Rehabilitate the Son of Perdition? Judas in Eight Scenes

posted by R. Fowler White

Among the many searing and disturbing parts of the accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death is the fact that He was betrayed, as we all know, by Judas Iscariot. The impact of that act is so significant that Judas has become the prime example of ‘the betrayer’ in Western culture. Judas not only has a role in virtually every retelling of the Passion of Jesus; he appears often as the proverbial symbol of the profit-driven betrayer in much of our literature and cinema. Yet, every now and then, we hear of efforts to look at Judas in a more sympathetic light, to rehabilitate him. ‘Really?’ you say. Yes, really. Is such a rehabilitation even possible? Taking the Bible seriously, the unfolding relationship between Judas and Jesus can be told from a series of NT scenes. Reflect then on eight scenes in which Judas appears by name.

Scene 1: Judas was appointed by Jesus (Matt 10:1-4; Luke 6:12-15; Mark 3:13-19). The name Judas, taken from one of the sons of Jacob-Israel, was the Greek version of the name Judah. The modifier Iscariot most likely refers to his hometown, indicating that he was Ish-karioth, a ‘man of Karioth,’ a town in southern Judea. As a Judean, he lived closer to a center of education (Jerusalem) and was thus probably more educated and cultured than others among the Twelve (such as the fishermen). Still, like the other Eleven, Judas was chosen by Jesus after an all-night prayer session and was made ‘keeper of the common purse’ (treasurer) for Jesus and the Twelve. Indeed, Judas became one of the few to whom Jesus had spoken privately about the fact that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Judas, then, was one of the Twelve with whom Jesus had chosen to be most intimately associated. Still, we notice that the four Gospel writers all refer to Judas not just as one of the Twelve. No, they brand him the one who betrayed Him, the one who became a traitor, to underline the heinous nature of his sin and crime. We’re introduced to Judas, then, as one of the Twelve appointed by Jesus, but as the one who betrayed Him.

Scene 2: Judas secretly rejected Jesus (John 6:66-71). As we come to John 6, we’re two years into the earthly ministry of Jesus. Judas has just seen the sign of the feeding of the 5,000 and the sign of walking on the water. He has just heard the “I am the Bread of Life” sermon—which, we’re told, was not received well at all. In fact, the scene in John 6 is one of mass defection from Jesus after His mass popularity. Like many in the crowds, Judas stumbled when Jesus identified Himself as the true Bread of Life from heaven. Hearing that sermon, Judas grumbled as one who did not believe Him (6:61, 64). The surprise here is not only that Judas secretly disbelieved, for many disbelieved. The surprise is that Jesus knew from the beginning that, though he was one of His own choosing, Judas was a devil, a slanderer, who did not believe Him and was intending to betray Him (John 6:70-71).

Scene 3: Judas expressed public contempt for Mary of Bethany, who anointed Jesus for burial (John 12:1-8). By the time we reach this scene in John’s Gospel, we know that Judas has witnessed many signs that authenticated Jesus’ identity, including all seven signs that culminated in the resurrection of Lazarus in Bethany. Back again in Bethany, while Jesus and the Twelve were having supper with Mary and Martha and also with resurrected Lazarus, Mary’s act of devotion got everybody’s attention. Matthew and Mark show us that, in that critical moment, all the Twelve expressed contempt for her action. John, though, singles out Judas for protesting Mary’s act as if she were effectively stealing from the poor to benefit Jesus. Yet his complaint, John tells us, was just a pretentious cover for his pilfering from the common purse of Jesus and the Twelve. To be sure, Jesus rebuked all the Twelve for criticizing Mary, but John expressly identifies Judas at this point as a thief. Why? Because Judas’ protest not only depreciates Mary’s act of devotion; it also portends his complicity in the very events that made Mary’s act necessary and by which he would seek to benefit himself at the expense of Jesus’ life.

