Was Jesus’ brother Judas the same Judas who betrayed Jesus for silver?

Q. Was Jesus’ brother Judas the same Judas who betrayed Jesus for silver?

No, the two men are not the same. In New Testament times, people did not have last names, but individuals were identified by their father’s name or by the city or region they came from, and that enables us to identify these as different men.

The Judas who betrayed Jesus is called Judas Iscariot, most likely meaning that he was from the village of Kerioth. Hebrew or Aramaic “man of Kerioth” would be ish-Kerioth, and English Bibles present a Latinized version of that name, Iscariot.

The Judas who was the brother of Jesus came to believe that Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah, and he actually wrote one of the books of the New Testament, the epistle of Jude. In that book he identifies himself as “the servant of Jesus Christ and the brother of James.” James, another brother of Jesus, was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and at the time when Jude sent out his letter, identifying himself as the brother of James was a clear way for Jude to let his recipients know specifically who he was.

(Jude and James were actually half-brothers of Jesus. They had the same mother, Mary, but they were sons of Joseph, while Jesus was the Son of God.)

Do I not truly believe if I have not done things such as handling deadly snakes or drinking poison unharmed?

Q. I am perplexed by Mark 16:15-18, “These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”  Is Jesus saying that in order to have eternal life, we must exhibit the signs he has outlined? While I  believe and have been baptized, I do not speak in tongues and have not cast out demons.  In all fairness, I have not tested the snake theory or tried to drink any deadly thing, but I am not sure that would be wise.

Jesus is not saying that in order to have eternal life, we must exhibit the signs he is describing. He says quite clearly just before outlining these signs, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved.” (And baptism itself is an expression of saving belief, not a further requirement for salvation.) Then he adds, about those who have shown that they believe this way, that these signs will accompany them. But the signs accompany the whole community of believers, so it is not the case that each individual believer needs to have every sign in order to be sure that they are saved. So, put that snake back in its cage, put down that deadly drink, and rest assured in your salvation!

Who was the book of Hebrews written to?

Q. Who was the book of Hebrews written to?

Here is what I say about that in my study guide to Hebrews and Deuteronomy. (You can read the study guide online or download it for free at this link.)

The book of Hebrews was, like Deuteronomy, originally delivered as a
public address. It’s made up of four messages that were originally given in
gatherings of Jesus’ followers. (At the end the author calls the whole work
a “word of exhortation,” the technical term for a sermon or homily in the
Jewish synagogue.) These messages were then collected into a book and sent
out like a letter. The ending of Hebrews follows the form for letters in this
period. (The usual opening of a letter is missing, however, and that’s why the
author is unknown today.) This ending provides details that, together with
other references in the book, help us identify its recipients.

We can tell that they lived in the Roman Empire, most likely somewhere
in Italy (since the author sends them greetings from their friends who have come from Italy), perhaps in the city of Rome itself. We know that they lived
in the middle of the first century, some time before AD 70 when the Romans
destroyed the Jerusalem temple, because the author says that sacrifices are still
being offered there. They were Jews (descendants of the ancient Israelites)
who were facing a particular threat. At this time followers of Jesus were beginning to be distinguished from other Jews and singled out for persecution.
The believers addressed here were tempted to try to escape by going back to
the old covenant and identifying themselves simply as Jews. The author of
Hebrews urges them instead to remain faithful to the new covenant, despite
the risks and dangers, and show their fellow Jews and people of all other
nations how God has brought their rich spiritual heritage to its glorious
culmination through Jesus.

How can we address the problem of political polarization within the American Christian community?

Q. I have become increasingly upset about the intense polarization of political life in the United States. However, I am even more alarmed that this polarization has become part of Christian life in the United States. I will state up front that I am totally turned off by so-called “Christian nationalism,” by Christian support for Donald Trump, and by the Christian banners/themes on display on January 6 at the Capitol. So that is my bias. My questions are: What do you think happened (or has it always been this way, just not so visible)? And what can we do about it? I’m torn between wanting pastors to address this from the pulpit but, at the same time, not wanting to further inject politics into spiritual life. And do you have any advice for how I can set aside my own political biases and be part of the solution, not part of the problem?

When Jesus sent out the twelve apostles, he told them, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if a person of peace is there, your peace will rest on that person, but if not, it will return to you.” I think that is what you are looking for in the first instance: “people of peace” within the American Christian community with whom you can begin to share your concerns.

