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Politics of Scripture

The Habitation Made Desolate—Acts 1:15-26

The gory fate of Judas is an unsettling feature of the narrative of Acts for many modern readers. Yet recovering the New Testament authors’ sense of the fearful consequences of opposing the reign of Christ is a necessary task for political theology.

15In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, 16‘Friends,the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’ 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20‘For it is written in the book of Psalms,
“Let his homestead become desolate,
   and let there be no one to live in it”;
“Let another take his position of overseer.” 
21So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.24Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Luke’s account of the replacement of Judas in the number of the apostles is an interplay of light and shadow. The upper room (cf. Acts 1:12-13) is a site charged with expectancy and the prospect of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. However, Peter’s recounting of the gruesome manner of Judas’s death presents a grim account of the fate of those who oppose Christ’s kingdom.

Occurring within the brief window of time between the ascension and Pentecost, the upper room is a staging ground for the coming phase of Christ’s mission through his Church. In addition to intense communal devotion to prayer, the choice of Matthias to replace Judas within the Twelve was a necessary part of the preparation that needed to occur.

The need for a replacement for Judas is one of several reasons to believe that the number of the Twelve was not arbitrary: the Twelve represented the twelve tribes of a renewed Israel (cf. Luke 22:30). The numbering of the disciples at this point (verse 15—120=12×10) is also likely significant. The Twelve will represent the heads of the restored tribes at Pentecost, so it is important that a full complement be present.

The gory manner of Judas’s death and Peter’s application of imprecatory psalms to him sits uneasily with many modern Christian sensibilities, so much so that verses 18-20 of this passage are generally excised from our lections. Yet, unsettling as such themes may be to our ears, it is difficult adequately to understand Luke’s vision of Christ’s mission without an appreciation of the deathly ‘shadow’ that Christ casts over his opponents.

Whether in Judas’s prophetically foretold suicide (1:18-20), the Holy Spirit slaying Ananias and Sapphira for their attempted deception (5:1-11), Peter’s cursing of Simon the sorcerer (8:9-24), the angel striking Herod and condemning him to a gruesome demise (12:20-24), or Paul’s blinding of Elymas the sorcerer (13:6-11), Luke repeatedly presents the Spirit’s mission as one that can have devastating and even fatal consequences for those who oppose it, who seek to claim God’s power for themselves, or who attack his people. Christ will place his enemies under his feet, will overcome the nations that rage against him, and will judge his wicked servants. While Christ is good, he is far from safe.

Not only Christ’s salvation, but also the actions and the fate of those who oppose him are foretold in prophecy: the destruction that Christ’s reign brings to his enemies is an important aspect of his kingdom. The gospel writers’ accounts of Christ’s enemies are often designed to recall the great adversaries of God’s people in history and their fates. For instance, the Herods are depicted in a manner recalling the Pharaohs and Ahab, while Ananias and Sapphira are like Achan.

The account of Judas’s actions and death also stirs various scriptural memories, especially those concerning the treacheries and attempted coups experienced by King David in the latter years of his reign. Peter’s declaration that the Holy Spirit spoke about Judas through David (verse 16) treats David’s words concerning his own life as typologically revelatory of what will befall his greater Son. In the gospels, we also see narrative parallels being drawn between David and Jesus.

Judas is the trusted familiar friend, who sits with Jesus at the table, yet betrays him (John 13:18; cf. Psalm 41:9). David is betrayed by Ahithophel, his close friend and advisor (2 Samuel 15:12, 31; Psalm 41:9; cf. John 13:18). David leaves Jerusalem, crossing the Brook Kidron, and weeping as he ascends the Mount of Olives (2 Samuel 15:23; cf. Luke 22:39-46; John 18:1). He is ministered to by a messenger (2 Samuel 16:1-4; cf. Luke 22:43) and then assaulted by Shimei with violence and cursing (2 Samuel 16:5-8; cf. Matthew 26:47). His right-hand man, Abishai, like Peter, wishes to strike his king’s enemy down, but David prevents him (2 Samuel 16:9-14; cf. John 18:10-11).

In Matthew we are told that, like Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), a regretful Judas parted ways with the conspiracy he had initially assisted and hanged himself (Matthew 27:3-10). In 2 Samuel, both the betrayer Ahithophel and the unfaithful son of David, Absalom, end up hung from trees (2 Samuel 17:23; 18:6-15). In Matthew, both the betrayer Judas and the faithful Son of David suffer a similar fate, although here it is the contrasts that the juxtaposition of the two invite that attract our attention.

