Why Did Judas Betray Jesus?

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Judas is the most tragic characters of the Gospel account. Here was a man who was in the inner circle of those who had (at least outwardly) forsaken all and followed after Jesus. He was as close to Jesus as one could physically be, no doubt had done everything required of him, how did this man go from a chosen disciple to betrayer? And, more importantly, how do we avoid this same terrible end ourselves?

The Gospel accounts do not leave us without a clue as far as the motives of Judas:

Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:3‭-‬6 NIV)

Judas, in his sanctimonious rebuke of this woman’s extravagant display of worship, appears to be speaking up for the poor. But John slams Judas, saying he didn’t actually care about the poor, that he was really just a thief and stealing from the common purse.

We also know that Judas would soon betray Jesus for some silver coins.

Most thieves have justified themselves in some way and I’m doubtful that Judas saw his own motives in the same unflattering terms used by John and the other disciples. Judas probably had good intentions, at least some of the time, and probably saw himself as justified in what he did.

Moreover, Judas likely did not see himself as a villain at all. In fact, he was that devastated, upon realizing that his betrayal would lead to the death of Jesus, that he took his own life. There would be no reason for his suicide if his plan was to see Jesus killed. Nobody kills themselves because things went as they wanted them to go.

Why did Judas follow Jesus as long as he did?

There is plenty of reason to believe that Judas was like any of the other disciples and initially captivated by Jesus. However, he, like the other disciples, was likely looking for a political leader who would end Roman oppression and bring about an era of social justice or make Isreal great again. That is, after all, how the Jewish Messiah was described in Scripture:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord . He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. (Isaiah 11:1‭-‬5 NIV)

It is also, very literally, what Jesus told them:

Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28 NIV)

The disciples followed after Jesus expecting to be rulers with him in kingdom soon to be established, where they would be able to bring an end to injustice and right all the wrongs in the world. They were Biblical literalists, that is what Jesus told them, and therefore that is what they anticipated would be the ultimate reward for their devotion.

These guys were not Sunday school teachers, they weren’t there to play church either, rather they were a bunch of sword-carrying radicals who followed Jesus thinking they would see the overthrow of Rome. They, like revolutionaries today, were motivated by political power and utopian idealism, that’s why they were so willing to give everything up to follow Jesus.

Judas was no different from the other disciples in this regard.

Why did Judas sell Jesus out at the end?

It is really easy to get behind a message of peace and justice—especially when you are promised a position of power.

Up until a certain point what Jesus said sounded like populist rhetoric. He spoke to the common people against the ruling elites. News of his miracles spread and got people excited. He gave the downtrodden hope that justice would reign. It is little wonder that the crowds of disenfranchised Jewish nationalists began to swell.

It is all fun when it is about affordable healthcare, free bread, and fish. People always like a vague message of hope and change. Promise them that their nation will be made great again and they’ll flock to you. Even today there are many willing to sacrifice their time and effort for political campaigns making similar promises. People will line up for a handout.

However, when Jesus began to talk strange, telling them to drink his blood and eat his flesh, we are told, “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6:66 NIV) And, I mean, who can blame them? Jesus, when they started to get weirded out, only doubled down on this claim. It does not surprise that many began to express their doubts nor that this is when we start to hear more about a coming betrayal.

Judas, whether motivated by impatience or disillusionment with a leader going off the rails, seems to have sought to force the hand of Jesus. It could be he was also a bit upset having been shut down by Jesus for a point that seems very reasonable on the surface. Why, after everything Jesus had said, would they not sell the expensive perfume?

Of course, we also know that his motives were not as pure as his sanctimonious words would suggest. If Judas were honest, he was following Jesus primarily for the benefits he anticipated and just wanted more money in the bag he carried. It is, therefore, a tragically ironic twist that he received payment for his betrayal, despite not asking for it, and suddenly lost appetite for it at the end.

Why do people betray Jesus today?

Many who go to church and claim to love Jesus are truly his betrayers. They, like Judas, talk the talk, they may share their consternation for the state of the world, give up material possessions, and seem very spiritual and sincere. But beneath this righteous facade is a rotten core. Sure, they might say that they love Jesus, they may have even deceived themselves about their own corrupted motives, yet their real motivation is social standing, monetary gain, political power.

How do you know if you or someone else is a Judas?

