Who was Judas?
From the outset there are several remarkable things about Judas Iscariot, son of Simon (as John invariably calls him). His name, “Judas,” is the Greek form of Judah, which means “praise” — a remarkably inappropriate name.
While we may not be absolutely sure, “Iscariot” would seem to be equivalent to “Ish-Kerioth,” “a man of Kerioth.” The most likely Kerioth is a city east of Judah, not far south of Jerusalem (see Josh 15:25). If indeed this is a correct understanding of his name, then Judas becomes the only apostle called from the Judean area, all the others being from the Galilean area. This, in turn, forms a noteworthy parallel to (and parable of) the later and larger rejection of Christ: It was from Judea that the massive campaign to subvert Christianity first arose.
“Son of Simon,” as in John 6:71; 13:16, KJV1 is perhaps the most astonishing piece of gospel information, suggesting a surprising interconnection of people. To appreciate the suggestion to be offered, consider the following parallel passages: Mark 14:3-8; John 12:1-8; and John 11:1-3. Notice the following points of similarity:
The two incidents happen in the same place, Bethany.
In both cases a woman does the anointing.
In both cases the woman uses spikenard ointment, “very costly.”
The anointing in each case gives rise to the same statement about selling the ointment for 300 denarii and giving it to the poor.
This comment elicits the same response from Jesus.
Each event takes place at the same time (during the week prior to the Passover).
It is hard to resist the conclusion that Mark and John are describing the very same incident. And, if this is indeed true, the conclusions that follow are particularly astonishing! “The House of Simon the Leper” was the home in which Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, lived (John 11:1-3). More to the point, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were, at the very least, closely related to Simon.
Connecting this with John’s usual way of identifying Judas as “son of Simon,” one is led to a most unexpected discovery: Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Judas are all related! No wonder Jesus had such a special interest in Judas! The depth of this concern, as Judas gradually marked out the path he would eventually take, we will now look at…
Judas, the disciple
“And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles… and Judas Iscariot, which also was the traitor” (Luke 6:13, 16).
“Traitor” is the name forever linked with Judas, like the epitaph engraved on the memory of another traitor: Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, “who caused Israel to sin.” (Is there here a greater similarity than might first appear?)
The implication of this selection is profound. Judas must have had the potential to be an excellent apostle, one capable of faithfully witnessing to the death and resurrection of his Lord. Otherwise we must imagine a deceptiveness inconsistent with Jesus’ character. Would Jesus choose a man whose only purpose was to act the part of traitor? Wouldn’t this label Jesus’ efforts to save Judas as mere playacting? While the potential for betrayal was there, so too must have been the potential for good.
But is that really any different from any of us?
It is likely that at this time Judas was also chosen to be treasurer. John mentions Judas had the treasurer’s bag (John 12:6). And, as Jesus was at this moment hard at work organizing his little band of disciples, this surely was the appropriate time to commit this important work to one of them. But why not Matthew? Surely this was the obvious choice? As a tax collector by profession, he was accustomed to financial matters. Was his past life with all its unsavory associations a memory Matthew preferred not to revive? Whatever the details, this one fact remains: Jesus deliberately committed to Judas the vital responsibility of handling their finances.
The conclusion is hard to resist: Jesus deliberately committed to Judas this vital role. Would Jesus deliberately commit to Judas the very object of his future downfall? Again, this seems quite inconsistent with our Master’s character. Judas, therefore, must have been a man of considerable ability. When happened to Judas? Why was this potential never realized? What was missing?
For a man like Judas, one can only wonder whether the first impressions of apostleship were very encouraging: “sheep in the midst of wolves,” “deliver you up to the councils and will scourge you in synagogues,” “he who loses his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt 10:16, 17, 39). These last words must have seemed particularly difficult to digest.
It was inevitable that a crisis should arise in the ministry of Jesus. What the people wanted just did not match where Jesus was headed. They looked for the Lion of the tribe of Judah to vanquish their enemies: he came as the Lamb.
