“Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priest to betray Jesus to them. And when they heard this, they were glad and promised to give him money. So he started looking for a good opportunity to betray him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Why did he do it? When someone does something terrible, that’s a question that rings in the hearts and minds of everyone else. We want, no, we need to understand why evil happens. For instance, a few years ago a man opened fire from a Las Vegas hotel room window on a crowd of concertgoers below killing dozens and wounding many more. Before police could get to his room to put a stop to the horror, though, he had taken his own life. Surviving victims and onlookers alike were all asking the same question: Why did he do it? The tragic answer is that we’ll never know exactly why. That didn’t stop us from doing all we could to get as much of an answer as was possible. This same phenomenon is often applied to Jesus’ disciple Judas. Why did he betray his Lord? Let’s think on that a bit this morning.
So, why did Judas do it? The short, simple answer is: We don’t know. That hasn’t kept scholars and everyone else over the centuries of the church from offering up their thoughts. The theories range from believable to entirely more creative. One of the more creative lines of interpretation is featured in Jesus Christ, Superstar, where Judas is the reluctant hero of the story. He’s trying to bring Jesus back down to earth when it seems He’s going to let His movement go to His head. His betrayal here was a way to keep Jesus from going off the ranch and attracting the ire of Rome. I’ll be honest: That line of thinking doesn’t seem terribly likely to me. But when you let non-Christian writers try and tackle a Christian story, the odds of their coming up with interpretations that aren’t consistent with the broader witness of Scripture are pretty high.
Another approach to understanding his mind is that Judas was trying to force Jesus’ hand to reveal Himself as Messiah. On this line of thinking, Judas was a committed follower of Jesus who passionately believed in the things He was saying. He had bought fully into the idea of the kingdom of God, but he wasn’t picturing it in quite the same terms as Jesus was. Instead, he thought of Jesus as the Messiah in very cultural terms. By turning Jesus over to the authorities, Judas hoped that He would powerfully reveal Himself to be the warrior-king Messiah so many of the Jews of the day were expecting. His great remorse was the result of his realizing this wasn’t going to happen and that he had condemned his Lord to death. He, like all the others, didn’t understand what Jesus meant by resurrection, and so he killed himself before seeing the end of the story he had started.
That theory is a good deal more plausible than what Jesus Christ, Superstar offers. The trouble is that it doesn’t have much at all in the way of Scriptural support. From the picture of Judas we are given by the Gospel authors, this just isn’t a view that comes to the surface. What is pretty clear is that even though they had presumably forgiven him in their hearts, they were nonetheless still pretty disgusted by what he did. This is especially true of John, whose perspective on Judas is by far the most negative in all the Gospels.
There’s one more theory worth entertaining here. On this view, Judas was never really fully on board with Jesus and His message and mission. He was always just at the fringes of the movement even though he was part of the inner circle of twelve. For Judas (and this is something Jesus Christ, Superstar actually gets right), Jesus’ anointing here in Bethany represented a final straw. Jesus was not showing Himself to be the kind of Messiah Judas wanted Him to be. Seeing this display of waste pushed Judas over the edge. He knew the chief priests were looking to put a stop to Jesus as all of them did. So, he secretly went to them to arrange its happening. Even so, he didn’t realize the full weight of their deadly intentions. By then, though, it was too late. His remorse, reported by Matthew, didn’t make any difference. He had set things in motion that he could not now stop. There are still other theories, but in my view, this approach makes the most sense of what limited textual evidence we have.
Still, though, we don’t really have an answer to our question. Why did Judas do it? Allow me to take you once again back to the answer I gave before: We don’t know. We may not ever know. I think what the story of Judas does allow us to do, though, is a bit of introspection. Judas was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. He was one of the guys who followed Jesus around night and day for three years. He was there for almost every significant moment Jesus had during His ministry. He heard all the teachings. He saw all the miracles. It is almost unimaginable that someone with that kind of access to Jesus could ultimately turn on Him. Even if he did regret it later, it just doesn’t make sense why he would have done it in the first place.
Let’s push this just a bit further. I think part of the reason we are so driven to find an explanation for Judas’ actions is personal. We want to know why he did it so that we can make sure we wouldn’t have done the same. Whatever the correct explanation ultimately is, if we know it, we can begin to justify to ourselves and the people around us why we wouldn’t have fallen to that particular temptation. That was Judas, not me. I would never betray Jesus. The trouble with this is, even though Judas was the one to actually betray Him, all of the others made that same boast when Jesus told them they would all run out on Him…just before they all ran out on Him.
Like it or not, sin lies in our bones and until it is removed entirely in the resurrection, we are still going to give in to it from time to time. We are going to deny our Lord and betray our confession. This being a fact doesn’t excuse it, nor does it particularly explain it, but it should bring us to a point of humility. Judas may be bad, but if we’re being really honest with ourselves, we’re often no better. The taunting adage, “there, but for the grace of God, go I,” rings all too loudly in our ears here.
Okay, well, how can we hope to avoid this shame? Do we simply give up and give in to it? No, fatalism isn’t the way to go here. Instead, we prepare. We take our fallenness and propensity for sin seriously. We diligently avoid the thinking that says, “I would never do…” Instead, we put in place wise guardrails for ourselves in places where we know we are naturally tempted to sin. Those places aren’t the same for everyone, so my guardrails may not look like yours. In fact, my guardrails may look silly or even offensive to you, but so do yours to me. With humility, though, we can together acknowledge our brokenness and seek the Lord together in spite of it.
This is the second thing we do: We make sure we are not journeying alone. Judas was alone. He may have been a part of the group, but he seems to have never really integrated with the group such that they became a part of him. We need both. We need the church and the church needs us. We need to let a few folks in deep so they can help to hold us accountable for walking the path of life. We need to be that person in the life of someone else as well.
One last thing: When we do fail, we decide in advance that we won’t try to deny or hide our failures. We’ll embrace them with Gospel conviction, repent of our sin, and humbly receive the grace Christ has already won on the cross. We commit to not walking the path of sin any longer than is absolutely necessary. Life is where we want to be. Let’s aim to live it to the fullest.