Scene 4: Judas bargained with the chief priests (Matt 26:14-16; Mark 14:10-11; Luke 22:3-6; John 13:2). Shortly after Scene 3 at Bethany, we’re told that Satan entered Judas, putting it in his heart to betray Jesus. From the NT accounts of demon possession, we may justifiably infer that Judas began to exhibit any number of unusual symptoms. Perhaps he took on a new personality of the evil spirit within or spoke with an alien voice. Maybe he exhibited fits of rage or extremely violent behavior, or erupted into tirades and screaming, both obscene and blasphemous. Conceivably, he displayed physical disease, disability, or deformity, or even extraordinary physical strength. Most distinctive of Judas, we imagine him developing self-destructive behavior and a hardening to the things of God. Confident at least in these last two symptoms, it was in this state that Judas bargained for Jesus’ life and covenanted with Jewish leaders for thirty pieces of silver, the price of a slave. We can only gasp at the thought that Judas weighed Jesus in the balance and found Him to be worth such a pittance. Yet he compounds our shock by agreeing to a signal for his treachery: a kiss, the customary greeting of a disciple to his beloved rabbi. Just so do we see the stark contrast between Judas’ act of betrayal and Mary’s act of devotion, for deceitful are the kisses of an enemy (Prov 27:6).

Scene 5: Judas eating and drinking at the Passover feast with Jesus (John 13:18-30). Yes, Judas was there at the Passover table in the Upper Room. The devil, we read, had put it in his heart to betray Jesus (13:2). During the Passover meal but before the first Lord’s Supper was instituted, Jesus washed the feet of the Twelve, including Judas. Then Jesus announced the presence of a betrayer at the table, giving Judas a piece of the Passover bread to identify him as the traitor. His true identity, however, remained hidden from all but Jesus. After Judas had taken that morsel, John tells us, Satan entered into him (again). Jesus said to him, What you are going to do, do quickly. And Judas immediately went out. And it was night. Revealed as the son of perdition (John 17:12), the night was his only proper habitat. Still, none of the Eleven so much as looked askance at Judas, much less said, Lord, is it Judas? No, the other disciples thought Judas had gone out to give something to the poor. His deeds of stealth hid his true identity: like his father the devil, he was a deceiver and an accomplice to murder.

Scene 6: Judas became a guide to those who arrested Jesus (John 18:1-9). After Judas left the Upper Room, the Gospel writers tell us how ‘the devil’s bargain’ all went down. Jesus went out with His disciples across the Kidron Valley to a garden where He had often met with His disciples. Meanwhile, Judas, being familiar with that place, proceeded there with a squad of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, carrying lanterns and torches and weapons—that kiss of betrayal included. Jesus, because He knew all that was to happen to Him, stepped forward to meet them. Most notably, Judas also, who was betraying Him, was standing with them. His heart filled by Satan, he had become a guide to those who arrested Jesus.

Scene 7: Remorseful without repentance, Judas committed suicide (Matt 27:3-11). Having seen Jesus condemned to death, Judas was now filled with sorrow and regret—but not with repentance or faith. His response was not that of a changed heart, but of a pained heart. We see him confess his guilt to the Sanhedrin, but not to God or to His Son Jesus. And he then died by suicide. Here we shouldn’t forget the consequences of demonic indwelling: self-destructive behavior. For the love of money, Judas forfeited his soul, showing remorse but no repentance.

Scene 8: God cut Judas out from among the Twelve (Acts 1:12-26). Son of perdition that he was, Judas became a branch broken off from the olive tree (Rom 11:22). He fell away and went to his own place. As Pss 69:25 and 109:8 put it, his dwelling became desolate, and another took his office (namely, Matthias; Acts 1:26). When John the Apostle saw the vision of the Holy City (Rev 21:9-14), he looked on the twelve stones of the foundation of that city and on those stones were the names of the Twelve. Knowing that God had cut Judas out from among the Twelve, we can be sure that John saw no stone with the name Judas Iscariot on it.

Is it really possible to rehabilitate Judas, to put him in a more sympathetic light? If we take the Bible seriously and reflect on Judas in these eight scenes, our answer has to be ‘No.’ But let’s ask another question: why do some of us want to rehabilitate Judas? I submit this reason: because we recognize ourselves in him. He was, after all, among the masses who persisted in rejecting Jesus. Oh, yes, we differ in critical ways from Judas, but we’re also like him. Enslaved to his sins he betrayed Jesus, and so it is with us all. If in that respect we’re like Judas, then the real question is, can we be rehabilitated when Judas was not? Well, let’s put it this way: which kiss would you give Jesus? The kiss of betrayal from Judas brought him the agony of damnation. But the NT scenes of Judas tell us of another kiss too. It’s the kiss of faith from Mary of Bethany who washed Jesus’ feet with her many tears out of her joy over His forgiveness of her many sins. If our kiss is like that of Judas, it will bring us agony in our damnation. But if our kiss is like that of Mary, it will bring us joy in our forgiveness. Be sure, then, that the kiss you give Jesus is the kiss of faith (Ps 2:12).

