Did Jesus betray Judas?

So here’s the script.  Jesus needs to die for the sins of the world, but to do that, he needs to be betrayed.  So God chooses someone, Judas Iscariot, before all time to be the betrayer.  In the mysterious interplay between divine sovereignty and human moral responsibility, Judas is somehow also personally culpable for this, so he pays for the deed (and all his other sins) by going to hell forever.  Not that he ever had a chance of salvation; he was a “son of perdition” and so “doomed to destruction” anyway (as some English versions translate this phrase).  Jesus himself knew, from an early point in his public ministry, that Judas would betray him. “I chose the twelve of you,” he says, long in advance of the betrayal, “but one is a devil.”  John explains that “he was speaking of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, one of the Twelve, who would later betray him.”  And by this John means not that the “devil” Jesus refers to here would eventually be recognized as Judas; already at this time it was known, at least to Jesus, that Judas was the betrayer.

I’m not buying it.  Why not?  Because there’s absolutely no way that Jesus could have recruited Judas to be his disciple on this basis.  “Come and follow me, because I need you in my inner circle to betray me at just the right time, though for performing this necessary service you’ll burn in hell forever.”  Nobody would take that offer.  Instead, Jesus would have had to make Judas think he was inviting him to join in announcing the good news of the kingdom of God, proclaiming liberty to captives, healing the sick, helping the poor, while all along he was actually setting him up.  In other words, the only way for Jesus to get Judas to sign on as a disciple, so that he would then be the betrayer, would have been to deceive him.  And when true reason for his “calling” came to light, we could not blame Judas for feeling that Jesus had betrayed him.

But such a course of action is simply not consistent with the character of Jesus as it is clearly and consistently portrayed in all four gospels.  I think we have to conclude instead that Jesus chose twelve disciples in good faith, all as potential true followers, but that he knew at the same time that one of them would betray him. How can this be?

Jesus told the disciples themselves, when he sent them out to announce the good news of the kingdom, that when his followers went out in the same way, they would face opposition, persecution, and betrayal themselves.  Specifically, “A brother will betray his brother to death, a father will betray his own child, and children will rebel against their parents and cause them to be killed.”  But even though Jesus knew that this would be the inevitable result of the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God to a hostile world, this didn’t mean that he could tell a given disciple, for example, “Now you have four brothers, and this particular one, specifically, is the one who is going to betray you.”  Or, “This specific one of your children will turn you over to the authorities.”  The statement is based on a general knowledge of human nature, and so, I believe, is the statement, “I chose the twelve of you, but one is a devil.”  I think John’s explanation that “he was speaking of Judas” is retrospective, describing what became clear in light of later events.

This series of eight posts has been written in response to the original question, “Did Jesus forgive Judas?”  In my first post I answered, “Yes, when he said of everyone who put him on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them.'”  But then the question became whether Judas received Jesus’ forgiveness, and I observed that there is good evidence in the gospels, especially Matthew, to suggest that he did—unless the Bible says explicitly that Judas was doomed to destruction from the start.  All the rest of these posts have been devoted to showing what the implications are of that view.  I’ve gone into considerable detail in discussing the notion of Scriptural fulfillment and its specific application to the case of Judas.  But at this point, I believe we can state the case for Judas’s possible repentance and salvation much more simply:  Jesus didn’t betray him.

A medieval depiction of the calling of Peter and Andrew after the miraculous catch of fishes. The calling of a disciple was a sacred moment. Would Jesus really have exploited such a moment instead and “called” Judas only as his betrayer?

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

9 thoughts on “Did Jesus betray Judas?”

  1. One question on this: Have you addressed this reference somewhere in another post, where Jesus seems to have ‘set up’ Judas? It’s from John’s account of the Last Supper:

    “Most assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me.” Then the disciples looked at one another, perplexed about whom He spoke. Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask who it was of whom He spoke. Then, leaning back on Jesus’ breast, he said to Him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give a piece of bread when I have dipped it.” And having dipped the bread, He gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. Now after the piece of bread, Satan entered him. Then Jesus said to him, “What you do, do quickly.”

