Judas the Traitor John 13:18-30


Download sermon

Text Comment

v.18     Jesus had warned that there was a traitor among the 12 at several points before this (6:71; 12:4; 13:2).  The text Jesus cited was Psalm 41:9, a lament of David upon betrayal by his friends.  David’s life, as we know, and as we have noticed in our evening studies in Samuel, was in many ways an enacted prophecy of the life of the Messiah to come.

v.19     Even as one who was to be betrayed, Jesus was not the hapless victim.  This betrayal served the purpose for which the Lord had come into the world and is one more way in which he was revealed as the Messiah.  What is more, he had to suffer the full measure of sorrow for our sins and betrayal by friends as part of that full measure.

v.20     Whoever accepts the Lord, we have heard again and again in John to this point, accepts the Father in Heaven who sent him.  Now, Jesus extends that same rule to the disciples.  Whoever accepts them, accepts him.  An important point to make in prospect of one of them deserting him.  He is binding himself to the remaining eleven by telling them how significant their ministry would be for him.

v.21     As before, the disciples were confused by what he was saying.  He was speaking obliquely and they were not catching his point.  But they can see how troubled he is and so now he comes out and says what he means in plain words.

v.23     Here is the first reference to “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, but not the last.  He is mentioned again at the cross (19:26), at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning (20:2), at the Sea of Galilee when the risen Lord appeared to seven of his disciples (21:20), and is clearly, as the closing verses of the gospel indicate in that context, the disciple who wrote the Gospel.  This is John, of course, and this way of speaking about himself is his self-deprecating signature on his Gospel.  The attention is given to Christ, the narrator is only a voice, a witness, we are not even given his name!

Most meals were taken sitting, only special feasts were taken reclining.  This, of course, was the Passover feast.

v.24     The Lord’s prediction that one would betray him was, of course, a stunning disclosure and discomfited the disciples into silence.  Peter recovered first but still quietly motioned to John to ask, perhaps to whisper, to the Lord a clarifying question.

v.26     The Lord replied, apparently, in a voice as soft as John’s, because the later verses make clear that the rest of the disciples did not know what was meant by the Lord when he spoke out loud to Judas in v. 27 or why Judas then left the room.

John was reclining on the Lord’s immediate right – for only in that position could he have laid his head back on the Lord’s shoulder.  The fact that the Lord could so easily hand Judas the moistened bread may indicate that Judas was on his immediate left, which happened to be the place of honor. The immediate left of the host.  Interestingly, that Peter motioned to John as he did almost certainly indicates that he was somewhere at some remove from the Lord, certainly not on his immediate left as then he could have asked the Lord himself and would have had difficulty motioning to John.  Peter was not in the place of honor on the Lord’s left but Judas may well have been.

v.27     Satan had already prompted Judas to betray the Lord, as we read in v. 2, now he takes complete possession of Judas’ willing heart.

v.29     A little historical detail.  It was customary to give alms to the poor on Passover night.  The doors of the temple were left open all night and the beggars would congregate there.

Apparently, John, who seems to have known that Judas was the traitor, from what the Lord had told him, took his cue from the Lord and kept the information to himself.

v.30     It was night.  A historical reminiscence, of course; but a theological statement as well.  It was the hour when darkness was about to reign (Luke 22:53).  The conflict between light and darkness has been a theme already in the gospel.

What a remarkable group of men met in Westminster Abbey, beginning in the summer of 1643, to draw up a confession of faith and catechisms for the Reformed Church of Great Britain.  Richard Baxter, the celebrated Puritan pastor and author, gave it as his opinion that so great a company of godly men and learned theologians had not been gathered in one place since the earliest days of the Christian church.  Indeed, in his own words, “the Christian world since the days of the Apostles had never a Synod of more excellent divines.”  [Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly, 118]

He may well be correct, for among the men who formed the Westminster Assembly were many of the brightest stars in the galaxy of Puritan theology and spirituality – men eminent for both their intellectual weight and their personal goodness and devotion to Christ – men such as Thomas Goodwin, Jeremiah Burroughs, and Stephen Marshall.  And, then, from Scotland came five more, among whom were giants who walked in the land in those days:  Alexander Henderson, George Gillespie, and Samuel Rutherford.

