Few figures in the history of Christianity are as notorious as Judas Iscariot but for all his infamy, we know remarkably little about him. Nevertheless, he plays a major role in the gospel narratives and in Acts chapter 1. He was certainly a historical figure but he also played a literary and theological role in the narratives. After all, even though the original 12 all scattered, even though Peter denied our Lord three times, only Judas betrayed him. In the gospels and Acts he is the prototypical reprobate and apostate. Since he plays such an important role in the narrative of the life, suffering, and death of Christ we are compelled to ask what we should do with him? If we think about the early Christian congregations to whom the Gospels and Acts came we can imagine what the gospel writers were doing with him as a character in the story. He serves as a warning about those in the midst of the congregation, who seem zealous but whose motives and interests are not our Lord’s.
What We Know
There are only a few things we know with certainty and chief among them is that he betrayed Jesus. That is the first thing we read about him in the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). E.g., Matthew 10:4 he is listed among the twelve apostles whom Jesus called: “Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Him (ὁ καὶ παραδοὺς αὐτόν);” Mark 3:19, “and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him (παρέδωκεν αὐτόν);” and Luke 6:16: “…and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor (προδότης)” (NASB95). The last thing we read about him in the synoptics is that he was a betrayer: “…Judas, who had betrayed (ὁ ⸀παραδιδοὺς αὐτὸν) Him” (Matt 27:3). Mark 14:45 records the betrayal, “After coming, Judas immediately went to Him, saying, “Rabbi!” and kissed Him” and Luke 22:48 records our Lord saying “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?'” (NASB95). The same pattern appears in John. He is first described as “…one of the twelve” who “was going to betray Him” (John 6:71; NASB95). In John 18:5, he is “the one who was betraying him.” So too he is both “one of the disciples” and “he who was about to betray” Jesus (John 12:4). Judas is so odious that when another Judas is mentioned John immediately clarifies with a parenthetical remark “not Iscariot” (14:22). He plays a major role in the narrative of the Last Supper, which we will consider momentarily.
Not unexpectedly, since he is “the betrayer,” Judas plays a major role in John’s narrative Jesus’ arrest. For John (18:2), the act of betrayal was merely the realization of what had been done in principle because Judas was “the betrayer” (ὁ παραδιδοὺς). It was Judas who gathered the soldiers (v.3). John repeats Judas title in v. 5, “Judas, the Betrayer” (Ἰούδας ὁ παραδιδοὺς) was “standing with them.” In the synoptics (e.g., Matt 26), of course, he simply “The Betrayer” (ὁ δὲ παραδιδοὺς) who had agreed that the sign (σημεῖον), the act of betrayal itself, would be a kiss—the customary act of honor and affection perverted—: “And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him” (v. 50; ESV).
Before we consider the question of Judas’ relationship to the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, there is one more element to note: the spiritual. Luke 22:3–6 says,
And Satan entered into Judas who was called Iscariot, belonging to the number of the twelve. And he went away and discussed with the chief priests and officers how he might betray Him to them. They were glad and agreed to give him money. So he consented, and began seeking a good opportunity to betray Him to them apart from the crowd (NASB95).
In distinction from Matthew, Luke is not interested in the amount of money. The first thing he notes is that Judas’ betrayal was a spiritual matter. Indeed, the expression “Satan entered” only occurs twice in the New Testament and both times (here and in John 13:27) regarding Judas. John says, “the devil had put it in to Judas’ heart” to betray Jesus (John 13:2). Again, Luke notes that Judas was one of the 12. We are meant to be impressed by the incongruity that among Jesus’ closest friends and disciples, among those who are to become his apostles, his Spirit-filled, authorized public representatives exercising their ministry on his behalf, is one who is not only to betray him but who does so under the influence and inspiration of the Evil One himself. Thus, we must affirm at least two aspects to Judas’ motivation and there may be others. Further, we know that he was a reprobate, he who “turned aside to go to his own place” (Acts 1:25; NASB95).
We also know that his betrayal was the fulfillment of various Old Testament passages. In Acts 1 Peter says,
“Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. “For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out. And it became known to all who were living in Jerusalem; so that in their own language that field was called Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
“For it is written in the book of Psalms,
‘LET HIS HOMESTEAD BE MADE DESOLATE, AND LET NO ONE DWELL IN IT’;
‘LET ANOTHER MAN TAKE HIS OFFICE.’
Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection (Acts 1:16–22; NASB95).
Ultimately neither Judas, nor Satan, nor the chief priests and scribes were in charge of Jesus’ arrest, humiliation, and sacrifice on the cross. Christ himself was in charge and his Father was in charge. Both are true simultaneously. Jesus was doing his Father’s will. He was also voluntarily doing that which he had agreed with the Father to do (see John 17). In the sovereign providence of God, Judas was fulfilling Scripture. Matthew (see below) calls our attention to the way Judas’ return of the coins fulfills Zechariah 11:12–13. Peter quotes Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8 He was also fulfilling Psalm 41:9, “he who eats my bread has lifted up his heel against me” (Acts 1:16; John 13:18).
Judas And the Supper
The question of Judas’ relation to the Supper is fascinating and difficult. Luke begins his narrative of the last Passover to be observed by Jesus with his disciples by noting that the chief priests and scribes were seeking a way to murder Jesus (Luke 22:2). It is in this context that he mentions Satan entering Judas. That moment, like the payment of Judas, is part of a broader narrative of demonic opposition to Jesus and his kingdom. Jesus sends the disciples ahead to prepare the Passover (vv.7–13) but the table narrative moves immediately to the Supper. The two acts, the Passover and the institution of the Supper are treated as one. Matthew’s narrative (26:25–25) distinguishes them. First they celebrated the Passover and then our Lord instituted the Supper. According to the synoptics (e.g., Matt 26:25) Judas was present for the Passover and apparently for the Supper.