    1. I don’t believe I discuss that particular passage anywhere in this series, but I’d say this about it. John’s emphasis is on how Jesus is going to the cross willingly and not under any compulsion. (“No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord,” he says earlier in the gospel.) This episode demonstrates that even at the point where Jesus knew not only that he would be betrayed, but who would betray him, he did not flinch from what he also called earlier “the very reason I came“—to give his life for the world. Jesus would have passed the bread to Judas anyway in the course of the meal. But he chooses to do so right after John’s question so that John (and we) would know that Jesus knew by this point that Judas would betray him. I don’t see this as “setting Judas up.” But it is an acknowledgment that Jesus knows what choices Judas has been making. I wonder whether this might even have been intended as “one last chance” for Judas. I do note in an earlier post in this series that “Judas was one of the privileged few who was invited to share in the inauguration of the meal that would become a sacrament for all followers of Jesus, a commemoration of his saving, sacrificial death. To share in that, and then immediately go out and betray Jesus, was a tremendous escalation” of the situation in David’s life recorded in the Scripture that is said to be fulfilled here, “my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.” Ideally Judas should have recognized this, even this far down the road of betrayal, and turned back. But he didn’t. Instead, he took the bread as if he still were Jesus’ “close friend.” The treachery and betrayal opened the door for Satan’s control in Judas’s life and he may have surrendered his own power to turn back after that. But this still doesn’t mean that he didn’t repent sincerely afterwards. But I’ve already discussed that possibility in detail.

  2. Interesting we could say the same for Cain killed Abel, Ismael and Isaac, John the Baptist, Samson, Pharaoh not letting Israelites go, So we can say that God chooses whom he pleases so that the prophesies in the old testament to be fulfilled.

    Can we ask the question DO WE REALLY HAVE FREE WILL?

    1. You’re expressing a view contrary to the one I express in this series of posts. I believe that we really do have free will, and that God works effectively to accomplish His own purposes through the free choices, good and bad, of human moral agents.

      1. WHAT do you understand by “free will” what is your definition of free will ? If we are born sinners are we not basically on Death Row as a sinner. Therefore if I am in prison, I do have free will ? I can have free will to think of having a burger and hugging my girl friend BUT I am stll in prison but even having free will. I can not just walk out of prison.

        John 6:44 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”
        This verse explicitly denies that man has a free will ability to equally accept or reject the gospel. The Greek text of this passage denies, in no uncertain terms, any inherent ability to either chose Christ or reject Him. Because of our bondage to sin and natural tendency to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, we simply will not submit to the gospel. When unregenerate man hears the gospel he will always turn from it.

      2. I don’t feel that a profound theological mystery like the relationship between divine sovereignty and human moral responsibility can be resolved by quoting one verse from the Bible. One could just as easily quote other verses to show that human choice is not just possible, but expected by God: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him.” A mystery like this one can’t be resolved by picking one side of it and insisting that the other side is therefore impossible. Rather, we need to admit that two things we think can’t both be possible at the same time are nevertheless both true, in a way that is beyond our understanding. At the same time, we need to be careful not to let our positions on mysteries lead us into contradicting what is clearly known, specifically, that God is loving and just, and so gives everyone an equal opportunity for salvation, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

      3. God is loving and just, and so gives everyone an equal opportunity for salvation, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

        If “free will” means that God gives humans the opportunity to make choices that genuinely affect their destiny, then yes, human beings do have a free will. The world’s current sinful state is directly linked to choices made by Adam and Eve. God created mankind in His own image, and that included the ability to choose.

        However, free will does not mean that mankind can do anything he pleases. Our choices are limited to what is in keeping with our nature. For example, a man may choose to walk across a bridge or not to walk across it; what he may not choose is to fly over the bridge—his nature prevents him from flying. In a similar way, a man cannot choose to make himself righteous—his (sin) nature prevents him from canceling his guilt (Romans 3:23). So, free will is limited by nature.

      4. I think we’re closing in on agreement here. I basically agree with everything you say except your last two sentences. I would say that choices are not limited by our nature, but by our ability. A human can’t fly over a bridge because he doesn’t have the ability to do that. A bird has the ability to fly, but it might still be prevented from flying if it were restrained in some way. I believe that humans have the ability to choose, but that this ability is now restrained by certain factors such as the influence of sin, including original sin. But at the same time, other influences are at work to counteract those restraints and free us to choose to follow God. These positive influences include above all the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, together with the example and testimony of the community of Jesus’ followers, in their words, actions, and way of life; the testimony of creation to God; and so forth. Think of a person who is physically able to cross a bridge, but whose fear of heights prevents this. That’s a restraining influence. But it could be counteracted by someone saying, “Come on, I’ll cross with you,” or by someone helping the person to figure out what experiences created the fear of heights and process those.

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