Judas is a pawn of the priests, but Satan is a pawn of God.

Matthew 26:14-16; John 13:18-30; Psalm 41:4-10


The man who will live in infamy

Since I am prone to correct others’ grammar or word usage from time to time, it’s only fair (and actually appreciated) when others correct mine. I can remember three specific examples at Corinth. The late Cacky Fuller informed me early in my ministry here that “irregardless” is not a word. Austin Allran taught me the difference between a participle and a gerund. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what I said or who corrected me when I used the word “infamous” as a synonym for “famous.” I probably said something dumb along the lines of “the infamous Abraham Lincoln.” 

Both famous and infamous have to do with reputation, but Abraham Lincoln was famous. Hitler, Stalin, and Nero were infamous. The latter means a reputation for being evil, vile, malicious. Think FDR, Pearl Harbor, and “the day that will live in infamy.”

From a Christian perspective, it’s hard to find a name more infamous than Judas. He seems more evil even than Pilate or Caiaphas, because of the act of betrayal. It’s a word Jesus used of him (John 13:22), and Judas also used it of himself (Matthew 27:4). To betray is to harm someone who trusts you, such as by giving information to an enemy. Judas, who was part of Jesus’ inner circle, one of the Twelve disciples who stayed with him 24/7, listening to his teaching and witnessing his miracles, betrayed the Son of God! That makes him virtually the definition of betrayal and infamy.

What is the meaning of Judas’ story? I’ve read and heard many options this week.

A.W. Tozer, whose writings I admire, preached a sermon on Judas that focused on his parents, especially his father Simon, whom John names (13:2). His message is essentially that parents need to be careful not to raise a Judas.

Bishop John Shelby Spong believes the meaning of Judas’ story is that it’s one more example of biblical writers fabricating a story of evil to fit their flawed worldview.

Wayne Miller pointed me to Acts 4:27-28 where the early church was praying, and said to God that even though Herod, Pilate, and others had conspired against Jesus, “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia asks us to consider that there is weakness in the best of saints and goodness in the worst of men. Judas probably meant well all along, but his betrayal was the culmination of “gradual failing in lesser things.” It’s even possible that Judas’ repentance was real, and Origen, a third century theologian, suggested Judas committed suicide in order to seek out Christ in person and ask for his forgiveness.

William Barclay wrote, “The tragedy of Judas is that he refused to accept Jesus as he was and tried to make him what he wanted him to be. It is not Jesus who can be changed by us, but we who must be changed by Jesus. We can never use him for our purposes; we must submit to be used for his. The tragedy of Judas is that of a man who thought he knew better than God.”[1]

Those are just a few perspectives on the meaning of Judas. Before I give you Bob’s perspective, let’s review what the Bible tells us about Judas. Perhaps I should remind you that my approach as a preacher is to trust the accuracy of the biblical record. There are certainly those (Bishop Spong being one of many) who question the memory and motives of those who wrote and try to reconstruct a different narrative. That’s a conversation for another day. As your pastor, I take these writings at face value, that the authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

What We Know

Matthew 10:1-4, also Mark 6:13-16; Luke 6:12-16. Jesus called twelve disciples and sent them out with authority to drive out evil spirits and heal every disease. That includes Judas! The final two mentioned are Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot. In his pre-Jesus life Simon was associated with a revolutionary group. That Judas is paired with him may be significant. “Iscariot” may be related to sicarius, meaning dagger. It’s the Latin equivalent of “zealot,” so perhaps he also had been an anti-Roman terrorist.

John 6:67-71. The only other reference to Judas prior to Holy Week follows the feeding of the 5000. Many disillusioned followers deserted Jesus, but the Twelve stayed. Jesus asked them, “Don’t you want to leave as well?” Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life. We believe and know you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus drops the bombshell: “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” John wants to be sure we know that Jesus already knows what Judas will do.

John 12:4-6. Judas objected strongly when Lazarus’ sister Mary poured out her perfume on Jesus in an act of pure love and adoration. He said it could have been sold to benefit the poor. John adds an editorial comment that Judas’ motive was greed. As “keeper of the money bag,” he was actually dipping into it to “help himself.” This again tells us that Judas fit right in and was trusted among the Twelve as their treasurer.

Matthew 26:14-16. Sometime between Tuesday afternoon and Thursday evening (I think most likely on Wednesday), Judas went to the chief priests and asked how much it was worth to them to get their hands on Jesus. This certainly places greed high on the possibilities for his betrayal because he seems to be bargaining for as much as he can get. They give him thirty pieces of silver, equal to about five months’ daily wages, an amount Exodus 21:32 requires for repayment if one man’s slave is killed by another man’s bull. Judas begins looking for the right opportunity.

