This Holy Week (and especially today, “Spy Wednesday“), it’s worth taking a closer look at the Apostle Judas Iscariot. Here are four things that we can learn from him:
(1) The True Church Sometimes Has Wicked Clergy
One of the major factors motivating the Reformation was the existence of bad Catholics, but especially bad priests, bishops, Cardinals, and even bad popes. This is still one of the most common objections that people have to Roman Catholicism: how can we be expected to belong to a religious institution that is so often badly led? In the 14th and 15th century, this objection was presented in theological terms. The very earliest (pre-Luther!) Reformers, John Wycliffe (1320-84) and Jan Hus (1369-1415), argued that hell-bound Catholics weren’t part of the true Church. As a result, rotten bishops weren’t true bishops, and you didn’t need to obey them.
This is perhaps the single most important question of the Reformation. Interestingly, both the Catholics and the early Reformers were agreed that it was necessary to be part of “the Church” to be saved, and both Catholics and many modern Protestants profess their faith in “one holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” But the question is what we mean by “the Church.” Is the true Church the set of the saved (wherever they may be found), or is it a visible, hierarchical institution?
And here, the Apostle Judas is incredibly important. Wycliffe, as well as later Reformers like John Calvin (1509-64), would point to Judas as a perfect example of someone who seems to be part of the Church, but isn’t part of the true Church. Calvin put it this way:
Judas, therefore, when he discharged the office of Apostle perfidiously, might have been worse than a devil; but not one of those whom Christ has once ingrafted into his body will he ever permit to perish, for in securing their salvation, he will perform what he has promised; that is, exert a divine power greater than all (John 10:28).
But it’s actually Wycliffe who made the connection between Judas and modern wicked clergy most forcefully, saying:
And as Judas was a thief and no member of Christ, no part of holy Church, though he ministered the order of bishop, but was a devil of Hell, as Christ sayeth in the Gospel, so if these worldly clerics shall be damned for here-cursed sins, as coveting, hypocrisy, simony, and despair, as Judas was, they be fiends of hell and no Christian men, nor members of Christ, nor part of holy Church. 
So Judas wasn’t part of the Body of Christ, and neither are wicked Catholic clergy. Therefore, there’s no need to obey or listen to what your priest, or your bishop, or the pope says, if you determine that he’s a wicked louse. Although the objection today tends to be presented in simpler terms, it’s the same basic argument: there are wicked Catholic priests, therefore it’s obviously not the true Church. Jesus would never have called wicked men to the altar, right?
Scripture contradicts this entire line of argumentation. Listen to how St. Matthew speaks of the call of the Twelve Apostles in Matthew 10:1-4:
And he [Jesus] called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zeb′edee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
So Judas is explicitly mentioned, not only as a Disciple but as one of the Twelve Apostles. He’s hand-picked by Christ, and given spiritual authority. Jesus confronts this reality forcefully and head-on (John 6:70-71):
Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was to betray him.
So Jesus simultaneously acknowledges how awful Judas is, and that He hand-picked him. That answers the simplistic modern argument, that Jesus would never choose wicked clergy. He did. But what about the argument that Wyclif and Calvin make, that Judas had the exterior office, but was never part of the Body of Christ, the true Church? Here, St. Paul provides the answer (1 Corinthians 12:27-28):
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.
So an Apostle is the highest appointment within the Church, and within the Body of Christ.
You have to savage the plain language of Scripture to say that one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles wasn’t part of the Church, or was never part of the Body of Christ. He was, and he was given both visible authority (the highest office, apart from Christ Himself) and even the spiritual authority to drive out demons.
Why does this matter? To put it simply:
- If Wyclif and Calvin and modern Protestants are right about the nature of the true Church, then Judas wasn’t an Apostle.
- Judas was an Apostle.
- Therefore, Wyclif and Calvin and modern Protestants aren’t right about the nature of the true Church.
And just as Judas truly had God-given authority within the Church, so too does the pope and so too do the bishops and priests of the Catholic Church, whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not, whether they’re holy or not.
(2) Clericalism is a Danger to Be Avoided
If Protestants often err in claiming that the true Church is the (invisible) collection of all the saved, a classic Catholic error is to expect that if someone is a priest or bishop, he must be holy. Given the plethora of well-publicized abuse scandals in the last decade-and-a-half, this error is less common than it used to be, but the attitude still exists. On the surface, it’s harmless, even pious. But it can be a danger in a few ways: (1) it can create a sort of spiritual hierarchy, where the clergy are holier than the laity, simply because they’re clergy; (2) priests are trusted even when they shouldn’t be [whether it’s heretical teaching, or inappropriate relationships, etc.]; and (3) the great task of lay people, to be Saints and to evangelize the world, is minimized or ignored. It’s also one of the driving forces behind the push for women’s ordination and “clericalizing the laity” – people who want to become close to God become convinced that the ordinary way to do that is to enter the clergy.
Here, it’s helpful to remember that Judas was an Apostle, precisely so we don’t forget that the Apostles sometimes had flaws. In Mark 14:17-21, there’s a critical Last Supper discourse:
And when it was evening he came with the twelve. And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread in the same dish with me. For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
If there was any question as to who Jesus meant, John 13:26 clarifies it. And so, although Jesus never specifies that Judas is damned, this is pretty damned close. And Judas’ decision to end his own life (Acts 1:17-18) certainly doesn’t bode well.
