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Judas Iscariot

Dr. Heinrich Faust (the main character of Goethe’s play Faust) tried to acquire ultimate knowledge by mastering every subject he could, but no matter how smart he got, the answer eluded him. In despair, and as a final resort, he turned to magic. He tried conjuring. To his great surprise, it worked! To his even greater surprise, the big hulking person that he had conjured up was Mephistopheles, the devil himself.

Faust didn’t know that at first, of course. He asked the figure who he was. The figure replied, “I am a part of that power that always wants to do evil, but ends up doing good.” (Ich bin ein Teil von jener Kraft, die stets das Böse will, und stets das Gute schafft.)

That’s very biblical, isn’t it? It’s another way of saying Romans 8:28, and it is based on God’s pronouncement in Genesis that the entire creation is good. The creation turns all things toward goodness.

As Joseph said to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

This is true in the long run, but not always in the short run. That’s why we also say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Satan is a part of that power that always seeks to do evil, but ends up doing good. Sometimes we are part of that power that seeks to do good, but ends up doing evil.

However, no one, not even Satan, will succeed in causing ultimate harm. All things work together for good, but there’s no guarantee that it will be painless or fun.

Now we get to Judas

We use the Bible as a story book for children, and in fact there is a story-book version of the Bible in nearly every doctor’s waiting room. We mistake the people for characters, and take them at face value. From time to time, we change the details to suit our immediate need.

However, the Bible is not a story book, it is a history book. All that stuff really happened. All those “characters” are really people. We tend to make Judas into a cartoon villain, a sort of Snidely Whiplash, but that results in problems when we read the narrative more closely. If Judas was a villain who only intended to harm Jesus, why was he upset when his plans were a success? Why did he try to give the money back, and why did he commit suicide?

Judas as treasurer

Jesus’ entourage consisted of wealthy female followers who financed His ministry, and male disciples whom He was training for ministry. Judas was the treasurer and he occasionally stole money from the treasury (John 12:6). We also know that when the woman anointed Jesus with nard, a bottle of which costs a year’s wages, Judas objected, saying that it would have been better to give the money to the poor. Two questions arise at this point: When he stole money, what did he spend it on, and why was he concerned for the poor?

If we pursue the Snidely Whiplash characterization of Judas, we have a ready answer for the second question. We say he feigned compassion for the poor to distract everyone from his thievery, and in fact, according to John, that is correct. The first question is harder to answer.

The Thirty Pieces of Silver

Judas got 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus, but the money might not be of primary significance. It is the price for a human being. According to the Torah, if I own an ox and it gores one of your slaves, I have to pay you thirty pieces of silver.

It also became the price of redeeming a hostage. Imagine that I have given someone to you as a hostage to guarantee that I will live up to an agreement. However, I can’t keep the agreement, so I would not get the hostage back from you. You certainly don’t need another mouth to feed and I want the hostage back. I give you thirty pieces of silver, you give me the hostage, and we’re even.

If this is the case here, Judas goes to the Temple officials on Holy Wednesday and asks, “What will you give me for Jesus?” Or in other words, “Let’s deal.” They say, “The standard thirty pieces of silver, you dolt. You should know that.” They give him thirty pieces of silver and Judas sets out to do the deed. The money is just a standard part of a transaction like this: Imagine the wild west. You put out a reward for Herkimer Fiddlesmith, dead or alive. I hand over a man I believe is Herkimer Fiddlesmith, and you pay me the reward. However, it turns out that there are a lot of people named Herkimer Fiddlesmith, and I had the wrong one. So you let Herkimer go free and I give back the reward money.

There are two possibilities here:

Did Judas do it because he wanted the money?

We usually say that betraying Jesus was Judas’ get-rich-quick scheme, but that explanation doesn’t make sense. He could only betray Jesus once. He couldn’t go back and betray Jesus a second or third time if he was short of funds. On top of that, thirty pieces of silver wasn’t all that much money. If acquiring wealth was his goal, this is the dumbest way to do it. Even Judas would realize that.

His motivation was to betray Jesus. The money was just a necessary part of the deal.

Did Judas do it because he hated Jesus?

There’s no evidence in the gospels to back this up. It’s really saying, “everyone thinks this, therefore it must be true.” Actually, Scripture takes priority over what everyone thinks, because “everyone” can be wrong. Or, to put it more dramatically, if God interprets Scripture differently from the way you do, He’s right and you’re wrong.

