Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
Who was Judas? And what does his story have to teach us?
Judas was a thief. He was a treasurer who was also an embezzler. This much is clear from John 12:1-6:
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
Judas was also a chosen disciple of Jesus–chosen by Jesus himself. Accordingly, Judas was a key part of Jesus’ mission to announce, enact, and embody the nearness of the Kingdom of God: He was one of the 12, a part of the new Israel formed around Jesus.
It’s likely–not positively certain, but likely–that Judas was also a former Zealot. Iscariot could also be a Sicarii-ite. The Sicarii were the Zealot “dagger-men,” the extreme wing of an extremist insurgency that sought to violently overthrow Rome and punish her Jewish collaborators. These Jewish assassins killed the high priest during the time of the Roman Governor Felix.
Whatever the case, Judas probably shared the disciples’ expectation (and the wider Jewish expectation) that Jesus would be a Messiah in the mold of Joshua, David, and Judah Maccabeus. Jesus’ many signs showed that God was truly with him. To many, this signaled that when Jesus would inevitably raise Jewish armies in revolt against the Romans, they would be assured of God’s favor.
But over and over again–in his last speeches to his disciples, when he was anointed in Bethany, and during the Last Supper–Jesus made it clear that he expected his life would lead not to the glorious restoration of an Israelite empire, but to his innocent death. Jesus also tried to explain that his mission was to reveal the heart of the one one who sent him, not to fulfill a project of national restoration. This message was troublesome not only to Judas, but to Peter as well. Look at Matthew 16:21-23–
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
It is difficult to be inside Judas’ head, and we should be cautious about doing so. Some commentators suggest that Juda may have been trying to force Jesus’ hand; all this talk of love for enemies was well and good, but when push came to shove Jesus would manifest his glory and power and call down angel armies to strike down the Romans, right? There may be something to this line of thought. Scripture tells us that Satan entered into Judas, and earlier in Matthew’s Gospel we read of how Satan tempted Jesus to take up the sword instead of a cross.
But it’s difficult to go too far down this road of thinking. After all, Judas had a problem with money, and he did betray Jesus for 30 shekels of silver. This suggests that Judas’ possible misguided, noble intentions, if any, were complicated or overwhelmed by his simple greed.
We know how the story ends. After betraying his master with a kiss, Judas is horrified when Jesus is condemned to death, he returns the money protesting that Jesus is innocent, and he hangs himself. Matthew 27 tells the sad tale.
The stories of Judas and Peter have interesting parallels. We will be looking at the story of Peter later this week. The difference in the resolution of their stories is also interesting. Where Judas repents and kills himself in despair, Peter repents and is invited by Jesus to shepherd Jesus’ people.
In the story of Judas, we again hear the warning: We should not subvert God’s agenda for our own. God calls us to die–to our old idols, and to our flesh. Judas perhaps failed to die to his desire for revolution, and certainly failed to resist his fleshly lust for money. The Kingdom of God, revealed perfectly in the life and work of Jesus Christ, is an altogether different Universe, with radically different values, power, and fruit.
We cannot be half-in and half-out. We cannot use the King to further our goals of success, achievement, and recognition.
We must surrender ourselves wholly to this King–As Psalm 2 says, we have to kiss the Son in praise and adoration, lest his wrath be kindled and we continue to walk down the path of our own destruction.