But honestly, simply compare the behavior of Judas and the other Apostles with that of the holy women. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas betrays Christ, while “all the disciples forsook him and fled,” as we learn from Matthew 26:56. Only one of the Twelve, St. John, even shows up to the Crucifixion. But Matthew goes on to tell us (Mt. 27:55-56) that, at Calvary, “there were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; among whom were Mary Mag′dalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zeb′edee.” And of course, the Virgin Mary isn’t looking on from afar, is “standing by the cross of Jesus” (John 19:25). These women aren’t priestesses, but they are Saints.
So just as you don’t have to be holy to be a cleric, you don’t have to be a cleric to be holy.
(3) Christ Wants Everyone to be Saved, and Stands Ready to Forgive
Part of the reason that John Calvin argued that Judas was not part of the true Church [see (1), above] was that Judas appears not to have been saved [as we just discussed in (2)]. And in Calvin’s vision of salvation, God has chosen some people (the elect) to be saved, and some people (the reprobate) to be damned, and nothing anyone does, positively or negatively, can move them from one category to the other. This, putting it simply, is the theology of double predestination, and it’s closely tied to the idea that the reprobate are reprobate because God doesn’t love them. As Calvin put it, “Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children.”
Back in December, I dedicated a post to showing why that claim is unbiblical, and that God loves even those who ultimately reject Him and end up in Hell. But it’s worth considering it in the specific context of the Apostle Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:47-50):
While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Hail, Master!” And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, why are you here?” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him.
Judas addresses Jesus in a false, servile way as “Master,” even whilst betraying Him. In contrast, Jesus addresses Judas tenderly as “friend.” St. Luke adds Jesus’ expression of concern for Judas: “Judas, would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48).
We see the same thing in the Old Testament prophecies of Judas’ betrayal of Christ, especially Psalms 41 and 55. Psalm 41:9 says “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” This is fulfilled by Judas in a dramatic way in John 13:26. And in Psalm 55:12-15, the Psalmist refers to his betrayer as his “companion” and “familiar friend,” remarking: “We used to hold sweet converse together; within God’s house we walked in fellowship.” That is, Jesus and Judas appear to have had a genuine friendship, rooted in faith.
Judas betrayed that relationship, damning himself. But Christ continued to hold out the hand of friendship and of forgiveness, right up to the end. If Jesus Christ can be friends with Judas, how much more can we trust and hope in Him for salvation. no matter how black our sins?
(4) Shame Isn’t Enough
There’s a lot to be said about the place of shame in the Christian life: some people give it too much of a place, and other people no real place at all. St. Thomas Aquinas argued that “Lack of shame occurs in the best and in the worst men through different causes”: in the best men, because they lack anything to warrant shame; in the worst men, because they are proud of the wicked deeds they do. But Aquinas adds that shame is found in “average men,” “in so far as they have a certain love of good, and yet are not altogether free from evil.” But shame, while it can be good, isn’t enough, and Aquinas is careful to note that while it’s sometimes praiseworthy, it’s not a virtue.
It’s fascinating to note that both the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Judas betrayed Christ. Judas betrayed Jesus as part of a premeditated plot (Luke 22:3-6), selling Him out for a mere thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15). Peter, in contrast, denied Jesus three times (Luke 22:54-62), despite Christ’s explicit warning (Lk. 22:31-34). Afterwards, both Judas and Peter felt awful about what they had done. For Peter, this happens immediately after his third betrayal of Christ (Luke 22:59-62):
And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are saying.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
For Judas, it happened after he realized that Jesus was being condemned to death (Matthew 27:3-4):
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”
So both Judas and Peter immediately regret their sin, and Judas even gives back the bounty. But why do we recall one as the first pope, and the other as the worst villain in history? Because of how they responded to their guilt. Peter responded by proclaiming his love three times to Christ (John 21:15-17). Judas responds by despairing (Mt. 27:5): “And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.”
It’s this second betrayal that is the ultimate insult to Christ. It was bad enough that Judas viewed Christ so lowly that he would sell him for thirty pieces of silver, the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32). It’s worse that Judas viewed Christ so lowly that he viewed his own sins as bigger than Christ’s power to forgive. Peter wept bitterly, but he saw what Judas didn’t: that Jesus Christ is bigger than sin, and that He longs to forgive. So when we’re confronted with the ugly reality of our own sinfulness, who shall we emulate: Peter or Judas?
Footnote 1. Well, what he originally said was “And as Judas was a þef and no mebre of Crist, ne pert of holy Churche, þouȝ he mynistride þe ordre of bischopod, but was a devel of helle, as Crist seiþ in þe gospel, so ȝif þes worldly clerkis schullen be dampned for here cursed synnes, as coveitise ypocrisie symonye and dispeir, as Judas was, þei ben fendis of helle and no Cristene men, ne membris of Crist, ne pert of holy Chirche.” But I’ve done my best, using online resources, to “translate” the Middle English to modern English.↩
Footnote 2. That is, “hierarchy” in the original sense.↩