Satan, Judas Iscariot, and the Sovereignty of God
At the beginning of what is known as the Upper Room or Farewell Discourse of Jesus (John 13-17) we see something quite remarkable. We read that it was “during supper” that “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him” (John 13:2). Later, in John 13:27 we read that “Satan entered into him.” In other words, Satan didn’t merely put the idea in Judas’s head. He himself entered into Judas the man. Judas was possessed by the Devil. Continue reading . . .
At the beginning of what is known as the Upper Room or Farewell Discourse of Jesus (John 13-17) we see something quite remarkable. We read that it was “during supper” that “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him” (John 13:2). Later, in John 13:27 we read that “Satan entered into him.” In other words, Satan didn’t merely put the idea in Judas’s head. He himself entered into Judas the man. Judas was possessed by the Devil. We read much the same thing in Luke 22:3-6 –
“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. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd” (Luke 22:3-6).
The fact that Satan “put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot . . . to betray” Jesus does not alleviate Judas from moral responsibility for the treachery of his deed. We come across similar language in Acts 5 in the incident involving Ananias and his wife Sapphira. They had earlier pledged to give to the early church a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of their property. But then they held it back. We read in Acts 5:2,
“But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.’ When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it” (Acts 5:3-5).
The involvement of Satan in the sin of Ananias did not relieve Ananias of his responsibility for the deed. That he was regarded by God as fully responsible and morally accountable for the sin he committed is seen in the fact that he was instantly killed. God disciplined Ananias, and later his wife Sapphira. Nowhere do we read that either of them was exonerated simply because “Satan filled” their heart to lie to the Spirit. Evidently they could have chosen to resist Satan’s prompting, but they didn’t. They were entirely complicit with his activity.
The same may be said of Judas in John 13. Satan “put it into the heart of Judas” to betray Jesus but Judas himself is alone held morally accountable for his treachery. So what is the relationship between the will of Judas and the prompting of Satan? I can assure you that Satan did not move on the heart of an innocent man who would otherwise have done what was right. We know that Judas was a thief (see John 12:6). He had carefully hidden his real motives from the other 11 disciples. Jesus knew from the beginning that Judas was a wicked man whose heart was already filled with treachery. Satan’s role is real and the timing was his to determine, but Judas will not be able to stand at the judgment throne of God and insist on his innocence by saying: “Wait a minute, God! The Devil made me do it!” No he didn’t.
Another question that v. 2 brings up is this: “Why would Satan work to have Jesus betrayed and ultimately crucified?” After all, on several occasions prior to this point in time he had attempted to prevent Jesus from going to the cross. Let me mention two.
The first occurred in the wilderness temptation. There the Devil tried to get Jesus to forego the path of suffering and to gain authority over the kingdoms of the earth by bowing down and worshipping him. On three occasions the Devil in essence said: “If you are really the Son of God, and I don’t doubt that for a moment, demonstrate that you have a right to reign over all the universe.” The text quotes Satan as saying, “All these [kingdoms of the world] I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Matt. 4:9).
The second occurrence is described in Matthew 16:22 where Jesus predicted that he would soon suffer many things at the hands of the religious leaders and eventually be killed by them. Peter had the audacity to “rebuke” Jesus and said: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Instead of commending Peter for his love and bravery, Jesus said: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt 16:23). Satan was using Peter to try to prevent Jesus from going to the cross.
So, if all that is true, what in the world is Satan doing here in John 13:2 stirring the heart of Judas to betray Jesus? I can’t be certain, but my sense is that by now Satan has come to realize that he can’t prevent the crucifixion. There was nothing Satan could do now to stop Jesus from dying. “Therefore, he resolved that if he couldn’t stop it, he would at least make it as ugly and painful and as heartbreaking as possible. Not just death, but death by betrayal. Death by abandonment. Death by denial (Luke 22:31-34). Death by torture” (John Piper, Spectacular Sins, 101).