One unfortunate fact of the current political polarization is that Christian people, in some cases, have come to believe, or have been led to believe, that certain political commitments are so important that they must not be challenged but instead be held and defended vigorously. The apostle James wrote, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere.” This is the kind of godly wisdom and character that we as Christians should cultivate. But unfortunately, as I said, some these days seem to have come to consider certain political commitments to be more important than being impartial and open to reason.

But fortunately, this is not the case for everyone. I think that if you look around carefully, you will find Christians on the side of the political spectrum that you describe who would actually be very open to hearing your concerns and considering them fairly. Those are the people you need to start with. You will probably not be able to speak constructively right now with people who are less open. But the people you are able to speak with now may eventually be able to speak with further people.

Readers of this blog will recognize from other posts that I largely share your concerns. I am recommending to you the approach that I have been following myself. For example, if I address a political issue on social media, I am selective about the people I share my thoughts with. I actually have a pared-down list of contacts that I use for such posts. I don’t want to alienate someone who would not be open right now to hearing what I have to say but who might become a collaborator for peace later on.

About some things we simply must speak up and hope that we are doing so in such a way that our manner will give no offense. If people with different political commitments are offended, let them be offended by the specifics of what we have to say, not by how we say it. And if we get push-back, let us deal with that graciously.

For example, on this blog I recently had occasion to explain that Jesus was indeed a refugee (specifically, an asylum seeker) in response to a claim to the contrary by a high-profile political figure. Such posts sometimes draw comments that suggest all Christians should be on the other side of the issue. But as I explain in my “About” feature, “Comments may be edited for length, tone, and content.” You can do the same thing yourself as you seek to engage others constructively about the concerns you have described. You can edit comments in your own head for length, tone, and content, and decide from there how best to pursue being a “person of peace” with the person making the comment and with others as well.

Where did Pharaoh get chariot horses to pursue the Israelites if the plagues killed all the Egyptians’ animals?

Q. In Exodus 14, Pharaoh decided to chase the nation of Israel. The plagues had killed all the animals. Where did Pharaoh get all the horses for the chariots for the chase? Did enough time pass for him to regroup? Just wondering. 
Thanks for being there and responding to questions from your readers.

Thank you for your question. The book of Exodus does say that as a result of the fifth plague, which seems to have been a disease that affected animals, “All the livestock of the Egyptians died.” However, the word “all” does not seem to mean “every last one,” because before the seventh plague, which was a devastating hail storm, Moses told Pharaoh, “Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every person and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die.” And God told Moses that the tenth plague would kill the firstborn of every Egyptian person and “all the firstborn of the cattle.”

One possibility is that when Exodus says that “all the livestock of the Egyptians died,” this could mean that “all kinds of livestock died,” that is, large numbers of the horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats that Moses warned Pharaoh were all in danger from the fifth plague. It would be remarkable that a single disease would affect such a wide range of animals, and this would be a further sign to Pharaoh that the God of Israel was the true God.

Another possibility is that “all” is a generalization for emphasis. This is a common Hebrew usage. For example, Exodus also says that the Egyptians made the Israelites do “all kinds of labor in the field,” but clearly this does not mean every single type of work known to humans. So the statement “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” may mean that a great number of the animals that the Egyptians owned died.

Pharaoh’s chariot horses specifically would probably have been kept in stables, so they would have been away from the general population of animals affected by the disease and sheltered during the hail storm. While these plagues were supernatural events sent by God to chastise Pharaoh, they ultimately worked through natural means, and there were natural ways to avoid them. (For example, Moses warned the Egyptians to bring their cattle into shelter before the hail storm came.)

Did the disciples have access to the scrolls in the temples after Jesus died?

Q. Did the disciples have access to the scrolls in the temples after Jesus died?

I think you may be asking about this to know how the disciples were able to preach about Jesus from the Scriptures after his resurrection and how the New Testament authors knew how to appeal to the Scriptures when explaining the work of Jesus in light of the plan of God.

I also think that by “temples” you may mean the synagogues. There was only one temple in New Testament times, the temple in Jerusalem. But there were synagogues in cities throughout Judea and Galilee and in many other parts of the Roman Empire. And while most individuals in these days did not own copies of the Scriptures, since those were hand-copied, rare, and expensive, these synagogues seem to have had their own scrolls of the biblical books.

For example, Luke tells us in his gospel how Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth and “stood up to read” and “the synagogue assistant gave him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.” Standing up was a sign that Jesus wanted to speak to the people gathered in the synagogue, and presumably the assistant brought Jesus the Isaiah scroll at his request, since Jesus then read a passage from Isaiah and spoke about it.

