Sunday, December 06, 2020

Did We Betray Jesus?

In a post she calls A Tale of Two Betrayals, Bethany Verrett argues that “though [Peter] did not hand Jesus over to the religious leaders like Judas, it was no less a betrayal.” Over at The Gospel Coalition, Mike McKinley has a few suggestions for Christians about What to Do When You Betray Jesus. And back in 2014, when Franklin Graham addressed a question from a reader about Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, his editor at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association entitled Franklin’s responsive post We, Like Judas, Can Be Deceitful and Betray Christ.

Really? Can we? At the risk of getting overly-technical, I don’t think we can ... at least not in the language of scripture. And sometimes the language of scripture is a bit different from the wording in our English translations. Not every Greek word has a precise one-for-one English equivalent.

Betraying and Handing Over

The word “betray” has several senses in modern English usage. It may involve giving aid or information about someone to an enemy, breaking faith or disloyalty, revealing a confidence or disclosing a secret. The teenager whose mother inadvertently reveals her secret crush on the neighbor’s son is using the word correctly in English when she cries, “Mom, how could you betray me?” Her mother is supposed to be on her side.

The Greek is a bit different. The word translated “betray” in our Bibles is paradidōmi, which means to “deliver up”; to physically, legally or metaphorically hand over, or in some cases to “rat someone out” so that he can be carried off by others for their own evil purposes.

It should be carefully noted that handing someone or something over is not an intrinsically evil act. Jesus said, “All things have been handed over [paradidōmi] to me by my Father.” That’s something to celebrate, not mourn. The same word is used to describe the act of commending a missionary to the work to which God has called him. He is “handed over” to the grace of God. The faith was likewise once delivered [paradidōmi] to the saints. All these are very good things.

With respect to the “handing over” of Christ, paradidōmi is used only of Judas, of the soldiers who took Jesus prisoner in the garden, of the chief priests and rulers of the Jews, of Pilate himself, and of Israel nationally, who did it by proxy through their leaders and by adding their voices to the condemnation of Jesus before Pilate.* That was the human chain of custody in the Lord’s “deliverance” to death.

Behind the scenes, the word is also used of God, who “gave him up [paradidōmi] for us all”, and of Christ himself, who “loved me and gave himself [paradidōmi] for me”.

These latter two divine “deliveries” were obviously not betrayals, and no Bible version I know of so translates them. But there was some sort of betrayal involved in every single “delivery” of Christ within his earthly chain of custody, justifying the choice of words in our English translations. All these “deliveries” from one party to the next in the chain required violations of previously established covenants, pledges of faith, or expectations of loyalty.

The Mechanics of Biblical Betrayal

Judas betrayed Jesus. He pretended to be the Lord’s disciple for three years, then revealed himself as an enemy. He was treacherous and false. “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” This was the horror of Judas’ “handing over” of the Lord to his enemies. It was an abandonment of loyalty and a willing and deliberate breach of trust. But Jesus said, “One of you shall betray me,” not “ALL of you shall betray me”. So, in the language of scripture, the apostles forsook the Lord Jesus, while Judas betrayed him. I think that’s a fair description of their conduct.

In the case of the Jews among the soldiers who took the Lord Jesus, and the chief priests and rulers, they were in breach of trust because Jesus was their Messiah, their leader, their King. He “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him”. There was an expectation of loyalty and reception for the Messiah, and instead there was a violation of both, as well as the divinely-given responsibilities of religious leadership. In the case of the men of Israel generally, their denial of David’s son and heir to Pilate might as well have been a renunciation of their part in the Davidic covenant. They handed over their very own Messiah to the Gentiles, and they willingly accepted their responsibility. So “betrayal” for these folks? Sure.

Betrayal for Pilate even? Sure. He betrayed his responsibilities before God as magistrate. He knew the Lord was innocent, yet condemned him to death. Definitely “betrayal” in the biblical sense.