Here are some of the tells…

#1) A Judas spreads gossip and backstabs…

A few years ago, when I most desperately need allies, I got wind of a rumor being spread about me. A young man, who would always be nice to my face, claimed to have overheard me saying something absolutely ridiculous. His claim was utter unadulterated nonsense and had the potential to be very damaging to my reputation.

Fortunately, not everyone took his word for it. A true friend asked me “did you say…” and gave me an opportunity to respond. I confronted this ‘brother’ (always so sweet to my face) for his backstabbing and got a quick apology as I recall. However, they did not seem too remorseful. In fact, while saying sorry to me, they went off on the person who came to me with the slander—which led to a second, slightly more animated, confrontation.

Gossip spreads like wildfire in many churches, it is easy to share salacious tidbits about other people, that may or may not be true, and sometimes a thrill that comes with it. Those who ply this trade often use the guise of friendship to obtain information and then piously disseminate their tales as prayer requests or concern. However, like Judas, the reality is that they are backstabbers and truly motivated by hidden jealousy or desire for social gain at the expense of others.

Gossip is a betrayal of Jesus. It is a kiss of Judas. It is a sin listed with murder and hate for God.

#2) A Judas engages in shady business…

Jesus told his followers to “let your yes be yes” (Matt. 5:37) and to “give back to Ceaser what is Ceaser’s” (Matt. 22:21), but that does not stop many professing Christians from telling lies or trying to game the system in their favor. In fact, I’ve been severely disappointed in a few business transactions, with people trained to know better, where the other side reneged on their word.

In the worse cases, I’ve elected to take the approach of Psalms 26:4: “I do not sit with the deceitful, nor do I associate with hypocrites.”

Everyone works for a profit and there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to get the most bang for your buck either. However, there comes a point where being shrewd in business crosses over into screwing other people over and goes from saving money to being a sin. Sadly, many faithful church attendees do not only flirt with this line, but they are so fully engaged in their lust for monetary gain that their word means nothing—they actually prefer making money over their commitment to Christian love.

This is a betrayal that takes many different forms, from the televangelist trying to exploit the vulnerable to the person who is miserly in regards to compensating employees, conveniently forgets a verbal agreement when another offer comes in, and otherwise can’t be trusted unless the terms are put in writing. And then there is the tax fraud, those who feel they have a special right to avoid payment and engage in questionable accounting practices to save a few dollars. Sure, a person should not pay more than they owe and yet it is very sad many have given Christians a bad reputation.

A handshake should not be necessary for a Christian to keep their word, let alone a legal contract, and stinginess in business is not a virtue. Jesus told us to give freely, to give the shirt off our back along with our coat if asked, and it certainly is not easy to truly live this out. However, if you can’t be a man of your word on Monday, then you are wasting your time going to church on Sunday morning. If making money is your primary objective during the week and justifies doing almost anything to win, then you have betrayed Jesus—you cannot serve two masters.

#3) A Judas believes that the ends justify the means…

One of the most egregious errors of the disciples, including Judas, was to assume that Jesus came to establish a worldly kingdom where they would rule with him. Their confusion about this left the disciples feeling devastated as Jesus hung on the cross. It could be the very thing that led Judas to betray Jesus as well.

Judas could’ve been attracted to Jesus because of his greed. He saw an opportunity to fleece the crowds (and his fellow disciples) and eventually decided to cash in. However, that seems more of a bond villain explanation and would leave most of us off the hook. More likely is that Judas was motivated (at least in part) by a political ideal, became a bit disgruntled with what he saw as slow progress, and intended to force the hand of Jesus.

Many today are like Judas. They see the objective as being a worldly utopian ideal. They attempt to use the teachings of Jesus as some sort of political roadmap. They seek to use the government to enforce Christian morality and subjugate their neighbors. To them, Jesus preached “social justice” or some other political machination and believe that any means of accomplishing their ends is acceptable. They weaponize Bible verses to gain an edge on political opponents, they constantly confuse the duties of church and state and their unloving attitudes turn many off to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But Jesus did not come to advance an ideological agenda nor to establish a new political order. His message was one of personal repentance and led by showing an example of self-sacrifice. He said, “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NIV) and did not resist the unjust leaders even knowing it would cost him his life. He did not demand that his rights be respected nor did he ever urge his followers to become political activists.