But there was another name among those Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly.  A name not so well known to you, and no wonder.  He was not a minister but an elder, a nobleman in fact, Lord John Maitland, who would later be known to history as the Earl of Lauderdale.

As a young man Lauderdale had come to be recognized in Scotland as one of the most able and zealous defenders of the Protestant Reformation and so it was entirely to be expected that he would be sent to London to represent the Scottish church at the great Assembly.  What is more, later, in the years after the Assembly, during the beginnings of the persecution of the Reformed church in Scotland by the English government, he even went to prison for his convictions.  During his imprisonment he wrote letters full of the courage of faith and of cheerful acceptance of the will of God.  In fact, he spent his time in prison mastering more completely the OT in Hebrew.

But, when Charles II was restored as the King of England and Scotland and immediately set about undoing the Scottish Reformation, Lauderdale, to the shock and dismay of his friends, suddenly switched sides.  He became one of the kings most influential advisers and his personal habits sunk quickly into degeneracy – drunkenness, profane humor, and, perhaps worst of all, sarcastic and mean-spirited ridicule of the covenanter ministers with whom shortly before he had been allied and along side of whom he had himself suffered.

Former friends and colleagues from near and far, such as Richard Baxter from England, wrote to him in anguish, warning him against his apostasy and pleading with him to return to his former faithfulness to Christ and Christ’s cause in the land, but all to no avail.  His power grew as he curried the favor of King Charles until he was virtually the ruler of Scotland.  And, at last, he became himself the persecutor of the covenanters, sending troops to hunt them down, sending them to the gallows.

It was this same Lauderdale, former member of the Westminster Assembly, former prisoner for Christ, who bought the Bass Rock, a bleak and cheerless island in the Firth of Forth, northeast of Edinburgh, and turned it into the infamous prison where, during the days of persecution, the flower of Scottish Presbyterianism, some of the finest men of God of that or any age, suffered and died.  As one historian concludes, “And thus John Maitland, once the hope of the Presbyterians, mounted higher and higher in magnificence, and sank lower and lower in manhood and grace.”  Another historian, more succinctly, describes Lauderdale as “the Judas of the Covenant.”  [J. King Hewison, The Covenanters, vol. 2, 70]

How did that happen, that such a warm, devoted, serious follower of Christ, who had even been willing to suffer for him, should then become and remain his enemy?  How could such a complete reversal of mind and heart take place?  I do not know.  I cannot put myself into the mind of such a man.  But I know this.  Lauderdale was not the first, nor would he be the last, who “promised well at the Wicket Gate and ran safely past many snares, at last to sell all – body and soul and Savior – in Vanity Fair.”  [Whyte, Bunyan Characters, I, 17-18]

Just as nations have their traitors, whose names live on in infamy – Benedict Arnold or Vidkun Quisling – so does the kingdom of God.  And the archetype of all such traitors is Judas Iscariot, perhaps the most dishonored name in the history of mankind.  There have been many since who have betrayed the Lord with a kiss, many who claimed to be his follower only to turn and seek his ruin.  We have had them in the 20th century too.  I think of James Barr, the prominent English biblical scholar, once a gospel enthusiast as a university student, a committed member of his IVF chapter, but later a determined opponent to supernatural Christianity and the author of a book that bitterly criticizes evangelical Christianity.  Where does such a betrayal come from?  Who can say?

Certainly, who can say in Judas’ case?  Dorothy Sayers, in her famous play about Jesus, The Man Born to be King, proposed an explanation.  She began by asking herself about Judas.

“What did the man imagine he was doing?  He is an absolute riddle.  He can’t have been awful from the start, or Christ would never have called him…”  [Coomes, Dorthy L. Sayers, 16]

“The Judas Sayers finally portrayed [in her play] was an impatient man, who wanted revolution overnight; a man aware of injustice and corruption but who couldn’t wait for changed hearts to lead to changed circumstances.”  Well, perhaps there was something of that.  We cannot know.  We know he was a greedy and worldly man because, as the treasurer of the twelve, he embezzled money and complained about valuable perfume being wasted on the anointing of the Lord.   Perhaps it was as simple a thing as that Judas wanted more money and betraying Jesus was the easiest way to get it.  Many people have betrayed others for the same reason!  Or perhaps Judas was a coward.  Perhaps he could see where all of this was heading and he wanted to save his own skin.  Peter would later that same night lie about his association with Jesus to save his skin, perhaps Judas sold the Lord out for the same reason.  Dangers we perceive can make cowards of us all and cowards can do terrible things for the sake of their cowardice.  We don’t know what arguments Satan used that prevailed so with Judas, but we know that at some point he turned and became not the Lord’s follower but his enemy.

