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Matthew 26:14-25

Text Comment

Verse 14 picks up the thread of the interrupted narrative, broken off at verse 5 in order for Matthew to insert the account of the Lord’s anointing at Bethany.  In v. 5 we read of the dilemma faced by the leadership of the people: they wanted to arrest Jesus but feared the uproar of the crowd if they did it publicly.

v.15     There have been many attempts, especially in our own day, to provide what is thought a more sophisticated and less seamy motive for Judas’ betrayal.  It is important for us to remember that, so far as the evidence goes, it was a coldly calculated business proposition on his part.  He may have been disappointed with Jesus’ notion of the calling of the Messiah.  He may have followed him in hopes of an immediate and crushing victory over Rome.  He may even have come to believe for some reason that Jesus was a false prophet.  Or he may have come to believe that Jesus was about to fail and wanted to get out while the getting was still good. All of that is possible.  But the fact is Judas betrayed Jesus for the money.  We read in John 12:6 that Judas was a man who loved money.  The amount he settled for equaled 120 denarii, a not inconsiderable sum of money.  It would have been the equivalent of well more than a third of a laborer’s yearly wage.  Interestingly, John tells us that the perfume Mary poured on Jesus at Bethany, as we read last week, was worth 300 denarii.  The elders and chief priests weren’t willing to go that high!  But take note that Judas sought the leadership out.  They did not come looking for someone they might turn among the inner circle of the Lord’s followers.  He went to them.

v.22     One commentator writes that “very sad” is “…a rather weak translation for a phrase that contains Matthew’s favorite word for violent emotion, even shock…”  [France, 367]

v.23     Since everyone dipped his hand into the bowl at such a meal, this was no more specific an identification than what was said in v. 21.  All this means is that the traitor is one of the present company.

v.24     The sovereign plan of God for the salvation of the world must unfold as ordained in eternity past, but that does not excuse Judas’ act of perfidy.  The specific reference is perhaps to Psalm 41:9 where David complains, “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” It is obvious that the Lord, though he knows what Judas intends to do, has no intention of taking counter-measures.  He is here, as so often before in this Gospel, giving himself over to the death he came into the world to die.

v.25     Taking the four Gospel accounts together it seems that this must have been a largely private exchange between Jesus and Judas.  According to John’s account, when Judas left the room and the meal the disciples were under the impression that he was on some assignment from the Lord.  In any case, this is all pretense on Judas’ part, an effort to keep his identity as the traitor from the rest of the group.  Did he actually think that Jesus didn’t know?

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 in Great Britain.  Richard Baxter, the celebrated Puritan pastor and author, writing some years later, 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, listen to Baxter in his own words.

“The divines there congregated were men of eminent learning and godliness, ministerial ability and fidelity; and being not worthy to be one of them myself, I may the more freely speak that truth which I know, even in the face of malice and envy, that so far as I am able to judge by the information of all history…the Christian world since the days of the apostles had never a Synod of more excellent divines.”  [In Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly, 118]

Baxter may well be correct, for among the men who formed the Westminster Assembly and who drew up the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, were many of the brightest stars in the galaxy of Puritan Christianity.  These were men such as Thomas Goodwin, Jeremiah Burroughs, Stephen Marshall, and the like.  And then, joining them from Scotland were men who will rank forever as among the greatest ever produced by that small nation which has produced so much more than its share of great men:  Alexander Henderson, George Gillespie, and the incomparable Samuel Rutherford.

But there was another name among the five Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly: not a minister but a ruling elder, a nobleman, Lord John Maitland, later to be known as the Earl of Lauderdale.  As a young man, Lauderdale came to be recognized in his homeland as one of the most able and zealous defenders of the reformation of the church and champions of the gospel of free grace.  So it was natural that he would be chosen by the Scottish parliament to represent the Scottish church at the great assembly in London.  What is more, in the years following the Assembly, during the beginnings of the persecution of the Reformed Church in Scotland by the English government, Lauderdale even went to prison for his loyalty to the Scottish reformation.  During those times in prison he sent home letters full of the courage of faith and of cheerful acceptance of the will of God.  Nor did he spend his time in nothing but correspondence.  He spent much of his imprisonment working on his mastery of the Old Testament in Hebrew.

