God’s People, part 176: Judas Iscariot

Read Matthew 27:3-10

“Judas had bought a field with the money he received for his treachery. Falling headfirst there, his body split open, spilling out all his intestines. The news of his death spread to all the people of Jerusalem, and they gave the place the Aramaic name Akeldama, which means ‘Field of Blood’” (Act 1:18-19, NLT).

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

JudasIscariotPart 176: Judas Iscariot. The greatest enigma in the whole of the Bible, apart from the mystery of God, is Judas Iscariot. Who was he? What was he like as a human being? What brought him into the fold as one of Jesus’ disciples? What made him someone Jesus trusted enough to be the treasurer of Jesus’ ministry? What was running through his heart and mind when began to turn away from Jesus’ teachings? What was the reason for Judas deciding to betray the one he had called teacher and Lord? What caused this Judas to go from a faithfully daring disciple to a tragic traitor?

So, what do we know about Judas? Let’s start with his name. The name Judas is Greek for Judah. Judah, of course, is the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel and is where the name “Jews” comes from. As such, some people have tried to argue that Judas was a “made up” character constructed to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death; however, an overwhelming majority of scholars reject that claim.

Judah was an extremely popular name at that time. In fact, one of Jesus’ own half-brothers, had the same name. What’s more, there was more than one Judas among Jesus’ disciples. There was also Judas son of James, whom we discussed in the previous devotion. Thus, the majority of scholars believe Judas was a real person and that was his name.

The epithet which accompanies his first name, Iscariot, has also caused much debate among scholars. It was certainly used to distinguish him from the other disciples. The epithet has most commonly been understood as a Greek rendering of a Hebrew phrase (איש־קריות, Κ-Qrîyôtthat) meaning, “the man from Kerioth”, and seems to be supported by John 6:71.

Still, not everyone accepts this explanation. A popular explanation has been that Iscariot (Skaryota in Aramaic) is a play on the Latin word sicarius (or dagger man). If this were true, this would make Judas one of the Sicarii, a Jewish group of rebels known for committing acts of terrorism in the 40s and 50s AD. This interpretation has also found its way out of academia and into the world of film as well. In fact, the 1961 film, King of Kings (starring Jeffery Hunter as Jesus and Rip Torn as Judas Iscariot), utilizes this theory and portrays Judas as former sicarii (they incorrectly use the term zealot) who decided to betray Jesus to force his hand in striking down the Romans.

However, this view that Judas was a sicarii has no basis in Scripture, and there is no historical evidence that the sicarii ever existed during the 30s AD when Judas was alive. Thus, we don’t really know why Judas did what he did, or what he was before he was introduced in the Gospel accounts. We know that he was paid for his treachery, and the Gospel of John indicates that his motivation was greed; however, I would guess that there was more to it than just that. Still, we simply do not know why and we never will.

What we do know is that, at some point, Judas turned on Jesus and eventually betrayed him. We also know that Judas lived in a culture that took honor and shame very seriously. Once Jesus was arrested, convicted of treason, and crucified, Judas felt the weight of his actions crush him. The shame he had brought upon himself for betraying his teacher was unbearable. No doubt, you can see that shame played out in the Gospels.

The authors, and certainly those who conveyed the accounts to them, all looked upon Judas as a scourge for what he did. Every Gospel uses Iscariot to distinguish him from other Judases, and they always list him as Judas Iscariot (the one who betrayed Jesus). That shameful fact hung like an albatross around Judas’ neck and, sadly, he took his own life.

The challenge for us is to NOT read with judgment toward Judas. Yes, he betrayed Jesus; however, he was chosen by Jesus as one of his twelve and, no doubt, Jesus chose him for a reason. What’s more, Judas was not the only one to betray or abandon Jesus that night. Peter denied him 3 times, the other disciples ran (one of them ran away naked as his clothes were torn off of him) and hid away for fear of their own lives.

The challenge for us is for us to, instead of judging Judas, turn the mirror around at ourselves. How do we fall short of Jesus? How do we betray him? How do we turn our backs at him? What’s more, how do we come to a place of forgiveness for having betrayed him? How do we move beyond the guilt and shame of our sins and into the blessed assurance of God’s redemptive grace?

I believe that Jesus had already forgiven him when he uttered the words, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He forgave Judas, the other disciples, the Jewish authorities, and the Romans. He also forgave you, and me, and us all. The choice is ours, just as it was Judas’, as to whether we choose to accept that forgiveness and move onward into serving the Risen Christ.

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” – Jesus Christ (Luke 23:34)

Lord, thank you for your forgiveness and for freeing me for joyful service. Amen.

Leave a Reply