Judas Iscariot — Why Did He Fall?

There were many ill-advised characters in the life and ministry of Jesus — corrupt priests, pride-blinded Pharisees, scornful siblings, weak Roman officials, conscienceless soldiers.

But although one person in the passion story had every advantage by his proximity to Jesus, he proved the darkest and most sinister of them all. It was Jesus’ own disciple, Judas Iscariot.

How did Judas become one of Jesus’ apostles? Luke tells us that Jesus spent a whole night in prayer before choosing from among his many followers the twelve whom he would call Apostles (Luke 6:12-16). He then invested three years in their training, and Judas was there the entire time.

Judas had heard Jesus teach the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. He witnessed the healings. He was present when the Master called Lazarus from the tomb. He had heard and seen it all.

Why then was his end so grim?

There are a few passages in the Gospels that shed light on the question. During a time when Jesus’ popularity with the crowds began to fade, John tells us, Jesus addressed a crowd of complainants and made a grave statement: Yet there are some of you who do not believe (John 6:64a).

John becomes even more explicit. He writes: For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him (6:64b). The whole of John’s Gospel is about believing in Jesus.

Only a short time before this crisis moment, some in the crowd had participated in the miraculous feeding of five thousand. They wanted more. They reminded Jesus of the manna in the wilderness; he countered by speaking about the bread of life.

Then he used a metaphor to declare what he meant when he called them to believe in him: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (6:53). Believing involved soul communion, identifying with Jesus in a very personal way, trusting oneself to his Messiahship and his cause.

Judas must have heard Jesus’ words. Judas still traveled with Jesus but obviously did not believe in him for who he really was.

We recall that John was writing his Gospel account many years after the events. Time on occasion sharpens perspective and deepens insight. He recalled the special dinner in Jesus’ honor and the outburst of Judas when Mary poured the expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet.

John knew what was at issue. Judas was a thief. He was the treasurer for the Apostles and he helped himself to the bag at will. His failure to believe with heart and soul had left him open to the devil’s corrupting power.

For those who hear his call there is a cost to believing in this wholehearted way, but there is a greater cost to refusing to believe.

At the end, Judas led a crowd of officials to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he identified Jesus with a traitorous kiss, and addressed him as “Rabbi” — not Master.

How unsettling to realize even today that one can know Jesus through Holy Scripture and the Holy Spirit’s ministrations and yet not fully believe. In reading about Judas, one feels the tragedy again and asks with each of the disciples: Lord, is it I?

Easter is a great season to examine the depth of our faith in our Living Lord and the degree of our commitment to his cause.

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Image info: The Conscience – Judas, Nikolaj Nikolajewitsch Ge (Public Domain)

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Belief That Will Get Us into Heaven

Point to a saucer of milk you have put down for your kitten and the kitten may simply play with your pointing finger. The kitty doesn’t understand your sign. But point a six-year-old child in the direction of his lost ball and he will run immediately to retrieve it. He takes the pointing finger as a sign.

That’s how John uses the word, sign, when he refers to Jesus’ miracles. They point to something beyond themselves. When, for example, Jesus feeds the 5000 men miraculously from a lad’s five barley loaves and two sardine-sized fish he is pointing to something more.

The crowd experienced the wonder of the miracle but didn’t understand what it pointed to. Their scheme in response to the free meal was to capture and make Jesus their king. They must have thought: free meals for life!

They were so serious about their scheme that his life was in danger. Jesus slipped away to a nearby mountain, and when night came he walked on water and the next morning was with the disciples in Capernaum.

When the crowds discovered that both Jesus and his disciples had disappeared from the northeastern shore of Galilee they took boats to Capernaum on the western shore. They hoped to see more miraculous deeds and perhaps experience another miracle meal.

When they found him, Jesus challenged their motives: I tell you truly, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill (John 6:26). Then he led the discussion in the direction of a food that  will endure to eternal life.

When the men asked, What must we do to do the works God requires? Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent (John 6:28,29). The rest of the chapter deals with the sign and the conflict his words awakened. They were in no mood to believe.

In this chapter John used the word “to believe” nine times. At the outset, Jesus said to them: The work of God is this: “to believe” in the one he has sent (John 6:29). The word, believe, used in this way was to be taken seriously.