“And Judas, who was betraying Him, said, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” Jesus *said to him, “You have said it yourself” (NASB95). The next verse begins the institution of the Supper and there is no mention that Judas left the table. The Reformed confess that Judas participated in the Supper. In Belgic Confession art. 35 we say:
Moreover, though the sacraments and thing signified are joined together, not all receive both of them. The wicked person certainly takes the sacrament, to his condemnation, but does not receive the truth of the sacrament, just as Judas and Simon the Sorcerer both indeed received the sacrament, but not Christ, who was signified by it. He is communicated only to believers.
John’s narrative of the Passover is a little different, however. He narrates the celebration of the Passover in chapter 13 but omits the institution of the Supper. John’s account is so interested in communicating the role of the betrayal in leading to the cross that he compresses the story to get to Judas leaving. This has caused some to conclude that Judas did not participate in the Passover but this conclusion does not account for the different emphases of the synoptics and John.
What Remains Enigmatic
There is much that we do not know with certainty, e.g., there is debate about his family name, Iscariot. Is it a reference to Kerioth? Is it a hint as to his character? It has been interpreted to mean “man of the lie.” Bart Ehrman suggests that it simply means that he was dyer of cloth. It could also mean, however, that he was a dagger bearer, an assassin.1
One of the most fascinating questions concerns Judas’ motivation. Was he motivated by greed? Matthew 2614–16 suggests as much:
Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?” And they weighed out thirty pieces of silver to him. From then on he began looking for a good opportunity to betray Jesus (NASB95).
One commentator (Michael J. Wilkins) estimates the thirty pieces to have been worth the equivalent of about 4 months labor. Interestingly, Matthew is the only one who mentions the payment and he mentions it 3 times (26:15; 27:3, 9) but even Matthew’s interpretation is layered since he notes, as Luke does, that Judas’ return of the money was in fulfillment of Zechariah 11:13,
Then Yahweh said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of Yahweh, to the potter.
Matthew is clear that Judas betrayed Jesus for money but Matthew also says “[t]hen when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders…” (Matt 27:3; NASB95). Most of the time when people do bad things for money they take the money and run. Judas did not. He took the money and then tried to return it. Why? Matthew says that he regretted what he had done. What does it mean to say that Judas “felt remorse” (μεταμεληθεὶς)? Paul uses the same verb in 2 Corinthians 7:8 when he tells the Corinthians that he does not regret making them feel bad causing them sorrow. It also occurs in Psalm the LXX (Septuagint) translation of 110:4:
Yahweh has sworn and will not change his mind (μεταμεληθήσεται), ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’
Based on what we know about Judas, we should distinguish between his regret and rather more serious instances in 2 Corinthians 7 and Psalm 110. Verse 4 is the center of Psalm 110. It is the only verse that does not have a parallel in the psalm. It contains the promise of Christ’s eternal, Melchizedekian priesthood. Yahweh’s covenant with the Son is to be trusted because it is sworn with an oath and will not be revoked. In the other case, Paul does not regret or repent of his pastoral admonition of the congregation because it was the right thing to do. It seems impossible to attribute repentance to Judas. His return of the money is a vain, even bitter attempt to undo what he had done. It was so futile that the only thing he could do afterward was to commit suicide.
Why did Judas regret his action? Maybe there is a good reason that Scripture does not explore deeply his motivations? He plays a major, tragic role in the gospel narratives (and Acts 1). He is the prototypical apostate and reprobate. Yet, apart from Matthew’s explanation, from a human and psychological perspective, his motives remain enigmatic. Four months wages is a good bit of money but is it enough to sell out a friend and a teacher? What causes someone to do such a thing? Was Judas disappointed in Jesus? That Judas sold out Jesus when he did, near the end, when it became inescapably clear that Jesus came not to establish and earthly kingdom but to suffer, die, and to be raised on the third day, tells us something about Judas’ interests and motives.
Like the early churches to whom the Gospels and Acts first came, we too are in mixed congregations. There are those in our midst who follow Jesus not because he obeyed, suffered, died, and was raised but for what they think he can do for them in this life. They follow him because they hope that he can bring about their agenda. He is not their Savior. He is a cosmic facilitator. When they too realize that Jesus came not to bring earthly glory but to be humiliated, to die, they too will leave him.
Do not be surprised.
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths (2 Tim 4:3–4 (NASB95).
There have always been some in the congregation who have “tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away” (Heb 6:5–6; NASB95).
This is not a new phenomenon but it is shocking when it happens right before us.
It is not for us to say who are the apostates. That is God’s business. Our pastors and elders administer the Word, sacraments, and discipline. We pray that those who fall away will be convicted of their sin, that their eyes will be opened, and they will be brought to new life and true faith. Do not be surprised at that either. It happens. Just today I was reading a letter from Calvin to just such a person. It still happens.
Be chastened. There are great spiritual mysteries at work in our midst, in the ministry of the Word. Some are being softened and some are being hardened. If you believe, give thanks that you were softened!
If you do not believe or if you have wandered, repent! Salvation is at hand. The specter of Judas should terrify you.
1. See, e.g., the entry s.v., “Judas Iscariot” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Revised.