In stories, antagonists have a way of driving the plot line forward in an emotional and often startling way. And typically when it comes to antagonists, we have a subtle joy in their destruction. It’s difficult not to get a bit joyful when the Third Age of Middle Earth closes with the final defeat of Sauron by the destruction of the Ring of Power, executed by two insignificant hobbits, and the return of Isildur’s heir to the throne. We all have a sense of inward justice that appreciates the downfall and destruction of the antagonist.
When it comes to the great Gospel story we have one such antagonist in Judas Iscariot. Throughout the Gospel of John, Judas is distinguished by several characteristics. Whenever his name is used in John it is almost always predicated by “the one who was going to betray him” (see John 6:71; 12:4; 18:2, 5) or some similar derivative. Further, he is know as “a devil” (John 6:70) and a “thief” (John 13:6). And when Judas finally hangs himself out of worldly guilt, there is a sense that justice has been served.
But it’s not the principle of justice that I wish to draw your attention to. Rather, what I find intriguing is the principle of Jesus’ love for Judas. Judas appears in at least two relatively climactic scenes in the Gospel of John. He appears near the end of chp. 6 and again in chp. 13.
Chp. 6 is a relatively climactic event in Jesus’ life as we read that “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). A great turning point in Jesus’ ministry, is seen in that the majority of his followers abandon him, turning back in unbelief.
Chp. 13 is a climactic scene as it introduces the Farewell Discourse. Here Jesus and his apostles are sitting around the table partaking of the Lord’s Supper. And after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus tells them that there is one who will betray him. And Christ shows his omniscience not simply by assuming that he will be betrayed but in saying: “’It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it’ … he gave it to Judas” (John 13:26).
Jesus’ interaction with Judas in these two chapters is intriguing for several reasons: First, as we have clear testimony of in the Gospel of John, Jesus was not deceived by Judas. Jesus knew that Judas would betray him. Yet, for the extent of his three and a half years of ministry on earth, Jesus allowed Judas to participate in the gathering of the apostles.
Second, knowing that Judas would betray him, chapter 6 would have offered a wonderful opportunity to ban Judas from among the disciples. Jesus wasn’t about being popular or having the largest group of followers; this is clearly seen in his willingness to let the majority of his followers forsake him. What a perfect time it would have been to look Judas in the eye and say: “Why aren’t you following them?” But he didn’t.
Third, the scene in John 13 from a literary perspective is an enthralling narrative. The scene is drawn out with specific details. The ethos of the verses is love (see v. 1). There is mounting action as Jesus speaks of one who is about to betray him. There is almost stifling tension as we consider the reaction of the disciples to Jesus’ words (see v. 24; cf. also Matt. 26:22). There is a moment of great shock when Jesus decides to reveal the traitor—not by pointing the finger at him and saying: “You are the man,” but by extending his hand with a morsel of bread from the Last Supper.
Now more could be developed on this theme, but entertain me for a moment. John draws an almost chilling distinction between the faithless crowds and confessing Judas. When it comes to the crowds in chp. 6, Jesus doesn’t extend his arms to draw the people back. They had no confession of faith and no appearance of godliness. They sought Jesus for all the wrong reasons (cf. John 6:26). And therefore Jesus lets them go.
But when it came to Judas, Christ never cast him out. He didn’t cast him out when the crowds forsook him. He didn’t cast him out after his sin in chp. 12. He didn’t cast him out even in the moment when he was about to administer the Last Supper. From this perspective, it was not Christ who gave up on this disciple, it was this disciple who gave up on Christ.
Now we certainly don’t want to apply this any further than we have reason to do. But it certainly appears to have some practical considerations. Let me summarize:
- Christ, on earth, judges the profession of his people. Judas walked with Christ for the extent of his ministry, not because he was (truly) saved (and later lost his salvation), but because Judas had an outward profession of faith in Jesus (cf. John 1:37, 49).
- Christ, on earth, (finally) judges no one before the appointed time. Christ even extended a morsel of bread to Judas before it was Judas who finally abandoned Christ. Never could Judas say, “Jesus gave up on me.
- Christ, on earth, loves his own (cf. John 13:1); even when that means loving the one who was about to betray him. Judas’s future rejection and ultimate condemnation didn’t mean that Christ took “less” care of him or fed him more sparsely than the other sheep. No. Judas, based on his profession, received an equal portion.
John has often been called the “apostle of love.” And here in his Gospel, John reveals the love that Jesus had for Judas. It wasn’t a love that effected the salvation of Judas, but it was love. And it is a model of love that Christ calls his church on earth to have for those who are professing the name of Jesus. A love we ought to cultivate, even in the midst of other’s sins, for Jesus loved Judas.