The men suggested that Jesus repeat the miracle of manna given miraculously to their forefathers in the wilderness. Jesus’ corrected them and in doing so moved them one step closer to understanding the sign he intended the feeding of 5000 to be: For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives light to the world (John 6:33)

He was referring to himself, an immeasurably better gift than manna. Their obtuseness in the presence of our Lord was remarkable. They argued back. They asked questions filled with doubt.

He even put his finger directly on their unbelief when he said: But as I have told you, you have seen me and still do not believe (John 6:36).

The picture is enlarged. God the Father was deeply engaged in this gift of eternal life for his creatures. Jesus said: all those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away (John 6:37). But he added, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day (John 6:40). The two promises belong together.

Jesus’ strongest and most arresting statement during this exchange was this: Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you, whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day (John 6:54).

This was Jesus metaphoric way of saying that believing in him involved more than a surface confession — the tipping of a hat or the signing of a pledge. He was the bread of life. Believing in Jesus involved their receiving him, the taking of him into their very beings by faith to live there.

When the gospel is simply given and a small child is asked: Would you like to invite Jesus into your heart, they usually have an instinct for answering. Believing in Jesus at any age involves bidding him to enter and live within us in the power of the Holy Spirit.

On this occasion his teaching proved to be too exacting for the timid and shrunken souls of some of them. They grumbled at his imagery. Even a goodly number of his disciples said his teaching was too hard to accept. The crowds thinned out.

Then Jesus put this question to his twelve disciples: You do not want to leave me too, do you? Peter responded: Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68). It was a golden moment for Peter. He momentarily understood what was behind Jesus’ miracles and words. He understood the sign — Jesus, the bread of life for time and eternity.

O for a faith that will not shrink
though pressed by many a foe,
That will not tremble on the brink
of poverty or woe.

Lord give me such a faith as this,
and then whate’er may come
I’ll taste e’en here the hallowed bliss
of an eternal home.

William Bathurst, 1831.

 

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Image info: TumbleDryLow@Angela (via flickr.com)

Re-post: God’s Super City

Photo credit: blogmulo (via flickr.com)And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2 RSV).

The city is neither modern New York nor ancient Sodom. It is neither buried beneath centuries of sand nor clouded by the haze of fossil fuel combustion.  It isn’t marked by human genius, nor is it scarred by human depravity.

Its splendor owes nothing to man; it is the city of God. Humans, wherever they have gone, have organized into communities. Their skills in social structures have come to a peak in the building of cities like Tokyo, San Francisco, Toronto, London, and Atlanta. These highly developed communities have witnessed across history to the genius of their creators. Yet cities have fallen one by one: sacked by enemies, corrupted by their inhabitants, or emptied by the vagaries of history.

The Bible has a dual attitude toward cities. Jesus loved Jerusalem and wept over it in great tenderness, then pronounced destruction upon it. It was his city, the place of the patriarchs and prophets, and it had known great moments. But it also distinguished itself for its stoning of the prophets. Then this city that God had uniquely honored had swelled with pride and rejected his Son.

The Bible begins its story of mankind in a garden and ends its story in a city, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God (Revelation 21:2). The vision of this city, given to John on Patmos, is rapturous, and the Book of Revelation records it with splendor of expression.

This last book of the Bible speaks throughout in what some have called cartoon language. It has been pointed out that a cartoonist today wanting to show tensions between Russia and China, for example, simply pictures a bear being eyed menacingly by a red dragon. We would get the message.

The Revelation is filled with verbal pictures – four-headed beasts, angels with vials, and cities like the New Jerusalem – from all of which we are intended to get a message too.

The message is that in his time, God will provide the perfect community for those who belong to him. Paul calls it the Jerusalem which is above (Galatians 4:26), and our commonwealth . . . in heaven (Philippians 3:20 RSV). It is the city toward which Abraham was headed, the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10 NEB), the eternal dwelling place of God and His people.

Today, many of the cities of man are under a cloud, if not one heavy with a cloud of sulphur dioxide or a threatening cloud from a dirty bomb. The city is a place of physical decay and human despair to many forgotten people, to them a seeming hell without flames. Yet, their leaders keep a proud silence about God and his Kingdom, and grope only on the horizontal plane for solutions to their troubles.

