holiness1Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what holiness is, and how to reflect the holiness of God through Christ in a sinful world.

Learning about how to live a holier life definitely doesn’t lend itself to studying the infamous Judas Iscariot, who, in perhaps the greatest act of treason in human history, turned in the incarnate Son of God to the authorities for money. What could Judas Iscariot possibly teach Christians today about holiness? Plenty, in fact. It’s like watching funny home videos; people learn from the mistakes of those who went before them, so they may have a better quality of life. In the same way I will not step on the teeth of a rake or ride in a shopping cart downhill, Judas serves as a sort of lighthouse for God’s people, so they may avoid the rocks and swim to holiness. Who was Judas, what did he do, and what does that mean for Christians today?

Judas Iscariot was a man chosen by Christ (Mt. 10:4) for apostleship. The word “Apostle” in the Greek is apostolos and means one who is “sent forth or commissioned.” This is a much different word than “disciple,” which means one who is “a learner.” Jesus had scores of disciples, but only twelve men held the office of “Apostle” during the duration of His ministry. It’s clear that Judas was chosen to serve in a very important and significant position. One has to wonder what went wrong.

The Master of Disguise

It wasn’t until I recently read Matthew 26:21-22, for probably the hundredth time over the years, that I saw Judas in the correct light for the first time. In the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus is seated at the table with the Twelve. “And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, ‘Is it I, Lord?’” (emphasis mine). In this tense moment, Jesus reveals a startling and scandalous truth about one person sitting in the room. The apostles, likely wide-eyed and speechless, look around the room and desperately wonder if they are the culprit.

The words used by the apostles indicate that the scapegoat was unidentifiable. Judas blended in perfectly with the other eleven, and wasn’t an outcast in this group by any means. In J.C. Ryle’s famous work, Holiness, Ryle notes, “I believe that Judas Iscariot seemed very like the other apostles. When the Lord warned them that one would betray Him, no one said, ‘Is it Judas?’”

Head Knowledge, But No Heart Knowledge
Judas Iscariot was well-versed in doctrine, theology, and ministry. He sat under the greatest Teacher day in and day out. After the call in Matthew 10, Jesus immediately begins a discourse of instruction that lasts nearly forty verses, covering a whole host of topics to help equip the Apostles for serving Him. Judas had a front row seat at every sermon, which means his problem was not head knowledge, but having what he knew become experientially true in his daily life. Rather than having his heart warmed by what he knew, Judas’ heart was hardened and cold towards the warmth of Jesus’ teaching. The result of this was his heart remained unchanged, which made the road to betrayal easy for him.

Exchanging the Messiah for Money

When betrayal happens today, there are normally the same two motivations. There must be disagreement as grounds for betrayal, and incentive as reason for betrayal. Right before Judas goes to the chief priests to negotiate, there is a very awkward exchange between the disciples and Jesus while at Bethany. A woman approaches Jesus with a flask of pure nard, a very expensive ointment, and anoints him with it. The disciples are furious. They argue that the woman has wasted this ointment and could have put the money to better use, to which Jesus rebukes the disciples with quite a comeback. In Matthew 26:13 Jesus tells them, “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” That’s not something you like to hear, especially if you are an Apostle.

Judas is fuming, and probably aware of the already-thickening plot to murder Jesus. So, he makes an impulse decision and is ready to deliver him over, as long as he gets something out of it. Some treat Judas as simply a greedy, money-driven man, but it’s more than that. Someone who wildly struggled with greed and money would likely not uproot their lives for becoming a nomad to begin with. Yet the ransom pay of silver was his tipping point, in light of the disagreement at Bethany. We don’t know how long Judas’s attitude towards Jesus was cold, but it seems his true colors were unveiled after this event.

Learning From the Lighthouse

Why Jesus would elect such a person to such an honorable position in His ministry, especially since He knows everything about them beforehand? One reason for Judas’s inclusion with the Twelve is so God’s people might learn from his example.

First, external holiness is futile without internal holiness. No amount of proclamation or preaching gained Judas true, saving faith. Holiness affects our deeds, not just words and posture (1 Jn. 3:18). The Christian must refuse to put on a show for those watching and choose not to “walk in darkness” (1 Jn. 1:6).

Second, holiness is subjecting ourselves to God’s will. Sometimes this means we disagree and don’t understand God’s purposes and plans. We cannot become angry with God’s way of working, as the disciples did in Bethany. Make Proverbs 3:5-6 wisdom for your daily nourishment. An excellent way to be strengthened in this area is fervent, desperate prayer and intentional, meditative Bible study. Prayer is the avenue through which believers communicate with the Father, and the Word is the avenue through which He communicates with believers. Both are wonderful ways to better learn to trust and obey.

Finally, holiness draws us to Christ and away from temptation. Judas didn’t “overcome the world” (1 Jn. 5:4), but was overcome by it instead. Money is a great example, but not the only one. Sin in its various forms will seek to allure God’s people away from delighting in Him, which is why when tempted, His people must run away from sin and to the Savior—Jesus Christ. Even in Judas’s remorse for betraying Jesus, he did not go to the Savior in repentance, but sinned and committed suicide. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “When the siren song of pleasure would tempt you from the path of right, reply, ‘Thy music cannot charm me; I am Christ’s.’” We must run to Jesus.

At the end of the day, the key to becoming less like Judas and more like Jesus lies in understanding the command and promise of Leviticus 11:44. “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.” Believers have the advantage Judas didn’t, and are able to see a man who went before them and what became of him. Let this lighthouse in Scripture stir the Church to flee temptation and delight in authentic holiness, and ultimately, in Christ alone.