Furthermore, Jesus, in his answering the indignation of Judas pertaining to the woman’s extravagant display, by saying, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11) is making a statement about his purpose. He did not come to right every wrong nor to overthrow those who oppressed his people through force, but rather he came to show God’s love and bring salvation from sin to the world.

Jesus may have used physical means, like miraculous healings, and had real compassion for all human needs, but his goal was always to prove who be was and promote spiritual ends. This is where many fail to comprehend. Some cynically use the teachings of Jesus cynically to advance their political agenda, whereas others very sincerely attempt to use politics to try to advance a Christian agenda, but both are examples of an “ends justify the means” logic and completely anti-Christian.

Christian ends are never severed through means of violence. Political ideologies—all justifications for use of government coercion—may pose as love, moral virtue, and application of Christian teachings, they are often packaged insidiously and hard to detect. However, like Judas on his high horse about the woman’s worship, it is only ever counterfeit—Christians moral ends never ever justify immoral means.

It makes little difference whether someone uses Jesus to advance political ends or uses political means to try and obtain Christian ends—both are a betrayal.

A something other kingdom…

In the end, what Judas and the other disciples lacked was comprehension and faith. Whether Peter swinging a sword at those arresting Jesus before fleeing and denying him, to Thomas doubting even after hearing the good news of the resurrection, the disciples grossly underestimated who Jesus was and sold themselves very short in the process.

Many who profess Christ today are no different than the disciples. They are motivated by things that really do not matter and may, in fact, put eternity in peril in the same way that Esau sold his birthright for a pot of stew. Lifelong church members, baptized at birth or a young age, will be held to a higher level of accountability than their unbelieving neighbors, and could end up crying “Lord, Lord” and told to depart at the final judgement. We need to decide now if sharing juicy bit of slander or a few dollars saved by means of dishonesty is worth our soul.

There are many more fearful, who have this idea that the trials we face today are unprecedented, who disobey Jesus because they do not see him as powerful enough to save them—like he did those Hebrew boys who faced down death when the fires of Babylonian tyranny burned hot. To them, to those always peddling doom amd fretting about the collapse of Western Civilization, maybe consider this story out of war-torn Syria: “Christianity grows in Syrian town once besieged by Islamic State.

Does it matter if the world as we know it burns and Christ triumphs?

Even in betrayal Jesus brought glory to God in a way nobody expected—he defeated death by death, the grave could not hold him, and he rose again on the third day as he had promised to those who could not comprehend. It is because of that I will to forgive those who have betrayed my trust. Yes, they should be called out. Yes, they should repent and confess their sins as well. But the resurrection changes everything, those who truly believe are able to forgive all offenses—because to do otherwise is to be a betrayer of Christ.

Mennonite Ordinances and Anabaptist Disregard for Sacraments

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A good friend of mine, a Mennonite, was quite upset with a particular social media provocateur (who self-identifies as marginally Mennonite) and his attack on Holy Communion—which he described as being “basically symbolic cannibalism” and “a man-made ritual” that “can be left on the shelf with no deleterious consequences.”

Then he goes on to say:

“I urge all liberal-minded Mennonites to just stop eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood. It holds no salvific power. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Nor does it earn brownie points with God. Further, it’s a major turn-off to people outside the church bubble (for those who care about how the church is perceived by outsiders).”

Most Mennonites, even the mainstream ‘liberal’ types, would reject this as profane and ignorant babble. It is an attack on the very foundation of Christian practice and makes me question if this individual is truly concerned with winning people “outside the church bubble” or the future of the church. His religious ideology, having myself sampled some of his writing, seems to be: Nothing is sacred.

What is interesting about this individual is their claim to be an Anabaptist radical. This claim might rankle conservative Mennonites (especially those who see themselves as the true owners of Anabaptist identity) and yet these words spoken against sacraments are truly quite consistent with the words of a feisty Dutch Anabaptist widow (recorded in Martyr’s Mirror) in response to a question about Holy Unction. This is what she said: “Oil is good for salad, or to oil your shoes with.”

I guess nobody told her “Christ” means anointed one?

Whatever the case, most modern Mennonites do not take such a cavalier attitude towards the sacred and are a bit more Orthodox than their radical roots. In fact, Mennonites more formally reintroduced sacraments (albeit in different description) by their acceptance of the “seven ordinances” listed by Daniel Kauffman 125 years ago: Baptism with water, Communion, Footwashing, Prayer Head-Veiling for the Women, greeting with the Holy Kiss, anointing with Oil for the Recovering of the Sick and Marriage.