Luke 22:1-6. To this same story, Luke adds the detail that “Satan entered Judas” at this point in the story. He also notes that part of the deal was that Judas would hand Jesus over “when no crowd was present.” The priests were “afraid of the people.” From Sunday afternoon’s palm-waving and psalm-singing to Jesus’ scoring round after round in the verbal sparring match that took place in the temple courts on Tuesday, Jesus was immensely popular. The priests couldn’t risk the crowd turning on them if they seized Jesus in public.

John 13:2. Before John tells the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in the Upper Room, he inserts that the devil had already “prompted” Judas to betray him. He’s also the only one who mentions Judas’ father by name. He was the “son of Simon Iscariot.” Because his father had the same nickname as he did, this may alter our theory about “Iscariot.” It could mean from the town of Kerioth in the southern part of Judea. This means he was the only one of the Twelve not from Galilee. Of course, it could also mean that Judas’ father was among the sicarii, the dagger-bearers. In that case, we do indeed see a warning that the sins of the father can be magnified in the son.

John 13:18-30. Jesus says Judas’ betrayal fulfills the Scripture and quotes Psalm 41:9, “He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me.” I will return to that in a moment. In this passage that follows the foot-washing, Jesus displays profound emotion. John says he “became deeply troubled in spirit” (21) and testified (martyreo, indicating a formal testimony): “Amen, Amen” (like saying, “I say to you under oath”), “one of you is going to betray me.” They stare at each other, at a loss to know which one. I find it incomprehensibly remarkable and perplexing that none of them said, “It’s Judas, isn’t it?” This tells me there was absolutely no hint during Holy Week, or at any time in the last three years, that Judas was suspect. These guys walked and cooked and ate and joked and listened to Jesus and preached and healed and played and used the bathroom and, you name it, for three years and nobody ever, not once, wondered if Judas was a traitor. He was either one of the cleverest double agents in history, an astounding actor, or he actually believed in Jesus until the end.

Peter tells John, “Ask him who it is.” Jesus says it’s the one to whom he gives a piece of bread. John says when Judas took the bread, “Satan entered into him.” Even when Jesus says out loud to Judas, “What you are about to do, do quickly” and Judas leaves, the others still think their treasurer has gone to run an errand – buy food or give to the poor, on their behalf.

John 18:1-6. We come to the moment of betrayal. Judas knows Jesus has frequented the olive grove across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. He guides the contingent of soldiers and officials carrying torches, lanterns, and weapons. Jesus asks, “Who is it you want?” They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth.” When Jesus responds, “I am he,” they fall back to the ground. John doesn’t say why. He thinks you know why.

Matthew 26:47-49. Matthew adds the detail that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss (a common sign of greeting and friendship).

Matthew 27:1-10. When Judas realized early Friday morning that Jesus was condemned, he was “seized with remorse.” There has been a good bit written and said about this phrase. The word in Greek (metamelomai) literally means he “changed his mind.” It’s not the usual word for “repent,” and does seem to involve more emotion – “regret” or “remorse.” But it’s used twice by Jesus earlier in Matthew’s gospel about true repentance (Matthew 21:28-32). Whether it was a true repentance or not, Judas tried to return the thirty silver coins, saying, “I have sinned for I have betrayed innocent blood.” When the priests refused to accept the money, Judas threw it into the temple (possibly to force the priests personally to pick up the coins), left, and hanged himself. Matthew says the chief priests used the blood money to buy a burial field for foreigners, fulfilling the prophecy of “Jeremiah.”[2]

Acts 1:15-25. Between Jesus’ ascension and the day of Pentecost, Peter speaks to the 120 believers, including the 11 remaining disciples about Judas, who, he says, “was one of our number and shared in this ministry.” Again, six weeks after the betrayal, Peter himself seems astonished that Judas was so much a part of their band.

Peter adds that that “the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David,” and he quotes Psalm 69:25, “May his place be deserted,” and Psalm 109:8, “May another take his place of leadership.”

Luke the writer adds in a parenthetical note that Judas took the “reward he got for his wickedness” and bought a field, where he “fell headlong” and from then on everyone called that place the “Field of Blood.” Depending on whom you read, that’s either a contradiction to his suicide by hanging, or it’s quite possible that he hung himself and his body tumbled into the field. Did he buy the field or did the priests buy it with his money, as Matthew says? Again, it’s not hard to harmonize. If the priests bought the field with money they still considered belonging to the deceased Judas, then he was the actual buyer.

The point of this story in Acts is that the disciples felt compelled by Judas’ betrayal, which fulfilled Scripture, to replace him. They prayed, cast lots, and chose Matthias to replace Judas who, they said in their prayer, “left to go where he belongs.” That sounds like Luke is saying he went to hell, but the literal phrase is, he “left to go to his own place.” The Message says Judas threw away his chance in order “to go his own way.”