The crisis happened as Jesus’ work had moved into its final year. It was Passover time, not more than a week or two since John the Baptist’s tragic death. This man, John, had given the people so much hope that his humiliating end must have brought great discouragement to the people. So they now came in great numbers to their only other source of hope, like lost sheep in search of a shepherd.
When Jesus saw them, he was deeply moved by their plight. In his compassion he healed them and taught them, and when at last they would not leave him, he fed them, more than 5,000 at one time. The death of John followed by this astonishing miracle was more than the people could bear: “This is of truth that prophet that should come into the world!” The very thought electrified the multitude: ‘Here is our king! Let’s anoint him now!’
“When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come to take him by force, to make him king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone” (John 6:15).
Another Gospel (Matt 19:23) tells us that “he went up… to pray.” The pressures on Jesus to succumb to this old temptation were immense! There was no other place he could go except to his Father at a time like this.
But the pressure on his little band of disciples was even greater. Why else were they following him, if he was not their Heaven-sent King and Redeemer? And what better moment than this to have their master enter his kingly glory. Were not the multitudes totally behind him? Who on earth could resist this man who could command even the physical elements to obey him? It was no light expression of words used by one of these disciples later when by the Spirit he recalled that frightening moment: “and straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship…” (Matt 19:22). These twelve faithful men were in such danger of being carried away by the same false expectations that Jesus compelled them to leave with an urgency they had perhaps never before experienced.
It was without doubt a deeply troubled set of men that reluctantly launched their boat that evening, the dark tossing sea an apt mirror of their own tumultuous thoughts. Why had he refused the crown? Was he, or was he not, the king they looked for? When he came to them that night they found reassurance in his presence, but not peace. All they had ever thought about him, now seemed disrupted; on the morrow it would be shattered!
The turning point
As he spoke those life-giving words the next day to the multitude that sought him, and later to the people in the Capernaum synagogue, the crowds, which had just clamored for his anointing, stumbled: “Many of his disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard [harsh or stern] saying, Who can hear it?’ ”
Was Judas one of these? Did he, with these others, feel deceived by Jesus? Misled? Betrayed? Because Jesus was refusing to be the one they thought he should be?
“When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, ‘Does this offend you? …But there are some of you that do believe not’ ” (John 6:61, 64).
Is this the one thing Judas lacked — an unreserved commitment to trust Jesus fully and to follow his master wherever he may go? At this critical moment when the whole work of Christ was on a thin edge, the contrast between Peter and Judas could not have been greater.
“Will you also go away?”
Peter, despite his doubts, saw no other choice but to believe: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that you are that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:68-69).
Yet Judas, because of his doubts, just could not believe.
“Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil (accuser)?’ He spoke of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon: for it was he who would betray him, being one of the twelve’’ (John 6:71).
“From that time many of his disciples went back and walked no more with him” (John 6:66).
This was the turning point for Judas too. He had seen enough to know that Jesus did not fit the Messianic mold he wanted or expected. So why didn’t he leave? What did he expect to accomplish by staying? Was he afraid of the ridicule? Or was there some other motive now coming to birth in the hidden recesses of his mind? Was this also the time when his thoughts began to turn towards the bag in his possession?
A deeply troubled disciple
Judas was deeply troubled. His Lord didn’t seem to understand where he was going. He was all that the prophets had said… and more! And yet, he had refused his rightful crown at the very moment when he could have seized on the fervor of the populace and electrified the whole nation into action! That disastrous Passover one year ago led Jesus not only to drive away many of his supporters in bitter disappointment, but ever since Jesus has talked more of dying than reigning: After feeding 5,000 (John 6); Peter’s confession (Luke 9:21-22); transfiguration (Luke 9:43-45); going up to Jerusalem (Luke 18:31-34); last week before crucifixion (John 12:27-33); during anointing by Mary (Matt 26:11-12); and at the last supper (Matt 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20).