Now, ordinarily, in sermons on Judas, in sermons I myself have preached before on Judas, the point to be made is that his example is a warning to us all.  It is quite possible to mistake salvation and a relationship with Christ.  No doubt, Judas himself did for some time.  Surely, v. 22 ought to send a shiver down the spine of any serious-minded Christian.  After three long years with Jesus, still nobody suspected Judas of being untrue, no one immediately thought of Iscariot when Jesus announced that there was a traitor in their midst.  “Lord, is it I?” they asked, as we learn in the other Gospels.  No one can see into the heart.  Judas did not appear to be a traitor.  He appeared to be a disciple like the other eleven.  He seemed to believe and he seemed to follow the Lord like the others.  And, no doubt for a long time he thought of himself in no other way.  He preached the news of Christ to others, he even healed the sick and cast out demons in the Lord’s name, as did the rest of the Twelve.  Indeed, we perhaps see what sort of man Judas appeared to be during the days of the ministry, when he walked with the Lord, in that terrible remorse that seized him after his betrayal.  A conscience that could punish a man so severely as to drive him to suicide, might well have been very impressive during the days when Judas walked and talked and prayed and preached and even worked miracles as a member of the Twelve.  Right up to the time he left the upper room that night, no one thought he was a traitor.

And, of course, he had every advantage.  Let no one think that the right preaching, or the right ministry, or the right example, will surely keep someone from this apostasy.  No one heard better preaching than Judas; he heard all the Lord’s sermons.  He saw the Lord’s miracles.  He was an eyewitness of the Lord’s matchless life.  And he felt the Lord’s power in his own hand when he himself cast out demons and healed the sick.

And, so, in the history of Judas and his betrayal we ourselves are put on notice that it is not enough to have a history as a Christian, a past reputation as a follower of Christ; we must have as well a present and a future.  We must continue in faith and hope and love if we are to be Christians at all.  Surely we are being taught by Judas’ example to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, taking nothing for granted, never content to rest on past laurels, never, never to think ourselves Christians simply because we are taken by others to be.  Don’t you think that Peter had his old, one-time friend, Judas, in mind when he told us all to make our calling and election sure?

            “Be this my one great business here,

With holy trembling, holy fear,

To make my calling sure;

Thine utmost counsel to fulfill,

And suffer all thy righteous will,

And to the end endure.”

The Puritans of the 17th century had a name for those who seemed to begin well but did not finish.  They called them “temporaries.”  And Thomas Goodwin wrote that Judas Iscariot was “the most eminent temporary that ever was.”  And every time we read about Judas and his treachery, it behooves us to pray, with feeling, from our hearts, “Lord let that never be me, a temporary, keep me from ever betraying you, deserting you, leaving you.”  Say to the Lord, and say it from your heart:  “Lord, as long as I live, I will be your faithful follower.  And then to do what Paul did, who, rather than take his salvation for granted – was there ever a man who had more reason to take his salvation for granted than the great Apostle to the Gentiles – but he beat his body and made it his slave, lest after preaching to others he himself might be disqualified for the prize!  That is what Judas didn’t do.  He stole from the moneybag but he did not bring his sinful desires to heel for the sake of his own salvation!

And you see that emphasized here.  Judas had allowed his heart to harden against the grace of God.  Judas was exposed in semi-public here at the Passover feast.  The Lord identified him as his traitor.  Judas learned in that moment that Jesus knew all about his arrangement with the religious authorities.  He had been found out.  How had that happened except that once again, as so many times before, the Lord was displaying his supernatural knowledge as the Messiah, the Prophet of God.  Surely it was obvious that Judas could not defeat this man.  He couldn’t even keep a secret from him.  But, now that he was exposed, Judas could do one of two things.  He could fall at the Lord’s feet and beg his forgiveness, or, in defiance of all that was good and all that was reasonable, he could leave to execute his plan.  And Judas, now a man whose mind has become dark and heart has become hard, leaves as quickly as he can to find the authorities.  The Lord gives him a way out and he refuses to take it, and only hours later he will be dead of his own hand.