Kauffman’s ordinances represent a reversal of the Anabaptist woman’s hubris. He obviously saw the use of oil beyond the application to shoes and salads. But, through his use of different language and by his additions and subtractions (Women’s Head-Veils, Holy Kiss, Footwashing gave in place of Chrismation, Confession, Ordination) from the original listing of seven sacraments, he still maintained a deliberate distance from the established tradition of the Church.

What are sacraments?

Sacraments, simply put, are the “sacred mysteries” of the church. It is also important to note that Orthodox Christians, while they do recognize the seven sacraments listed by Roman Catholic, do not believe the sacraments are limited to just the seven listed and see everything the church does as a sacramental, according to to the OCA website: “All of life becomes a sacrament in Christ who fills life itself with the Spirit of God.”

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56 NIV)

Of the sacraments, Communion (called the “Holy Eucharist” (the word ‘eucharist” means thanksgiving) is the “sacrament of sacraments” for Orthodox Christians and the center of Church life.

Holy Eucharist is simply taking Jesus at his word:

And [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:19-20 NIV)

Jesus clearly calls the bread his body and describes the cup as being the “new covenant” in his blood.

It is interesting that many Protestant fundamentalists—who pride themselves in being Biblical literalists, and modern self-identifying Anabaptists—who insist that they take Jesus at his word more than others do, come to passages like that above, then suddenly start to hem-and-haw and try to explain around what is plainly said.

Perhaps their discomfort is the same as is described in the following account:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 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.”

At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “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 at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:32-66)

With this, Jesus went from being an interesting teacher to being some kind of mystical weirdo and possible lunatic. It is also little wonder that pagans brought accusations of child sacrifice and cannibalism against early Christians. (Sorry, Charlie, it takes no creativity whatsoever to agree with sacrilege that dates the 2nd century AD and it is not a big surprise if this “hard teaching” continues to turn people back from outside the Christian bubble.) Not everyone can believe this claim then nor do all believe now. But that is what Jesus said and is what the faithful have taught for two millennia. The bread and wine encapsulate the sacred mystery of human relationship with the life-giving Spirit and this practice of Holy Communion is a necessary part of the Church together being the incarnation of Christ.

Human knowledge and personal ideals cloud spiritual discernment.

The presumption of absolute knowledge, which is the cardinal sin of the rational spirit, is therefore prima facie equivalent to rejection of the hero—to rejection of Christ, of the Word of God, of the (divine) process that mediates between order and chaos. (“Maps of Meaning,” Jordan B. Peterson)

Unbelief takes many forms. Not everyone leaves the fold when faced with something that seems irrational to them. We know Judas remained on the margins despite his disillusionment with Jesus and his doubts eventually led to betrayal. We also know Peter’s faith seemed primarily a delusion about an earthly kingdom where he would be at the side of an important political leader and the unwillingness of Peter to accept the ultimate sacrifice (and of his personal ideals) led to denial and a sharp rebuke from Jesus:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns. (Matthew 16:21‭-‬23 NIV)

The suffering and death of Jesus was something Peter couldn’t reconcile with his own ideals. It was a horrible ending to his hopes that would need to be fiercely resisted. Peter treats Jesus like I would a friend who is depressed and needed a pep-talk. Unwittingly he used the same reasoning that had tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus faced a hard choice, he needed to be courageous, focused on his mission, and face death head-on—but Peter was encouraging him to take the easy way out in the same way Satan did earlier.

Peter was guided by his personal ideals and Judas by his human rationality—both men failed to understand the divine mystery unfolding before them—both presumed incorrectly and neglected possibilities that went outside of their own established knowledge.

The whole Gospel narrative is centered on Jesus dying on the cross and conquering death. From a rational standpoint, why couldn’t God just have forgiven our sins and granted us eternal life without sending an icon of himself in the person of Jesus? Surely God can identify with his creation without having to go through a physical manifestation for himself, right?

Was it symbolic?

Was it necessary for our salvation?

Perhaps both and more.

But, whatever the case, we don’t know why there needed to be an “image of God” (Colossians 1:15) or why our salvation is tied to Jesus having the experience of a very literal physical death. All we know is that this going through the motions was important to Jesus and therefore we should not be surprised when our faith requires our participation in rituals that we do not understand. We go through the motions of Baptism and Communion, not because of anything we can prove through human logic and reasoning, but simply because we believe in Jesus and accept a reality bigger than ourselves.

