Margins of Miraculous – Judas by Shawn Blythe

Judas is one of the most abhorred people in all of scripture and yet we know very little about him.  His background is vague, his motives are unclear, and his decision-making is questionable.   In other words, apart from the unknown background – he was likely not that different from you and me.  It is worth perhaps just a few minutes to think about how he went from a called apostle to a man who, per Jesus, would have been better off not being born.

His first name was quite common for the day and was perhaps even more popular in honor of the local hero Judas Maccabeus.  Even amongst the apostles there appear to be two men named Judas as Luke 6 refers to a ‘Judas, son of James’ (an apostle that the other gospel writers refer to as Thaddeus).  The name is honorable enough likely meaning “God is Thanked”.

John provides us with his last name when he is referred to as the son of Simon Iscariot (John 6).  There are many theories regarding the meaning of this last name – the most accepted of which is that it references a hometown of Kerioth.  Kerioth is a small town south of Jerusalem and west of the Dead See.  It is on the edge of the Judean wilderness where according to John 3, Jesus spent part of his early ministry.  Assuming Judas was from Kerioth, it is quite likely this is where he encountered Jesus for the first time and would have made him the only Judean apostle (the rest being from Galilee).

Another less popular theory regarding his last name is a reference to “dagger man”, which could potentially link Judas with a Jewish extremist group called the Sicarii.  They are best known for terrorist acts starting much later in the AD 40s and 50s which involved assassinating political rivals (i.e., those aligned with Rome) by stealthily stabbing them with knives held under the cloaks in public places.  This revolt later played a part in the temporary liberation of Jerusalem around AD 66-67 – but eventually led to retribution by the Romans that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.   Although not as widely accepted as the “from Kerioth” interpretation, it is an interesting historical perspective that the Sicarii were largely based in Judea and were violently opposed to Roman rule.  They would have been anxiously awaiting a Messiah they believed would liberate them from their oppression.

Regardless of which theory you subscribe to regarding the meaning of his last name, it is important to remember that Judas was far more than his last week on earth portrays.  He was a selected member of the twelve and was likely with Jesus for the vast majority of his three-year ministry.  He clearly upended his previous life to follow Jesus, at times went hungry with him, at other times ate with him, and generally suffered the normal hardships of travel with him.  He inevitably talked with Jesus and prayed with Jesus.  He witnessed the miracles of Jesus repeatedly.

Despite this, John clearly believes Judas was a thief and a liar.  On the other hand, Jesus permitted him to oversee the money.  And if Judas was in fact a thief whose primary motivation in following Christ was the money, it is equally unclear why he would participate in an act that would literally kill the golden goose.  Further, thirty pieces of silver was not a huge amount of money and would certainly not substantially change Judas’ long-term financial status.  For those who would simply wish to blame Satan for the entirety of Judas’ betrayal, it is important to note that Satan did not enter Judas until he was actually at the Last Supper (John 13), which was after he had already approached the chief priests with the suggested plan (Matthew 26).  As noted, Judas was clearly a man of unclear motivations. 

This lack of clarity was temporarily brought into focus on that fateful Thursday.  He left the disciples near the end of the Last Supper and scurried away to find the chief priests to let them know that the time was right.  Perhaps he knew that Jesus would be going to the garden after dinner – or perhaps he rushed back to the Upper Room with the soldiers in tow only to find it empty.  One can imagine a momentary panic in having led Roman soldiers on a wild goose change until he was told by a servant where the group had headed.  Regardless, at this point Judas had already given himself over to the plan and the wheels were in motion.

I suspect that Judas was not very different from you and me in that we often have a very clear view as to what we think God SHOULD do.   It is at least plausible that Judas was frustrated with Jesus’ failure to step into the Messiah role that Judas (and many others) likely believed was his destiny.  It is possible that Judas was trying to force Jesus to declare his kingship and trigger the revolt many Jews were eagerly awaiting.  But Judas, probably like us on many occasions, missed the point.  His eyes were on the wrong prize.  His passion for what he felt God should be doing obscured what God was actually doing.

He experienced the miraculous but misunderstood the reason for the miracle.  Despite being AROUND God, he hadn’t given himself TO God.  Despite being shown first-hand the path of Christ, he still felt that perhaps his way was just slightly better.  Who among us can say that we haven’t done the same thing?

Judas’ spirits may have soared when Jesus’ declared “I am He” in response to the mob’s statement that they were looking for Jesus of Nazareth.  A declaration that caused those searching for him with torches, lanterns and weapons to draw back and fall to the ground (John 18).  Judas may have felt that this was it – this was the moment.  But this exhilaration would have been short-lived as Jesus rebuked the violence and allowed himself to be taken away.  It must have been a torturous realization that his life had in fact been destroyed by the great deceiver.  By morning he was trying to return the silver, and by the end of the day had taken his own life.

Perhaps, frequently like us, he only saw what he wanted to see.  Or perhaps, frequently like us, he was so blinded by his own plans and ambition that he didn’t see anything at all.  But in either case he experienced the grace of God but mistook it for failure.  He experienced the miracles of Christ but tried to contain them within a time and geography that was simply not relevant to what God was accomplishing that week.

How many times have we done the same?  We are not so far away from Judas.  Our motives are often misaligned with God and our decision-making is often made without the benefit of spiritual guidance.  We need to ensure that we not only bear testimony to the miracles of God, but that we acknowledge that the purpose and ultimate objective of God’s acts on this earth are solely within the sovereignty of God.   Otherwise, like Judas, we run the risk of trying to force fit God’s plan into our plan; a task that can range from frustrating to disastrous. 

It is easy to despise Judas.  His actions in that final week of his life ultimately define him.  But in order to learn from him, we must first acknowledge that the differences between the motivations of Judas and our own may be uncomfortably difficult to distinguish.  In both cases, personal ambitions, plans and desires become more important than subjecting ourselves to God’s will.  When reflecting on the life of Judas, perhaps we should recall the paraphrased words of the martyr John Bradford: “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.