But when Charles II was restored to the throne of England and Scotland and immediately, despite all his promises to the contrary, set out to undo the Reformation, Lauderdale, to the shock and dismay of all his friends, suddenly switched sides.  He became one of that dissolute king’s closest and most influential advisers.  His personal habits sunk quickly into spiritual degeneracy:  drunkenness, profane humor, and, perhaps worst, sarcastic and mean-spirited poking fun at the expense of the Covenanter ministers with whom formerly he had stood and suffered.  Former friends and colleagues, such as Richard Baxter himself, wrote to him in anguish pleading with him to come to himself, warning him of the consequences of his apostasy, but it was all to no effect.  His power with Charles Stuart grew until he was virtually the ruler of Scotland.

It was this same Lauderdale, former valued member of the Westminster Assembly, former Covenanter, former sufferer for Christ’s cause in Scotland, who bought the Bass Rock, an island in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, and turned it into the infamous prison where, during the days of persecution, the flower of Scottish Presbyterianism would suffer and sometimes die.  As one historian concludes:  “Thus John Maitland, once the hope of the Presbyterians, mounted higher and higher in magnificence, and sank lower and lower in manhood and grace.”

How does that happen?  How does it happen that such a warm and lively follower of Christ, who was willing to identify with the Lord to the point of suffering for him, become at last his enemy?  How does such a spiritual reversal take place?  I do not know.  I cannot put myself into the mind of such a man.  But I do know this:  Lauderdale was not the first, nor was he the last of those 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, 17-18]

However difficult this apostasy and betrayal may be for us to understand; however impossible for us to conceive of the psychological processes which brought it about, we are left in no doubt in the Word of God that such treason will happen even in the kingdom of God.  The church also will have its Benedict Arnolds and its Quislings.  David was betrayed in such a way by Ahithophel and others.  Paul would be betrayed similarly by Demas.  But towering above all of these, is Judas, who will remain forever foremost in the annals of treachery and betrayal.

Of course, such a betrayal was an important part of the Lord’s ignominy and suffering.  Surely not the least part of the bitter cup that Jesus was forced to drink was the fact that it was his own friend, his own disciple who betrayed him into the hands of his enemies.  We learn something here about the cost of our forgiveness and our peace with God.  But, as we have so often said, Matthew is the Gospel of discipleship.  He is, of four Gospel writers, most keenly interested in what it means to follow the Lord and in the life of those Christians for whom he wrote his Gospel.

And so it is right for us to attend, when reading Matthew’s account in particular, to the implications of this dismal history for us, for the followers of Christ.  What are the lessons of Judas Iscariot for us?  No doubt there are many, but these are chief among them.

  • First, we are to be prepared for such betrayals and not to be shaken by them.

When someone betrays his profession of faith in Jesus Christ and turns his back on the Lord and his church to return to the world, Christians and their ministers are wont to look to themselves for some reason, some explanation for that apostasy.  If only I had done this for him…if only I had said that…if only I had loved him more…if only we had been a better example of a Christian congregation…if only…

Well that is always an exercise worth doing.  It is often very humbling and instructive and often reveals serious failures on our part which ought to be thoroughly repented of.  But, if the truth be told, our failures, guilty though we may be, are not the true explanation for betrayals like these.  In fact, were we somehow by God’s extraordinary grace, to remove all such failures and shortcomings from this church and from this ministry we would still be bound to expect that someone sometime would trod the path that Judas took long ago.

For Judas, we are reminded emphatically at the beginning of v. 14, and again in v. 20, and again in v. 21, and again in v. 23 was “one of the Twelve.”  He belonged to the Lord’s inner circle.  He had heard all of the Lord’s sermons.  He had watched Jesus perform one miracle after another.  He had been present at the healing of the sick and the raising of the dead and the feeding of the 5000 and the stilling of the storm.  He had walked with Jesus for three years and watched this perfect man live his life of perfect love and goodness.  He had been the object of the Lord’s personal attention.

If ever there were a preacher who could have prevented a flagging of interest or could have overcome the pull of the world in the heart of one of his hearers, that preacher was Jesus Christ.  If ever there were a session moderator who could have prevented the election of an unworthy officer to the leadership of the church, that man was Jesus Christ.  But it was Jesus himself who chose Judas and made him one of the inner circle of his disciples.  It was Jesus who included Judas among the Twelve, the Twelve who were – as their name suggests – throughout his public ministry something of a new Israel, a new beginning for the church, the church as it will be but in miniature. And in that church there was a traitor.

