take long to uncover a curious problem about them:  Those Scriptures are not actually predictions.  That is, they are not looking forward to the future, envisioning the career of the Messiah, and foretelling specific things about someone who would betray him. Instead, they are envisioning the Old Testament author’s own time and place, and talking about his contemporaries.

For example, the book of Acts tells us how Peter, citing the fulfillment of Scripture, led the fledgling community of Jesus’ followers to choose a replacement for Judas:

In those days Peter stood up among the believers . . . and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. . . . “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms: ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, ‘May another take his place of leadership.’

The problem is, when we investigate these two Scripture citations, which are from Psalm 69 and Psalm 109, respectively, we find that they occur not in Messianic predictions, but in “psalms of supplication” in which the psalmist (David, according to the inscriptions, though he does not identify himself within the psalms) prays for deliverance from his own personal enemies.  Both statements come in what are called “imprecations,” passages in which a psalmist calls for God’s judgment on enemies who are persecuting without just cause.

Now the imprecations in the psalms are a difficult problem in their own right.  (I discuss their character and purpose briefly in this post.)  But the problem they pose for us in light of our immediate concern is this: How can Peter say these two imprecations are to be “fulfilled” in the case of Judas when they were not envisioning the future at all?

To state the answer simply, “fulfillment” in the New Testament sense of the word does not mean that a future foreseen and predicted has come to pass.  Rather, it means that words spoken at an earlier time in redemptive history have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later, more developed redemptive-historical circumstances.  To explain this in more detail, let me quote at some length from Paradigms on Pilgrimage, the book I wrote with Stephen J. Godfrey, in which there is a general discussion of this issue.

* * * * *

The very first book of the New Testament, in its very first claim that a prophecy was fulfilled, rules out the understanding of “fulfillment” as a foreseen future coming to pass.  Matthew writes that when Mary had borne a son, and Joseph had called his name “Jesus,” the prophetic word was fulfilled that said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” We would expect that if the passage quoted from Isaiah here really were a future foreseen and described, Mary would have actually named her son “Emmanuel,” not “Jesus.”  So something different is going on.

The early chapters of Matthew present several other problems along these lines.  This gospel also says that Jesus dwelt in Nazareth “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.”  Yet nowhere in the prophetic corpus, nor indeed anywhere in all of the Hebrew scriptures, is such a prediction recorded.  And when, after Jesus’ flight into Egypt and return to Israel after Herod’s death, Matthew concludes, “So was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son,’” the reader is puzzled indeed.  The prophet in this case is Hosea, and he was writing history, not predicting the future, when he made this statement.  Specifically, he was describing the Exodus.

The necessary conclusion is that when Matthew speaks of “fulfillment,” he does not mean that a foreseen future has come to pass.  Instead, he means that words spoken at an earlier time in redemptive history have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later, more developed redemptive-historical circumstances. This, to me, is actually a much more powerful concept:  not that humans were given an advance glimpse of what was going to happen in the future, but that the God who superintends and overrules human affairs has demonstrated His unchanging character consistently through time and has revealed more and more of his purposes while reaffirming the earlier-revealed ones.

We may appeal to American history for an illustration of this sense of “fulfillment.”  When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said this to dispute the premise that kings ruled by divine right and that their subjects therefore owed them the kind of unquestioning loyalty they would offer to God.  (That is, he said this to justify a revolutionary independence movement.) 

But when Abraham Lincoln observed in his Gettysburg Address of 1863 that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he meant instead that slavery was incompatible with the fundamental premises of American society. 

And when Martin Luther King said, in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 (appropriately delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial), that he longed for the day when our nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:  ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,’” he explained that in such a nation, people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  This is how the “true” or “fulfilled” (fullest and deepest) meaning of Jefferson’s words would be realized, according to King.

By this same analogy, when Matthew says that Isaiah’s words were “fulfilled” when Mary bore her son and named him Jesus, he means that those words have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning.  The Greek translation that Matthew quotes has helped this happen:  Isaiah uses a Hebrew term that arguably can best be translated “maiden,” while the Greek reads, more intensively, “virgin.”  Moreover, “Emmanuel” is no longer the boy’s name, but rather an explanation of his identity—“God with us.” These two intensified aspects of meaning are brought out when the original statement is heard in the light of later developments as the plan of God unfolds.

The case is similar with “out of Egypt have I called my son.”  “Son” is no longer a metaphorical description of the nation of Israel, but another accurate disclosure of Jesus’ identity. 