Even so, Christ wept over a city ruled by such attitudes, and he healed body, mind, and spirit of people in its dirty streets. Can God’s people do less? In every sector there are needs which compassionate Christians can meet, despair they can work to relieve, boredom they can help to replace with meaning. In many decaying cities, small corps of Christians join to help relieve such problems.

But here’s the paradox. We can serve with compassion in the city of man only if we are convinced at every level of our beings that our true destination is the New Jerusalem, the eternal city of God.

Photo credit: blogmulo (via flickr.com)


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The Night Nicodemus Talked with Jesus

The story of Nicodemus in chapter 3 of the Gospel of John sometimes stops me in my tracks.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, so he has high moral and religious standards. Besides, he’s a member of the ruling council in Jerusalem, a man greatly respected there. He may have approached Jesus in the nighttime because he wanted a serious, undisturbed discussion.

Like many in Israel, Nicodemus believed in God’s coming kingdom on earth. He believed all enemies would be defeated and the Messiah would rule righteously. He wanted to be welcomed when the day came.

Nicodemus begins by affirming Jesus with the words: Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him (John 3:2). Perhaps Nicodemus and his peers had shared opinions about Jesus.

Jesus engages Nicodemus in a serious discussion of eternal matters. To this specialist in religion and morality, Jesus announces: Very truly I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again (John 3:3).

Nicodemus asks Jesus quizzically: “By born again do you mean start the cycle of life all over again in my mother’s womb?” Our Lord follows with a fuller explanation.

Very truly I tell you no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Water is symbolic of the promised washing away of sins, effected in Jewish thought by the shedding of sacrificial blood. This washing is humankind’s universal need, for all have sinned and do fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

Jesus explains that fallen human nature can produce only fallen human nature; that is a fixed reality. But God’s Holy Spirit can and does infuse the seeker with a new quality of life. That’s why it’s called a new birth, or being born again.

The transformation is a mystery, for sure, but so is the wind we feel in our faces but don’t understand its source. Nevertheless, we accept from experience that it exists.

This transformation is often spoken of in Scripture. Ezekiel prophesied to Judah in troubled times: I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean . . . . I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you (Ezekiel 36:25, 26).

All this is of grace — God’s undeserved generosity — and it happens in response to our exercise of the faith God engenders in us as a gift.

The born-again person is not just washed clean; that by itself wouldn’t last very long. But at the same time the Spirit of God indwells him or her. Not infrequently the indwelling Spirit is evident in a believer.

A few days ago a man came to our house to change batteries in a device. He was a total stranger. I sensed somehow that he was a Christian and I asked him. He beamed as he answered that he was a born-again Christian and immediately told me where he worshipped and served.

A new birth brings about change, not all at the same time or in the same way for different people. The change is internal and yet often discernible. Attitudes change. Relationships are corrected. A love to be with God’s people develops. Bad habits are addressed and broken.

So what about Nicodemus? Isn’t he already above reproach? Trying hard? Succeeding in his attempt to “reach upward” to God? Even for Nicodemus, and for people everywhere who are striving to be “good,” the issue remains the new birth — believing in Jesus and inviting him through the indwelling Spirit to exercise lordship over their lives.

That is, the issue is still sin for the “virtuous” like Nicodemus, and spiritual renewal is necessary to gain entrance into the Kingdom now and at the end of the age.

We meet Nicodemus just twice more in John’s Gospel: he is helping Joseph, a secret disciple of Jesus, in the burial of our crucified Lord’s body (John 19:38). We can infer that his encounter with Jesus “re-birthed” and changed him for the rest of his life, and for eternity.

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Image info: Jesus and Nicodemus, by Crijn Hendricksz Volmarijn (1604-1645)

Preparing Our Hearts and Minds for Easter

Leading up to Easter, April 21, I intend to spend part of each day in the Gospel of John and I invite you to join me. Yesterday I read all but the last two chapters. Today I’ll finish my read-through and begin my reflections, one passage at a time.

Why spend time each day on this? Easter is a high point of the church year and I want to renew my faith in anticipation of that great Gospel celebration. The Apostle Paul gives me an additional reason when he says, Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17).

