Luke 22:47-53

Text Comment

In other words, this happened immediately upon the Lord’s return to his disciples who had been asleep in the olive grove and the arrival of Judas and the others interrupted the conversation he was having with them.

Judas kissed Jesus to identify him so that there would be no mix-up in the arrest. There was nothing unusual about a kiss as a form of greeting in that culture, but, obviously, under the circumstances it made Judas’ act seem all the more a personal betrayal.

The words the Lord spoke convey sadness more than anger. As Henry Scougal observed of the Lord’s response in his early 18th century classic The Life of God in the Soul of Man [54]: “And what shall I speak of his meekness? Who could encounter the monstrous ingratitude and dissimulation of that miscreant who betrayed him in no harsher terms than these, ‘Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?’”
We learn in the Gospel of John that it was Peter, impulsive as always, who struck with his sword, however ineffectively. It is worth noting this as Peter, at this moment, did not hesitate to identify with Jesus and to fight for him. A few minutes later that resolve would disappear and he would famously deny even knowing the man. How like us: hearts sometimes hot and sometimes stone cold.
Only Luke mentions that the Lord healed the servant’s ear. This was the Lord’s last miracle performed in public. Later on Jesus will tell Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world and offer as proof the fact that his disciples were not fighting. The Lord had orchestrated the timing of his arrest and, all the more after his agony in the garden, he had no intention of allowing anything to prevent his crucifixion. His hour had come.
John adds that there were Roman soldiers present as well.
In other words, there is something underhanded about all of this: doing it in the dead of night and coming armed against a harmless man who had made himself available to them all week in the most public place in Jerusalem. This was no legal arrest of a genuine criminal but some kind of conspiracy to do evil. [Caird, 243] The last phrase seems to indicate that the Devil was behind it all. We have the intimation of that earlier in this same chapter in vv. 3-6. That seems to be the point of the Lord’s remark about the power of darkness. The same phrase is translated “domain of darkness” in Colossians 1:13  in reference to the devil’s kingdom.

I want to consider with you this morning the figure of Judas Iscariot. He has two names for the obvious reasons that there were two disciples with that name among the twelve, Judas the son of James and Judas Iscariot. Nobody knows for sure what “Iscariot” refers to, there are various conjectures. Judas was a common name among Jews in that day. It is the Greek form of the name Judah. The Lord had a brother with the same name who wrote the short NT letter that bears his name, Jude.

We need to attend to Judas now because the mention of Judas’ betrayal of the Lord here in Luke 22 — first in vv. 3-6 and now in vv. 47-48 — is all that we are going to read about it. Luke doesn’t mention Judas again in the Gospel. He doesn’t mention his remorse and suicide until the first chapter of his second volume, the book we know as Acts.

But I also want to pay some attention to Judas because he has been in the news in recent years. In a way that wouldn’t have been true even a few years ago, Luke’s reference to Judas gives us the opportunity to consider something that has become an argument against the Christian faith in our time.

In April 2006, just before Palm Sunday, the National Geographic Society held a press conference to announce the publication of a recently discovered ancient document that, they rather plainly implied, would change the way the world thought about Jesus Christ, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. They called the document “The Lost Gospel of Judas.” Rather than presenting Judas Iscariot as the betrayer, the traitor or all traitors, the newly unearthed and translated document presented Judas as the Lord’s most intimate friend and the recipient of secret wisdom that had been withheld from Peter and the other disciples. And, instead of blaming Judas for handing his master over to his enemies, this text taught that Judas had done this at the Lord’s own request.

In the popular press this so-called “discovery” was treated as bad news for orthodox Christian belief. National Geographic, which has long harbored a barely disguised animus toward orthodox Christianity — they spent a million dollars to buy and restore the document — sponsored a television documentary shot through with sensational commentary on what this means for the Christian faith, almost as if they had discovered the bones of Jesus. They were careful to secure “experts” who were sympathetic to a post-modern, revisionist account of Christian origins. What this new document proved, they claimed, was that there was no single Christianity but a variety of Christianities, and that what we know as Christianity resulted from those in power — males, of course, as the feminist historians point out — using their power to suppress all versions of the faith except their own.