Did Judas do it to rescue Jesus?

This is the most probable explanation. If Judas could get Jesus convicted of a religious capital offense, the Sanhedrin would not be able to carry out the sentence under the terms of the occupation. Roman courts did not get involved in religious disputes, so they would not allow the Sanhedrin to put Jesus to death. This would make Jesus legally untouchable. Given this situation, betraying Jesus would accelerate the process and make Him safe all the sooner.

The Romans and Religious Disputes

The Roman Empire had a zillion religions, each with their own god, and all these gods had a temple in Rome. Religions had to be registered, that is, religions had to show they weren’t politically subversive by allowing their adherents to burn incense to Caesar, a practice that was intended to unite a very diverse empire. The Jews got an exemption.

A Roman judge couldn’t know all the rules of all the religions, so the Romans had a hands-off religion policy. If a dispute was wholly religious without a basis in civil law, the judge wouldn’t hear the case. The Sanhedrin’s gripes against Jesus were about His religious credentials and teachings. They were accusing Him of blasphemy, which was a capital offense under the Torah, but they couldn’t carry out the sentence for two reasons: It was a religious offense, so a Roman judge wouldn’t take the case. Even if a Roman judge did take the case, he could only impose the death penalty if there were a basis for it in civil law. And there was none.

Judas could only have thought that it was harmless to betray Jesus. He had no information to the contrary. There wasn’t sufficient testimony to convict Jesus, and even if there were, the Sanhedrin would end up imposing a penalty that the Romans wouldn’t let them to carry out. That brings everything to a head, ends the tension, and puts Jesus safely out of their reach! Game, set, match. See what a clever plan that was?

However, two things happened that Judas didn’t anticipate:

During the short trip to Pilate, the charge against Jesus changed from blasphemer to suspected terrorist. If they succeeded in convincing Pilate, it would not only carry out their sentence, it would show the Romans that they were so loyal that they would even hand over suspected insurrectionists. Game, set, match for the Sanhedrin. See how clever they are? They tried, but failed, to convince Pilate; however, they did whip the crowd up into a frenzy that forced Pilate to act. Apparently on a scale of Mr. Rogers to General Patton, Pilate was toward the Mr. Rogers end. Actually, secular history backs that up.

There are two reasons why I think Judas tried to do good but ended up doing evil. Jesus had to prompt him to carry out his plan, and he had a drastic mood shift in the middle of it.

Judas discussed his plan with Jesus

Judas and Jesus discussed this plan in advance. Jesus, knowing from prophecy that there would be a betrayer from among His disciples, saw the fulfillment unfolding before His eyes, as Judas revealed that he had volunteered for that role. Jesus warned Judas, in the strongest terms, that he’d regret his plan, but Judas was so resolute that his unstoppable confidence in his own wisdom made him see Jesus’ acquiescence as approval.

Also, Jesus prompted Judas to carry it out his plan. Twice.

Judas had a drastic mood shift

The disciples were completely blindsided when they found out that Judas was the betrayer.

In the beginning, when Jesus told the disciples that someone would betray Him, they were shocked, but Judas didn’t flinch. They were all horrified that they might be the betrayer but Judas didn’t behave in any way that would cause them to suspect him. He didn’t even grin, twirl the ends of his handlebar mustache, and rub his hands together while saying, “Heh, heh, heh.”

At that point, Judas thought that he had coordinated his plan with Jesus, and that he was playing a vital role in the climax of Jesus’ ministry. He did play a vital role, as it turned out, but not in the way he had imagined.

Jesus looked Judas in the eye and gave him a dire warning. If you go through with this, you’ll wish you had never been born. Judas also didn’t flinch. If Judas were completely evil and without a conscience, he’d avoid reacting so as not to raise suspicion. If Judas believed he had Jesus’ approval for his plan, and that it would get Jesus off the hook, he’d think that Jesus’ warning was part of the script, so to speak, and wouldn’t flinch so as not to spoil the plan.

> First strange thing: Jesus gave Judas the signal to betray Him

Judas was in a good mood all the way through the Last Supper. Jesus dispatched him on his “errand.” Judas wasn’t surprised, so he knew that Jesus knew about his plan. He didn’t flinch, he didn’t do anything suspicious, and he played his role as if it were his assignment. The other disciples didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. They thought Jesus had sent Judas on a routine errand, when in fact, Jesus was essentially telling Judas, “Okay, this is the time to begin the betrayal.”

