John 13:18 and Psalm 41:9

During his explanation of his humble service, Jesus says that not ever disciple present is a true follower. One will betray him in order to fulfill scripture (13:18). Since Jesus uses a text which may not have been seen as explicitly messianic, we have an opportunity to see how a scriptural citation works in the context of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus cites Psalm 41:9 as fulfilled in Judas’s betrayal.

In the context of this Psalm, The psalmist is lamenting the oppression he faces from enemies, but more specifically, his betrayal by all of his supporters. It is possible the Psalm refers to the rebellion of Absalom against David, although David’s psalms often speak of betrayal. Since the Psalm ends with the writer restored to the presence of God forever, it is possible that the whole context of the Psalm is the betrayal of the king and the ultimate vindication of the King.

Mephiboseth, the son of Jonathan, ate at David’s table and was implicated in Absalom’s rebellion. It is not just that David’s supporters have shifted allegiance to the rebel Absalom, but even those who were his closest advisors have betrayed him. In an ancient near-eastern context, if David has shown hospitality by sharing meals with someone, they are under his protection. To betray that protection is the height of disloyalty (in Mephbosheth’s case, it is treason!)

The verse prior to the one quoted by Jesus is remarkable. The enemies mock the king, saying that he has suffered a “deadly thing,” a disaster so great that he cannot possible rise (Ps 49:8). This may refer to a disease which threatens to kill the king, proving that he was not God’s chosen one in the first place. Yet the psalm ends with a vindication of the king. He does in fact rise up from his deadly defeat and is place in the presence of God.

The point of the allusion to Psalm 41:9 is therefore to highlight the treason of one of Jesus’ disciples. The betrayer has not just shared Jesus’ food and enjoyed his protection, he has witnessed the seven signs and heard Jesus’ teaching. By betraying Jesus, this disciple is rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God.

In fact, it may look (for a short time) like the betrayer was right, Jesus is not the son of God. He has succumbed to death, proving that he is not the Messiah! Yet, like the psalm he quoted, Jesus will be restored to the presence of God when God raises him from the dead.

By looking at the larger context of the Psalm, we see that Jesus may have had more in mind that a prediction of a betrayer. He was predicting his eventual vindication at the time of the resurrection.

Why did Judas betray Jesus?

A few years ago the media was all a-buzz over the ‘Gospel of Judas,” a gnostic text which (it was claimed) described Judas as a faith disciple of Jesus, chosen to be the betrayer because he was so faithful.  I first encountered this theory through William Klassen’s book Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).  He believes that Judas was not the betrayer, but rather the most faithful disciple.  Jesus had to be handed over to the authorities, and he entrusted this job to Judas.  In order to make this theory work, Klassen has to make the “anti-Judas” statements into “later additions” by the church, which is unacceptable from an inerrancy perspective.  He makes much of the fact that Paul never mentions the betrayal or Judas.

In John 12:1-8, Judas is described as a thief.  He is embezzling from the disciples, and when a woman anoints Jesus’ feet with a precious perfume, he feels that he has been  “cheated.”   The perfume was not sold, he could have skimmed quite a bit from the sale (in John 13:28-30 Judas is the keeper of the funds for the disciples.)  Greed could be a factor in Matthew 26:14-16 as well  –  Judas asked the priests “What will you give me….?”

Another answer is that the “perfume incident” forced Judas to understand that Jesus was not the Messiah, at least exactly as he understood the Messiah.   One option is that Judas was convinced by the anointing that Jesus was not who he claimed, and the Pharisees were right all along.  Jesus had to be destroyed as a false teacher.  A second option is that Judas was shocked when he finally understood that Jesus was literally going to his death.  He may have expected Jesus to go to Jerusalem to overthrow the Romans, but not to die.  He may have wanted to ‘force’ Jesus to use his power to destroy the Romans.

Luke adds one more piece of information that the other Gospels do not.  In Luke 22:3 we are told that Satan entered Judas prior to his betrayal.  Does this absolve Judas of guilt?  Probably not.

Judas had already made his choice to betray when Satan entered him.  Perhaps Satan’s hand in the betrayal was to tempt Judas into making the decision, and when he made it, he kept Judas from losing his nerve by entering him.  This is an extremely unique event, Satan is never mentioned as “entering” anyone else.  Satan has become personally involved because the previous efforts to stop Jesus have failed.

Another angle here is this:  What did Satan stand to gain by getting Judas to betray Jesus? Why did Satan want to kill Jesus?  He should have been able to understand that it would be Jesus’ death and resurrection that defeated him.  Clearly Satan tried to stop him from going to the cross in the temptations, and tried to slow him down or stop him throughout his ministry, so why help him to the cross now?

Satan’s role in the killing of Jesus is an indication of the arrogance of the devil.  Perhaps he thought that if he couldn’t stop Jesus in the world, that he could stop him in death.  Maybe he thought that he could hold Jesus in the grave.  Another option, although less likely, is that Satan was playing the role laid out for him, and that he was not truly a free agent in the whole affair.  Judas was free, but Satan was not.

Some Bibliography: Klassen wrote the ABD article, “Judas Iscariot”, 3:1091-1096.  For a more balanced approach, see D. J. Williams, “Judas Iscariot”, in DJG, 406-408; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Volume 3, 208-211.