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The Characters of Easter: Judas, Gospel Preacher

Judas

The Characters of Easter: Judas, Gospel Preacher

For Christians, we understand that Judas’s story is at the center of the Easter story. You cannot enter the Lenten season, break bread on Maundy Thursday, mourn on Good Friday, or rejoice on Resurrection

Sunday without first passing through the still-shocking, hard-to believe but true story of Judas Iscariot and his betrayal of Jesus.

Before Judas descended into infamy, he was a disciple of Jesus Christ, an Apostle, one of the twelve men chosen as part of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

It’s hard to get Judas’s kiss of betrayal out of our heads and it’s hard to un-see his hands clasped around a bag of silver coins as he’s leaving the temple treasury. But if you parachuted into first-century Israel and interviewed the people who knew the most about Jesus of Nazareth, sat down with Jesus’ closest friends and family, and queried the critics, you would hear from them that one of the most loyal, devoted, gifted men in this Jesus movement was Judas, son of Simon.

We don’t know when Jesus called Judas or the circumstances around it. We don’t know when the Judean first laid eyes on the Galilean preacher, the unconventional rabbinic revolutionary from Nazareth. But what we do know is that he left whatever he was doing in his previous life to follow Jesus. We gloss over this as we read the gospel narratives, as if to be a disciple in those days was as simple as a twice-a month visit to an air-conditioned building and the lip-syncing of a few worship songs. But to follow Jesus in the first century was a radical move, something only those on the devoted fringe were willing to do. Sure, Jesus drew crowds at times, swelling after He fed the thousands on the hillsides or healed the lame and the sick. But the crowds were fickle and also left when He spoke hard things (John 6:60). Yet Judas didn’t walk away then, didn’t abandon Christ.

Judas, for three years (imagine spending three years of your life doing anything), was locked in. And it’s not like he was just a spectator; he, like the other disciples, was empowered by Jesus for a unique apostolic gospel ministry:

Summoning the Twelve, he gave them power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases. Then he sent them to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. (Luke 9:1–2)

Think about this. Judas Iscariot, yes, that Judas Iscariot, “proclaimed the kingdom of God” and healed the sick. There were people, many perhaps, whose hearts turned toward Christ because of Judas’s preaching and whose sicknesses were healed by his hand. What’s more, imagine what Judas saw in his three years side by side with Jesus. He witnessed Jesus still a raging sea with His words. He saw disabled men and women walk, the blind find sight, the demon-possessed find freedom. Judas participated in the miracle where Jesus took a little boy’s lunch and turned it into a buffet for a stadium full of hungry people. Judas was there when a decomposing corpse named Lazarus shook off his grave clothes and came stumbling out of a cheap tomb. He saw Jesus give eternal life to the woman at the well, listened to Jesus preach in the synagogues, heard Him deliver the Sermon on the Mount.

Judas saw all of this, live. Participated in it. He did ministry in the name of Jesus. Judas was a gospel preacher. Writing about this, pastor Colin Smith says, “Judas walked with Jesus for three years. He saw the greatest life ever lived up close and personal. You can’t have a better model of faith than Jesus or a better environment for forming faith than Judas had in walking with the Savior.”2

It’s hard to fathom. If you knew Judas, if you bumped into him in the market in Hebron or were in the crowd gathered as Jesus taught on the shores of Galilee or caught a glimpse of Judas as he accompanied Jesus to the temple, you’d be convinced, in your mind, that there were few people on the planet as sold out, as all-in, as committed to the kingdom of God as Judas. And so did Jesus’ inner circle. So much so they made Judas the treasurer, the one who managed the books and collected the money for their fledgling movement.

Judas was loved, gifted, sacrificial. We will get to the betrayal, but we must first see Judas as the friend, the fellow Apostle, the devoted follower of Jesus. “My close friend,” King David wrote centuries earlier in a foreshadowing of later betrayal of a future Son of David, “ . . . has turned against me” (Ps. 41:9 niv).

It’s hard to believe that the one who saw Jesus up close, who preached salvation and whose hands brought healing, could turn on the One who called him. And yet looking back it might not be that surprising. Even in the words we see Judas use to describe Jesus: You will notice in the gospels he never calls Jesus “Lord.” In Matthew, when he asks Jesus, “Surely not I, Rabbi” (Matt. 26:25). In the garden at Jesus’ arrest, all the gospels have him addressing Jesus as “teacher.” Never Lord. Contrast this with Thomas touching the resurrected Jesus, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Or the disciples asking about their possibility of betrayal, saying “Is it, I Lord?”

But not Judas. Church father Jerome says this is significant. “He who was the traitor did not call him Lord but teacher, as if to have an excuse, upon rejecting the Lord, for having betrayed at most a teacher.”5 And thus we see someone so very close to Jesus, who did “many wonderful things” in Jesus’ name, who was familiar with the Jesus language and experienced in the Jesus movement, but never made Jesus Lord.

What a sad indictment. And this, I’m afraid, is the situation for many who celebrate Easter this and every year. A familiarity with the language, dressing up for the occasion, even brought to tears by Jesus’ death and resurrection. But never able to call Jesus “Lord.”

Jesus, as you know, is still quite popular today, but is it the Jesus who demands we take up a cross, who promises suffering, who isn’t content with being one of many options but demands our worship? The truth is, while we easily loathe Judas on Easter, we are far more like the betrayer than we would like to admit. We are too easily tempted to see Jesus as a vessel for our aspirations than as the Lord of our lives, the one worthy of worship and adoration and praise. And if we were honest, we’d admit to selling out Jesus for far less than thirty pieces of silver.

This Easter, it’s helpful for us to remember that we are like Judas in that we too have betrayed Jesus, time and time again. We’ve sold Him out for lesser idols. But we don’t have to suffer Judas’s fate. If we confess our sins, He’s faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). While we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us. Jesus’ blood can remove, remit, and erase our sins before a holy God. The One we have betrayed has taken our guilt from us. And we rejoice.

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Excerpted from The Characters of Easter: The Villains, Heroes, Cowards, and Crooks Who Witnessed History’s Biggest Miracle by Daniel Darling (Moody Publishers, February 2021).

This Easter, have your church discover the unlikely people caught up in the story of Jesus. Transform your church into The Characters of Easter theme! Download a free Church Series kit of digital files at this link, including:

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s the Senior Vice-President of Communications for the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), and a regular contributor to several leading publications, including Christianity Today, USA Today, The Gospel Coalition, and others. He is the bestselling author of several books, including The Characters of Christmas, The Dignity Revolution, and A Way With Words. Dan is a teaching pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee and lives with his wife and four children in the Nashville area.