We know nothing about the calling of Judas to be a disciple.  We do not know under what circumstances Christ first met this man or when or where he called Judas to be his disciple, but we can be sure that Judas was called to belong to the Twelve because in every visible way Judas met the qualifications of membership in that favored society of men.  He ought to have been chosen, humanly speaking.  No one said or could have said, after the Twelve were chosen and constituted the Lord’s inner circle, “Well I see why you chose the other eleven, but that Judas; that is another matter.  He doesn’t fit.  He doesn’t belong.”  No, we have no reason to think that.  He was, no doubt, as far as these things can be measured by human beings, a spiritual man, a man of deep feeling, a zealous follower of Christ.  We are given a glimpse of what Judas must have been in his best days in the terrible remorse which seized him after his betrayal, when it came home to him what he had done.  So deeply did he feel his betrayal, so powerful was his sorrow, so demanding his conscience that he took his own life.  Those same features of Judas’ personality and character must have impressed others in those days when he was following and serving the Lord.

No, such betrayals must come.  Not so often, thankfully; rarely in fact. But they happen.  Matthew wants the church of his day, writing as he is more than 30 years after these events, to know that the truth of the Christian gospel is not called into question when professing Christians desert the faith and return to the world.  Jesus taught us to expect this and then he showed it to us.  He taught us the same thing in the parables of the sower and the soils, of the wheat and the tares, and of the net.  In his Olivette discourse he spoke of the love of many growing cold.  But, more than this, he showed us, in his own little church, his band of Twelve disciples, the reality and inevitability of apostasy in the defection of Judas Iscariot.  If it happened to Jesus, it will happen to us.  Matthew wants us to know that and wants our faith not to be unsettled by it when it happens.

  • Second, we are to learn from Judas the impossibility of infallibly deciphering the hypocrite.

I have always been struck, as I’m sure many of you have been, by the response of the disciples to the Lord’s announcement that one of them would betray him.  “They were very sad,” we read in v. 22, “and began to say to him one after the other, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’”  We might rather have supposed that after three long years these men would know one another sufficiently well to have detected some falsehood, some insincerity, some lack of genuineness in Judas Iscariot.  We might have thought that when Jesus made his dismal announcement, they would have collectively considered the possibilities and settled on Judas as the likely culprit.  But no; that did not happen.  It apparently didn’t occur to them.  After three long years and all that they had been through together and all that they had observed of one another’s lives, after the collective testing of faith that occurred because they followed Jesus, Judas remained undiscovered to the rest of those men.

Later on, to be sure, as the apostles looked back over their lives together, they saw or they had discovered some evidence of Judas’ unfaithfulness.  John tells us that it was Judas who first complained about Mary’s extravagant devotion to the Lord in pouring over him that expensive perfume and remarks that Judas was a lover of money, even a thief who, as the treasurer of the Twelve, dipped into their bank account for his own use.  But there is no suggestion made anywhere in the Gospels that anyone knew of this at the time.  Indeed, when at Bethany Judas had voiced his complaint about Mary’s waste and how the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor, the rest of the disciples had chimed right in.  What is more, the fact that he had been entrusted with the responsibility of being the treasurer of the group certainly suggests that the other eleven men trusted him.

Three years in the limelight, three years as a follower and as an assistant of Jesus, three years when it was not an easy thing and was sometimes a dangerous thing to be the Lord’s disciple, three years of the most intimate contact with the other eleven men had not given Judas away.

And what is more, and what is more striking, Judas had served the Lord.  He too went on a preaching tour when Jesus sent out the Twelve.  He too cast out demons.  He too healed the sick in Jesus’ name.  He too persuaded others to follow the Lord.  I know men myself who were soul-winners until they deserted the Lord and denied their faith in him.  Think of Charles Templeton, Billy Graham’s former associate, who filled stadiums and preached the gospel of Christ, only later to abandon the Gospel and both speak and write against it.  Surely if there is a lesson for us in this, a lesson about Christian discipleship, it is that if Judas were not discovered it is foolish for us to think that we might succeed where the eleven failed.  The Apostle Paul thought Demas his loyal assistant until that moment when Demas deserted him near the end of Paul’s life. Baxter and Rutherford thought highly of the faith and spiritual life of the Earl of Lauderdale until suddenly they found that he had switched sides and gone over to the enemy.  They were surely as surprised as Paul when they had to admit that Lauderdale “had deserted them, having loved this present world.”

When someone whose commitment to Christ we have come to take for granted suddenly shows himself a turncoat, it is a very sad thing.  But, as astonishing and shocking as it may be, it is, after all, what the Bible says will happen sometimes.  You cannot tell, you cannot know about some people, and there is nothing we could ever do to find out in advance whether someone will follow the Lord to the end or turn tail and run at some point along the way.

