by Rev. Dr. Michael H. Koplitz
John 13:21 When Jesus had said this, He became troubled in spirit, and testified and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you will betray Me.” 22 The disciples began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking.23 There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. 24 So Simon Peter *gestured to him, and *said to him, “Tell us who it is of whom He is speaking.” 25 He, leaning back thus on Jesus’ bosom, *said to Him, “Lord, who is it?” 26 Jesus then *answered, “That is the one for whom I shall dip the morsel and give it to him.” So when He had dipped the morsel, He *took and *gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27 After the morsel, Satan then entered into him. Therefore Jesus said to him, “What you do, do quickly.” 28 Now no one of those reclining at the table knew for what purpose He had said this to him. 29 For some were supposing, because Judas had the money box, that Jesus was saying to him, “Buy the things we have need of for the feast”; or else, that he should give something to the poor. 30 So after receiving the morsel he went out immediately; and it was night.
Have you ever experienced a situation where you did not understand what a person was doing? I suppose that you have. Have you ever been questioned about what you were doing?
This is an interesting narrative that John’s Gospel offers about Judas Iscariot. He has been portrayed throughout history as the one who betrayed Jesus to the Temple authorities. In fact, that is exactly what he did. The question that we should ask is why? Why did Judas Iscariot betray Jesus to the Temple authorities? The Gospel says that he received thirty pieces of silver for the betrayal. I can’t believe that a man who served with Jesus for over three years would take money to turn in his teacher. Thirty pieces of silver was not a fortune. So, there must have been a motivation involved.
The Interpreter’s Bible Commentary was first published in the late 1950’s. It was revised in the latter half of the 1990s and titled the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. If you have the original version, you can read an interesting theory about why Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. In fact, that commentary did not use that language. The author said that it was all a part of a Zealot plan to start a revolution and place Jesus on the throne of King David.
The Zealots were a group of Jews who wanted the land of Judea to be free from Roman occupation. From 168 to 68 BCE, Judea was a nation that was not a part of any empire. The Romans arrived in the Near East and, by 68 BCE, Judea was a part of the Roman Empire. It is not clear exactly when the Zealot movement began. These Jews would do whatever it took to win Judea’s freedom from Roman oppression.
Every year since the occupation, there were riots during the Passover festival. The Zealots would instigate a revolutionary attitude among the people. Here comes the scene of the Gospel reading. The Passover celebration is about to begin. There were probably around 300,000 people in Jerusalem. Therefore, there was overcrowding since Jerusalem had about 30,000 residents. The Zealots were ready to prime the pump of revolution. They needed to find the spark.
Jesus and his entourage came to Jerusalem. They came with fanfare and a parade and a lot of noise. The Romans now knew about the preacher from the Galilee. The Pharisees and Sadducees knew about Jesus after this event. More importantly, the Zealots knew about Jesus. There was the spark they needed to start the revolution! It was Passover. An itinerant rabbi who people hailed entered the city, who spoke against the government. Ah ha!
The Zealot leaders had to believe that if they could get Jesus arrested and tried for some trumped up charge, the people would riot. That’s the spark they needed. So, they probably contacted Judas because he was the only Zealot in Jesus’ crew. The plan was developed to have Judas betray Jesus. They used the Temple leadership in their plan. It is not known whether the Temple leaders knew they were about to be used or not. Either way, the plan was to get Judas to betray Jesus. Did Judas need the thirty silver pieces in order to do the betrayal? I am guessing he did not because he was a Zealot, and his fellow Zealots would have reminded him of the oath he took.
The thirty pieces of silver is a nice addition to the story. Since it is in the Gospel story, let’s say that Judas got the thirty pieces of silver. The story does not change either way. Judas did what his Zealot leaders wanted. The Temple leaders knew Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane and what time would be a good time to grab him? When the Temple officials arrived, it is interesting to note that they did not know who Jesus of Nazareth was. But that was ok since Judas pointed him out.
The Gospel writer added some flourishes to the story, which is what Semitic writers always did. The silver, the kiss, and Satan’s involvement are possibly enhancements to the story. However, they tell us that Jesus was not in favor of what Judas did. Jesus did not want a riot! He stopped Peter from hurting the guards, except the one which Jesus healed. Jesus turned himself over without a fight. This tells us that the revolution was not going to be a physical one but rather a spiritual one.
A prophet went to Jerusalem to preach a message from the LORD and to die. That’s historical. Jesus knew that was going to happen to him. Preach the message of loving God and neighbor then prepare to die.
So, was Judas a betrayer? From the other disciples’ point of view the answer is yes. From your point of view, it is probably yes. From history’s point of view the answer is yes. However, he had a reason to do this. From the Zealot point of view, it was a good thing to do. The Zealots wanted a revolt. Jesus was in town stirring things up against the Temple leaders. They got the Roman officials into it. Jesus’ arrest was to be the lighting of the fuse.
It probably came close to a full board riot. Jesus did not want that to happen. He came to start a spiritual revolt in the hearts of the people. He did not come to bring a revolution. Simply put, the actions of Judas Iscariot were misunderstood by the disciples. Jesus understood it completely. He let the plan play out and when Peter wanted to start the revolt, Jesus stopped him and reminded him he was a man of peace, not war.
Judas and the Zealots failed in their opportunity to start the revolution. They misunderstood the events of Jesus’ ministry. They thought he was the revolutionary Messiah and not the spiritual Messiah. We know today that Jesus was and is the spiritual Messiah. By following Jesus’ way, we come closer to the LORD. The other way is to follow Judas, which leads to destruction. Wars have been going on since the dawn of humankind. It is a sad statement, but history proves it. Today there is a war going on in the Ukraine which was started by Russia. The way to peace is to understand why the invasion happened. Unfortunately, there are countries who are led by people who want more than their country has. Instead of trading and working together for the common good, they insist on using force to gain what they want. Human history is full of these situations.
Little wars occur in neighborhoods (and unfortunately, in churches) all the time. If you are in such a war, think about how Jesus diffused the Zealot revolution in his time. He refused to be the spark that started the revolt. The Zealots misunderstood what he stood for. Perhaps you may misunderstand events in your neighborhood. As disciples of Jesus Christ, he expects us to follow his example. The events from the supper to the cross give us great insight into how humanity should work together and avoid misunderstandings. Don’t make assumptions about a person’s words or behaviors. Talk to them about it instead. That is what Jesus did.
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Pastor Michael H. Koplitz, D.Min., Ph.D. is an ordained minister, author, teacher, and webmaster at BibleInteract. He currently lives in York Pennsylvania with his wife, Sandy, where he has been a pastor at the United Methodist Church for over 18 years.