Relatively soon after the sensational news stories began to proliferate, the British scholar N.T. Wright published a book dealing with the document and the media frenzy that it produced. Here was N.T. Wright later in 2006:

“But why all the fuss? London-based journalist Damien Thompson, writing in the Daily Telegraph, declared that orthodox Christians preparing to celebrate Easter would be upset because this new document denied that Jesus rose again from the dead. Sundry other writers took it upon themselves to declare that here at last was a genuinely early document which showed that traditional Christianity was not all it was made out to be. That, of course, is what so many in contemporary Western culture are eager to hear…

But let me be clear. …I am delighted that we have yet more evidence about the ancient world, and about early interpretations of Jesus and the Christian faith. The more we have, the better we can do our history. But the reasons why this book have been published in a snazzy dust jacket, carefully timed to catch the Easter market, and trumpeted around the media of the Western world, has nothing to do with making historical sources available, and everything to do with what, today, so many people passionately want to believe — and, it seems, passionately want to disbelieve. [Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? 25-26]

What they want to believe is that there are other versions of Christianity that are just as valid as that we find in the Bible and that we are free to pick and choose between them and, for that matter, among any and all the available philosophies of life. Whatever works for you…. It isn’t at all difficult to understand why such folk are so tempted to exaggerate the significance of such a find. What better way, in a day of multiculturalism, diversity, and cafeteria spirituality, to prove this outlook right than to show that even Christianity was originally a set of quite different viewpoints, each attractive to a particular group of people. Even Christianity — though this had been covered up until now — was a do-it-yourself religion! [Douthat, Bad Religion, 158-159]

As so often happens in such cases, by the time the facts began to be known and published the public had lost interest and paid no attention.

Here is what can be said with confidence about the so-called “Lost Gospel of Judas.”

  1. First, the discovery was authentic. That is, it was not some forgery. Carbon dating and the examination of the orthography, or hand-writing, fixed the document to the third or fourth century. Of course, that is at least some two hundred fifty or three hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, at a further distance, say, than we are from the American Revolution, though the original of which this was a copy was earlier, probably later 2nd century.
  2. The document was not, in fact, a “lost gospel” in the sense that no one had heard of it before. Irenaeus, the church father, whose great work against the gnostic heresy was published around the year 180, mentioned a gospel of Judas among the number of documents that contained this teaching, though no text of that work had ever been found. So this was confirmation that Irenaeus had been right and that such a work did exist.
  3. The document is not a breathtaking discovery but another volume in the library of documents that contain the teaching of the so-called Christian Gnosticism.
  4. Gnosticism in its Christian form was very obviously an effort — like so many through the ages — to conform Christian teaching to the prevailing philosophy and culture. As Prof. Wright observed in regard to Gnosticism: “…in a world of many gods, many religious movements, many philosophies (many of them varieties of Platonism, with its inherent dualism of spirit and matter), and many teachers combining ideas in ever new ways, it is not surprising that we find groups and writers seeking to use the name of Jesus to propagate and legitimize teachings very different from his own. It is not the last time in history that such a thing has happened.” [40-41]
  5. Gnosticism, such as we find taught in this newly discovered document, was 1) dualistic, exceedingly so. The present world of space, time, and matter is irredeemably evil. Evil resides in the material dimension of the world. Human beings, as physical beings, are likewise evil. Only in the world of pure spirit can good be found. 2) This evil world was created by a bad god, a demiurge or lesser god, who in the Christian forms of Gnosticism was identified with Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. 3) The main aim of any right-thinking human being will therefore be to escape this world and physical existence altogether. Salvation is thus deliverance from the material world and all that physical life means so that one can exist in the realm of pure spirit. 4) The path to that salvation is through knowledge (hence Gnosticism, a term that comes from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. But that knowledge is secret, reserved for but a few favored souls, and communicated by a revealer, a teacher who knows what others do not. [Cf. Wright, 31-33] In the Gospel of Judas, it is such knowledge that Jesus shared with Judas but withheld from his other disciples. In other words, the Gospel of Judas was a typical specimen of Gnostic thinking and writing, of which we have a number of other specimens and about which we long knew a great deal through Irenaeus’ refutation of that teaching in his book of apologetics entitled Against Heresies. It is some credit to Irenaeus and his honesty and his scholarship that we understand Gnosticism to be very largely what Irenaeus taught it to be in 180. In this teaching Jesus was a revealer of secret wisdom; he certainly was not one who died for the sin of the world and he would never have risen from the dead into the bodily life of a human being. You want to get rid of the body; you don’t want it back again after you’re done with it!

It is, by the way, important to note that Gnostic thought was profoundly anti-Jewish, poured scorn on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, repudiated root and branch the notions found everywhere in the New Testament that Jesus is Yahweh and that his death and resurrection were nothing but the long-promised fulfillment of God’s plan to redeem the world from sin and death.

