In John 6:64, it is reported that Jesus told his disciples,
“‘But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.”
The reference to the “one that would betray” Jesus is clearly Judas. And because the Gospel writer says Jesus knew “from the beginning” (Gk. ex arches) that Judas would betray him, this verse is all-too typically interpreted as evidence that God foreknows all things from eternity including free human decisions. In fact, it is even often interpreted as evidence that God has planned and ordained from eternity all things including human decisions, even sinful ones. But is this verse really evidence of any of this?
No it is not. Both of these readings of the text rest upon a big assumption, namely that “from the beginning” means something like “from the beginning of creation” or even “from before creation.” But this is a false assumption. How do we know this? We know it first of all because good reason, even common sense, tells us 1) human beings are genuinely free, 2) free decisions cannot be foreknown, 3) God is omnibenevolent, and 4) an omnibenevolent God cannot plan and ordain sin. But interpreting “from the beginning” as “from the beginning of creation” or “from before creation” would mean the text contradicts all these plain axioms of reason.
But we also know “from the beginning” does not mean what so many assume it means (“from the beginning of creation” or “from before creation”) because of the way the phrase is used elsewhere in the Gospel of John. You would never know it from reading those who use this phrase to teach God foreknows all things from eternity or even has ordained all things from eternity, but in the Gospel of John this phrase appears four other times. And in three of the four other uses, there can be no question but that the phrase means from the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Here are the four other uses of the phrase:
John 8:25 - So they [the scribes and the Pharisees] were saying to Him, “Who are You?” Jesus said to them, “What have I been saying to you from the beginning (Gk. ten archen)?”
John 8:44 - “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning (Gk. aph arches), and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.”
John 15:27 - “You [the disciples] will bear witness also, because you have been with me from the beginning (Gk. aph arches).”
John 16:4 - “But these things I have spoken to you [the disciples], that when their hour comes, you may remember that I told you of them. And these things I did not say to you from the beginning (Gk. ex arches), because I was with you.”
Now if we examine the use of our phrase (“from the beginning”) in these texts, together with the use of the phrase in John 6:64, it should be quite obvious that the phrase by itself is unspecific. By this I mean that by itself the phrase does not indicate what “beginning” is in view. The context must determine that. In John 8:44, the context makes plain that the beginning in view is the beginning of creation, for the phrase is applied to the devil and his murderous ways either in the temptation of the first human beings or even prior to this when the devil first chose wickedness. But in the three other uses of the phrase the context indicates that the beginning in view is the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus had been telling the scribes and the Pharisees “from the beginning” of his ministry who he was (John 8:25). The disciples will bear witness to Jesus because they have been with him “from the beginning” of his ministry (John 15:27). And there were certain things Jesus withheld telling his disciples “from the beginning” (or “at the beginning”) of his ministry because he was with them at that time, but soon he would not be (John 16:4). So, again, the phrase by itself tells us nothing about what “beginning” is in view. Put differently, the phrase can be used to describe any number of beginnings. The beginning of creation? Sure. But also other beginnings, like the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
In light of this, it is simply poor, and frankly lazy, exegesis to assume that the intent of the Gospel writer in John 6:44 is to say Jesus knew from the beginning of creation, or even prior to creation, that Judas would betray Jesus. The assumption overlooks that the phrase “from the beginning” is by itself unspecific. By itself, it does not indicate what “beginning” is meant. Furthermore, it overlooks the fact that in three of the other four uses of the phrase in the Gospel of John, the phrase is used to denote the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. In short, the assumption is an example of exegeting a text in isolation not only from good reason (as explained above) but also in isolation from the rest of the text of John, to say nothing of the rest of recorded revelation which over and over again and in several different ways indicates God does not foreknow free decisions (thus, the God of scripture has regrets (Gen 6:6; 1 Sam 15:10, 35), experiences disappointment at the unexpected (Isa 5:2, 4; Jer 3:6-7, 19-20), asks questions about the future (Num 14:11; Hos 8:5), gets frustrated (Exod 4:10-15; Ezek 22:30-31), tests people to see what they will do (Gen 22:12; Exod 16:4; Deut 8:2; 13:1-3; Judg 2:22; 3:4; 2 Chron 32:31), speaks in terms of what “perhaps” will be (Exod 4:8-9; Isa 47:12; Jer 26:2-3; 36:3, 7; 51:8; Ezek 12:1-3; cf. Exod 13:17), consults with others before making (final) decisions (Exod 32:7-14; Num 14:11-20; Amos 7:1-9), and so on).
So what does the Gospel writer mean in John 6:64 when he says Jesus knew from the beginning who would betray him? I submit on the basis of good reason, revelation broadly considered, and the use of the key phrase (“from the beginning”) elsewhere in the Gospel of John, that the author’s intent is simply to say that Jesus knew from the beginning of his ministry that Judas was “not on board” and would eventually betray him. That’s all. No “horrible decree” here. No “exhaustive divine foreknowledge” here. No, more careful exegesis and attention to good reason, even common sense, points to the meaning of this verse simply being that Jesus could see very early on into his ministry that Judas was not fully with him, that things just were not right with Judas. When Jesus chose him, Judas appeared a good candidate for the honored position, but things changed quickly. And Jesus knew it. He knew, probably not even via supernatural access to a knowledge of Judas’ thoughts, that Judas had turned for the worse. It is in this sense that Jesus knew “from the beginning” that Judas would betray him. Indeed, we probably err even to say that John 6:64 intends to say that Jesus knew how exactly or when exactly Judas would betray him. Better to say, in the light of all that we know about God via good reason and the totality of revelation, that the text only means Jesus knew Judas would betray him somehow as long as Judas remained on the course he was on.