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Judas, one of the disciples of Jesus, is universally condemned as a traitor. The gospel writers made this clear. Jesus allowed this betrayal, even encouraged it. But what was going on in Judas’ heart and head during the Lord’s ministry?

Some background.

“And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, ‘Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor. And they scolded her’” (Mark 14:3–5).1 Jesus defended this woman, saying she had anointed Him for his burial.

Here’s what happened next:

“Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him” (Mark 14:10–11).

What was it about the woman’s act that pushed Judas over the edge to betrayal? When Mary, Lazarus’ sister, anointed the feet of Jesus with “expensive ointment,” Judas protested: “But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:4–6). Judas was a thief; but more than a thief. He was a self-centered disciple of Jesus.

Let’s look at a little more background to help us understand the realities that may have begun to affect Judas’ thinking.

The disciples rarely understood what Jesus taught. The references are many, but here is one of the more humorous ones: “Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.’ And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. ‘Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?’” (Mark 8:14–17). Perhaps Judas wondered if he was joined to a man who spoke in terms none of the disciples could understand and asked, “Is this really a good idea? No one even understands what this man says.”

Rancor existed within the disciples about human hierarchy and greatness (Luke 9:46-48). They were also motivated by self-interest. James and John’s mother even tried to put pressure on Jesus, telling Him that He should, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Mathew 20:21b). “If James and John are attempting to raise themselves, I should, too,” he may have thought.

Peter, not to be outranked, once felt he had the right to rebuke Jesus (Matthew 16:21-23).

So, prior to his betrayal, Judas had some strange things going on in his heart. He was teetering on the outer edge of the circle of power, as he perceived it. Peter, James, and John were the clear insiders.

He was “on the outs.”

He was not only on a path of self-interest; he was on a path of exclusion from all he had given his life to. When Jesus told His disciples that Mary had anointed Him for the day of His burial, it became clear to Judas that this errant so-called Messiah really was going to go die. He realized he needed an escape plan. Perhaps he thought, “How can I gain from my years in this ministry? Since it seems inevitable that the end of this ministry is nigh, I could come out of this mess with something for myself instead of nothing; a nice sum of money while ingratiating myself with the religious powers, who will be deeply appreciative. Nothing positive lies ahead for me among this group. I’m low on the list. Time to move on and up.” Into this self-centered milieu came his adversary as well as Jesus’: Satan. “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them” (Luke 22:3–4).

Judas’ mindset made him vulnerable to Satan, who took advantage of him to meet his own self-centered end—the destruction of the Messiah.

What in the world was Judas thinking? He was thinking of the world, of earthly things, not heavenly. When Judas made his betraying choice, he discounted all that was eternal for his own earthly gain, at the cost of his soul. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:25–26a).

The time is coming when Christians will be faced with their “Judas choice.” Jesus’ ministry, His Church, will appear to fail, and we will be tempted to look out for our own self-interests. And although we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37), we hold that victorious place “through him who loved us,” not in an earthly sense. One day, we will be conquered (Revelation 13:5–7). At that time, we will be tempted to make self-centered, earthly choices and ignore the reality of eternity, when Jesus will indeed make us more than conquerors through Him.

Lord, help us remember the eternal tragedy of Judas’ betrayal.


1Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

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