Surely everyone knows that Judas, one of the Twelve, accepted 30 pieces of silver from the temple treasury to betray Jesus. He attended the Last Supper with the rest, left early, and led a large armed group to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested. After Jesus was sentenced to death, Judas threw the money back at the priests and committed suicide.
For centuries, many in the church have regarded Judas simply as the most despicable traitor in history. Even today, some writers seem to assume that he was a hypocrite who intended to betray Jesus from the start, that he gained nothing from three years of following Jesus, and that he hid his hypocrisy from everyone but Jesus.
If Judas is nothing more than some shifty-eyed villain dressed all in black so that we know to hiss at him whenever we see him appear on stage, there’s not much anyone can really learn from reading about him. More to the point, hardly anyone will identify with him in any way. Now there’s a dangerous place to be!
What the Bible says about Judas
Besides the verses that describe his villainy, the Bible reveals little explicitly about Judas, but it is certainly worth knowing that little. For one thing, he is known as Judas Iscariot. “Iscariot” is not his family name, as Guion is mine. It transliterates the Hebrew expression ish Kerioth. “Ish” is Hebrew for man, male human being. “Kerioth” is the town in Judea where he grew up.
Judas, a Judean, was therefore the only one of the Twelve who didn’t grow up in Galilee. Several of the Twelve were blood relatives of each other. Most of them appear to have had some kind of relationship with at least some of the others before Jesus called them. But not Judas. He may have conceivably met some of the Galileans if he followed John the Baptist, but the Bible doesn’t say.
That Judas was a relative stranger to everyone before Jesus called him invites some questions, for which the Bible gives us no basis for an answer. Did the Galileans form cliques that excluded Judas at any time? Whether they did or not, did Judas feel like the odd man out? On the other hand, did Judas, as a Judean, look down on Galilean bumpkins? Or was that only the urban prejudice of Jerusalem?
His birth and upbringing set him apart, but he had plenty of important characteristics in common with all the rest. He was a very ordinary man of no particular distinction. He did not choose Jesus; Jesus chose him. He followed Jesus willingly and left behind whatever life he had before.
What the Bible says about the disciples in general
The gospels make numerous statements about the disciples or the Twelve collectively. Each statement describes each individual. Occasionally, another gospel’s version of the same story singles out a disciple, but that shouldn’t take away from the implication that the entire group had the same basic experience or attitude.
For example, the synoptic gospels say that the disciples were indignant when Mary broke open an expensive bottle of perfume and anointed Jesus with it. John’s account put the words in Judas’ mouth, the only time any gospel story singles him out until he went to the priests to get the money. John calls Judas a thief who had embezzled from the group’s money box. That does not change the fact that other accounts say that all the disciples were indignant. Nor does it offer sufficient explanation of Judas’ motives shortly afterward.
I have looked up general references to the disciples and put them in roughly chronological order according to a harmony of the gospels at the back of one of my Bibles. Here is what some of these passages tell up about Judas. (There are too many to use them all.)
- Judas put faith in Jesus after the miracle at Cana (John 2:11).
- Judas had the privileges of a kingdom insider and wanted to understand Jesus’ teachings (Matthew 13:10-17, 36). Perhaps he thought he did understand.
- Jesus sent Judas out with one other disciple, and he preached, cast out demons, and healed people (Mark 6:7, 12).
- When other disciples began to fall away because of the difficulty of Jesus’ teaching, Judas continued to follow (John 6:60-70). It says in v. 64 and again in v.70 that Jesus announced at that time that 1) not all the disciples [not limited to the 12] believed, 2) no one could come to Jesus whom the Father had not enabled, and 3) that one of the 12 was a devil. Jesus knew it was Judas. Did Judas know at that time that he was the devil Jesus spoke of?
- Jesus predicted his death and resurrection for the first time. Scripture does not record a general response from the disciples, only Peter’s rebuke (Matthew 116:21-28; Mark 8:31-38; Luke 9:18-21).
- While Jesus, Peter, James, and John were on the Mount of Transfiguration, Judas and the rest failed to drive out a demon for want of prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:18).
- Jesus predicted his death and resurrection a second time, and Judas was filled with grief (Matthew 17:22-23) and afraid (Luke 9:45).
- Jesus predicted his death and resurrection a third time, and again Judas didn’t know what he was talking about (Luke 18:34).
- Judas was numbered among the apostles at the Last Supper, even though he had already decided to betray Jesus (Luke 22:14).
- When Jesus announced that the betrayer was in the room on that last Thursday night, no one except Peter and John knew where Judas was going when he left. They knew only because they asked quietly and Jesus answered quietly (John 13:29).
Why did Judas betray Jesus?
Only sheer intellectual laziness can ascribe Judas’ motives entirely to hypocrisy and greed. Self-delusion and pride provide better explanations, and must be included in the mix in any case.
Did he, as a Judean, consider himself superior in understanding to the Galileans? He may have intellectually grasped Jesus’ teachings more quickly than the others. That would have inoculated him from grasping them spiritually.
In John 6, when many disciples stopped following Jesus, did Judas continue to follow Jesus with growing misgivings? Or on the other hand, did he think Jesus was moving too slowly to usher in the kingdom that would drive out Rome and go to the chief priests to try to force his hand?
The greatest evil cannot come from corruption of the lowly:
- Satan himself was the highest and most exalted of archangels before he rebelled. No one less could have succeeded as well has he did or caused as much damage.
- Ordinary people were worshiping as pagan shrines while David was kings. Sin did not begin to destroy the moral fabric of the kingdom until the king and the chief priests descended into paganism.
- After Judas followed Jesus and walked in supernatural power with the rest of the disciples, he was not yet the extraordinary spiritual giants the other apostles later became, but they had all become all far above ordinary. Judas was one of the most spiritually exalted and mature people in the world when he chose to betray Jesus.
Jesus may have known from the beginning that Judas would betray him. Judas himself certainly did not. None of the disciples understood Jesus’ warnings of his death and predictions of his resurrection. They all seem to have forgotten. So surely Judas had put it out of his head. Had he both remembered and believed those predictions, his actions–for whatever combination of reasons–would have been unthinkable.
The tragedy of Judas
In remorse, but not repentance, Judas returned the money to the temple and hanged himself. Obviously he could not have rejoined the Eleven under any circumstances before the resurrection. But I firmly believe that if he had hung around somewhere until then, Jesus would have found him, restored him, and given him a ministry of surpassing greatness, just as he restored Peter.
If Judas had been a mere hypocrite, his life and death would have no particular meaning for us. If he fell by pride, spiritual laziness, and self-deception, he becomes a cautionary tale of how anyone can fall.
If acting from remorse and not repentance cost him not only his earthly life but his earthly and eternal inheritance, he becomes a cautionary example in a different way. We will all fall short of what God intends for us at some time or another. What then? Will we repent, or just be remorseful? Will we wait for Jesus to come restore us and fit us for a greater ministry? Or will we throw it all away by avoiding him?