Following His amazing Transfiguration on Mt. Hermon Jesus set His sights on Jerusalem. He traveled through Samaria and Judea, proclaiming the Kingdom of God and healing the sick as usual. It’s worth noting Christ didn’t sit cross-legged in an ornate shrine somewhere, waiting for people to come pay homage. On the contrary, He and His entourage stayed on the move, taking the Gospel message directly to where folks who needed it most lived. They’d been to Jerusalem at least twice before. We know they visited the previous year for October’s Feast of Tabernacles and December’s Feast of Dedication. But this time they’d be there for Passover, the holiest day of the Jewish religion. It’s of particular significance the place was teeming with pilgrims hailing from rural regions like Galilee where Jesus’ sermons had affected the locals tremendously. This explains why on that Sunday morning crowds of excited people shouting hosannas lined the road Jesus took to enter the city. Any questions of whether folks considered Him to be the promised Messiah were answered by the clamor they made over His arrival and Jesus did nothing to persuade them otherwise. While many bandwagoners had lost faith in Him there were still thousands who hadn’t because He’d healed them (or someone they were close to) or He’d turned their spiritual lives around 180 degrees from despair to hopefulness. And now here He was, fearlessly daring the Jewish hierarchy who hated Him to try and stop Him. To them Christ was the hero of the common man.
This time Jesus didn’t attempt to hide His true identity. The hour had come to fulfill all the ancient prophesies. What Zechariah had predicted centuries earlier was happening right before the nation’s eyes in real time: “Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! Look! Your king is coming to you: he is legitimate and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey – on a young donkey, the foal of a female donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Nonverbally Christ was announcing to the elated throng, “Your King is here!” Did Jesus know what He was doing? Of course! Riding into town on a donkey was one unmistakable sign of Messiahship all Jews would recognize as authentic without explanation. He also knew the members of the Sanhedrin wouldn’t miss the visual symbolism, either. It was a defining moment in world history. Christ was forcing their hand and the ball was now literally in their court. James S. Stewart wrote of the situation, “Let the powers of evil do their worst; [Jesus] knew His power. He was the Lord’s anointed. He was riding to the throne which God had given Him. He was ready for the last campaign.” Arriving on the back of a donkey also efficiently dispelled any pipedreams some might’ve had that He’d suddenly turn into a war-mongering liberator who’d take on Rome’s might. What they witnessed instead was Jesus expressing His deep sorrow for Jerusalem. “Now when Jesus approached and saw the city, he wept over it, saying ‘If you had only known on this day, even you, the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:41-42). He knew what the future held for Jerusalem and it wasn’t pretty. Before long nothing would be left standing. So after the parade He didn’t climb up on a stage and deliver a rousing victory speech. Rather He returned to the quiet suburb of Bethany. For His disappointed fans the show was over.
Yet it was no retreat. Christ boldly reentered the city on Monday and Tuesday (sans donkey) and proceeded to make His presence and His displeasure known. “Then Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all those who were selling and buying in the temple courts, and turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves” (Matthew 21:12). Hitting the religious authorities in their wallets definitely got their strict attention. They proceeded to pull out all the stops, pelting Him with a flurry of “gotcha” questions designed to paint Him into an ideological corner. Jesus responded with one stinging parable after another, pointing out the blatant hypocrisies of the Pharisees and Sadducees, telling them in no uncertain terms they were speeding down the highway to Hades. This was no occasion for niceties. He said to them, “You snakes, you offspring of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:33). The big wigs couldn’t handle being publicly slammed so they hastily convened an emergency meeting of the Sanhedrin whereupon they agreed Jesus had to be put down ASAP. But the how, when and where His arrest could take place without causing a riot was a monkey wrench in their plan. If they weren’t careful their whole plot to silence Christ could blow up in their face. Enter Judas Iscariot. Problem solved. The disciple knew where His Master would be at night and he was willing to sell out his friend for a handful of coins. The Pharisees and Sadducees eagerly paid up and Jesus’ fate was sealed.
