“Why?” What other question can we ask, whose answer would satisfy our curiosity? We know the who, the what, the where, the when, but it is the why that will always eat at us.
Judas Iscariot will always remain a mystery – in so many ways. And it is more than just the puzzle of his motivation. It takes us all the way back to the beginning. In God’s plan of redemption, was Judas always the one who had been picked to be the fall guy? Somebody had to do it, and at the supper in the upper room as Jesus whispered, “what you are about to do, do quickly,” there was no apparent resentment or attempt to change or prevent his actions.
In fact, Judas has always been the one character in the Bible who has challenged my beliefs concerning pre-destination and free will. Was his betrayal etched in granite before he was ever born? During the Supper, Jesus said, “The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.” Matthew adds his next sentence, “It would be better for him if he had not been born.” If Judas was merely playing his part, doing what was pre-destined, how can he be condemned for that over which he had no say or control?
It is interesting in the Gospels that Judas’ name is always followed by a reference to his betrayal. John writes, “the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus.” Luke writes, “… Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor,” or Matthew “… Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”) It was the one act which defined his life. It is that act which was his legacy – mothers don’t name their children Adolf, or Benedict, or Judas. But that is all after the fact. Nobody saw it coming. When Jesus’ disciples were together, Judas wasn’t off over in the corner scheming. None of the Gospel writers record their suspicions in hindsight that they always thought Judas would turn out rotten. In fact, Judas was selected from among the apostles to be the treasurer. He kept the money box, they trusted him with their finances. At the supper, when Jesus announced that someone at the table would betray him, they didn’t all look over at Judas and start to glare. They all asked, “it isn’t me, is it?” They never saw it coming. Judas was one of them, he was accepted, he was trusted. Even when he left the upper room to complete the betrayal, John notes that the others thought he was going to go give something to the poor.
As they neared Jerusalem and Jesus challenged the commitment of his disciples (“You do not want to leave too, do you?”), they all stayed. Nobody, not even Judas, headed for the door. If there were doubts, Judas had opportunity to leave, but he didn’t. If loyalty was a question, the other disciples would have undoubtedly picked up on Judas’ hesitance, but they didn’t.
We have to wonder, how did Jesus’ knowledge affect his attitude toward Judas? When he first approached Judas and said, “Follow me,” was there a lump in his throat and a heaviness in his heart? As he taught his disciples did he look Judas in the eyes as he talked about hypocrisy and integrity and devotion? Did he spend extra time with Judas trying to strengthen his spirit and nurture his resolve? Were there signs that only Jesus saw that prefigured what was to come? Jesus, no doubt, maintained his love for Judas, through it all. On the eve of his crucifixion, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he washed them all – Judas betrayed him with clean feet.
But the moment came, and when …the chief priests and the teacher of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus …. Then Satan entered Judas…. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. They were delighted and agreed to give him money. He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.
It was a strategic play on the part of Satan. Unilaterally, Satan was planning Jesus’ death. He was using people like pieces on a chess board. And when the moment came he took his pawn, Judas, and moved him into place.
John says, “Satan entered Judas.” It is a frightening thought, that Satan could take over the life of one of Jesus’ constant companions. They had all seen demon possessions, but this specifically says Satan entered him. This was a job too important for a subordinate, a lesser minion. He had selected Judas years earlier, he had groomed Judas for months in preparation. He had planted the thought in his brain and let it grow.
At first, Judas had dismissed it, but then as it fermented, it began to take on a life of its own. What was Judas thinking? What was his reasoning? We don’t know, we aren’t told. Perhaps his doubts grew as Jesus failed to live up to his picture of the Messiah. He kept waiting for Jesus to take control and assemble his army to overthrow Rome, but every time it looked like it was at hand, he walked away. Perhaps Judas thought he was helping the situation along by forcing Jesus’ hand. When the Jewish leaders made their move, Jesus would have to defend himself, he would call his followers to arms and the revolution would begin. Perhaps, Satan convinced him that Jesus was simply a fraud who needed to be exposed, and a trial would accomplish that. Or maybe, Satan simply used Judas’ greed as the pry bar to open up his heart, and he sold his soul for thirty pieces of silver.
Then it happened again. John tells us that during the Passover meal, after Jesus announced that he would be betrayed by the one to whom he gave a piece of bread, “Then dipping the piece of bread, he gave to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him” (John 13:27). What Satan began in Judas, he now presses toward completion. The stage has been set, the trap prepared, and now Judas will fulfill his destiny. John writes “As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night” (John 13:30). It was night in Judas’ soul as he took his place to lead the soldiers to Gethsemane where he would betray his master with a kiss.
In chapter 18, John’s Gospel leaves Judas in the garden where he betrayed Jesus. But in the book of Acts, Luke writes, “With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body bust open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood” (Acts 1:18-19).