In other words, for all the hype, the Gospel of Judas told us nothing about the origin of Christianity, told us virtually nothing that we did not already know, and confirmed that Gnosticism was a hybrid: an unstable mix of a few Christian elements with the philosophical dualism common in the Greco-Roman world. It was deeply anti-Christian and anti-biblical in virtually every respect and there was precious little reason to believe that it had anything whatsoever to do with the actual Jesus of Nazareth. For that matter, it also told us nothing about the actual Judas Iscariot! It certainly doesn’t “rehabilitate” Judas over against the picture we are given of him in the New Testament. [Wright, 13] What it does reveal, as Prof. Wright bluntly observed, “is the bankruptcy of the worldview it articulated, and, by contrast, the compelling and attractive nature…of the genuine Christian faith articulated in the New Testament.” [14]

Then the story became even more interesting. After the hoopla had died down and after N.T. Wright had published his examination of the newly discovered and translated document, a professor at Rice University announced that she had worked over the translation of the document prepared early on under the auspices of the National Geographic Society and found a number of significant errors. In their eagerness to find what they hoped to find, the translators had effectively re-written the text to make Judas come out like a hero. Their translation had Jesus saying that his betrayer was set apart for salvation, when the text actually said he would be separated from salvation. They had eliminated a crucial negative so that a passage that seemed to state that Judas would “not ascend to the holy generation” was read to say that he would. They had translated one reference to Judas as “spirit” when the more appropriate translation would have been “demon.” In the Gospel of Judas properly translated, Judas came out worse than he does in the Gospels; he was, in fact, the incarnation of the prince of demons! By the time this new translation had carried the day in historical scholarship, the conversation was being carried on among academics only. The great many people who had heard that the Gospel of Judas had undermined the Gospel accounts but who never heard the corrections to the record and of course the National Geographic Society didn’t prepare another television documentary to set matters straight. [R. Douthat, Bad Religion, 149-152]

Fact is our Christian faith has always had its traitors, its heretics, its false teachers, and its deserters. We have them today. In the previous generation there was Charles Templeton, an associate of Billy Graham, a man who had an impressive evangelistic ministry — as Judas had had — filling stadiums with thousands to hear the gospel, before he went to a liberal seminary, lost his faith, and became a public critic of the gospel he once preached. In our present day we have a number, like Bart Ehrman, the Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College alumnus, who lost his faith in grad school and now, from his position at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill writes books with an undisguised interest in undermining people’s confidence in the biblical message. As has always been the case — and this is surely interesting — such people, when they abandon Christianity, choose another view of life with which to replace their former Christian faith, and almost always, it is as it was with the Gnostics, the prevailing worldview of their culture at that time. Certainly that was the case with Templeton and Ehrman. Like their ancient predecessor who wrote the Gospel of Judah, they reject biblical Christianity because it is uncongenial to the world of modern thought and the prejudices of the modern mind. Of course Christianity is still with us and what was the modern mind in the days of the Gnostics has changed root and branch a hundred times since and will change again!

The fact is we do not know what motivated Judas to do what he did. Because the Bible does not tell us, all manner of suggestions have been proposed to fill the gap in our knowledge. Perhaps it was disappointment with the Lord for failing to take advantage of his opportunity to become a king and lead the Jews in victory over the Romans. Perhaps it was simply the money. We know he was an avaricious man from other evidence in the Gospels. Perhaps he was jealous of Jesus. Who knows? [cf. Wright, 47-48] What Luke does tell us, earlier in this same chapter, was that Satan “had entered into him,” Judas had opened his heart to the evil one, so that what he did he did in the service of the evil one, an insight that dovetails with the Lord’s statement in v.53 about the “power of darkness” at work in his betrayal. That is all we know or can know about what motivated Judas to betray the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. But unlike what we find in the so-called Gospel of Judas, the fact that he was later overcome with remorse and committed suicide both humanizes the man and makes his motivations even more inscrutable.

There are lessons here to be sure; they simply aren’t the lessons that folk have tried to draw from the so-called Gospel of Judas.

  1. One such lesson is that apostasy and betrayal are inevitable in the Devil’s world.

One has only to think about Judas’ life to realize how inevitable such a thing must be. If ever there were a man who might be thought never to be tempted to desert or betray the Lord Jesus, it was Judas. He was, as we are reminded in a powerful understatement in v. 47, “one of the twelve.” Think of what that means. It means that Judas had been an intimate of the Lord Jesus for most of three years. He had seen perfect goodness “up close and personal.” He had heard all of Jesus’ sermons. He had witnessed a great many of his miracles, miracles that had left the population of Galilee and elsewhere awestruck; acts of supernatural power that couldn’t be denied and weren’t denied by anyone. He had seen the poor provided for, the sick made well, the demon-possessed delivered. He had seen the 5,000 and then the 4,000 well fed with a pittance of food, he had seen the storm stilled by the utterance of the Lord’s voice. He had seen Lazarus come out of the tomb with his own eyes. We could understand if his betrayal were motivated by fear, as Peter’s would be, a momentary weakness, but after all of that it was his idea to betray Jesus and he went to the authorities to offer his services! They didn’t come to him.