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7C The Dragon’s Imprisonment in Rev 20:1-3

Posted by R. Fowler White

We have said in a previous post that the best approach to Rev 20:1-6 sees it as a series of visions related to Christ’s first coming and the interadvent age, while Rev 20:7–21:8 is a series of visions related to Christ’s second coming, the general resurrection and judgment, and the new world to come. If our approach is correct, then we need to consider this question: if the text says that Satan the serpentine Dragon is cut off from the earth during the confinement envisioned in Rev 20:1-3, how can we harmonize this vision of his imprisonment during the interadvent age with the clear NT evidence that he is active in the same period (e.g., 1 Thess 2:18; 1 Pet 5:8)? Can we still confess our commitment to a consistent method of historical-grammatical-theological interpretation?

The force of this question is well taken. Yet that force is blunted when we consider Jesus’ saying about the binding of the strong man (Matt 12:29), His vision of Satan’s fall (Luke 10:17-18), and His teaching that His death/exaltation means the judgment of the world, the deposing of the ruler of this world, the exaltation of the Son of Man, and the drawing of all peoples to Himself (John 12:31-32). All those passages give us light on the question before us. We get even more light if we recognize John’s tactical use of the themes of God’s victory and house building. So, back to our question: to what extent should we expect the events in the vision of Rev 20:1-3 to translate into events in history?

I. The fates of God’s enemies in the Bible outside Rev 20:1-3—The answer to our question about the dragon’s imprisonment comes when we examine the relationship between historical events and their reimagined depictions as God’s combat and construction in the Bible. When we study those depictions, we find that the fate of dragons is analogous, not identical to the fate of those characters or entities in history to which the images are applied. To put it differently, while the dragon (serpent, sea beast) may be captured or slain in the reimagined depiction, the enemy depicted in the beastly image is neither captured nor slain in history. We can see this fact in the way biblical writers apply the imagery to the events of creation and release from exile.

A. In Job 26:10-13, we’re told that the creation process involved God smiting Rahab the anti-creation monster and running the fleeing serpent through (presumably with a sword). We read a similar reimagining of the creation plot in Ps 89:9-13. And yet, when compared to the creation account of Gen 1, we find that the deep and darkness, to which Rahab and the serpent correspond, were neither smitten nor run through: they were restrained or compartmentalized.

B. Similarly, in Isa 51:9-11, the exiles’ release from Babylon is compared to God dismembering Rahab and (again) running the dragon through. Yet in history Babylon, to whom Rahab and the dragon correspond, was neither dismembered nor run through by God; rather Babylon, in the person of King Cyrus, was stirred to act on the exiles’ behalf according to the Lord’s good pleasure (2 Chron 36:22; Ezra 1:1; Isa 44:28).

C. For any who might think the distinction between historical events and their reimagined depictions is isolated to the texts just cited, I can only invite them to consider the other texts where biblical authors apply the anti-creative/anti-redemptive animal images to a character or entity in history. In each and every case, they will find that the beast’s fate in the depictions and its fate in history are analogous, not identical. This will be so whether they find the evil animal to have been captured or slain. In all such cases, the beast’s fate represents the truth that the effort of God’s enemies to resist His creative and redemptive work is itself invincibly resisted by God, whether the means He uses is temporary or final.

II. The fate of God’s enemy in Rev 20:1-3

A. Against the background above, we go back to Rev 20:1-3 where the Dragon named “the Devil and Satan” is captured and confined in the abyss. How should we interpret this captivity? We should remember the way biblical authors reimagine historical events using the images of God in battle and God building. We should recall that, both in Revelation as a whole and in the immediately preceding and following contexts of Rev 20:1-3, John, following his biblical forebears, has already adapted those images to interpret the historical events linked with Christ’s death and exaltation.

