This morning we continue our series of messages The Way of the Cross, which will take us through the season of Lent.
Today we come to one of the most infamous events in all of Scripture – the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, one of his twelve disciples. How does it happen that a man who ministered with Jesus for three years could betray him into the hands of his executors?
We read from Luke’s telling of this story, 22:1-6; 47-48 –
1 Now the Festival of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching,
2 and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people.
3 Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve.
4 And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus.
5 They were delighted and agreed to give him money.
6 He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.
47 While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him,
48 but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”
When I moved to Louisville in 1981 one of my first tasks was to get a post office box. I went to the post office, got my box, and quickly found something rather surprising. My middle name is Paul. I’m David Paul Charlton. Originally, my parents were going to name me Paul David, but changed their minds at the last minute. I don’t know how to calculate these odds, but the person who had that same post office box before me was named Paul David Charlton. It was quite difficult to get things sorted out with the post office when they confused our mail.
In the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, names are very important. A person’s name told something about them, such as their character, or even their calling in life.
Abraham, for instance, was originally named Abram, which means father. In Genesis 17:5 we read Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” Abraham means father of many, so when God changed the name of Abram to Abraham, it was an important reminder that Abraham would be the father not only of a nation, but also a spiritual father for all who would come after him in following God in faith.
When Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah was born, his name was symbolic of the reaction of Abraham to the news that he and Sarah would have a child – he laughed (“I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of people will come to her.” Abraham fell facedown, he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old. Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” – Genesis 17:16-17). Isaac means he laughs. The name is representative of Abraham’s laughter, certainly, but also, perhaps, that God laughs in the face of humanity’s many doubts about what he is able to accomplish.
When Isaac and Rebekah have twin sons they are named Jacob and Esau. Esau is the older son, and when he is born Jacob, the younger, is holding onto the heel of his brother. The name Jacob means to grasp by the heel and supplant, to deceive. Jacob becomes known as one who practices a great deal of deception throughout his life, so his name predicts his character.
Think about this – how many people do you know who are named Judas? Anyone? I doubt it. The name Judas carries such an incredible level of infamy that it has fallen almost completely out of usage.
Ironically, Judas is the Greek name for the common Hebrew name Judah, which means, God is praised. How in the world could God ever be praised through the life and actions of Judas?
We know the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. He received thirty pieces of silver from the leaders of the religious establishment for delivering Jesus into their hands so they could put him on trial and then hand him over to the Romans. It wasn’t that Jesus was hard to find, but the religious leaders wanted to arrest Jesus out of the view of the crowd in order to avoid a riot.
So why did Judas betray Jesus? After walking with Jesus for approximately three years, how is it that Judas could perform such a terrible act of betrayal? Not to excuse his actions in any way, certainly, but it is worth considering what Judas hoped to accomplish in this act. We cannot enter the mind and heart of Judas to understand his actions, but we can speculate a bit. There was a financial motive – thirty pieces of silver, which was a good deal of money – but I don’t think Judas was acting out of greed. I believe, instead, that Judas saw himself as acting in the interests of Jesus, as strange as that might sound, in one of two ways. I believe that Judas was, perhaps, trying to force Jesus into accepting the mantle of a political Messiah, which Jesus refused. Judas was no lover of Rome, and was probably like most of his fellow countrymen – he would have loved to see Jesus unite the people in revolt against Rome. When Jesus refused to take this role, and when Judas saw what he had unleashed by having Jesus arrested, his grief led him to suicide. The other reason for Judas’ betrayal of Jesus might have been to protect him, as strange as that sounds. Judas was certainly aware that the religious authorities were out to destroy Jesus. By conspiring to have the Romans arrest Jesus, Judas might believe Jesus would be placed in custody for a brief period of time – most likely long enough to get beyond the time of Passover and all the tension present in Jerusalem during that festival. Judas believed, perhaps, that the Romans would interrogate Jesus, come to the conclusion that he was innocent of any crimes against Rome, and release him, freeing Jesus and his disciples to leave Jerusalem and go into the safer territory of the surrounding countryside. Again, none of this is meant to justify the actions of Judas, but it does explain the amount of grief that drove him to suicide.
Judas is a tragic example of how we can fail to live up to who we are called to be. Judas carried a name that meant God should be praised. Instead of praising God through his actions, however, Judas betrayed God, and not in some generic manner, but by betraying the very Son of God into the hands of his captors and eventual executors.
We carry the name of Christ in our lives – we are Christians. We bear the name of Christ and we represent the name of Christ. We are called to represent him in our words, our actions, and our values.
Lent is a season that asks us to take very seriously the fact that we carry the name of Christ, because if the Bible shows us anything about human nature it is this – we are very easily deceived by temptation and the primary temptation we face is to abandon who we have been called to be, which is the root of the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness.
Temptation doesn’t always come in an obvious form; sometimes it comes disguised as something that seems the right thing to do. We see this from the very beginning, in the story of Adam and Eve, when the serpent twists the truth in a manner that made his temptation seem like not only the correct choice, but the obvious choice (Genesis 2:4 – 3:24). In the Gospels, Peter believed he was acting in the right manner when he attempted to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem, but Jesus rebuked him and said, Get behind me Satan! (Matthew 16:21-23). Peter believed he was acting in a way as to help Jesus, when he was in actuality standing in the way of Jesus’ mission. The danger of temptation is that it whispers in our ear in a way that makes some measure of sense. If temptation was always obvious, it would not be able to get a foothold in our lives, but it finds its way into our hearts and minds by using just enough of the truth to appear to make sense and appear to be the correct path.
The antidote is to see the manner in which Jesus conducted himself, especially in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the time of the betrayal. Jesus always remained true to who he was. Always. It didn’t matter what was happening around him or what was happening to him; Jesus always remained true to who he was. A person with the ability to live in such a way is very rare indeed; in fact, I would make the point that Jesus is the only one ever to truly accomplish such a feat.
And even more amazingly, Jesus allowed people to make their own choice, even Judas.
We can’t control what people will do, and God chooses not to control them. Judas had a choice, and he made his choice. Everybody makes some choice when it comes to the role Jesus will play in their life.
The Garden asks that we choose carefully. May we make a choice that allows us to live up to the name of Christ