And that’s all the Bible says about Judas.

The meaning of Judas

So what is the meaning of Judas? Let me offer you my takeaways, which don’t necessarily conflict any of those I shared earlier, except maybe Bishop Spong.

Don’t end your story too soon. We need to talk about suicide when we talk about Judas. We need to talk about suicide more often than we do. One reason is that based on my pastoral experience, there may well be persons in this room who are contemplating suicide. The meaning of Judas is, “Don’t give up on life based on what you can see now.” The biggest difference between Judas and Peter is not that Judas’ sin of betrayal was that much worse in God’s eyes than Peter’s sin of denial. The biggest difference is that Peter lived to see the resurrection, to experience God’s next. There is always a next.

The other reason we need to talk about suicide is that some of you here have had relatives or dear friends who took their own life. Although it’s always an unspeakable tragedy for those who are left behind, it’s also not the unpardonable sin. Judas’ great sin is that he betrayed Jesus, not that he took his own life. As I said earlier, some would argue that Judas’ repentance was genuine but he still couldn’t face the consequences of the inevitable unfolding before his eyes. In that case, rather than being angry with him, we might be filled with deep empathy for someone who could not wrap his head around what he had done.

God can redeem anything. Let’s not get lost in the inane but resilient question of whether Judas was responsible if this was all part of God’s plan. Of course Judas was responsible for what he did. Like all of us, he was a free moral agent.

Here’s how to read the story. Judas is unwittingly a pawn of the priests, but Satan once again is a fool because at the end of the day the devil is a pawn of God. The story of the most vile act of human history (and I would argue that betraying the Son of God into the hands of his enemies is the greatest infamy imaginable) is the story of God so loving the world that he gave his one and only Son – freely gave him. If God can redeem Judas’ treachery into salvation for us, he can redeem the worst of your sins and circumstances.

Keep watch. Jesus frequently told parables and gave warnings about alertness. Paul cautioned believers to be aware and take their stand against the schemes of the devil.[3] Don’t be paranoid about Satan, but don’t be naïve. There may well be an implied warning about parental influence on children, as Tozer suggested. There’s a caution implied about even those who are closest to you because the disciples trusted Judas too much. The world has learned much since Judas’ time about accounting and treasurers – the importance of checks and balances. Ronald Reagan was right about humans: “Trust but verify.”

However, the most critical message from Judas is to keep watch on yourself. Yes, I understand that Satan entered Judas, but Satan also knew whose heart was most vulnerable to him. Long before Judas betrayed Jesus, even when he completely hid the schemes developing inside his mind, he was allowing his heart to believe, as Barclay said, that he knew better than Jesus. I agree with the theory (it’s still only a theory) that Judas really believed Jesus was the Messiah. I think Palm Sunday was his favorite day in Jesus’ life. He meant it when he waved the palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” But when Tuesday came and went and he realized this was not going well, he decided to take matters into his own hands and force Jesus’ hand. He never allowed Jesus to reshape the idea of what a Messiah is and how a Messiah saves the world.

The Scripture must be fulfilled. Let’s review what that means. It doesn’t mean that there are thousands or hundreds or dozens of predictions in the Old Testament about Jesus that came true. Psalm 41 is not a prediction about Jesus. It is a psalm written by David when his son became his enemy and his trusted advisor Ahithophel betrayed him. This man was someone who shared bread at David’s table, and it was considered an extreme broach of hospitality to betray someone who hosted you for a meal.

Jesus saw in that psalm not just the parallel between Ahithophel and Judas, but between David and himself. In fact, Jesus saw his own story woven into stories all through the Old Testament. They weren’t predictions as much as they were anticipations and connections. Jesus “fulfilled” in the sense that he “continued” and “completed” all that God had been doing throughout human history, especially Jewish history.

I would caution against using the fulfillment of prophecy for evangelistic and apologetic purposes. We give unbelievers reason to scoff at our silliness when we claim that all these links are predictions come true. Fulfilled prophecy is for insiders, for those of us who by faith have come to experience that this is how God works – connecting the dots, continuing the story, completing what he started.

So yes, if you’re anticipating what I’ll say next. The meaning of Judas is really that once again this story is a story about God. God is never surprised, never stymied, never finished saving people. And he’s at work right now in you to finish what he started. Amen.

[1] The Gospel of Matthew, Volume Two, 388.

[2] I put “Jeremiah” in quotes because this seems to be a composite citation from several places in Jeremiah and Zechariah.  Matthew names the most prominent prophet in the same way Mark does in 1:2-3.

[3] 2 Corinthians 2:11; Ephesians 6:11

Leave a Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.