Judas thought, “This is going according to my plan.” Jesus thought, “How tragic that Judas is fulfilling the prophecy.”

> Second strange thing: Jesus waited in the garden for Judas to arrive

Notice that Jesus and the disciples waited in the Garden of Gethsemane for a very long time, long enough that they kept falling asleep and He had to tell them to stay awake. Jesus prayed in great agony, but the disciples, not knowing what was about to happen, didn’t appreciate the seriousness of the occasion. They were in the garden for a very long time.

Jesus was waiting for Judas to return, but Judas had run into complications and was late.

> Third strange thing: Judas’ sudden mood shift

Judas returned with the Temple officials were with him, as he expected, but Roman soldiers came, too. Since the Temple officials didn’t know exactly when or on what day Judas would come to them, it took them a while to get the Romans together. Hence Judas was late. And by his demeanor, he realized that his plan was going horribly wrong. Later, Jesus was convicted of blasphemy, but they took Him to Pilate as a terrorist.

Jesus had apparently never been on the 11:00 news, His picture had never been in the Jerusalem Gazette, and they never looked Him up on Facebook. (That’s because it was the first century.) They didn’t know what Jesus looked like, so they needed Judas to identify Him out of the group. Judas said, “The one I kiss is the one.”

Imagine you are at an execution, and a guard accompanies the condemned to the stretcher or chair or whatever. Before the condemned is strapped in, the guard kisses him on the cheek. What would that mean to you? Why did Judas choose to kiss Jesus? There were other options. He could have gone up to Jesus and put his hand on His shoulder. He could have pointed and shouted. He could have said, “The man in the plaid tunic,” or whatever. Instead, Judas kissed Jesus.

Judas had to get very close to Jesus to kiss Him, and that gave them an opportunity to whisper a brief conversation that no one else could hear. What they said or whether they said it, we’ll never know, but given his growing remorse, he can imagine him apologizing or desperately asking Jesus if there was a way out of the situation. There wasn’t. They had passed the point of no return.

Luke reports that Jesus asked Judas, “You are betraying me with a kiss?” which indicates that a kiss is normally the opposite of a betrayal.

In Matthew 26, Judas walked up to Jesus, greeted Him and kissed Him. After that, Jesus said, “Do want you came here to do.” This seems backwards, because Jesus is telling Judas to do what he just did, but it isn’t a problem if we interpret “Jesus said” to mean “Jesus had said.”

Incidentally, the Jewish calendar is set up so that Passover is always a full moon, which is how they could do all this at night without tripping over bushes or walking into trees.

> Fourth strange thing: Jesus tells Judas to betray Him

Jesus told Judas to get on with the betrayal. “Do what you came here to do.” He turned the act of betrayal into an act of obedience, and said it loudly enough for them all to know. What followed was too horrible for it to have any effect on them, but Jesus did go on record as having commanded Judas to betray Him.

> Fifth strange thing: Judas tried to give back the money

This is another Snidely Whiplash problem. If Judas were as greedy and avaricious as we thought, this doesn’t make sense. He didn’t betray Jesus for the money, he used the money to betray Jesus. His goal was not to get the money, but to betray Jesus, and the money was a necessary component of that.

If betraying Jesus was Judas’ get-rich-quick plan, he didn’t act like it. He returned to the Temple to give the money back, and when they refused it, he threw it on the ground. The important things here: Judas didn’t keep the money, and Judas was in extreme remorse.

Why would he want to give the money back? If he’s the Snidely Whiplash of the New Testament, it makes no sense, but Judas was a real person. Giving the money back was a symbolic way of reversing the betrayal. It was a symbolic way of saying, the deal is off. I didn’t mean for it to work out this way. Take it back, I can’t stand to keep it.

> Sixth strange thing: Judas hanged himself

If Judas is an evil person who engineered Jesus’ demise for self-enrichment, this is very odd. We’d expect Judas to be very happy with what he did. When he went back to the Temple, we’d expect him to pal around with Jesus’ enemies and rejoice in His demise, but he didn’t do that. He hanged himself instead.

No one says, “Wonderful, I won the Nobel Prize! I think I will go kill myself to celebrate!” From that we can derive that Judas was not happy with how things went, that he did not even intend for them to go that way, that he desperately wished there had been a way to fix it, and that he was overwhelmed with remorse.