Saying something is *only* symbolic undermines the reason for doing it. One way to rationalize around sacraments is to divide the sacred from the symbol. That is to say, some attack the idea of sacraments by declaring the ritual part of them to be “only symbolic” and deny any actual value in the going through the motions. If that were true, then we should take the advice of provocateur and cease all activities that might make outsiders feel uncomfortable. I mean, if a practice is only symbolic and our ultimate goal is to win converts, why not?

Everything in our life can be deconstructed or explained away as meaningless. Why go to work when everything we accomplish will eventually vanish into dust? Why stay faithful to marriage knowing that sooner or later the end will come and the commitment is forgotten? All of the joy and purpose a person finds in life, depending on perspective, can be reduced to electrochemical activity in the brain and lacking in any true substance beyond that. Reason and logic are useful in debates, but they do not provide an antidote for feelings about the futility of the human experience nor answer the question of why to live.

To say a sacrament is only a symbol is like saying a baby is only a colony of cells or math is just numbers and nothing more. Our lack of understanding the significance of something doesn’t make it any less necessary, valuable or sacred—it only makes us ignorant and unwilling to transcend our own knowledge. From a rational perspective, does being dunked or drizzled in water do anything besides make someone different degrees of wet? Why bother to Baptize, take Communion or do anything if it is only symbolic? If salvation is not at stake and if there is no spiritual healing or real benefit, why even bother to go through the motions?

In Scripture, healing is often tied to physical objects and absurd actions. It is one of those curious patterns throughout the books of the Bible. People are saved from ailments and forgiven by God through various rituals. Like that time when the Israelites were complaining about basically everything, then started to get bitten by venomous snakes, and begged for help:

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:8‭-‬9 NIV)

There is also the story of Namaan, in 2 Kings 5:1-19, who had leprosy and to be healed he was told to do something that makes no sense:

Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. (2 Kings 5:10‭-‬14 NIV)

Both of those Old Testament cases required “skin in the game” and tied an individual’s healing or salvation to their performing a specific act. There is no rational explanation as to why someone would be healed of leprosy by dipping in a particular river nor why looking at a brass object would cure a person of anything and yet that is what we read.

So what about the New Testament?

This same pattern of healing through odd and seemingly unrelated acts continues. We read how Jesus mixed spit with dirt to heal someone’s blindness (John 9) and how a woman’s touching of his garment healed her:

Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. (Matthew 9:20‭-‬22 NIV)

Note: Jesus didn’t tell her she was silly for believing that touching his clothes would heal her or otherwise correct her action. No, she is commended for her faith and immediately healed. And, this pattern of healing through actions—through laying on of hands and involvement of objects—did not end with Jesus either. We read about it in the book of Acts as well:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11‭-‬12 NIV)

Perhaps we are more sophisticated than they were and thus can dispense with this kind of sacramentalism?

Truly, if there is no spiritual value to it, why should we even bother going through the motions of Baptism, Communion, etc?

We can try to turn church life into a totally rational experience and do away with all the mystical nonsense. We can re-label sacred mysteries—call them symbols, ordinances, ceremonies, signs or whatever. We can minimalize the sacraments and continue to water down their significance, condition ourselves in a way that will make the keeping of these practices optional, downplay partaking of the body and blood, do it only twice a year—eventually stop attending services altogether because it is irrational.

A church without sacraments is not a church.

The complaint of Protestants and Anabaptists was not completely invalid. Roman Catholicism had blurred the lines between sacrament and their own institutions and systems. Unfortunately, this led to an overreaction that did not always distinguish well between what was corrupted and the sacred mysteries themselves. The end result of this “reformation” has been disastrous disunity and disintegration of the church—which is not a sign of spiritual life.

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve entered into Orthodoxy is the strong emphasis on church unity and incarnation. The emphasis is on the special spiritual connection between all Christians (past, present, and future) through partaking of the sacred mysteries together. It is, in fact, through sacraments that the church becomes necessary in the life of the individual. Baptism, Communion, Chrismation, Confession, Ordination, anointing with oil and Marriage are things we do together as a church and underscore the need for God, the things he has instituted and each other.