Sometimes, due to the “grind” of life, we continue to believe but the vitality of our faith fades. A common reason may be that we have become slack in turning regularly to the source of our faith — the Scripture, and especially the sections that recount the Gospel story.

Faith is not like a permanent substance injected into our veins. It is more a God-enabled affirmation we give regularly — daily is best — to the truth as it is in Jesus.

And, looking intentionally through the Gospel of John toward the Easter celebration of our Lord’s passion at Calvary, and his subsequent resurrection, may be an especially meaningful exercise to refresh our faith.

John’s chosen device in presenting the Gospel is a remarkable prologue, the first 18 verses of chapter 1.

A prologue is a literary device at the beginning to help the reader make sense of the main body of the text that follows. It’s been suggested that a prologue is like a short story set down to give us helpful details before the full story follows.

John’s prologue is preparatory theology, set down in simple language to be pondered. It says: In the beginning was the Word. That is, whenever the beginning of the universe came to be, the Word already was. But why does he present Jesus at first as the Word?

Tradition holds that John spent his senior years in Ephesus, a city near the Aegean Sea with a strong Greek influence. For several centuries some Greek thinkers had posited that an unseen principle or source was in being from which all that existed had come. This they often referred to as the Word.

A Jewish presence was also strong in Ephesus and thoughts about God also prominently featured the concept of Word. God created the heavens and the earth by his Word let there be (Genesis 1). And the worshipers in Israel often sang in temple worship such lines as, By the word of the Lord the heavens were made (Psalm 33:6). For them, the Word was God at work.

John appears to pull all this together and in doing so takes our understanding a giant step forward by telling his readers that the Word was not merely an influence or force, but a person he had seen, heard, even touched with his own hand (1 John 1:1).

So John begins the Gospel account with the astounding announcement that in the beginning was the Word — Jesus! That is, even before the creation of the universe, the Word — Jesus — already “was.”  Moreover, this Word was with God, and more astounding still, this Word was God.

Professor Google assures me that our universe is 13.8 billion years old. I cannot verify the number but I respect scientific efforts to make an estimate. However, I am assured from another source that whenever that massive beginning was, Christ our Lord was already there, the alpha and omega of creation.

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Image info: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Follow (via flickr.com)

The Peril of Rushing to Judgment

How could King David have imagined that his act of kindness would be misjudged and lead to a blood-spilling war?

Here’s the background: The young King David had captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites and twice defeated the Philistines. Military engagements in other theaters had been successful too (2 Samuel 10).

Israel was at peace when David heard that King Nahash, of the Ammonites, had died. Remembering that King Nahash had shown him kindness in the past, David sent envoys to return the favor, delivering his condolences to Nahash’s son Hanan, who was now on the throne of Ammon.

But upon the envoys’ arrival the military commanders in Ammon were immediately suspicious of their mission, even though the envoys were peaceful and showed no signs that they had come to size up Ammon for later attack.

Nevertheless, the commanders “just had a feeling” that the envoys had sinister motives, and they shared those feelings with King Hanan.

Don’t you know, they said, that these men are really here to spy out the city and overthrow it? It was a groundless opinion but it registered like a firecracker with the king.

As a result, he had the envoys seized and each man’s beard shaved half off — a serious indignity in that culture. It would make them appear to their peers like clowns or worse.

The king also had their long robes cut off at the buttocks in order to produce further humiliation. In this half-shaved and scantily dressed condition they were sent on their way.

The word of their mistreatment got to David quickly, and he sent word to the envoys to wait at Jericho until their beards grew back.

At the same time, however, back in Ammon the commanders were having second thoughts. What if their actions had aroused David’s fury? Might he send his army to even the score? They began to make war plans just in case.

The Ammonites hired twenty thousand Syrian foot soldiers as well as the king of Maakah south of Ammon and a thousand of his men, and another thousand men from Tob to the north and east.

When David received this information he further escalated tensions by dispatching his general, Joab, with his army of battle-tested fighting men — perhaps as many as thirty thousand in number.

The battle was joined and became so extended that near the end of the ensuing war the Syrians even summoned troops from beyond the Euphrates River to come and engage.

Before it was over, David gathered all of Israel’s remaining manpower and he himself joined the battle.