But did modern Gentiles at any point in our own spiritual experience “hand over” the Lord Jesus? No, I don’t think we did. We’re not Jews. We weren’t “his own”. We didn’t fail to receive him. We didn’t even “forsake” him, for that matter: we had no covenant relationship with him to break and no established bond to violate. We were outside all that. He was not “sent” to us initially, but “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. We only came into it when Israel fumbled the ball.

Did we Gentiles sentence him to death? I’m pretty sure we didn’t. That was all taken care of long before we came into the world. You and I did not betray Jesus.

Culpable Enemies

Now, were we his enemies? Absolutely. Had we “turned — every one — to his own way”? Sure. We were absolutely culpable before God, sinful, hell-bound, and as much in need of the imputed righteousness of Christ as any Jew. But we Gentiles never pretended to be friends of Jesus Christ in the first place. We had no established covenant relationship to violate.

Interestingly, I do not think you find Peter or Paul preaching to Gentiles about their “betrayal” of Messiah anywhere at all. The news for Gentiles was pretty much all good. It was “everyone who believes on him receives forgiveness of sins in his name” and “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.” The question for Gentiles was not “Do you acknowledge your guilt for your part in the murder of your Messiah?” but “Do you have sins for which you want forgiveness?”

In the relationship with the Gentiles, it is hard for me to see where any betrayal comes into it, or any forsaking for that matter.

Three Possibilities

There are three possibilities I can sort of see someone putting forward, though I don’t really agree with any of them:

One is that someone might argue that we Gentiles “delivered him” by proxy “in Pilate”, in some extended corporate sense, just as humanity all “die” in Adam. I find it hard to see that, though I have heard Christians say something like it. But on what authority? The Epistles certainly don’t make that theological case, and they could, if it were important. Pilate’s choice didn’t change my nature from the womb like Adam’s did. And I already stood condemned before God, not for handing over the Lord Jesus, but for reveling in the sinful nature with which I had been born and participating in it with abandon. Personally, I find having been an enemy of God via Adam’s fall and my own conduct since birth quite damning enough without also being labeled a betrayer.

The second possible case to be made is that perhaps after conversion and confessing Jesus as Lord, we have failed to live up to our responsibilities as believers as comprehensively as Judas failed his responsibilities as a friend of the Lord. Well, maybe ... and maybe not. I’m right up there at the front of the line as a Christian who has not lived out the lordship of Christ as best I could. But to call that “betrayal” in the same sense as Judas? Eh ... I’m not really sure I would do that. There are degrees. Even Peter’s denial of the Lord, though terrible, was not on a level with Judas’s willing betrayal, or with his deliberate murder by consent of the chief priests and the mob who cried “Crucify him!” Peter never did that. He went out weeping bitterly. Forsaking, yes, Denial, yes. Betrayal? Not really. Not even Peter. So ... degrees, I think.

The third possibility is the argument that “Okay, we didn’t do it, but if we had been there, we would have.” Maybe. But it seems very unlikely to me that God imputes a specific sin one hasn’t actually committed to individuals who weren’t present at the time and did not benefit from the decision in any way. Sinfulness as a principle in Adam, sure. Specific sins, not really.

My Current Take

That’s my take on it currently. Depending on circumstances and choices, some professing Christians may legitimately be accused of denying or forsaking Christ, but not reasonably accused of ever having betrayed him in a biblical sense.

Am I missing something? I’m happy to take responsibility for stuff I actually did or do, and I’m pretty sure I’m a carrier of original sin by dint of being a member of the human race, but I balk at applying words to my own spiritual experience either before or after salvation which scripture itself does not appear to insist on.

Thoughts, anyone?

* This general, national responsibility for handing over the Lord Jesus is not imputed in scripture to the eleven remaining disciples, the other men and women who followed the Lord Jesus, or those who did not actively or passively participate in his condemnation. The disciples went into hiding after the Lord’s death. They were not waiting around for a pat on the back from the Jewish establishment. Nor does any verse of scripture speak of any of them repenting of “handing over” the Lord Jesus. That act was something with which his own were never in agreement. They had “pre-rejected” participating in it, if you like.

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