I’ve been thinking a lot about Judas lately. That statement, in and of itself, is a weird one to write. As I’ve walked along the Way, I’ve often found guidance between the covers of a book. Rarely, though, have I read much about this most pivotal disciple. Truthfully, as I sit and think about it, I can’t recall any significant work that has dealt with Judas. I’m sure they’re out there–my reading is not all-encompassing by any means–but through this Lent, I found myself wondering more and more what was behind his actions, and what he really understood of Jesus.
In the run-up to Easter, I was reading the Gospels as they are told in The Story and came to these sentences: “As soon as Judas had taken the bread, Satan entered into him….As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night” (p.369). Those words are taken verbatim from the NIV translation of John 13, verses 27 & 30. I’ve read them I don’t know how many times over the years, but something about this time through made them stick in my mind. They rattled around, bothering me, until they finally turned into a question. Who’s will was at work when Judas left that night?
Before this point in the text, we have seen very little of Judas. He’s one of the Twelve, sure, but he hasn’t spoken or taken any action. We see Peter doing plenty, and John and Matthew wrote books, but it’s not until this moment that Judas really enters the action. What sort of man was he? He must have had faith, why else would he be chosen with the others? It seems entirely out of character for Jesus to select him solely as a tool–something to be carried closely, used, and discarded. There’s no precedent for God taking such an action, which leads me to say that God’s will wasn’t the primary operator in Judas’s life. Yes, God’s will was at work in the crucifixion and salvation of mankind, but I don’t think that means He forced Judas to betray Jesus like some sort of puppeteer.
So, does that make it Judas’s will? Maybe. It’s hard to make that a definitive statement, though, because we know so little about him. We don’t know what drives him or what motivated him to follow Jesus in the first place. The 30 pieces of silver are a convenient narrative, but don’t forget that Judas went to the chief priests, not the other way around. Was it simple greed that sent him there or something more? Did something set him off? If so, what? It’s maddening that we don’t know. And then there’s the line about Satan entering Judas. Was Satan playing puppet master here, inflicting his will on a weak-minded Judas? Is this like the story of Job, in which God granted Satan room to work, up to a point?
These are questions we won’t get answers to this side of Heaven, if ever. That said, as I get older, I’m starting to think that Judas’s arrival at betrayal was not so outlandish as it once appeared. It’s tempting for me to say that, in the presence of Jesus, I would never sell Him out. That, however, defies my own history. More times than I care to count, I’ve found myself saying things or doing things which contradict all I profess to be. In the moment it is like I am another person. It is my voice speaking, my hands moving, but they obey a will contrary to my own. Indeed, it is never until after those times have passed that what I’ve done or said seems wrong. As Paul said “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15).
Phew. You and me both, brother.
As Paul continues in that passage, he expresses the confusion that I often feel and the panic which seems so apparent in Judas after the deed is done. Matthew says that, after “Jesus was condemned [Judas] was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood'” (Matt 27:3-4). Then, when the chief priests don’t care, Judas throws the money into the temple and runs away. It’s that action which spoke to me of panic; he was so desperate to undo the betrayal, he flung the proceeds away from himself. More than that, though, I was struck by his cluelessness. He doesn’t say that he betrayed the Son of God. He doesn’t even say Jesus’s name. Judas is upset because he betrayed “innocent blood.” True? Yes, but that phrase belies a misunderstanding of the divine nature of Jesus. Could it be that what led Judas to betray Jesus was that he though him only a man? After all, if he thought Jesus was the Christ come to forgive sins, why would hang himself? (Matt 27:5). In this, more than anywhere else, I am struck by the difference between Judas and Peter. Although Peter denied Jesus, he still trailed behind Him and kept close to those Jesus loved.
Returning to Romans, Paul says “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (7:20). If we draw a line from the bits about Satan entering Judas to this passage, it’s not really Judas who was the betrayer; it was his sinful nature, perhaps fueled by Satan. Why then was there no redemption for Judas? Because he lacked the essential understanding of who Jesus was and is. “What a wretched man I am!” says Paul. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25). Perhaps this is why Judas did the betraying, and why Jesus knew it would be him. Maybe Judas really was a believer, maybe there was hope for him at one point, but because he could not or would come to grips with Jesus’s divinity, he fell in a way the others didn’t.
There is a complex interplay of wills at work in the story of Judas, just as there is in your story and mine. I’m certain that God’s will is real and active in the world. However, because He has also given me my own will, I can choose to act apart from Him (I have yet to unpack how God’s will works in conjunction with mine given the context of God’s timelessness, but that’s a post for a different day). Additionally, Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44), and one of his greatest lies is to tell me that my will is the right way, the right answer in life. Sometimes, like Judas, I listen to the old serpent. Fortunately, that’s not where it has to end.
No matter how often I blow it, no matter how often I deny Jesus in word or deed, I can choose to be like Peter and Paul, rather than Judas. I can trail after Him, dealing with the consequences of my failure, but confident that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). For, when each of us first professed faith, Paul says “you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship” (Rom 8:15). Judas didn’t understand this, and he let his fear consume him. Praise God that when fear and sin twist my head into knots, I can stop and make a different choice. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, I can rise above the lies and hold fast to what I’ve been given. This was true for Peter and Paul, and it is still true for me and you.