“For the Son of Man will go just as it is written about him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for him if he had not been born.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Yesterday we talked about loving in ways that seem hard to the recipient of that love. Last week we talked about why Judas betrayed Jesus. This morning, I want to look with you at something Jesus said that sits right at the intersection of these two conversations. This is another one of those things Jesus said that doesn’t make sense at first read. Well, that’s not quite totally true. It makes sense on it face, but the sentiment He expresses here prompts some challenging theological quandaries. Let’s talk for a few minutes this morning about the time Jesus said it would have been better for someone not to have been born.
Take just a second and try to emotionally put yourself in the room where Jesus and the disciples were celebrating the Passover. With a single statement, Jesus had turned it from a celebration into something entirely more somber and serious. While everyone was eating and enjoying themselves, Jesus announced that one of the Twelve would betray Him. We traditionally think of this meal happening with only Jesus and the Twelve present, but v. 20 suggest to me there may have been more people there than just that. His revelation of His forthcoming betrayal had set the whole room abuzz. He clarifies that it will be one of the Twelve for the benefit of the other folks in the room to not fear it would be them, but also to stop the disciples themselves from looking suspiciously at all the other people in the room and confidently assuming none of them would do it.
There air in the room would have been thick with suspicion and mistrust. Each of the disciples was beginning to look with question at his brothers in ways he had never done before. All of them were sure it wasn’t him, but at the same time it could have been any of them. Then there was the doubt on top of all of this. If it is going to be me, what will cause me to turn my back on everything I’ve come to hold dear over the last three years? Jesus is the Messiah, there’s no doubt about that. What Jew would possibly betray the Messiah? And still there was the depression. If Jesus was betrayed, everything they had been working for all this time would be gone. This represented a failure of epic proportions. God’s own plan of salvation was going to be turned back and ruined. In short, the good time they had been having just a few moments before was gone and would not be coming back.
Then Jesus adds this to the pile. “For the Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.” In other words, everything that is coming was prophesied in advance. If this was an attempt at reassurance, it probably didn’t accomplish much. Perhaps it gave them a bit of relief that God was still in control of what was coming, but given their state of mind, they probably didn’t pick up on this cue. Jesus didn’t stop there, though. “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for him if he had not been born.”
Think about the impact of this statement for a moment. The news of His forthcoming betrayal was like a bomb. The sense of shock and betrayal would have laid on all of them (well, on eleven of them) like a ton of bricks. Suspicions would have skyrocketed. Jesus’ revealing His foreknowledge of the betrayal would have made Judas incredibly paranoid. I can imagine his having to put all of his energy and effort into maintaining his composure in front of the guys so they didn’t immediately identify him as the villain.
This statement would have landed on Judas even more harshly than just that, though. Jesus had just in effect told Judas it would have been better for him not to have been born. Now, perhaps Judas was confident in his actions because he believed they would force Jesus’ hand into becoming the kind of Messiah he wanted and expected Him to be. That’s certainly one idea, as we talked about last week. If this was really the case, Jesus’ words here were a warning of the grief and remorse he would experience when he learned the true intent of the religious leaders. If Judas was evil-hearted in his intent, though, this had to come off a bit like a threat: You’re going to regret this. Maybe the statement hardened his resolve and he went off to complete his task with a kind of “I’ll show you” attitude.
More than its impact, though, consider the implications of this statement. We have to be careful in how we understand Jesus. I don’t think Jesus was saying it would have literally been better for Judas to have not been born. After all, we have to presume that Judas was with the group when Jesus sent them out to proclaim the Gospel in pairs. He came back with them having performed miracles in Jesus’ name. There were likely people he healed during that time. Had he not been born, those people would not have been healed. He had an impact on their lives that very well could have resulted in many people ultimately turning to follow Jesus when they heard the full Gospel a few years later. There may be people who are followers of Jesus today because of the ministry work Judas did during Jesus’ ministry.
Neither do I think this was a statement of some kind of theological determinism. After all, if it would have been better for him to not be born, why did God allow him to be born in the first place? That would somehow imply that Judas was purposed from birth to betray Jesus. Yet was that really the case? I don’t believe it. That doesn’t fit God’s character. He doesn’t create people simply to condemn them. He is good. Now, God knew he would ultimately do what he did, but this knowledge didn’t prefigure him for the deed. Judas made the decision freely because that is how his character had developed over the course of his life. His life in general, though, had all the same potential for kingdom good that anyone else’s did. That’s why Jesus chose him as a disciple.
What this statement was (and is) was an idiom to express sorrow and regret for a person in a hard situation. I don’t think Jesus was saying this in anger. That wasn’t His style. This was a statement made in compassion, not anger or judgment. And I think this is where Jesus’ hard saying here connects for us. Jesus was speaking a word of compassion over the man who would go on to betray Him and be the direct lead to the incredible suffering He was going to undergo in the ordeal of the cross. Let that sit on you for a moment. If you were sitting with the person you knew was going to betray you to a painful death, would you be speaking a word of compassion over him? I sure can’t say I would.
Jesus’ compassion for people is amazing almost beyond word. If Jesus was willing to embrace even Judas with compassion, then He is also willing to embrace you and me with that same compassion. No matter what it is we have done, He has compassion for us if we will go to Him. Whatever is in our background, regardless of how much we have denied or betrayed Him with our behavior, He will still embrace us with His love and compassion if we will go to Him. If you will go to Him, you will find compassion for your deepest faults and failings. There will still be consequences because all sin has consequences, but compassion and love and life will rule the day in Him. So, go to Jesus. You’ve got nothing to lose and the world to gain.