On Thursday Christ came in from Bethany again, this time to observe the Paschal feast with His eleven trustworthy associates and one turncoat. This gathering turned out to be the most memorable supper ever recorded because it was in the secluded “upper room” where the revered Christian Sacraments were instituted by the Son of God; where He told of the Father’s multi-roomed, eternal mansion that awaits all His adopted children; where He issued the promise of the Comforter who’d arrive after His return to heaven. Stewart wrote, “…Small wonder this upper room has been a dearer place to Christendom than all the great cathedrals raised by subsequent ages to Jesus’ honor.” Indeed, it was in this same room the terrified apostles laid low following their mentor’s apprehension. It was in this same upper room Christ visited them after His resurrection and it’s likely the place where the Holy Spirit enveloped them collectively with the empowering glory of Pentecost. Most importantly, though, it’s where the first communion service was held. This simple but profound rite involving bread and wine has remained sacred and unchanged for nearly 2,000 years. It’s a ritual all Christians agree is irreplaceable. Jesus instructed the disciples to drink the wine and eat the bread and then asked them to “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Words will always fail to convey the sublime. Art will always fall short of capturing the divine. Only the language of action can come close to expressing the inexpressible emotions that rise up in the heart of a man or woman who’s experienced the soul-saving touch of Christ. I can only speak for myself but when I partake of the Lord’s Supper I feel my Savior’s presence and I’m comforted knowing without a doubt He is near.
Supper done, Jesus then led His faithful eleven to the garden of Gethsemane where He endured long, lonely hours of acute, gut-wrenching anxiety. We’ve all been there, too, but we must acknowledge that our angst over what we were going to go through pales in comparison to what Christ was anticipating that night. To think we can fully relate is preposterous for Jesus was preparing to shoulder the cumulative sins of the world. Some speculate our Savior’s plea to the Father from the Cross was due to His fear of death. Nope. Stewart wrote, “It wasn’t death that made Him cry to God; it was sin. It was the shame of all the world, the burden of all the sons of men, which in that dread hour He was taking upon His own sinless heart. It was the sudden sense of sin’s sheer horror, loathsomeness and Godforsakenness.” We’ll never know everything that transpired in the spiritual realm that woeful afternoon but we do know this: Jesus’ trust in His Father’s will never faltered. But I digress. The scene is Gethsemane. Christ is fervently praying while even His most loyal disciples snooze away. It was Jesus who first spotted the flickering lights of the torches as the troop of soldiers entered the garden. Yet He didn’t freak out. He remained calm and in complete control of the situation to insure only He would be taken into custody. Before His pals knew it He’d been led away. The Bible simply says, “Then all the disciples left him and fled” (Matthew 26:56). The eleven ran like rabbits. Not a flattering depiction.
But then there was Judas. As a Christian it’s difficult to be objective about him or his disgraceful deed. It’s hard to fathom that someone who’d hung out with our precious Lord from the beginning of His ministry could sink so low as to betray Him with a shameful kiss. It’s caused many to opine Judas must’ve been none other than Satan disguised as a man. Well, it’s not that cut & dried. Truth is Judas’ treachery is all too human for comfort so we must dig deep to gain even a modicum of understanding. We can assume he started out like the rest of the disciples, leaving everything and everyone behind in order to follow Jesus. What he’d found in Christ’s teachings and countenance was unlike anything he’d ever encountered before. He couldn’t imagine anybody being wiser or more charismatic than the Nazarene. His selection by Jesus to be one of His closest confidants was the best thing to ever happen to him. He didn’t hesitate to go wherever He’d take him. We who adore our Savior know what that feels like.
Therefore we must ask the question of “Why in blazes did Jesus pick Judas?” Since Christ was an expert at seeing through people’s facades and gauging the true intent of their heart we have to conclude that, at the time at least, Judas was as good a candidate for sainthood as any of the others. Judas didn’t fool our Lord because his motives for following Him were wholly sincere. Now, some scholars believe Jesus chose Judas despite his ugly character defects because He needed a villain in order to insure God’s predestined plans came to fruition. However, that notion turns predestination into fatalism, a concept that runs counter to God’s granting everyone, including Judas, unconditional free will. So, was it demonic possession? Oh, I know John 13:27 says Satan entered Judas but 13:2 reads, “…the devil had already put into the heart of Judas… that he should betray Jesus.” Doesn’t he put sinful urges into our hearts, too? Sounds like plain ol’ temptation to me. Look, all the disciples had flaws. Not one was perfect. All the apostles had to overcome their inner conflicts and selfish desires. Eleven of them did. Judas didn’t. I’m certainly not making excuses for the jerk but odds are high that out of any dozen men or women one’s bound to be a bad apple. Think about it.