To give another example, Luke tells us in the book of Acts that Paul and Barnabas went to the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch one Sabbath day. There was a “reading from the Law and the Prophets,” and the synagogue leader then invited Paul and Barnabas to speak. In this case “the Law and the Prophets” likely means the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, there was probably one reading from somewhere in the Scriptures, rather than two readings, one from the Law and one from the Prophets. Many interpreters believe that when Paul spoke on that occasion, he referred to the passage that had been read, but since Paul quoted five different passages, it is unclear which one this actually was. It is interesting to note, however, that Paul also referred generally to “the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.” Here “prophets” probably also means “Scriptures,” so Paul’s comment shows once again that people in New Testament times could hear the Scriptures regularly in the synagogues.

And it seems that it was also possible for people to consult the copies of the Scriptures that the synagogues owned. When Paul and Silas shared about Jesus with the people in the synagogue in Berea, Luke tells us, the people there “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” So it seems that outside of the regular meetings in which the Scriptures were read publicly, people could also consult the Scriptures privately. It was also possible to study the Scriptures with a rabbi, who may have owned his own copies. Paul told the people in Jerusalem, “I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors.”

So the New Testament itself shows us that the disciples and New Testament authors would have had access to the Scriptures by several means, and so they would have been able to learn what they said and reflect on their meaning in order to proclaim the person and work Jesus in light of God’s preceding redemptive work.

If God wants a relationship with me, then why doesn’t God speak to me or answer my prayers?

Q. If God wants a relationship with us, then why does He hide from us? God’s silence and absence, not to mention zero prayers answered, are giant stumbling blocks for me. Blocks that only God can remove. Thanks and God bless you, in Jesus’ holy name, Amen.

Let me say first that I sympathize deeply with your situation. I am sorry for the frustration, disappointment, and sense of abandonment that I hear you expressing. As a pastor, I had occasion to counsel with others in similar situations, and I have seen how painful it is and how challenging it is to continue to have faith when God seems absent.

But next let me share an observation. I have been catching up on the questions that were submitted to this blog during the time when I was unable to respond to them, and I note with interest that the other question I answered today, about the ways in which God speaks to us, arrived right around the same time as yours. I hope you appreciate that I don’t say this in any way unsympathetic to your situation, but I wonder whether the other question might have some bearing on yours. Specifically, might you be expecting God to speak to you in a certain way, and while God may not be speaking in that way, might God be speaking to you in some other way? I suggest this respectfully and hopefully for your consideration.

Beyond that, I would also suggest that you could see God as present and speaking through the very desire you feel for God to be present and speak to you. You could see that desire itself as an expression of God’s work in your heart and life. I hope that is also a hopeful thought.

I admire your acknowledgement that in the end, you must and do depend on God himself to resolve the difficulties you are experiencing. It has been said that simply in order to ask a question, we need to know at least part of the answer. And I think you ask your question, honestly and painfully, out of an awareness that God does indeed want to have a relationship with us. I hope you will see that awareness as well as something that God has given to you.

I also hope that you have Christian friends who can walk through this struggle with you and compassionate church leaders whom you can confide in and who will counsel with you. Personally I get from your question not a sense of hopelessness but a sense of hopefulness. I hear someone speaking who deeply desires a relationship with God and who is depending on God to remove everything in the way of that. May you indeed find that God grants this desire and brings you to a place of peace and joy in experiencing his presence and hearing him speak to you.

Does God speak to us today, and if so, how?

 Q. Does God speak to us today? How does God speak to us? Is it through the Bible or can he speak to us through our thoughts? Nature? Others? Thank you. Any tips of how to hear Him better would be appreciated and helpful. Thank you.

I believe that God does still speak to people today, and I think that in your question you have described several of the ways in which God does that.

God does speak to us through his written word, the Bible, and if we want to hear from God, we should read the Bible regularly, meditate on it (that is, ask what it means in the context of our own lives), memorize it, and discuss it with others.

But I believe that God also speaks to us in other ways. For one thing, as you suggest, God can speak to us through his creation. In the beauty and harmony of creation we experience something of the character of God. As the Bible itself says, “Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” But beyond that, I know many people who have come back from an experience of being out in God’s creation with a better sense of what they should do about something. In a way that I cannot entirely explain, they heard from God. As the old hymn says, “In the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.”

I believe that God also speaks to us internally. This can happen through strong and clear impressions that we realize intuitively are from God. I think this is actually a learned ability. Through experience—from being both right and wrong about this at various times—we learn how to recognize God’s voice. I once preached a sermon entitled, “Can You Hear God When He Whispers?” That is what I’m talking about here.

