Of all the names that live in infamy, none is more despised than that of Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed his master Jesus Christ for thirty pieces of silver.
Jesus and his closest and most trusted friends were in an upstairs room, a secret meeting place in the Jerusalem home of one of his followers. The twelve disciples of Jesus thought they were there simply to celebrate the Passover feast, as they did each year. They had no idea that this would be their last meal together, that within a few hours Jesus would be under arrest and they would be scattered across the city, hiding in fear for their very lives. Nor did they know that one of their number was a traitor.
Jesus had astonished his disciples by rising from the table during the meal and stooping to wash their feet. In undertaking this demeaning servant’s work himself, the Lord gave them – and us – an unforgettable lesson in humility and service.
Something else happened during the supper that startled the disciples even more than the foot-washing. Listen to this account of it from the Gospel of John:
. . . Jesus’ spirit was troubled. . . . “What I’m about to tell you is true,” he said. “One of you is going to hand me over to my enemies.” His disciples stared at one another. They had no idea which one of them he meant. The disciple Jesus loved was next to him at the table. Simon Peter motioned to that disciple. He said, “Ask Jesus which one he means.”
The disciple was leaning back against Jesus. He asked him, “Lord, who is it?”
Jesus answered, “It is the one I will give this piece of bread to. I will give it to him after I have dipped it in the dish.”
He dipped the piece of bread. Then he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.
“Do quickly what you are going to do,” Jesus told him.
But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Judas was in charge of the money. So some of the disciples thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast. Others thought Jesus was talking about giving something to poor people.
As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.
John 13:21-30 (NIrV)
A PIECE OF BREAD
The loaf Jesus broke and distributed to his disciples in the Lord’s Supper wasn’t the only significant piece of bread he gave out at the table in the upper room. There was also this strange little incident by which the Lord indicated the identity of the man who was going to hand him over to the enemies who would put him to death. The accounts of the Gospel writers differ somewhat, but they agree that in the course of the Passover meal, Jesus shocked his disciples by announcing that one of them would betray him. Immediately, Matthew says, a confused hubbub broke out as one after another, they began to cry out around the table, “Lord, is it I . . . is it I . . . is it I?” Then Judas, to cover himself, asked the same question, and Jesus told him the truth: “Yes. It is you” (Matthew 26:25).
In John’s Gospel we learn even more details. John was known as the “beloved disciple,” the disciple Jesus especially loved. John offers a first-hand recollection of the way Jesus identified his betrayer at the table. It helps us to understand this story if we can picture the scene in the upper room accurately. Many of us have an image of the last supper shaped by the art of the centuries, especially the famous painting by Leonardo De Vinci with all the disciples lined up sitting at the table. But in the culture of Jesus’ day, guests at an important dinner or feast did not sit at the table. They took their meal while reclining, Roman style, on couches which were placed perpendicular to the table. Each person would lean on their left elbow and eat with their right hand, breaking off pieces of bread or meat to dip in a common bowl. The most important person had the couch at the center of the table. The next two places of honor were on either side of him -one to his left and the other to his right. On the night of the Last Supper in the upper room, John was next to Jesus on the right, for he says that he could lean back against Jesus (John 13:25). This made it easy for John to speak privately with him, so when Jesus dropped his bombshell about the coming betrayal, Peter got John’s attention in the confusion and told him to ask Jesus who the traitor was. In reply, Jesus handed the piece of bread to Judas – who most likely was reclining in the other place of honor, on his left side – and he said to him, “You’re the one.”
Why did Jesus do that? Two reasons come to mind. First, he was showing that he was fully aware of everything that was happening, and that he was still in control of events. Jesus wanted to reveal this to all the disciples, while still giving Judas the freedom to act according to his own will. I think that’s why Jesus’ actions were so cryptic and secret. Not even Peter and John really understood everything until afterwards. The other significant thing about this is that even at the last moment, Jesus was giving Judas one more chance to think about what he was doing before it was too late. His action was more than a warning; it was an expression of love, even of respect for Judas’s freedom. He offered Judas a final chance to stop before he made an irrevocable choice – a choice that would have eternal consequences. But Judas went ahead and made that choice. He took the bread, and Satan entered into him. “He went out,” as John adds prophetically, “and it was night” – a dark time for a dark deed.