Judas began well but eventually his dysfunctions got the best of him. In time he became resentful that guys like Peter got to sit closer to the Master. He likely grew paranoid, imagining his peers were giggling behind his back. Surely Christ noticed a gradual change in Judas’ attitude and went out of His way to reassure him how special and important he was though Judas probably felt his mentor was patronizing him. At Celebrate Recovery meetings I’ve heard hundreds of testimonies from folks who’ve watched their personal neuroses and hang-ups steer them down a similar dark path. In Judas’ case they led to him becoming extremely frustrated and disappointed over Jesus’ refusal to instigate a forceful revolution against the Romans he hated. At the height of his Master’s popularity Judas felt Jesus should’ve inspired the oppressed Israelites to unite behind Him, rise up and forcibly reclaim what God had promised was theirs. But Christ didn’t. Soon Judas’ impatience turned into bitterness and later into seeking vengeance.
Still it seems a stretch to conclude a “troubled” man like Judas would deliberately stab even a casual acquaintance in the back. Most who lose faith in a person simply throw up their hands and walk away. So what pushed Judas over the edge? Love of money is always a prime candidate. The Scriptures hint Judas had a streak of covetousness in him as well as a tendency to pilfer cash from the collection plate. Shoot, in John 12:6 he’s called a thief! But if financial gain was his core motive wouldn’t he have demanded more moolah from the Sanhedrin honchos for Jesus’ head? 30 silver pieces hardly made him wealthy so scratch greed. What about jealousy? After all, he was the only Judean on a team of Galileans. They may’ve marginalized him or made him the butt of their jokes. We do know he wasn’t part of Christ’s “inner circle” but neither were eight of the others so it doesn’t figure jealousy alone triggered his treason. Was it fear? It can manifest itself in many despicable ways so was that the central impetus? Perhaps Judas believed what his Master was telling them concerning what was going to happen and he decided he’d rather not sink with the ship. Maybe he became a wire-wearing informant to avoid being indicted as an accessory when they rounded up Jesus’ co-conspirators. Yet while self-preservation isn’t far-fetched it still doesn’t add up. Why go to all that trouble when you could just split the scene?
One popular theory is Judas was simply calling Christ’s bluff; that by putting Him in harm’s way Jesus would have to do something miraculous and dramatic to prevent His own demise; that once He unleashed His unlimited powers to thwart the murderous scheme cooked up by the Sanhedrin snobs (and put Pilate in his place) Jesus would garner the overwhelming support of the people to assume His rightful kingship. Then God’s glorious Kingdom would come by default. Stewart wrote, “It’s an ingenious theory; and, if accepted, would go far to rehabilitate the worst reputation in history. But it won’t hold water. It represents Jesus as an irresolute, procrastinating Hamlet.” It also implies Judas was a well-intentioned dude who simply used poor judgment. But if that’s all it was then why didn’t Christ mercifully pardon Judas instead of condemning him post-resurrection? Doesn’t quite jell.
What we’re left with is this: Judas, over time, nurtured his revengeful spirit. He hated that Jesus saw right through his mask and perceived what he was contemplating. For that invasion of privacy he’d show the Messiah what real power was! What’s scary about that conclusion is recognizing that all humans have the potential to let what Jeremiah called our “deceitful heart” take over our consciousness if we don’t let the love of Christ rule over it. Judas’ sorry life demonstrated that un-repented sin will destroy anybody, even someone blessed to walk and talk with the Son of God Himself. To those who claim a man or woman can’t lose their salvation I present as evidence what became of Judas Iscariot.