He couldn’t associate with Jesus’ enemies, because he was not Jesus’ enemy. He could not go to the disciples, because he couldn’t face them. Even if there had been enough money to travel to a faraway part of the Roman Empire and start a new life, he couldn’t live with himself.

The only way out was death, so he hanged himself.

Suicide

In the early centuries of the western church, which later became the Catholic Church, suicide was not seen as something entirely negative. Believe it or not, they had a problem with priests committing suicide to be with Jesus in Paradise, so they developed the teaching that suicides go directly to hell, do not pass go, and do not collect 200 Hail Marys. Judas lived before then, when it was still possible to see suicide as a dignified way out. This Catholic doctrine has infused other churches. Whether or not it is true, it was not the teaching in Judas’ day. He took what was for him the only honorable way out.

You are not responsible for things you do when you are not in your right mind or under duress. If you rob a bank, you are guilty of robbery. If you rob a bank because someone put a bomb around your neck, you are not guilty of anything. There was a woman who got married while she was still under anesthesia. As soon as she got well, she went to court and applied for an annulment because she had been anesthetized and was thus not in her right mind at the time of the ceremony. The court granted the annulment.

At the point when a person commits suicide, they are not in their right mind, or they are under duress from some circumstance. A person in that situation cannot be held accountable for their actions. If a person is not accountable for a sin, they are not guilty of it, and therefore can’t go to hell because of it.

Did Judas go to hell?

The New Testament does not teach that we don’t go to heaven or hell when we die. We go to hades, the universal realm of the dead, and Christians go to Paradise, which is a special place in hades that Jesus created for those who love Him. In other words, everyone waits in the airport, but some people get to wait in the frequent-flyer lounge. After the Last Judgment, the righteous and the wicked are sorted out and they go to the appropriate places. (See Luke 19-31 and John 14:2-3)

We trip over our own vocabulary here.

Hell is the eternal fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels. It was not prepared for people, so people can avoid it. It is entirely possible that everyone will avoid it, but that’s in the future. We can hope for it, we can pray for it, but we can’t know the results of the Last Judgment in advance.

Heaven is the abode of God, from which Jesus descended and to which He ascended. At the end of time, the creation will be redeemed. Heaven will annex the redeemed creation. This is the new heavens and the new earth to which we go after the Last Judgment. We call this heaven when we talk about the eternal fate of the righteous.

So we can’t go to heaven at the point of death, because 1) we haven’t been judged, and 2) heaven isn’t ready for us yet.

The Last Judgment is on the last day, because it wouldn’t be fair otherwise. I know a man who overheard his relatives talking about a family member who was on the other side of the country at the time. He told them that that person was a child molester. They were shocked that he would say such a thing. Now imagine that this is a hell-worthy sin and that he died at that moment. He would go to hell by popular understanding. However, ten years later, the truth came out and it turned out that what he said was not a slur, but a shrewd deduction from what they had said. If he died at that moment, he’d go to heaven by popular understanding.

I’d rather be judged later than sooner.

Joseph said to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

I’m sure they’d rather be judged later than sooner.

Therefore, it is unjust for people to go to heaven or hell at the moment of their death. You can still reassure children that Grandma is in heaven, but that’s the children’s version. They don’t need to know that there’s a layover and she has to change planes.

No, Judas didn’t go to hell, at least not yet.

Confess, Repent, and all that stuff…

According to our understanding, people can only go to heaven if they confess and repent of their sins, and are forgiven. I say “according to our understanding” because God is not a Coke machine, He can do whatever He wants. But let’s lean on our own understanding for now.

Judas was part of that power that sought to do good, but ended up doing evil. And that’s where Judas’ history appears to end. However, the matter developed further after his death and his actions helped to bring redemption to the entire human race.

Judas tried to get out of the betrayal when he realized it was not going the way he had planned. That’s why he hesitated. He repented of it, which is what “showing remorse” means, and he even went so far as to hang himself. If that didn’t show remorse, I don’t know what would.

Suicide, by itself, is not sufficient to send a person to hell.

He hanged himself because he couldn’t live with Jesus’ enemies, he couldn’t live with Jesus’ disciples, and he couldn’t live with himself, and there was nowhere else to go.

Judas confessed and repented, but…

Will Jesus forgive him?