I want to begin by telling you of my worst moments as a Christian. They are the times when I have seen my heart in all its sinfulness and come to the conclusion that, although I have been blessed by God in so many ways, I haven’t really honoured God, that my sin has been a betrayal of his grace and that I am, therefore, another Judas, utterly without hope.
Can you relate to that? If you can, you’ll know it’s the most distressing feeling and so destructive of ongoing faith and trust. As we approach this passage, you might do so with real fear, fear that the Lord is going to ask you to leave with Judas, that you also are a child of perdition. I hope to help us face and overcome those nightmares as we look at this passage together.
1. The true condition of Judas
The first thing we need to do is to establish as clearly as possible from the text what the true condition of Judas is. It is only against that background that we will be able to assess ourselves.
In v.18 Jesus quotes from Ps. 41:9 and says two striking things about Judas: he has shared Jesus’ bread and he has lifted his heel against him. The first speaks of being bound together in covenant loyalty while the second is “a revelation of contempt, treachery, even animosity”.
How appalling this is – to pretend to be in closest fellowship with the Lord of glory while all the while turning from him. And Jesus makes it plain (v.20) that in rejecting him, for whatever reason he does so, Judas is rejecting the God who has sent Jesus and who is revealed in and through him.
But of course the picture is bigger than just one man. This passage makes it plain that Judas’ defection was at the behest of Satan. That doesn’t remove his responsibility but it does help us to grasp the desperate nature of these events. And it gives particular power to that closing phrase, “And it was night” (v.30).
We aren’t told how Judas came to this point but we are shown his true condition and the nature of what is happening here. This is utter betrayal – it isn’t about someone backsliding or struggling with a particular sin. This is someone who has looked Jesus in the face, seen something of his agenda of grace and has deliberately closed his heart to that grace and then acted to thwart the purposes of God.
When the nightmares wash over you in waves of fear, you need to recall what this passage is showing. Judas has no desire – none at all – to know and honour Jesus. Yes, there is remorse later (almost as though, having used him, Satan dumps him) but his heart here is not mixed, it is settled in the firmest opposition to Jesus.
This is not about a believer struggling to live a holy life and even being overcome by sin for a time; this is utter repudiation of Jesus.
2. The sovereignty of Jesus
In the face of such a desperate reality, it is crucial that we grasp the next point: the text makes it absolutely plain that even where evil is reaching to its full height, Jesus remains sovereign.
In the first place, the defection of Judas is already known to Jesus. In fact, he has known about it all along; it isn’t only recently that he has somehow worked it out – check out 6:70. It had been long foretold in scripture (v.18 quoting Ps. 41:9) and Jesus was well aware of its fulfilment in Judas.
But it isn’t just that Jesus knew all along what Judas would do – the clear implication of v.18 in the light of 6:70 is that Jesus’ choice of Judas to be a disciple was always meant to serve the purposes of God.
Now, we need to be clear what that means. It isn’t removing from Judas his personal responsibility, nor is it suggesting that he was just the fall-guy who God willingly exposed to the wiles of Satan. Judas was massively privileged; not only did he hear and witness amazing things but he has just had his feet washed by God incarnate. It was his deliberate choice to reject the offers of God’s grace – but Jesus is showing here that even that rejection was subject to his sovereign overruling and serves his purposes.
We see that point recurring in the scriptures – Pharaoh is a wicked man who is responsible for his sin yet the Lord chooses to use him to display something of his power as he delivers Israel from Egypt. Then there is Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia, who issues the decree for the Jews to return to Judah which brings the exile to an end, at just the time the Lord had said it would happen.
But it is here and in the events this scene leads to that we see the sovereignty of God over evil played out to the full: at the cross, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Evil is not ultimate; God is, and his plans to redeem a lost world will not be thwarted by evil and will even use evil to further the loving plans of his heart. That doesn’t in any shape tar him with the same brush; what it does is help us grasp his complete dominance over all things, for the good of all in Christ and for his glory.
Yet that does not mean that Jesus can ever be indifferent to evil. However much he is in control here, the unveiling of the hate-filled face of evil fills Jesus with revulsion and anguish. Having spoken about what will shortly happen, Jesus is “troubled in spirit” (v.21). This is just what we see when he comes to the tomb of Lazarus, as he sees the destructive effects of sin.
The sovereignty of God even over evil does not mean he is complicit with it, nor does it mean he is indifferent to it. He is appalled by it and deeply troubled.
3. The impact on the disciples
There are clearly lessons we must learn from this as we seek to apply the text to ourselves but I want to handle that by way of a third point. We have seen the true nature of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and the fact that Jesus remains sovereign here, even whilst deeply troubled. But there is a need for us to see how all this impacts on the disciples.
The first point to make here is that Jesus affirms again that he is sending his disciples out – see v.20 and cf. 17:18; 20:21. Judas goes out from them into the night and it is into a world situation where darkness is palpable that Jesus deliberately sends his disciples.
Now, the disciples at this point are still ignorant about Judas and his intentions. It seems when he left that, apart from John, they still didn’t know what was going on. They had been around Judas for a long time and yet seemingly had no inkling as to his antipathy toward Jesus. Their ignorance stands in stark contrast in this passage to the knowledge of Jesus.
And Jesus is sending them into the world, where evil is real and powerful. How are they going to stand? How are we going to stand? Here is where we need to apply and truly take heart from what we have seen about Jesus.
He is in control, even when events might seem to suggest otherwise. Who would have thought when Jesus was betrayed, arrested, flogged and then crucified that God was still on the throne? And yet he was! We must not lose heart because all seems so dark and so discouraging. Jesus is not just our Lord; he is Lord of Lords; all power and authority is his and evil cannot stand against him or thwart his plans to save.
Jesus sends us into the world, into the possibility of betrayal and opposition. How good to know, in the midst of that chaos, that even those events reaffirm the reality that he is the great I AM! And Jesus’ point in v.19 is just that: the fact he knows in advance is further proof who we’re observing here – the Lord, the I AM.
So we must take heart – but we must do more than that. Let me quote Bruce Milne on a very important point: “The confession ‘Jesus is lord’ must not lead to a triumphalistic detachment from the world but rather to an appalled dismay that his lordship is contested, and a commitment to mission to the world in the name of its Lord.” He then adds, “The ‘hour’ which is now striking for the climax of the mission of Jesus is also the ‘hour’ for the launching of the mission of the church.”
Yes, the days are evil and the world is a very dark place. But Jesus is Lord and so we must be his church in mission in every context – home, work, wider society and wherever he sends us. Evil will not triumph – Jesus has done so. We must not lose our nerve, nor our confidence in the Saviour.