Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 10:4b “. . .and Judas Iscariot,. . .”
I have begun each sermon on the disciples by repeating the names of those we’ve already examined. I will not do this today, for with the twelfth disciple, who is always listed last, we leave the Hall of Fame and enter the Hall of Shame.
To this point, I have proclaimed, now I feel I should whisper. I have spoken in the light, today I feel a need to talk in shadows of darkness. I have preached with pride, but now I am embarrassed to speak. Honor has faded into humiliation.
Judas, the Greek form of the Hebrew name Judah, has become synonymous with treachery. This lesson asks two questions about Judas. What did he do? Are we capable of the same treachery? First, what did Judas do? He was given the high honor to be one of Jesus’ original disciples, yet betrayed the Master by guiding to Gethsemane the detachment of soldiers and temple police that arrested Him.
Human history rankles at any who have betrayed a friend. Even before children learn the details of his crime, they know Benedict Arnold is a name of shame.
Delilah, who betrayed Samson, epitomizes female wickedness. Julius Caesar, when assassinated, received 20 stab wounds, the most painful being the one delivered by his dear friend Brutus. Shakespeare, enamored by this scene, wrote,
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitor’s arms,
Quite vanquished him: then burst his mighty heart;
And, in his mantle muffling up his face. . . .great Caesar fell.
The closer the foeman is, the deeper the stab he can give. David received word, “The hearts of the men are after Absalom” (2 SM 15:13). His own son led a coup against him. As David left town weeping and barefoot, news came regarding his dear friend, “Ahithophel is among the conspirators” (2 SM 15:31). Losing the throne of Israel was not nearly as painful as what his son and his friend did to him.
But none of these stories, albeit tragic, approaches in hideousness the crime of Judas, easily history’s most infamous villain and scoundrel. What did Judas do? He alone is branded as the betrayer of the only pure, perfect life ever lived.
Second, are you and I capable of the same treachery? Yes. The possibilities of the darkest sins are in all of us. None of us can separate ourselves from Judas.
This can happen to anyone. Like the Twelve, we too are free to be faithless. Peter, the foremost disciple, thrice denied Jesus. The mighty Apostle Paul feared he might end up a castaway (1 C 9:27). No position in the kingdom, however exalted, offers security. Even those who reach the highest, and draw the closest to Jesus, remain capable of disastrous downfall. Diligence is required to the end.
At the Last Supper, the critical moment, the one the disciples could never forget, was when Jesus dropped the bombshell, “One of you shall betray Me.” It is the moment of pathos, ultimate sorrow, the instant emblazoned in art, etched forever on the psyche of believers. The Twelve immediately began asking, “Lord, is it I?” Finally, he who had already received the thirty pieces of silver (MT 26:15) had the audacity to ask, “Master, is it I?” (MT 26:25). Learn a vital lesson, the one who asks the question last is often the very one who should have asked it first.
“Lord, is it I?” is the spirit in which Christians should live. Our nature is identical to the one Judas had. In him we see a possibility of us. We want to think it would be impossible for us to do such evil, but in every human breast lies capability for vast good and abysmal evil. Every woman carries potential to be Mother Teresa or Jezebel. Every man holds the prospect to be Billy Graham or Hitler. All are created in God’s image, but are at the same time fallen creatures in a fallen world.
Psychological tests at Nuremberg found Hitler’s henchmen to be normal, a truth so shocking the courts locked away the findings for thirty years. The terrorists who attacked us were not insane or monsters, but deliberate men who adopted a world religion which let them think they did God a service by slaughtering innocent people. Hitler’s henchmen and the terrorists went home at night, kissed their wives, and blessed their children. They were, in their cultures, sterling citizens.
Let us beware, lest we who deem ourselves “normal” drift to the evil side of our nature. We cannot repeat the literal crime of Judas, but there are other forms of the same deed. Our Lord has been betrayed millions of times. We cannot nail Him to the accursed tree, but we can pierce Him through with many sorrows.
The strongest can fall, the most mature are capable of betraying their trust. The veterans, the most valiant soldiers, the leaders, the deacons, the staff, the pastor–all should repeatedly ask, “Lord, is it I?” In the visible Church, evil always intermingles with the good. The fall of church leaders is never justified, but should not shock us. Even the Twelve had a traitor in their midst. Christian leaders in high places have always been falling. Scandal stalks even the best societies.
Weeds are always growing in the midst of the wheat, and by outward appearances, we cannot tell the two apart until the harvest. Until some outward deed betrays the inward duplicity, we are clueless as to who is true and who is false.
To the last moment Judas was openly an admirable person. At the table no one asked, “Lord, is it Judas?” He drew no suspicion to himself. Judas must have performed miracles like the others, his preaching produced results like the others. He evidently displayed no noticeable difference all the way to the bitter end.
And yet, though what he actually was did not become public knowledge until the betrayal itself, he had been privately rotten a long time. Early on, Jesus said of the Twelve, “One of you is a devil” (JN 6:70). He was speaking of Judas.
The process of corruption within Judas, unseen to all but Jesus, went on for years. Judas reached his sinister climax by slow degrees, by taking small wrong steps we are all capable of treading. His treachery grew slowly. No person reaches the extremes of depravity in a single bound. There is progression in evil.
We do not go instantly from being filled with the Spirit to committing open sin. We don’t fall into sin as much as we slide into it by degrees. When one of the best pastors in St. Louis history fell into open sin, causing reverberations and repercussions that continue 30 years later, his fall was a shock, but his friend told me close acquaintances saw it coming for two years. It did not happen overnight.
God is patient. As our spirituality begins to wane, He grants a season for early repentance, a time of warning and danger signals. We slip almost imperceptibly from doing things in the Spirit to doing them in the flesh. Outwardly nothing changes, all looks the same. People around us see little difference, but in our own selves, we feel the coldness, we can tell our private time is not as warm as it was, we sense our love for Jesus is not as strong as it was. In this dry spell we are given time to regain our bearings, make things right, and re-stoke the flame of love.
God is gracious, not waiting till after we sin to begin wooing us back. He doesn’t wait for secret temptations to begin weighing on our hearts. Long before sins happen and temptations tug with intensity, He gently nudges us back to Himself. He allows a dryness in our souls, a thirsting for Him, and in this early stage we must respond, or the slippery slope to sin will become greased for the occasion.
I am grateful for God’s patience and grace displayed toward me in this way this very week. This year (2001) I have given more of myself in traveling and preaching for the Lord’s cause than ever before. What a high privilege it has been to journey, telling others the miraculous story of the missions revival among us.
Lately, though, I’ve sensed something missing inside me, something wrong spiritually. Wednesday night, in a Knoxville motel, the Lord seemed to deal directly with me at this point. In serving the cause, I’ve lost sight of the Christ. In zeal for the kingdom, I’ve let slip passion for the King. I thank God for lassoing my heart early on, for this red flag, for a warning signal. I thank Him for prodding me at the upper end of the spectrum and not waiting till I had slid lower. Many of us have since childhood sung the words of a song we need to be reminded of.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.
Long before the fateful Gethsemane night, Judas knew things were wrong inside himself, but he refused to make it right. Do you, as I did this week, feel an inner coldness? We need to let God do His perfect, private, cleansing work in us.