And worse, Jesus connected his death with someone betraying him.
“…when Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified’ ” (Matt 26:1-2).
That was it. Judas had had enough. He had no choice now. He must act before another disaster destroy altogether this movement to release Israel from Roman domination!
The last straw
There is a noticeable tension between Judas and Jesus during this last week. Judas must have been very conscious of Jesus’ remarks about a betrayer. His dispute with Jesus over Mary’s waste of precious ointment served only to bring the matter to a head (Matt 26:6-14; John 12:3-8).
What was Judas thinking as he quietly slipped out to make his seemingly ruthless deal with the rulers? Did he feel he just had no other course open to him? ‘If betrayal will set this man on the right path, then betrayal it will be!’ Putting together Luke 22:3-6 and Matthew 26:14-16, we see the betrayal in action:
“Then Satan entered Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was numbered among the twelve. So he went his way and conferred with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him to them. ‘What are you willing to give me if I deliver him to you?’ And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. So he promised and sought opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of the multitude.”
The last meal
“One of you twelve will betray me!” How this moment must have deeply pained Jesus. Each disciple, searching within themselves said, “Lord, is it I?” Judas also asked this, curiously, addressing him as “Rabbi,” not as “Lord” (i.e. Master). Was Judas already distancing himself from Jesus? (Matt 26:20-25).
As the disciples sat together at that last meal, Jesus reached out to Judas one last time with a token of friendship and affection. “He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me” (Matt 26:23).2 How many unspoken words must have passed as their eyes met! Whatever Judas saw in the searching look of his Master, we cannot know, but for Judas the moment of decision had come: “And after the piece of bread, Satan entered him” (John 13:27).
Jesus saw that terrible moment when the sin of betrayal became master of Judas’ heart. Every line in Judas’s face revealed the rapidly hardening heart. Reclamation was no longer possible. The power of darkness and evil was now in control. “What you do, do quickly!” And without a word Judas rises suddenly and leaves his Master’s presence into the darkness of that night.
Judas knew exactly where to find Jesus. Jesus had often resorted to the little garden beyond the brook Kidron. So, fortified with soldiers from the chief priest and Pharisees, he came to Jesus.
“Jesus therefore knowing all things that should come upon him, went forward and said to them, ‘Whom are you seeking?’ They answered him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am he.’ And Judas, who betrayed him, also stood with them” (John 18:4-5).
How ironical the words! Judas, having walked in the counsel of the ungodly, now stood with the sinners. Perhaps it is to Judas’ credit that he never sat in the seat of the scornful as the chief witness against the man he had just betrayed.
Why the betrayal?
Why did Judas betray his Master? This has been the source of much speculation: Love of money? Jealousy? Felt that Jesus had betrayed the nation? A mixture of these?
There is one suggestion that has not only an attractiveness about it, but a consistency that rings true: Judas, being himself bitterly disappointed with Jesus’ refusal of the crown (and with it the kingdoms of this world), betrayed his Lord in order to force him into an open declaration of his kingship and power. If Jesus would not willingly take the right path, Judas would make him take it.
Not only is this motive a consistent extension of the crisis recorded in John 6, but Judas also unknowingly fulfills the role of the wilderness adversary in perpetrating the second and third temptations all over again (see Luke 4:13). Finally, it is consistent with the reactions of unbelieving men to unfulfilled promises of God: They take the responsibility for fulfillment into their own hands, devising fleshly stratagems foreign to the purpose of God.
Matthew pieces together the final hours of Judas’ life:
“Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none. But at last two false witnesses came forward” (Matt 26:59-60).
They found none? How could this possibly be? Would these men arrest Jesus if they didn’t have the required witnesses all set to accuse him? Would they have threatened their whole flimsy case by leaving out this vital link? What had gone wrong? Where was their key witness?