Many have struggled to reconcile Luke’s account of Judas’s suicide with Matthew’s and solutions with various degrees of plausibility have been proposed. It seems most likely to me that Luke is foregrounding another connection between Judas and David typology here—Judas as Joab.

Joab was the treacherous and Machiavellian commander of David’s army, a man who was twice involved in coups: the first a successful internal coup, wresting control of David’s army back from Amasa during the rebellion of Sheba in 2 Samuel 20 (Joab had been deposed in 19:13), and the second his support of the pretender Adonijah in 1 Kings 1. He betrayed Amasa with a kiss (2 Samuel 20:9), before cutting Amasa’s stomach open with his sword so that his entrails poured out. Amasa’s bloody body was then placed in a field, as everyone who passed it was arrested by the sight of it (20:12).

1 Kings begins in the final days of David’s reign, as he instructs his son Solomon concerning the kingdom and establishes him on the throne. The comparably resumptive narrative of Acts begins at a similar point: Jesus is about to ascend into heaven and he instructs the disciples in preparation for the new administration.

At the start of his reign, shortly before his ‘Pentecostal’ receipt of the gift of Wisdom from YHWH (1 Kings 3), Solomon has to lay the foundations of his reign by exiling or executing unfaithful members of his father’s administration and other rebels (Adonijah, Abiathar, Joab, and Shimei) and replacing them in their offices.

In 1 Kings 2:28-35, Joab is killed by his replacement, Benaiah the son of Jehoida, and buried in his house in the wilderness. We should observe the close applicability of the imprecatory psalms cited by Peter in Acts 1 to Joab’s situation: “Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it” and “Let another take his position of overseer” (Psalms 69:25; 109:8).

Judas here suffers a death strikingly similar to that of the man Joab betrayed with a kiss, an instance of lex talionis. Like Joab, he has a desolate habitation. In the dawning stages of the glorious new administration of David’s glorious son, soon to be heralded by the gift of the Spirit of wisdom, his office is given to another.

Judas is a tragic figure and one who understandably leaves many modern people feeling uneasy. In characters such as Judas we see that the glorious light of the kingdom of Christ can cast dark shadows. Playing the part of Ahithophel and Joab to David’s greater Son, Luke presents Judas as one of several cautionary examples of the fate of those who oppose the kingdom of Christ.

Our bourgeois squeamishness about death, destruction, and judgment being brought upon or foretold for the enemies of Christ is a great obstacle to our understanding and acceptance of his kingdom. We want a Christ who is safe, not the King of kings and Lord of lords who comes on a white horse against tyrants and rebels, striking the nations and ruling them with a rod of iron. We only want the Christ of the nativity narratives, the Christ who teaches us to turn the other cheek, the Christ who forgives his enemies on the cross, and some imagined wrathless Lamb, rather than reckon with the prominent presence of themes of vengeance and judgment in the full New Testament portrait of Christ.

Yet Luke, like the other New Testament authors, presents these themes as inseparably intertwined with the themes of grace. Christ’s reign of grace is foretold in the psalms and prophets, yet so is the terrible destruction of Judas and of others like him.

Carefully reincorporating the dreadful shadows cast by Christ’s reign and the appropriate fear—whether weighty reverence in his people, or dread in his enemies—that his rule excites, is one of the most difficult, yet most urgent, tasks facing political theology. Christians have a sanguinary history of misapplying and misappropriating these themes. This is clearly not a task to be undertaken recklessly.

Nevertheless, in a portrait freed from all shadow, Christ and the resurrection light he brings cannot truly be seen for what they are. Gaining a new recognition of the significance of characters such as Judas will likely be a necessary step in rediscovering the terrible danger of shrinking from the light into the darkness or of seeking to oppose or usurp the rule of Christ for our own ends.

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

However, we should not be among those who, like Judas, retreat into the darkness. Rather, like the expectant apostles in the days prior to Pentecost, we should, with joy and a fearful awe, press forward into the resurrection day that has dawned in Christ. Courageously, we should bear the Spirit-empowered apostolic witness to Jesus, from his heralding by John to the Baptist to his glorious resurrection, proclaiming a light that can deliver people from any darkness and overcome all who seek to bolster its power and oppose his reign.

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