A MOTIVE FOR TREACHERY
The sordid story of Jesus’ betrayal and
rucifixion had begun with Judas’s visit to the chief priests and his offer to hand Jesus over to them for a price – thirty pieces of silver. This was a huge bribe, the equivalent of about a third of a year’s wages for an average worker. A poor enough reward for betraying the Lord of Life and losing one’s soul forever, but still a significant outlay from the temple treasury. Why did the religious leaders agree to pay it? They were determined to see Jesus put to death, but they intended to wait until after the Passover. Jesus’ continuing popularity might lead to trouble if he were arrested while Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims. And it would be difficult just to find and lay hands on Jesus when the city was choked with hundreds of thousands of visitors. But Judas’s proposal changed things abruptly. It offered a chance of seizing Jesus secretly, so the authorities decided to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity.
But what motivated Judas? What made him do it? Why did he turn traitor and deliver the Lord to his enemies? There have been attempts to explain and even to excuse Judas’s actions. One line of reasoning is that he didn’t really mean for Jesus to be executed. He was simply trying to force Jesus’ hand, to make Jesus use his power to save his own life and set himself up as an earthly king – which, of course, would have been great for Judas! Or maybe he gave Jesus up to the authorities out of cowardice and fear, hoping to save his own skin. Another argument says that Judas wasn’t to blame for betraying Jesus; God was, because he decreed that it should happen. In the modern rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas sings these words:
My God, I am sick, I’ve been used
And you knew it all the time.
God! I’ll never know why you chose me for your crime
For your foul bloody crime – you have murdered me!
What are we to make of that? The blasphemous suggestion that Judas is an innocent victim, a helpless pawn of fate in God’s decree, is absurd in the light of Jesus’ actions in the upper room. Far from being trapped against his will, Judas was given a gracious opportunity by the Lord to turn away from his sin even at the very last moment.
When we turn to the historical record in the New Testament, we find a much simpler, more believable explanation of Judas’s motive. The Gospels tell us three things about him. First, that he was a disciple. Second, that he was a traitor. Third, that he was a thief (John 12:1-6). And Judas was all those things by his own choice, not because of predestination or because of Satan’s power over him. What really motivated Judas to betray Jesus was neither a complex scheme nor some great human tragedy; it was simple, sordid greed. Judas worshiped money. He followed Jesus not out of love and commitment, but because he was stealing from him. Judas was the treasurer for Jesus and the other disciples, and he was embezzling from their common funds. And when he saw that Jesus’ ministry was coming to an end – after all, Jesus had been predicting his coming crucifixion for some time – Judas decided to cash in while he still could. So he sold his Lord and Master for thirty pieces of silver. “Hard to believe,” you say? Not really, I’m afraid, people do things like that for money every day.
LESSONS FOR DISCIPLES
What can we learn from the sad example of Judas Iscariot? He provides a solemn warning to anyone who is serious about wanting to love and serve God. For one thing, it’s a warning against the danger of being merely religious. Having the outward form of religion without the inward substance of faith is a deadly thing. Many people play the role of being a Christian without ever becoming one in reality. Judas was like that. Outwardly, he seemed like all the other disciples. He spent three full years with Jesus. He heard every word of the Sermon on the Mount. He listened to all the parables. He witnessed every miracle. Judas even went out with the other disciples on mission trips. He served in the cause of Christ. He was an officer in the church! But it isn’t religious practices that save us. Church going, Bible quoting, hymn singing, doing good works – all those things don’t matter if your heart hasn’t been changed. “Lord, didn’t we do all these things for you?” some will say, and Jesus will reply, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” One writer made this insightful comment about Judas:
Judas Iscariot made a reputable profession of religion. There was nothing but was right and proper and becoming in his outward conduct. Like the other apostles, he appeared to believe and give up all for Christ’s sake. . . . No one of the eleven . . . suspected him of hypocrisy. When our Lord said, “One of you shall betray me,” no one said, “Lord, is it Judas?” Yet all this time his heart was never changed.
(J.C. Ryle, “Notes on the Gospels”)
Further, Judas’s example shows us the danger of a divided allegiance. Judas started out as a disciple at one time, at least in outward conformity, but his heart was never really completely in it. He never gave himself wholly to Christ. He always continued to be secretly in love with the world in its very crudest form – money.
Judas’s case shows us the importance of examining our own hearts. Do they truly belong to Christ? Are they divided? Is love for money, for pleasure, for advancement and success in the world threatening to make hypocrites of us? It would be good for us to regularly ask the disciples’ question: “Lord, could it be I?”
Prayer: “Lord God, you have put in my heart the love for your Son Jesus Christ, so deliver me from every competing love, and make me single and whole in my devotion to him. Amen.”