If the only point of sacraments were only to push against our own human rationality (which is often faulty and is always finite) and seek what is greater, then there is great value in them.

Sacraments bring us together, they give us a common identity and point us to truth beyond our own understanding. In the various examples of miraculous healing in Scripture there was often no logical connection between the action taken (or required) and the result. They didn’t know how it worked, they simply had faith, obeyed and were healed. Perhaps the only way to gain spiritual understanding is to let go, to stop depending on our own limited knowledge and start to depend on something that is greater?

Perhaps it is to counter the heresy of Gnosticism, both ancient and modern?

Whatever the case, to try to rationally explain a sacred mystery entirely misses the point. Furthermore, there is no need to separate or distinguish the healing God does in our lives from the sacraments themselves. We know that the thief on the cross was saved just for saying “remember me” and his faith in Jesus. But that doesn’t mean our own faith won’t require us to sell all we have like the rich young ruler or dip in a muddy river like Naaman. It doesn’t mean we can replace sacraments with our mere mental assent to a proposition and be healed or saved from our sins either.

The words of Jesus are useless to those who do not have faith and, likewise, sacraments are of no benefit to those who do not believe in them. The church should welcome all who wish to repent of their sins and participate in the sacred mysteries. But it does not seem at all reasonable or rational for the church to cater to those who do not hope to transcend themselves, their own experience and knowledge.

In the end, one can call sacraments by any other name and still have a church—but a church without sacraments is really only a social club and not a church.

Faith: I Believe, So Help Me To Believe!

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The Pharisees were content because they were successful and could afford to believe they were righteous.  They were people who studied the law carefully and followed it diligently.  They had no lack of missionary zeal and devotion, they had titles, love of families and other wealth.

But these religious people with all the answers lacked one thing and it seems something that is still missing in religious traditions.  Everything they did they had accomplished on their own strength.  There was no room in their life for radical faith that believes the impossible.  No, they were content with only what they could understand and rejected anything more.

As I look around the Christian religious landscape today I could ask the same question Jesus did at the end of this story in Luke 18:1-8:

“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.  And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’  “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think,  yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”  And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?  I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

I am certain Jesus would find many religiously devoted today.  I sure he would find those confident in their theology, their ‘Biblical’ standards and dogmas.  There are plenty of self-proclaimed experts with all of the right answers who pound pulpits and fill pews.  But would Jesus find faith real and unadulterated?

What is faith?

I believe this account in Mark 9:14-29 describes it:

“When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.  “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.  A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”   “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”  So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.  Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”  “From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”   “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”    Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”  When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”  The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.”  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.  After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”   He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

I am not certain if the ailment of the boy would be considered a medical condition today.  But Jesus does seem to indicate that it was an incurable condition by any means other than prayer (or prayer and fasting) and therefore the healing was a miracle.

This is not a case for “faith healing” as a prescription for all illness.  It was a special circumstance where there was a condition that was impossible to cure by any other means.  So to turn this story into a reason to shun modern medicine is to vastly miss the point. 

If the light bulb burns out at church it only requires a budget or funds to replace it and not necessarily faith.  Faith is not about forcing God to do what is clearly within our own power to do.  Faith is doing all we can, investing our everything in something unseen, and having the outcome uncertain.

Faith is More than Reasonably Committed

There was the widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17: 7-24) who used the last of her supplies to make bread for the prophet Elijah and had her needs supplied miraculously for her faithfulness.  The poor woman mentioned in Mark 12:41-44 is also an example of radical faith in action:

“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.  Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

It requires very little faith for a wealthy business person to give of his millions when their needs are already supplied abundantly.  But faith, radical faith, is when a person is able to commit their all to an unbelievable promise.  Most would only contribute their all to a sure thing and not gamble it all on something unseen.

However, faith, according to Hebrews 11:5-6, is an essentially component, even the backbone of the message of the Gospel:

“By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

A religiously devoted person could go their entire life without need of faith.  If they only ever ask or achieve what is readily within their reach they have proven their dedication.  For some they put in their duty, but they don’t truly believe in a God of the impossible and live solely in their own understanding.

I am not content with religious devotion.  There is no sensible middle ground of belief without faith or it is falsehood.  For me, and according to the Bible, true faith is all or nothing proposition: It is radical faith or none at all. 

And yet, because we can never have enough faith to save our own selves, faith is a paradoxical product of grace.

Do you have faith?