We may not be able to answer this question conclusively, but Judas’ conspicuous absence from these proceedings is remarkable. Why wasn’t the man with the damning, inside information there? Would not the witness of Judas have clinched the case beyond all question?
The evidence builds that Judas had no intention of following through with the evil scheme of these evil men. Indeed, the final piece of evidence is hard to put aside:
“Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that he was condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ And they said, ‘What has that to do with us? You see to it!’ ” (Matt 27:3-4).
Why this great concern for Jesus? If all he really wanted was quick and easy money — what would he care? Besides, Judas knew all along Jesus was innocent of the charges, so why now the concern? Finally, why the remorse when Judas discovered his actions had actually gotten Jesus condemned? Had something gone terribly, horribly wrong with all his well-laid plans? Was the man who he wanted to be king, now going to be violently removed from this role after all?
Whatever the true explanation, Judas could see only one path open to him: “and he departed, and went and hanged himself” (Matt 27:5).
Lesson of the uncommitted disciple
Judas never was committed. He never was prepared to follow his Master wherever he might lead. Rather, he kept his own ambitions and desires… and tried to shape Jesus accordingly. A true disciple doesn’t shape his master to suit himself; he is shaped by his master. Nor does a true disciple lead his Lord; he follows, ever seeking to imitate the one who knows better.
Acts 1:25 sums up Judas’ whole life: “…that he might go to his own place.” Judas had always been going to his own place, never to his Master’s.
The path of failure
Could we betray Jesus? If we found Jesus leading us in a direction that we hadn’t expected? Not leading us where we had wanted to go? Could we turn away in our heart and become a subversive force among our brethren? Judas did, but it did not happen all at once. His downhill path to failure was at first a slow one, one that he may not even have been aware of.
It began when he perceived his Master’s direction was not what he thought it would be. Then, instead of sitting at his Master’s feet to learn of this better way, he became:
First a source of grumbling, complaining, and discontent.
Then, with his hands in the money bag, he became a disciple who was faithless and untrustworthy in the little things.
Finally, he graduated into faithlessness in a big way, selling the very life of his own Lord and Master to his enemies.
How easily this could become us: ‘This is not what I thought my new life in Christ would be like! It’s not going in the direction I thought it would! This whole thing is not so exciting anymore.’ In other words, like Judas, the path of failure…
Begins with dissatisfaction: Dissatisfaction with our lot as a brother or sister in Christ, dissatisfaction with our ecclesia, dissatisfaction with the whole course of our new life.
Then comes the grumbling: Grumbling about other disciples (‘they think they are so holy’); grumbling about the things that they (or the ecclesia) do; grumbling about the hard demands of Jesus’ way of life.
Faithlessness in small things quickly follows: For Judas it was his hands in the money bag. For us it might be failure to faithfully fulfill ecclesial duties. Or slightly altering the commands of the Master so we can justify our actions. Or, perhaps using our association with the brethren for material gain and advantage.
Uncontrollably, this path rushes headlong into faithlessness in big things: For Judas, it was selling the very life of his Lord to his enemies. For us, forsaking our Lord’s own meal table, often. Outright strife and quarreling. Dereliction in ecclesial duties.
Then the final step: Departure from The Faith — a rejection of our Master and Lord. For Judas this ended in physical suicide; for us it is the oblivion of spiritual suicide.
Lord, is it I? No fate is ever sealed until one makes that final, dreadful, suicidal choice. But never forget this: Even betrayal can be forgiven. Remember Peter…and remember to whom we belong:
“Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, Because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. “The Lord [is] my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I hope in Him!” (Lam 3:22-24)
Ted Sleeper (San Francisco Peninsula, CA)Notes: 1. [Editor]: Note, however, that almost all modern translations have “son of Simon Iscariot” in both places. 2. [Editor]: I believe the evidence is strong that Judas was in a favored place to the left of Jesus, resting along with John, who was to the right of Jesus, on one of the normal three-place couches.