I believe that God also guides us through the godly desires that he develops in us. I know people who have found on various occasions that a desire for something has grown in them just before an opportunity to do that thing has presented itself. In this case as well we need to develop discernment. We need to be able to tell whether God is indeed using the desire to speak to us and encourage us to take the opportunity. But I think this is nevertheless another means that God uses.

As also you suggest, I believe that God can speak to us through other people. We may go to someone whose godly wisdom we trust and ask their advice. Or someone may simply say something to us that has a certain ring to it, behind which we may discern God speaking.

God even speaks to us through our dreams. While I would say that most dreams are simply our brains processing things that have happened in recent days, in some cases, a dream has a special vividness and immediacy to it that help us recognize that God is speaking to us through it.

I imagine that other means could be listed as well. But for any of these means to work, we need to be able to hear God speaking through them, and that requires being able to recognize his voice. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.” By this he meant, “My followers recognize my voice and do what I tell them.” The more readily we obey what we do hear from God, the more able we will become to hear further things from God, in a greater variety of ways.

I think that God will use just about any means to speak to us and give us direction, encouragement, warning, and affection. So we can and should be watching and listening for that. Our part is to cultivate the ability to recognize God’s voice and especially to obey what we hear God telling us.

Did Jacob receiving the birthright have more advantages than disadvantages?

Q. Jacob receiving the birthright had more advantages than disadvantages. How far do you agree?

(This question is about the story of Jacob and Esau, which is found in Genesis 25–33.)

I think we feel there are disadvantages to Jacob receiving the birthright because of the way he obtained it, by cheating his brother Esau out of it and deceiving his father Isaac into giving him his blessing. It seems disadvantageous for God to allow someone who did such things to keep his ill-gotten gains.

In response, I would say that it was not necessary for Jacob to receive the birthright by these means. Rebekah, the mother of Esau and Jacob, could tell that Esau was a man of bad character, and she could have shared her concerns with their father Isaac and encouraged him directly to bless Jacob instead. Esau, for his part, does not seem to have been interested in the birthright, so Jacob didn’t necessarily have to take advantage of Esau’s venality and impulsiveness, bringing out the worst in him, to get it. Ideally, the two of them could also have spoken directly, with Jacob suggesting, “Look, I’m interested in this, while you’re interested in that, why don’t we both do what we’re interested in?”

If things had happened that way, I don’t think we would see many disadvantages in Jacob having the birthright. He was God’s choice to carry on the covenant line, and he ultimately proved to be a man of faith and character.

But as God works out his plan through the free choices, good and bad, of human moral agents, things are rarely as neat as they could be if people always made the best choices and brought out the best in one another. I am not so much disturbed by the way Jacob receives the birthright despite his cheating and deception as I am amazed at the way God is able to carry his purposes forward even as people act in immature and sinful ways.

In the end, even though Esau swore he would kill Jacob for what he did, the two were reconciled and Jacob made restitution. I think it would still have been better if everyone in the family had acted consistently in a godly and mature way. But to see what God was able to do even as all of them needed to learn and grow has advantages of its own. It certainly gives the rest of us hope that despite the brokenness and frailty of which we are only too aware, God can still bring the stories of our lives to beautiful conclusions.

Who was King David’s mother, and how many children did she have?

Q. What was King David’s mother’s name? How many children did she have with Jesse?

The Bible actually does not tell us the name of David’s mother, but there is a Jewish tradition that her name was Nitzevet. According to 1 Chronicles, this woman had seven sons (Eliab, Abinadab, Shimea, Nethanel, Raddai, Ozem, and David) and at least two daughters (Zeruiah and Abigail).

There is some debate among biblical scholars as to whether Jesse was the father of Zeruiah and Abigail or whether their father was a man to whom Nitzevet was married before she married Jesse (she may have been widowed). In 1 Chronicles, after the sons of Jesse are listed, Zeruiah and Abigail are called “their sisters” rather than “his daughters.” The sons of Zeruiah (Abishai, Joab, and Asahel) seem in the biblical narrative to be about the same age as David, even though he is their uncle. So Zeruiah may indeed have been many years older than David and she may have married and started to have children around the time he was born.

While we do not know David’s mother’s name for certain, we do know that David took care of her. When he was running for his life from Saul, he went to the king of Moab and asked him to allow his parents to stay with him for safety, and that king agreed.

We also have an indication that David’s mother was a godly woman who influenced him to be godly himself. David is traditionally considered to have been the author of Psalm 86, and in that psalm he says to the Lord, “I serve you just as my mother did.” So while the name of David’s mother has not come down to us through history, her legacy certainly has.