As for “he shall be called a Nazarene,” the best explanation seems to be that this was a geographic term of derision (as Nathanael suggests in the gospel of John when he asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”). This would be much like the way the term “Okie” was used during the Dust Bowl years. It was applied to people from Oklahoma and nearby areas that were affected by prolonged drought, who migrated West in search of work and food.  The term ceased to mean “someone from Oklahoma” and came to mean something closer to “gypsy.”  Matthew, in his appeal to the prophets, is summarizing their many statements that the servant of God would be “despised and rejected.”  (The quotation here is indirect, not direct like the preceding ones, and thus does not belong within quotation marks, although modern Bibles sometimes present it that way).

Other announcements of prophetic “fulfillment” may be understood similarly.

* * * * *

Indeed, this is how we should understand the statements in the New Testament that earlier Scriptures were “fulfilled” in various ways when Judas betrayed Jesus.  I’ll look specifically at each of these statements starting in my next post, explaining in what way they represent earlier sayings that have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical circumstances.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the “true meaning” of the principle that “all men are created equal” would be lived out in a nation in which people were judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Did Jesus forgive Judas?

Q. Did Jesus forgive Judas, or was he damned to hell?

There’s no question in my mind that Jesus forgave Judas.  On the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  This applied to everyone who was responsible for his crucifixion—not just the squad of Roman soldiers who actually put him on the cross, but also the crowds who shouted “Crucify him!”, the religious and political leaders who conspired against him, and yes, even Judas who betrayed him. Indeed, Jesus’ words also apply to all of us, whose sins put him on the cross.

The real question is whether Judas accepted the forgiveness of Jesus and so was saved.  I’d like to argue that he might have been.  I realize this is not the majority view among Christians. (In the Inferno, for example, Dante put Judas in the very mouth of Satan, in the lowest circle of hell!)  But hear me out.

The Bible tells us that once Jesus had been condemned to death, “When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’” This, to me, sounds like genuine repentance.  There is open and specific confession of sin, and there is restitution—what John the Baptist once called “fruit worthy of repentance.”  If Judas had not been genuinely repentant, I don’t think he would have returned the money he got for betraying Jesus. But apparently Judas had not expected that the Jewish leaders would attempt, successfully in the end, to have Jesus put to death. He had only thought he was delivering him to arrest and detention. When he saw where his actions had led, he repented.

This, at least is the reading of many English translations—that Judas “repented.” (The KJV, ASV, RSV, NRSV, Good News Translation, and several others have this reading.)  But other English Bibles suggest instead that while Judas “was seized with remorse” (NIV) or “changed his mind” (ESV), he didn’t actually repent, he just felt regret.

The Greek term is metamelomai, and it does seem to mean something like “regret” or “change one’s mind” when it is used in 2 Corinthians (“if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it”) and Hebrews (“The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind”).  However, it clearly means “repent” when it is used a little earlier in the gospel of Matthew. Shortly before the passage about Judas, Matthew quotes Jesus as telling the chief priests and elders, “John [the Baptist] came to you to show you the way of righteousness,” but “you did not repent and believe him.”  (This is the NIV’s translation of the term there.)  So a good case can be made that Judas did repent of his sin of betraying Jesus, that he confessed it, and that he sought to make what restitution he could.

Unfortunately, the chief priests and elders, whose appointed role was to help shepherd repentant sinners like him back into the fold, turned him away, saying, “So what? That’s your problem.” In order to accept Judas’s confession, they would have had to admit that it was just as wrong for them to have conspired to put Jesus to death, but their pride and vested interests did not allow them to do this. When Judas did not receive the spiritual counsel and restoration that he was seeking and desperately needed, in despair he went out and hanged himself.  But we should be very careful not to conclude that his suicide proves he went to hell in the end.  People tragically commit suicide when they lose all hope–not when they lose all faith.

And so I believe there is enough in the gospel narratives about Judas to conclude that he may have been a sincerely repentant sinner whom the religious leaders of his day unfortunately failed.  But God knows what was ultimately in his heart, and He will judge him on that basis.  One vital lesson for us is never to become so compromised by sin and pride ourselves that we cannot show the way to someone who, whether genuinely repentant or merely remorseful to begin with, might be led back to God through wise and compassionate counsel.

Some may read this post and wonder, “But didn’t Jesus and the apostles say it was predicted in Scripture that Judas would betray Jesus and be lost? Doesn’t that settle the question?”  I’ll take up that concern in my next post. Rembrandt, Judas Returning the Thirty Silver Pieces


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 144 other followers