The traitor’s motivations—and whether he really repented in the end.
Mark 14.41-46 • Matthew 26.45-50 • Luke 22.47-48 • John 18.1-3
In John Paul’s list of stations of the cross, the second station combined Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and Jesus of Nazareth’s arrest. ’Cause they happened simultaneously. (Well, perhaps broken up a bit by Simon Peter slashing one of the head priest’s slaves.) But I want to look at the two events separately, ’cause getting betrayed and getting arrested are two different kinds of suffering.
So first, right after Jesus Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, this happened.
Mark 14.41-46 KWL
- 41 When he came back a third time, he told them, “Oh, sleep the rest of the time; stop it.
- Stay back, for look: The Son of Man is arrested by sinful hands.
- 42 Get up, so we can go. Look, the one who sold me out has come.”
- 43 And just as
Jesuswas speaking, Judas Iscariot approached the Twelve.
- With Judas was a crowd carrying machetes and sticks,
- with the head priests, scribes, and elders.
- 44 The one who sold out Jesus had given them a signal,
- saying, “He’s whomever I greet as a friend. Grab him and take him away. No mistakes.”
- 45 Immediately going to Jesus, he told him, “Rabbi!” and kissed him hello.
- 46 So they grabbed and arrested him.
Matthew 26.45-50 KWL
- 45 Then, coming back to the students, he told them, “Oh, sleep the rest of the time; stop it.
- Look, the hour comes near for the Son of Man to be given up to sinful hands!
- 46 Get up, so we can go. Look, the one who sold me out has come.”
- 47 And as Jesus was speaking, look, Judas Iscariot approached the Twelve.
- With him was a great crowd carrying machetes and sticks,
- sent by the head priests, elders, and people.
- 48 The one who sold out Jesus gave them a sign,
- saying, “He’s whomever I greet as a friend. Grab him.”
- 49 Immediately going to Jesus, he said, “Hello, rabbi!” and kissed him hello.
- 50 Jesus told Judas, “Who’d you come for, lad?”
- Then those who’d come, grabbed Jesus and arrested him.
Luke 22.47-48 KWL
- 47 As Jesus was speaking, look, a crowd
- and the one called Judas Iscariot—one of the Twelve!—leading them.
- He went to Jesus to kiss him hello,
- 48 and Jesus told him, “Judas, you sell out the Son of Man with a kiss?”
John 18.1-3 KWL
- 1 When he said this, Jesus with his students went over the Kidron ravine,
- where there was a garden. He and his students entered it.
- 2 Judas Iscariot, who was selling him out, had known of the place,
- because Jesus often gathered there with his students.
- 3 So Judas, bringing 200 men, plus servants of the head priests and Pharisees,
- came there with torches, lamps… and arms.
We don’t know why Judas led the authorities to Jesus.
I know: Many Christians are certain they know why. Between Judas’s tendency to embezzle,
Other Christians love money. So they won’t take that route. They claim Judas’s pursuit of money wasn’t his main problem, but purely a symptom of a much bigger problem. Namely a deep, personal disappointment with what Jesus’s kingdom was shaping up to be. Judas must’ve figured the kingdom would be a political, earthly one, just like the activists who wanna make the United States “a Christian nation again.” But Jesus burst his bubble. So Judas’s thieving and bribe-taking were just a way of acting out. (Me, I figure these interpreters are projecting. They’d never quit Jesus over money—and they still expect him to make ’em rich, what with windows of heaven, streets of gold, mansions in New Jerusalem, and so forth. But they already don’t believe Jesus’s kingdom is political—and considering they’ve seen the little tantrums politicos throw when they won’t give ’em money, figure Judas was just another one of those guys.)
There’s a popular theory, pitched by liberal theologians, which posits Judas was actually an earnest guy. He really did believe Jesus was Messiah, King of Israel; he really did believe Jesus would take the throne. But Jesus just needed a little push, so Judas figured he’d manipulate Jesus into standing his ground by getting him arrested. As soon as word got round the Messiah’d been arrested, Jesus’s brave followers would flock to his side, rescue him from the Judeans and Romans, and the revolution would be on. You know, like all the Pharisee End Times Timelines said would happen. And as we know, Jesus never expected any such thing to happen.
Some of these theorists even think Judas handed him in with Jesus’s endorsement, and that’s even the scenario we see depicted in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. But the gospels say otherwise: Jesus had always said when he went to Jerusalem, the Son of Man would be sold out and killed.
Plus, since Luke says the devil entered Judas,
Contrary to popular belief, demon-possessed people usually look just like everyone else. Unless the Spirit gives us the ability to detect them, they’ll go unnoticed. And even though Judas was one of the Twelve, he clearly had a thing for money. Likely that was his idol; likely that was the demon he embraced. He never gave it up, so Jesus never threw it out. Though Judas thought he could juggle his allegiances to Jesus and to Mammon, the devil took advantage, and Judas found himself doing something he regretted so greatly, he hung himself.
Well. Misguided or evil, Judas’s effect on Jesus was the same: It was a low, rotten thing to do. It got Jesus killed.
Only friendlies can betray.
We typically describe Judas’s actions as
So only someone on Jesus’s side could’ve betrayed him. Whether a student like Matthias, a sorta-student like Nicodemus, a friend like Lazarus, a groupie (or undercover student) like the women, or a brother like James. But in the gospels two members of the Twelve, Jesus’s best students, Jesus’s handpicked leaders, Jesus’s closest allies, turned on him. Judas brought the mob, and Peter swore he didn’t know the guy. As the saying goes, with friends like these, who needs enemies?
So this hurt Jesus. Psychologically, but psychological wounds hurt just as much as physical wounds, if not more. Jesus should’ve been able to count on these people, yet they proved worse than useless. Yeah, he knew it was coming. He predicted both acts of opposition—plus that his other students would flee. That only cushions the blow a little. It’s still a blow.
Made a little worse by how it came. Judas kissed him hello, as people did back then. (Rarer now in our culture; men tend not to kiss other men hello unless they’re family.) But this close personal greeting had been twisted, by Judas, into the sign of which person to grab: Wanted posters hadn’t been invented yet, and the mob didn’t know Jesus by sight, especially since it was night (full Passover moon notwithstanding). This expression of affection singled Jesus out for their wrath. From Judas, it meant the very opposite of affection. Because of it, every similar betrayal disguised as friendship is now called a Judas kiss. Even Jesus pointed out how wholly inappropriate it was.
I’m not sure whether Judas or Jesus knew this was the last time they’d see one another alive. I’d like to think Judas’s repentance was enough to get him to heaven. Other Christians much prefer Judas in hell. Revenge fantasies give us a bit of bias in that direction: These vengeful Christians like to point out Judas’s repentance in
But Jesus picked Judas for his Twelve for a reason. I seriously doubt it was just as an object lesson for the whole world: Look how even our closest friends can shaft us, ’cause it happened to Jesus. I’d like to think it’s ’cause Jesus wanted him saved, and in his kingdom. ’Cause God wants everyone saved.