Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback
Background Image

The Spy Mission of Judas Iscariot

It's Spy Wednesday, which means it's time to answer all your questions about Judas.

Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus is perplexing in several ways, and Christian thinkers have sought to make sense of it.

The largest question is: Why did Judas perform the betrayal? What was his motive?

The Gospels give us some clues. One is that Satan was working on Judas (Luke 22:3, John 13:2,27). However, this explains the action from a superhuman point of view and does not address why—on a human level—Judas would choose to betray Jesus.

A possible human motive may have been greed. John indicates that Judas was greedy and had previously committed theft to obtain money (John 12:5-6), and Matthew portrays Judas as telling the chief priests, “‘What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?’ And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him” (Matt. 26:15-16). Mark and Luke also mention a commitment to pay Judas (Mark 14:11, Luke 22:5).

This suggests at least that Judas wanted to be compensated for the deed, but that doesn’t mean it was his primary motive. Why would someone who had followed Jesus for three years suddenly decide to betray his master? Is the opportunity for some quick cash really a sufficient motive?

Many have thought that it is not, and they have proposed additional reasons. One is the idea that Judas was actually trying to help Jesus fulfill his messianic destiny by bringing him into contact with the Jewish authorities. This view would tend to rehabilitate Judas, as he thought he was doing a good thing.

In favor of such a view, Judas could be seen as not aware of the fact he’s betraying Jesus, for when Jesus predicts at the Last Supper that one of the Twelve will betray him, Judas—along with the others—asks, “Is it I, Master?” (Matt. 26:25; cf. 26:22). Also, “when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood’” (27:3-4). So maybe Judas just meant to put Jesus in contact with the chief priests and didn’t realize they would condemn him.

Against this view is the fact that Judas “had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away safely’” (Mark 14:44). The use of a covert sign—as opposed to making a simple introduction—and the instruction to seize Jesus indicate consciousness of betrayal.

However, another messianic motive is possible. No doubt, Judas—like the other disciples—expected Jesus to be a political Messiah who would kick out the Romans and restore national sovereignty to Israel (cf. John 6:15, 11:48-50; Acts 1:6). However, Jesus did not intend to be this type of Messiah. Perhaps Judas disagreed, and by forcing him into a confrontation with the chief priests, Judas was hoping to force him back onto what he regarded as the proper path for the Messiah—only to see Jesus condemned instead.

Another possible motive is anger and resentment. It is clear from various passages in the New Testament that some disciples (Peter, James, John, and Andrew) were closer to Jesus than others, and Judas is always listed last among the Twelve (Matt. 10:1-4, Mark 3:13-19, Luke 6:12-16). Perhaps Judas’s lower status had come to grate on him after three years, and—under the influence of Satanically inspired envy and resentment—he decided to prove that he was a person of importance after all.

What we can say with confidence is that on the superhuman level, Satan was involved, and on the human level, greed was involved, but beyond that, all we can do is speculate.

Whatever Judas’s exact motive, a careful reading of the Gospels reveals that the betrayal involved an intricate, time-sensitive plan.

“It was now two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth, and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people’” (Mark 14:1-2).

Given the Jewish way of reckoning time, and that Passover began at sundown on Thursday, “two days before the Passover” points to sometime during the daytime on Wednesday.

The Jewish authorities thus had a window of opportunity to arrest Jesus between Wednesday and Thursday. Beginning Friday morning, the feast of Unleavened Bread would be in full swing, and Jesus could be expected to be with the crowds during the daytime in the week-long festival.

It apparently was on this Wednesday that Judas went to the chief priests and agreed to betray him, so he “sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of the multitude” (Luke 22:6). Since Judas was now serving as their spy, the Wednesday of Holy Week is often called Spy Wednesday.

Jesus being away from the crowds was important. Jesus noted that they could have arrested him any day they wanted as he taught in the temple (Matt. 26:55, Mark 14:49, Luke 22:53). By waiting until he was in a private setting, they could avoid the people rioting.

Judas did not find an opportunity to betray Jesus Wednesday night or Thursday during the daytime, when Jesus was with the crowds. The next opportunity would be when he was alone with the disciples on Thursday night at the Passover meal, which would be in private.

However, there was a new complication. Jesus kept the location of the Passover meal secret until the last moment, forcing the disciples to ask, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” (Mark 14:16).

Instead of simply telling them the location, Jesus sent two of the disciples (Luke reveals that it was Peter and John—Luke 22:8) to look for a man carrying a water jar—unusually, because carrying water was normally women’s work. They were then to follow this man back to a house, and there the householder would have a room prepared for them to eat the Passover meal (Mark 14:13-15).

The apparent purpose of this subterfuge was to keep the Twelve—including Judas—from knowing the location of the meal until the last moment. That way, Judas could not bring the authorities there to arrest Jesus, for he greatly desired to eat this Passover with his disciples (Luke 22:15).

At the Last Supper, Jesus announced that one of the Twelve would betray him, prompting the disciples to ask who it would be.

Jesus indicated that it would be someone who dipped food in the same dish as him, which would make it obvious to anyone who was in the know that Judas would be the betrayer. But John’s Gospel indicates that this was a rather restricted audience. It may have been only Peter and the beloved disciple who knew.

“One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.’ So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘What you are going to do, do quickly.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the feast,’ or that he should give something to the poor” (John 13:23-29), since giving to the poor was a custom on the first night of Passover.

By this point, Judas had learned what he needed to know to betray Jesus, for he had learned their plans for the remainder of the evening.

Jesus “went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples” (John 18:1-2).

Judas thus brought a band of soldiers and officers from the Jewish authorities to arrest him.

It was at this point that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Why bother with this if Jesus was so well known? Even though Jesus was a public figure, the guards might not know him by sight. Also, it was dark, and they would be viewing the scene in the garden by torchlight. Even Judas himself might not recognize Jesus until getting up close to him.

By arranging the kiss, Judas apparently wanted a degree of protection. If he suddenly yelled, “This is Jesus! Grab him!”, that would make it obvious to everyone that Judas had betrayed him. A mêlée might ensue, and Judas might be injured or killed by one of the other disciples.

But by coming up and giving the ordinary greeting gesture of a kiss, Judas would make the act of betrayal non-obvious. From Judas’s perspective, he might get away scot-free, with nobody realizing what he had done.

However, Jesus knew what Judas was up to. “Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?’” (Luke 22:48).

From Jesus’ perspective—as tragic as it was—everything was proceeding according to plan.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!