  • Third, and finally, we are to learn from Judas’ betrayal the necessity of perseverance in our own case, of constancy in faith and love.

It was not enough that Judas was a member of the Twelve and an intimate of the Lord Jesus himself.  It was not enough that he was one of the very few favored men in all the history of the world that was invited to spend the final night of the Lord’s ministry on earth together with him in the Upper Room.  It was not enough to have been present to hear the Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Bread of Life or the Sermon on the Good Shepherd.  It was not enough to have been privy to all of that teaching that the Lord Jesus reserved for his inner circle.  It was not enough to have seen the miracles – one fabulous demonstration of divine power after another – and to have witnessed the Lord’s sinless life.  It was not enough with his own ears to have heard the demons themselves confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

Is it not true that we would give our right arms to have been a witness of these things?  Do we not envy those men who were given the supreme privilege of knowing Jesus best during the days of his ministry and to have witnessed the coming of the kingdom of God?  Judas was among those favored few, but it was not enough.

Judas Iscariot had the highest possible religious privileges.  He saw what Abraham and Moses never saw and heard what David and Isaiah longed to hear but did not.  But it was not enough.  He clung to his love of money and, at the last, his devotion to Christ proved superficial and short-lived.

He did not himself continue in faith in Christ or love for him.  He did not continue to revere the Lord Jesus in his heart and devote his life to serving him.  He did not remember what Christ had said and done and, taking all of that to heart, live accordingly.  The other eleven men were often weak and more often stupid.  They stumbled in many ways.  But they never ceased to want to be what Christ wanted them to be; once they understood, they never ceased to believe that their lives were entirely bound up with that of Jesus of Nazareth.

At the time, it may well have seemed on some occasions, that Judas was a better disciple than some of the others.  Perhaps he never voiced his doubts like Thomas, or gave vent to petty jealousy like James and John.  Perhaps he never had the temerity to rebuke the Lord Jesus to his face as Peter did.  But as time would prove, it was the eleven who stuck and Judas who came loose.

The Puritans in the 17th century had a name for such people who began well and promised fair but did not finish.  They called them temporaries.  And Thomas Goodwin writes that Judas Iscariot was “the most eminent temporary that ever was.”

Matthew wants us to hear the shock and dismay in the disciples’ voices as they ask, “Surely not I, Lord?”  He wants us to think and say the same thing: “Surely not I, Lord?”  He wants us to ponder Judas’ example.  Judas, like Lot’s wife, is intended to be a lesson to the whole church.  No serious Christian can fail to ask, “Lord, will I, could I do as Judas did?”  But there is a way to answer all such holy fears and concerns.  It is not however by looking at those things that identify you as a Christian to the watching world and the watching church.  Judas had all of that and much more than you do.

No, what we must find within ourselves is precisely a fear that it could be so, a recognition that there is in us that which would betray the Lord, and so a determination that it will not happen in our case.  We think of Judas and immediately we turn to the Lord and pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there be any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

The importance of Judas in the history of the Twelve, that proto-church, that microcosm of Christian faith, is to show the generations of believers to come what could be and what must not be in their case.  It is Judas’ ministry to us to make us determined not to be like him and to make us fear any movement, however slight, away from loyalty and devotion to the Lord Jesus.  A Christian looks at Judas and he is much more careful to confess and acknowledge his sins and seek their forgiveness; he is much more determined to follow the Lord, in heart, speech and behavior – to be a Christian indeed and not simply in public profession – and he is so much more careful to renew his faith in the Lord Jesus day by day and every day.  A Christian life is made up of constant new beginnings.  There came a point in Judas’ life when no new beginnings were made – no renewal of faith in Christ, no renewal of love for him, no renewal of commitment to living for him.

Not so for us, brothers and sisters.

 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.

There are many reasons why Judas betrayed the Lord, reasons in heaven and reasons on earth.  But among the most important reasons is this:  Judas is a means of strengthening the faith of God’s elect, to test their faith, to teach them to be careful, to warn them against taking their salvation for granted, to compel them to work out their salvation with fear and trembling and, in those ways, to ensure their continuation in grace and faith to the end of their days.  The Lord has given us Judas Iscariot, both as a historical fact and as the teaching of Holy Scripture, and Matthew had given us Judas as a character in his history, to teach us not to be like him.  And those who, for the love of Jesus Christ, take care not to be like Judas, will not be like him.