God’s Word for You
Acts 1:18-19 His body fell headlong
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, August 15, 2019
18 “That man bought a field with what he was paid for his wicked deed. His body fell headlong and burst open in the middle, and all his intestines spilled out. 19 This became known to everyone in Jerusalem, and so they called that field in their own language Akeldema, which means Field of Blood.
Judas’ story stands for us as a grim warning of the despair that comes when the law of the Bible works in a man’s heart, but the gospel is refused or rejected. Judas heard the gospel again and again, and Judas even preached the gospel himself (Mark 3:14-15). Here was a man who was instructed by the Son of God, who proclaimed the gospel, who drove out demons in Jesus’ name, and who healed the sick (Mark 6:12-13). But the gospel he preached was not a gospel he fully understood, and he did not know how to apply it to himself.
Judas was a thief, and he stole money from Jesus’ treasury bag (John 12:6). He got an idea to make even more money by betraying Jesus to the chief priests. I think that Judas had seen Jesus perform enough miracles that he got the idea that Jesus could escape from the Jews, so maybe he could make a good living by betraying Jesus again and again, only to have Jesus escape again and again. The problem was that the very first time Judas tried out his clever little plan, Jesus used the betrayal in his own divine plan to save mankind, and let himself be crucified. This broke Judas’ heart, and he was torn between having betrayed Jesus and having lost his way of making a profit. When the chief priests wouldn’t take back his money, “Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5).
Our verse here in Acts isn’t easy to lay side-by-side with Matthew’s text. When a hanged body is cut down, it drops straight down; it does not flip end-over-end. How do we go from Judas hanging himself to falling headlong and bursting in the middle? There is one question in the inspired Greek text, but let’s make what is clear, clear.
1, Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27:5).
2, Something happened (πρηνὴς γενόμενος) to his body (Acts 1:18)
3, His body burst open in the middle and all his intestines spilled out (Acts 1:18)
The second point depends on our translation of prēnēs (πρηνὴς). It means “prone,” either to “fall headlong” or to “swell up.” The Latin translation (suspensus) “hanged himself” returns to Matthew 27 and does not translate this difficult and rare word. There is an instance of prēnēs in the book of the Wisdom of Solomon: “they will be left utterly silent and swollen (prone?)” (RSV has “dry and barren”). There is also a questionable reference in the Church Fathers, from Papias. Papias must be read with caution, since he was an eager writer who was not careful about his words; he was far more prolific than reliable. He dashed off statements like some send off Tweets today, without thinking much about the value of his words. He said that Judas was a very fat man, “so bloated that he was not able to pass through a place where a wagon could easily pass” (Fragment 18).
If Judas hanged himself on some sort of hill, perhaps we can understand that the rope broke, either before or after he died, and that his falling body somehow turned, perhaps striking stones on the hillside as it went, and his corpse opened “in the middle,” as Luke reports. Returning to Papias (who, for most readers, is probably not worth looking up), we read: “The place where he died (Papias said in private) was the gate of torment and punishment. It was the crossing of three roads, a deserted and uninhabited place, and up to this day no one has been able to go there, unless powerfully shutting his nostrils. Because of this, there are many who go out of their way to avoid [the stench]” (Papias, Fragment 18). The Jews used the place to bury foreigners, and they called it Akeldama in Aramaic, “Field of Blood.”
Whatever happened to this man’s body, it’s more important to understand what happened to his soul. He took his life, not in confusion, but in disbelief. He did not think that Jesus could have atoned for this sin of his, and he tried to atone for it himself. He traded the cross for a field of blood. Peter had betrayed Jesus, too, but Peter was recalled by the gospel. Peter repented. Judas did not. Peter was saved. Judas was not.
The account of Judas’ death and judgment are an opportunity for us to witness God’s justice at work. Those who claim that it doesn’t matter what you do in life and that everybody goes to heaven in the end, say such things with no basis, and they build up a spiritual house of straw that will be burned to ashes (1 Corinthians 3:12-13). Jesus was clear: “No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). Also: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36). The Ghost of Hamlet’s father put his sufferings is such terms: “Sent to my account with all my imperfections on my head! O, horrible! O, horrible! Most horrible!”
The suffering of hell is indeed too horrible to describe. We agree with Chrysostom, “We search not where it is, but how we may flee it.” Flee to Jesus. Run to the cross, where all your sins were taken and atoned for. In Jesus you have forgiveness and eternal joy. Let yourself sink into the arms of Jesus, and have no fears about the life of the world to come.
Pastor Timothy Smith