We cannot know all the reasons why God permits such betrayal and such treason in his church.  But one reason is surely this: to protect the faith and the salvation of his elect, by setting them to examine their faith to ensure that it is a living, working, loving reliance on the Lord Jesus, to be sure that they are not contenting themselves with a spurious imitation that, at the last, will disqualify them from the prize.

Oh, yes, there is warning here.  But there is more than just warning here.

There is also the kindness and the gentleness and the sympathy of the Lord Jesus, that surely ought to draw all men and women to him.

He is to be betrayed by a close friend.  He knows this.  But still he is generous to this traitor.  Perhaps he seats him at his left, the place of honor, precisely to show him one last kindness, to make one more gesture of his love for Judas.  Oh, yes, his love for Judas.  Like the rich young ruler who refused to believe in him, surely the Lord loved Judas as well.  Perhaps that night the Lord was thinking of those three years together, how they first met, Judas’ early enthusiasm for him, the experiences they had shared, Judas’ loyalty through the thick and thin of the ministry.  No doubt, like the rest of the Twelve, Judas had done some fine things and said some fine things and the Lord remembered every one of them!  The fact that he was the group’s treasurer surely meant that he had some stature among them, a measure of trust, of leadership.

And then the very act by which he identified Judas as the traitor was itself an act that everyone else – except perhaps John who was in on the secret – would have taken as an honor the Lord was paying to Judas. Indeed, it was one final act of affection that amounted to one final invitation to Judas to repent and return.  The host at a feast would draw from the bowl a particularly tasty bit or dip bread into the bowl and pass it to a friend as a mark of honor or friendship.  This is the Lord’s final gesture of love toward Judas.  “I am still here and willing to receive you Judas.”  And, then, as one commentator put it,

“And that final act of love becomes, with a terrible immediacy, the decisive movement of judgment.  At this moment we are witnessing the climax of that action of sifting, of separation, of judgment which has been the central theme in John’s account of the public ministry of Jesus… So the final gesture of affection precipitates the final surrender of Judas to the power of darkness.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has neither understood it nor mastered it.”  [Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel, 173 cited in Carson, 474-475]

In other words, there is as much love on Christ’s part as there is betrayal on Judas’ part.  And that is where the passage began, if you remember.  The Lord taking a page from David’s psalm, a sad and bitter lament by a man betrayed, and then, looking so troubled in spirit that his disciples realized at once that something was terribly wrong.  We do not, we cannot understand what is happening here unless we appreciate how much it hurt the Lord to lose this man.  To be betrayal there must first be friendship and affection and brotherhood.  And there was here and especially on the Lord’s part.  Here was the beginning and by the end of the night all will have left him.  But here is the worst because Jesus knew this man, his friend, his disciple, would never come back and would instead, as the Scripture says so terribly and so solemnly, “go to his own place.”

So you remember the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, as Paul gives it to us in 1 Cor. 11, and as you hear it every time you come to Holy Communion, as you will this evening.  How does it begin, “For on the night in which he was betrayed he took bread…”  On the night in which he was betrayed… Of all the things that might have been said about that night, of all the things that might have been remembered in the liturgy of the Supper…  On the night in which he washed his disciples feet… On the night in which he gave them the new commandment of love…  On the night in which he spoke to them of the Holy Spirit to come…  On the night in which he prayed for his disciples…  On the night in which he celebrated the Passover and made of the feast a new sacrament for his people…  But, no, it is this:  On the night in which he was betrayed…

Why, except that betrayal was so cruel for him and his suffering it so much a part of that ignominy and loss and sorrow that he bore for us and our salvation.  Even in the midst of the cruelest disappointment he did not fail to place the salvation of the world before his own broken heart.

Oh, yes, by all means, look carefully at Judas and take warning.  But, for every look at Judas, take ten looks at the Lord Jesus Christ.  You can surely count on the Prince of Life to receive you, if he stood ready to the very end to receive the one who betrayed him, who watched with the purest sorrow and sense of personal loss as Judas walked out the door.