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Why Did Judas Betray Jesus?

  • Chris Bolinger Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2019 19 Jul
  • COMMENTS
Why Did Judas Betray Jesus?

Imagine you're in biblical times during Passover week. A few days ago, on Sunday, Jesus had a triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

A huge throng of people lined the streets that he traveled. Some of them spread their cloaks on the road. Others cut branches from the trees and spread those on the road. The people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

Yet on this day, Jesus tells his disciples this: “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”

The disciples are upset and confused by these words. One of them, Judas Iscariot, sneaks away from the others and goes to the palace of the high priest, Caiaphas, where the chief priests and the elders of the people are gathered.

“What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” Judas asks them.

The Price of Betrayal

They pay Judas 30 pieces of silver.

On Thursday evening, while Jesus and his disciples are eating the Passover meal in an upper room, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”

Judas asks Jesus, “Is it I, Rabbi?” Jesus answers, “You have said so.”

Judas leaves the upper room.

A few hours later, after Jesus prays in Gethsemane, he says, “See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

At that moment, Judas arrives, accompanied by a great crowd with swords and clubs, sent by the chief priests and the elders of the people. Judas approaches Jesus, greets him, and kisses him, which is the prearranged sign for the crowd. They seize Jesus, and the disciples flee.

The next morning, Jesus is condemned to die by crucifixion. By afternoon, he is dead.

Why did Judas betray Jesus? Why would one of the 12 disciples betray their Lord?

Let’s look at four theories for the "why" behind Judas' betrayal of Jesus.

Theory 1: Judas actually didn’t betray Jesus.

At one end of the theory spectrum is a proposal by Research Professor William Klassen, who died in early 2019. In his book Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus?, Klassen makes the case that Judas worked to build a bridge between the Jewish leaders and Jesus and that Jesus had full knowledge of what Judas was doing. Klassen then suggests that, rather than betraying Jesus to the authorities, Judas was betrayed by those authorities.

Klassen assert that Judas’s major role was moving the Temple authorities “from vacillation to action.” Paying special attention to how Judas reacted to what happened after he identified Jesus with a kiss, Klassen surmises that Judas never thought that his actions would “lead to Pilate’s court or Jesus’ death.” There is, Klassen writes, “abundant reason to give Judas the benefit of the doubt.”

The primary and, arguably, fatal weakness in Klassen’s theory is his assumption that Jesus did not know what was going to happen.

“Of highest importance is the recognition that Judas collaborated with Jesus himself to bring about what Jesus wanted to have done: God’s will. He did not want to die; he displays no death wish at any point. But he had to hand himself over into the power of those charged with doing the divine will, the religious authorities. What the outcome of that would be no one knew…”

Theory 2: Judas was bad from the beginning.

At the other end of the theory spectrum is the proposal that Judas betrayed Jesus because Judas was a bad guy all along…a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This theory relies heavily on the portrayal of Judas in the Gospel of John, which presents a very unflattering portrait of Judas. Here are some examples:

  • John 6: After baffling many of his followers by saying that they should eat his flesh and drink his blood, Jesus says that his words are spirit and life, but some people simply do not believe them. John then inserts a parenthetical comment – “For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.” – which implies that Judas never believed.
     
  • John 6: After Peter speaks for the other disciples by saying that they “have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God,” Jesus responds, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” John explains: “He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.”
     
  • John 12: When Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment, Judas complains that the ointment could have been sold for 300 days’ wages, with the money given to the poor. John comments that Judas didn’t care about the poor but “was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.”

One problem with this theory that Judas was bad from the beginning is the fact that Jesus chose Judas to be one of his 12 disciples. If Judas truly was evil all along, then:

  • Why would Jesus choose Judas to be in his inner circle for three years?
  • Why would Jesus give Judas the responsibility of managing the money bag?
  • Why would Jesus give Judas and the other disciples “power and authority to drive out demons and to cure diseases” and send them out “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick?" (See Matthew 10, Mark 6, and Luke 9.) 
  • Why didn’t Jesus reform Judas in the three years that he spent nearly every day with him?

Another problem with this theory is what Judas did after Jesus was condemned to die:

Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3-5)

Why would an evil man feel remorse at “betraying innocent blood?"

Theory 3: “Satan entered Judas” during Holy Week.

While John’s Gospel seems to portray Judas as bad from the beginning, other Scripture passages and early Christian scholars present him as a legitimate follower of Jesus who, at a critical juncture, fell under the influence of Satan.

While Matthew and Mark state simply that Judas went to the authorities to make arrangements for a betrayal, Luke adds a key phrase to the statement (which I emphasize below):

  • Matthew 26:14-15: Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver.
     
  • Mark 14:10-11: Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.
     
  • Luke 22:3-4: Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve.He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them.

The belief that Judas was a legitimate follower of Jesus until he fell under the influence of Satan was maintained by some early church scholars and theologians, such as Origen (184-253 AD).

In his writings, Origen points out that, when Jesus says that one of his disciples would betray him, none of the disciples knew that it was Judas. This could indicate that Judas had been a good disciple who was loved by his Master. As for Judas being a thief, Origen considers covetousness a critical weakness in Judas, one that Satan may have exploited during Holy Week. Origen argues that, once Jesus was in captivity, Satan left Judas, and the betrayer came to his senses. His act of repentance was, according to Origen, real and heartfelt.

Stating that Judas fell under the influence of Satan offers an incomplete explanation of Judas’s betrayal, because it does not give a motive. Could a close follower of Jesus become evil for a few days and then come to his senses as quickly as he fell?

Theory 4: Judas tried to force Jesus to rise to power.

During Jesus’ day, the people of Israel were under the rule of Rome. They desperately wanted to overthrow their oppressors and re-establish their nation. They needed an anointed king to lead them in this quest. Could it be Jesus? Clearly he was chosen by God. He performed miracles. He spoke with authority about a new kingdom. He attracted huge crowds.

Four days before he was betrayed, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, the foal of a donkey. It was Zechariah’s prophecy (Zechariah 9:9). Surely, Jesus was the promised king who would save the people from their political oppressors.

The disciples had seen Jesus in action – healing the sick, raising the dead, walking on water, and even calming a furious storm with a single word. They knew that Jesus could do anything…including overthrowing the Romans. The kingdom about which Jesus spoke had to be the kingdom of Israel, restored to power. That’s why James and John asked to sit on Jesus’ left and right hands in that kingdom.

Jesus was in Jerusalem. The crowds there had proclaimed him as king. Now was the perfect time for Jesus to assume the throne and lead the effort to overthrow the Romans. When Jesus didn’t act, perhaps Judas decided to force his hand.

For a brief moment, it seemed like the right move. Surrounded by hundreds of soldiers, Jesus said, “I AM!”, and everyone fell to the ground (John 18:6). But rather than becoming a political messiah, Jesus allowed the soldiers to take him away to a sham trial, a conviction, and an execution. And Judas realized that he had made a terrible mistake…or so the fourth theory goes.

What this means for us

Regardless of why he betrayed Jesus, Judas forever will be remembered as a traitor. As Jesus foretold, “…woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Matthew 26:24)

When we follow Jesus, we need to follow him diligently and faithfully, wherever he leads us. And we need to pray for insight on what his plans are for us. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Sirmy concern is not whether God is on our sidemy greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.”


Daily Strength for Men Chris Bolinger Book CoverChris Bolinger is the author of Daily Strength for Men, a 365-day devotional published by BroadStreet Publishing and available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christian Book Distributors, DailyStrengthForMen.com, and other retailers.

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