There is more. Not only had Judas witnessed the Lord’s astonishing ministry first hand, he had been given a ministry of his own. With the rest of the twelve he had been sent through the villages of Galilee to preach and to heal the sick as an extension of the Lord’s own ministry. In Jesus’ name he had wielded supernatural power himself! He had healed the sick. He had driven demons out of the possessed. He had preached the good news and people had believed it and been saved. Astonishing that such a man would then turn his back on these extraordinary experiences and this first-hand knowledge of the power of Jesus’ name to betray Jesus to his enemies!

How could he have done such a thing? We do not know. But he did and a train of others have followed in his steps. When this happens it will continue to baffle us. We who know the Lord Jesus and have experienced the power and wonder of the gospel will always be flummoxed by those who have likewise but nevertheless turn away. But it will happen. Judas is the proof of that. The twelve, remember, were the form of the new church in microcosm, the new Israel as the number twelve suggests, and in that little church was hidden a traitor, unknown to the rest, unknown even to himself, until he betrayed the Lord. The point is: the church will have its traitors.

It is always unsettling when this happens. It shakes us. It can lead some to doubt. But we are to remember that the Lord prepared us for this. Just as the church will always have its great converts, its Apostle Pauls, its Augustines, and its C.S. Lewises, so it will have its traitors. This is the service that Judas Iscariot still provides the cause of Jesus Christ: a reminder that apostasy and betrayal will come. Our faith will be tested in this way.

  1. Another lesson is that we cannot read the heart and so we cannot know who the hypocrites are among us.

So far as we can tell, there was nothing that distinguished Judas from the other eleven members of the Lord’s inner circle. There is no suggestion that anyone would have been tempted to say early on, “Well, I can see why you chose these eleven men, but why Judas Iscariot?”  He was as faithful and as enthusiastic as the others. We might have thought it otherwise. Surely after three long years together, living closely together, walking around the country together, facing opposition together, talking about what the Lord was doing and saying together, together being given challenging assignments by the Lord, I say, we might have expected that someone would have detected insincerity in Judas, hypocrisy, or at least a lack of deep commitment. But no one did. True enough, he complained when Mary poured the expensive perfume over the Lord, arguing that it could have been sold and the money given to the poor, but when he did, the other disciples chimed right in. He never apparently appeared to be any more a sinner than the rest of them or any less committed to the Lord Jesus and his cause.

When the Lord told them in the Upper Room that one of them would betray him, they did not all immediately look at Judas as if he were the obvious choice for the bad apple among them. No, they cried out in genuine concern, “Lord, is it I?” Even at that late hour, even after he had made his arrangement with the authorities, Judas remained undiscovered.  In fact, we get some sense of how impressive a man Judas may well have been as a follower of Jesus in the terrible remorse that seized him after his betrayal. A remorse so consuming that he drove him to take his own life.

Well if they could not detect Judas as a likely traitor after three years of intimate fellowship with him, then it is certain that you and I will not be able to detect those in our midst who might do a like thing. The Apostle Paul, you remember, thought Demas was his loyal assistant and partner in gospel work until suddenly Demas deserted him near the end of Paul’s life. Turncoats usually will not be identified until they turn.

  1. But surely the most obvious lesson is that those of us who are standing should take heed lest we fall.

Judas is the proof of what can happen. The fact that it happened to a man favored in so many ways is certainly a warning to us never to rest on our laurels, never to take our faith for granted, never to assume that it is enough to have been a faithful follower of Jesus. In the same way that we learn from David that even a deeply godly man can fall terribly if he lets down his guard, so we learn from Judas that even someone who was taken by everyone, indeed was long taken by himself to be one of the Lord’s inner circle, a true follower and disciple, can nevertheless betray him. What Judas is meant to cause us to do is shudder at the thought that we might ever do the same. Judas had evidence aplenty that he was with the Lord until the very moment he was not with him at all but was against him.

Such is the ferocity and tenacity of the spirit of rebellion against God in the human heart and such are the Devil’s wiles that every Christian should take care to be on guard against the first appearance of unbelief and to remain determined that we will be the Lord’s in thought, speech, and behavior until we have breathed our last in this world. “Lord, is it I?” No, tell him and tell yourself, that it will not be you. That often as you fail him — and you do fail him far too often — you fail him as one who loves him, trusts him, depends upon him, and is unalterably committed to him without reservation or qualification of any kind.

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.