Did Satan at that moment in the garden cast aside Judas, his instrument, used and spent? Did he lift the haze from Judas’ eyes and let him see the horror of what he had done? Whatever Judas experienced at that moment, the flood of remorse left him with only one conceivable option, to hang himself; to end his life as tragically as it was spent.
There is another picture of failure in John’s Gospel. And its placement, woven in between the betrayal by Judas and Jesus’ trial lets us see a different outcome to failure. It is the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus.
Peter, in case you’ve forgotten had a big, bold personality. He was always speaking when he should have been listening, acting when he should have been watching. He is the one you can expect to speak out when the rest of the disciples are thinking the same thing. In John’s account, Peter boldly asserts, “I will lay down my life for you.” But Jesus responds, “Will you really lay down your life for me? I tell you the truth, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!” (John 13:38)
And in spite of Peter’s best intentions and most solemn vow, it came about as Jesus said. Jesus and his disciples went up to the Mount of Olives and there in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed. Judas showed up leading the band of soldiers, and kissed Jesus to signify that he was the one. Back in the upper room, Jesus had told them to buy swords, and now when it looks like the time to use them, Peter lops off the ear of the high priest’s servant, and Jesus shouts, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11)
As the soldiers led Jesus away in chains, the disciples fled into the night. Peter and John followed Jesus at a distance to the house of the high priest. There in the courtyard of the high priest a fire had been kindled to keep the gathered crowd warm. Peter and John sat down with the crowd, assuming they would neither be noticed or recognized. Unfortunately, an observant servant girl recognizes Peter in the firelight and asks him, “You are not one of his disciples, are you?”
Now what? His arrest and death at this point would be meaningless. It wouldn’t be in defense of Jesus, it wouldn’t aid in rescuing him. He reasons to himself that he needs to forfeit the battle to win the war, and so he does what anybody would do in his situation, he denied it. “I am not.”
There, he said it. He didn’t mean it, but it bought him time, and it was the right thing to do. A little lie that serves a bigger purpose can be justified, and sometimes we just have to take matters into our own hands.
Did you know that in the 2nd century persecutions, Christians who faced being put to death for being Christians would be given the opportunity to offer incense and say the words “Caesar is Lord” and be released, having proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they couldn’t possibly be Christians, because everyone knew real Christians would never deny their faith? Some Christians reasoned that it didn’t mean anything, so they offered incense, said the words, and were released. Other Christians reasoned that it was more than words, and chose to be martyred. It became a huge controversy in the church. Can someone who has denied the Lord, be reinstated in the church? What do you think?
Peter thought it made sense to do the prudent thing. But then it happened again. Someone else saw him and asked again, “You are not one of his disciples, are you?” Peter started to sweat. This was getting dangerous, and he couldn’t afford to be taken now, so he replied, “I am not!”
Another bullet dodged, but he is in defensive mode now. Eyes open, senses tuned. An hour passes without incident, but then one of the servants of the high priest looked at him and asked, “Didn’t I see you in the olive grove?” It is fight or flight time. Peter blurts out, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” (Matthew’s Gospel adds that he began to call down curses on himself.)
Before another word was spoken, a rooster crowed, and the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. And as the rooster’s crow was echoing in the courtyard, Peter remembered the words Jesus had spoken only hours earlier, “before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” What was in Jesus’ eyes? Condemnation? Disappointment? “I told you so”? No doubt, Peter read it all. In spite of what Jesus had said, Peter never saw it coming. It hits him like a two by four in the face. He has done exactly what he swore he would not, he denied his Lord. His world is shaken to its core. Peter, the rock, has crumbled, and Luke writes, “he went outside and wept bitterly.”
Peter is down for the count. Satan has sifted him and won. How could you ever recover from that? Judas didn’t. But Peter is not Judas. He could have despaired of life, but he didn’t. He retreated, but he didn’t surrender.
The next time we see Peter in John’s Gospel is Sunday morning. The crucifixion and burial had taken place Friday. This is the third day. The women have gone to the tomb to complete the burial rituals, but suddenly they are back crying and jabbering on about a stone rolled away, and an empty tomb and angels. But it sounded like nonsense, and Peter bolts from the house and runs to the tomb. (John says he and Peter raced against each other and he made it to the tomb first, but Peter ran right past him and into the tomb.) There Peter found the strips of linen that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body, laying by themselves on the floor of the tomb, but no Jesus, no angels, only questions.
The next time we see Peter is in John 21, where Jesus and Peter walk along the shore of Galilee and Jesus reassures him of his love and reinstates him to ministry. Peter was once again the rock.
I believe it could have gone that way for Judas, as well. Judas could have recovered from his fall. Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied him; they were both walking wounded. Whose sin was greater? Paul would later write, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am…” (1 Cor. 15:9-10). It’s not how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up that matters. God’s grace was enough for Paul, it was enough for Peter, it could have been enough for Judas. And the beauty of God’s promise is that it is also enough for you.