For a long time there has been a lively discussion among scholars about the circumstances that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. We know from the Scriptures that he was betrayed by one of his closest friends, but we don’t know why Judas did what he did.
In the absence of a stated reason there has been a great deal of speculation. Some have suggested that Judas expected Jesus to be a political or military messiah. According to this theory, Judas did not intend Jesus to be crucified; rather, he was trying to put Jesus in a situation where he would be forced to lead a revolution in Jerusalem. There isn’t any real evidence, however, to support this theory.
This scholarly discussion is based on the assumption that the Scriptures omit the reasons for the evil intentions of Judas and the Jerusalem religious leaders. While the Scriptures do not say, “This is the reason that Judas betrayed him . . .,” the Scriptures do, in fact, state clearly the reason so many of the religious leaders turned against him.
All of Jesus’ preaching was intended to reform the religious practice of his contemporaries. He was deeply distressed by the fact that so many people had reduced religion to nothing more than a list of rules and regulations. (Matthew 23:16-25) Jesus understood religion to be, first and foremost, a living relationship of trustworthiness toward God and fellow believers.
In Jesus’ vision of faithful religion, the necessary rules and regulations existed solely to serve the creation and growth of a faith relationship. (Matthew 12:1-8) The secondary and derivative nature of religious rules never surpassed the primary purpose of religion: to support one’s faithful participation in the Covenant. (Matthew 12:12)
In Jesus’ culture, all power was considered to have political ramifications. Many people believed that Jesus’ teaching and healing miracles were instances of the exercise of divine power. Consequently, his teaching and healing were interpreted as a direct challenge to the established authority figures. (Matt 21:23) This challenge to the status quo put him in harm’s way.
Many of the religious authorities in Jerusalem and, evidently, Judas as well, objected so strongly to Jesus’ attempt to reform religious practice that they decided to eliminate him. The notion of religion as relationship to others (rather than as self-serving behavior), is just as subversive and challenging today.
The reason for Judas’ betrayal is as obvious as the central message of Jesus’ teaching. The Gospels are the statement of Jesus’ capital offense: he insisted on faithful relationships, in opposition to people who used religious rules and regulations to keep God and neighbor at a comfortable distance.
Judas and the Jerusalem Pharisees crucified Jesus because they misunderstood completely his life and his preaching. However, their presence in the Gospels is not for the purpose of arousing our righteous indignation. The actions of Judas and the Jerusalem Pharisees are warnings issued directly to us, warnings about the consequences of self-righteousness.
The Gospel does not invite us to feel pity over Jesus’ suffering, but to see his suffering and death as the necessary fulfillment of his preaching and life. Jesus died as a result of his fidelity to God’s will.
Jesus’ teaching is just as threatening and disappointing to people today as it was to Judas. It is very unfashionable today to express allegiance to anyone except oneself. Judas remains a sad witness to the consequences of serving self rather than God.
The real question the Gospel poses is not why Judas did what he did, but how we should respond to Jesus’ fidelity to God’s will. What will you do in response to Jesus’ life and preaching? Will you place your trust in your own goodness or in God’s goodness?
The Scripture says that God exalted Jesus because of his obedience. (Philippians 2:8-9) How willing are you to bend the knee before the obedient Son?