He won, but the result was both tragic and gruesome. David’s forces had killed seven hundred of the Syrian charioteers and forty thousand foot soldiers.

How could such a bloody struggle develop out of an official gesture of sympathy and respect? The story is set in ancient times, with their gruesome military practices, to be sure, but we may draw a modern moral lesson.

To wit: It is words of suspicion and misunderstanding, not physical weapons, that initiate wars. Such words once uttered can take on a life of their own. A word spoken with haste can wound or seriously damage a relationship.

It all calls to mind the arresting words of Jesus: But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matthew 12:36).

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Photo credit: Zeev Barkan (via flickr.com)

Christmas Makes Us Want to Sing

Saint Luke lays out very carefully the story of our Lord’s coming to earth as a baby. In the process, he includes hymns, or releases of lyrical praise, in four situations in the drama.

After receiving the angel’s message of the special child she would bear and name Jesus, the Virgin Mary traveled from Galilee to the hill country of Judea to visit her relative, Elizabeth. There, Elizabeth exclaimed to her prophetically that she would bear the Lord Christ, and in response Mary broke forth in a beautiful song of exaltation beginning with: My soul glorifies the Lord … (Luke 1:46-55).

I visualize this outbreak of joy and amazement as beginning at the entrance to Elizabeth’s humble dwelling when the two women greeted each other and began to share their stories.

Months later, eight days after Elizabeth’s baby was born (to become John the Baptist), the infant was taken for circumcision and naming. There was some disagreement among friends and relatives about the name, some of whom expected the baby would be named after his father, Zechariah.

As you will recall, Zechariah was unable to speak. This was punishment for his disbelief when the Angel Gabriel made promise of the baby’s coming birth. At that time, Gabriel had also told Zechariah what the baby was to be named. Now, in obedience, Zechariah settled the community discussion by writing on a tablet, “His name is John” (1:62-63).

With that, Zechariah’s powers of speech were restored and the Holy Spirit came upon him. He began to prophesy in a second hymn-like burst of praise, beginning with: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them … (1:68). It’s a long prophecy full of a great hope for Israel.

Luke then tells us about a group of shepherds who some months later were in the region near Bethlehem guarding their sheep from the perils of the night. Unexpectedly, an angel of the Lord appeared and the region glowed with a heavenly light so beyond the ordinary that it terrified them.

The angel first spoke calming words, assuring them that nothing in this extraordinary moment should frighten them. Then followed his message: I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord (2:10-11).

The heavenly messenger then gave simple instruction on where to find the baby: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger (2:12).

As soon as this message was delivered, the lone messenger was joined by a vast company of the heavenly host filling the nighttime skies with their radiance. The heavenly choir sang the third song in the Christmas account: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests (2:14). Due to this special announcement, the shepherds were the first visitors to the newborn baby Jesus, God’s Messiah.

Finally, Luke writes that when the time for Mary’s purification came (forty days after the child’s birth), the parents appeared at the temple to offer two pigeons, the sacrifice required of the poor, and to present their firstborn to God, all in keeping with Jewish law.

While in the temple, this couple was met by Simeon, who was a regular presence there. Simeon not only was a righteous and devout man but a man living under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He expected to see God’s Messiah — the consolation of Israel — before leaving this life.

That day Simeon, by divine appointment, met Joseph and Mary and the six-week-old baby Jesus. He took the baby into his arms and there on the spot sang a song of praise to God: Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation (2:29-30).

And before Joseph and Mary had even left the temple that day they were accosted by yet another constant worshiper — a prophet named Anna. She was 84 and had been widowed after seven years of a marriage. She had given her life to worship and never left the temple, spending her time there in fasting and prayer.

When she came upon the couple with a baby she too discerned instantly what his unique mission would be. From her, there was no fifth song but she gave public thanks to God and spoke prophetically about the child to other worshipers who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel.

Luke tells the story of that first Christmas as having been saturated with song. The Almighty was manifesting his glory in Jesus the Son and believers were responding. And to this day choirs gather in cathedrals and house churches and even in the aisles of department stores or hospital wards to sing the good news; a Savior has been born — Christ the King.

Along with Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon, when we observe Christmas well may we also break into song — to the glory of God.

Photo credit: Shehal Joseph (via flickr.com)

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