B. In that light, we’re bound to conclude that the Dragon’s fate in Rev 20:1-3 is analogous but not identical to Satan’s fate in history. Stated differently, while the Dragon is captured and confined in John’s vision, Satan is, like Babylon and the darkness and deep, restrained and even compartmentalized in history, specifically, deprived of his role as deceiver of the world’s nations.

C. The Dragon’s capture in 20:1-3, then, means that Christ’s exaltation has postponed Satan’s age-ending deception of the nations, his corruption of the world into an abomination of desolation, and, most importantly, his final attempt to destroy the church being built by Christ. As we’ll see even more fully from our study of the vision in 20:4-6, the vision of the Dragon’s capture signals to us readers that, despite appearances to the contrary, the exalted Christ is taking the necessary steps to defeat His enemies and to build His kingdom (cf. 1 Cor 15:24-25), even now rescuing His chosen kingdom-citizens from all the nations (5:9-10) while He keeps the wannabe-deceiver of those nations incarcerated until His rescue work is done.

Conclusion: If we desire to practice and protect a valid and consistent method of interpretation, then there is no better place to press the point than right here in Rev 20:1-3. We should recognize that in Rev 20:1-3 and its context, John has adapted the theme of God’s victory over the Dragon to reimagine and thus to illuminate the significance of Christ’s exaltation as it relates to Satan. To recognize John’s reimagining is to appreciate how much of a debt he owed to the heritage of the OT authors. To overlook or ignore that heritage is arguably to be inconsistent in our practice of responsible biblical interpretation, particularly when it comes to a difficult text.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7D Interpreting Rev 20:4-6

Sovereignty, Satan, Saruman, Sauron, and Spying Scary Stuff

There is in Christian circles today a pandemic of fear. Two main fears have presented themselves. One, of a virus; the other, of government. These two fears are threatening to drown out the fear of God. They are also threatening to undermine Christians’ belief in the sovereignty of God. People are behaving as if a virus or the government is becoming or already is more powerful than God.

There is a variety of reactions visible at the moment. Some take the cocoon approach. Others display a sort of obsession to know the worst, and they tend to wallow in the bad news, thinking that if they can just know the worst, then they will retain some degree of control over the situation. This latter reaction is the one I am primarily addressing.

The primary analogy I wish to use is that of Saruman and Denethor’s twin desires to know everything through the seeing stones (the palantiri). The problem with both of them using the palantiri is that Sauron controlled the flow of information. They both saw only what Sauron wanted them to see. As a result, Saruman capitulated to what he saw and feared. Denethor went mad with hopelessness, even though he did not capitulate to Sauron’s tyranny. They were both tempted by the same thing: the thought that knowledge equals power equals control. The problem for them both was that Sauron was stronger, and the flow of information was controlled. They couldn’t see anything that Gandalf would have wanted them to see, nor could they see anything that would give them hope.

In our modern age, the information is also being controlled in a majority of cases. It is not news (usually!) to report positive things in this world. What makes the news is almost universally negative. The flow of information is carefully controlled in order to present a world that is spiraling out of control, especially out of God’s control. Fear is very intentionally the goal of much of this information flow. The actual Sauron (Satan) is a master of misinformation. He is directing his forces to paint a very negative picture so that people who could actually do anything about the situation are paralyzed.

This picture is quite misleading. In Revelation 12, if you didn’t know how the story turns out, you would think that the brainy and brawny dragon very obviously was going to win. At the very least, you would probably have put your money on the dragon. Except, he doesn’t win. In fact, he is shown to be laughably, absurdly impotent. He can’t even destroy a woman in labor with her infant child? The lesson of Revelation 12 is that appearances are deceptive. It might look like evil is gaining the upper hand, but in the spiritual realm, this is never the case. And the physical realm does not control what goes on in the spiritual world. If anything, it is the reverse.

We need to learn the lesson of not fearing anything or anyone but God Almighty. His sovereignty cannot be seriously challenged. His plan, however incomprehensible to us at the moment, will eventually be evident as the best possible plan. Worried obsession with information will get us nowhere. It will not result in the control we think we are gaining. Instead, it will only result in capitulation (a la Saruman) or the madness of despair (like Denethor). Instead, we need to be meditating on the actual battle in the spiritual realm, reflecting on the sure and certain knowledge that God cannot possibly lose. Indeed, He has already won.