Jesus was not surprised by the treachery and betrayal of Judas Iscariot. He knew what Judas would do even before he called him to be one of the twelve. We read this in John 13:11, 18-19 –
“For he [Jesus] knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, ‘Not all of you are clean’” (v. 11).
“I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he” (John 13:18-19).
We also know that Jesus was well aware of Judas’s intentions because of what we read in John 13:27 – “Jesus said to him [Judas], ‘What you are going to do, do quickly.’” This isn’t the first time in John’s gospel that we read about how Jesus knew from the beginning that Judas would betray him.
“’But there are some of you who do not believe.’ (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him)” (John 6:64).
“Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.’ He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him” (John 6:71).
Nothing catches God by surprise! And note this well: the fact that Jesus knew in advance that Judas would betray him does not get Judas off the hook. You might be inclined to think otherwise. You might be inclined to say: “Well, if it is certain that a person will commit a particular sin, that person cannot be held morally accountable for it.” But we know it to be otherwise, not only from this incident, but also from what we read in Acts 4 about the crucifixion of Jesus. There Peter said this:
“for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:27-28).
Note three things: First, Herod, Pontius Pilate, together with Roman and Jewish leaders consciously and willingly conspired against Jesus to murder him. Second, this decision on their part was predestined by God to occur. Third, God’s hand in predestining this to occur does not alleviate or excuse any of them from the guilt of having crucified the sinless Son of God. I don’t believe that because it makes good sense to my way of thinking. I believe it because the Bible teaches it, not only here but in numerous other places. And I have immeasurably greater confidence in the infinite wisdom of a perfectly holy God than I do in my own powers of reasoning.
The fact that Jesus knew in advance that Judas would betray him was both troubling to Jesus and at the same time part of God’s sovereign purpose.
We read in John 13:21 that “Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’” To say that Jesus was “troubled” means that this entire scenario of his betrayal by Judas hurt; it was painful; it was unsettling. To contemplate such a horrific sin against you by someone to whom you have only and always done what is good, is disconcerting and deeply disturbing to the soul.
I know what you are thinking: “If God had ordained from the beginning that Judas would betray Jesus, and if Jesus himself knew from the beginning that this would occur, why would he be troubled or disturbed?” The fact that Jesus was “troubled” when one of his closest friends betrayed him does not mean he didn’t know in advance that it would happen. On many occasions in Scripture we read that when what God ordained to happen actually happens, God is grieved and burdened and troubled. Here is the theological truth that the Bible calls on us to trust and believe even if we don’t fully understand it: God is often pleased to ordain his own displeasure. That is to say, in order to maximize his own glory he often ordains that things occur that in themselves are displeasing to him. Although in and of themselves, considered in isolation, they may be displeasing to God, God may be pleased to ordain them in view of the higher, long-term purpose they serve to magnify his holiness, power, and grace.
God ordains and prophesies in advance events that when they occur still cause him grief and sorrow. They cause him grief and sorrow not because he is caught by surprise by their occurrence but because he is holy and pure and righteous. If you continue to struggle with how a righteous God can ordain that unrighteous events take place and then feel grief when something happens that he foreknew would happen, I can only encourage you to trust his wisdom and goodness even when you don’t understand it.
Finally, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas demonstrates that even the worst of sins can be used by a sovereign God to accomplish his ultimate purpose and to glorify his name.
This we see in John 13:18, 31-32 (also in Acts 2 and 4). In John 13:18 we hear Jesus tell us that what Judas was about to do was actually prophesied in the Old Testament (Ps. 41:9) centuries before it finally came to pass. The Scripture, says Jesus, “will be fulfilled.” The prophecy that the one “who ate my bread” will lift up “his heel against me” (v. 18) was spoken by the word of the Lord.
Betrayal is a sin of immense magnitude, especially when the victim of it is the sinless Son of Man. Yet it served God’s greater purpose of bringing glory and honor to both the Son and the Father. Immediately following the departure of Judas from the upper room to do precisely what Jesus knew from the beginning that he would do, he said this:
“When he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once’” (John 13:31-32).
This is quite similar to what we see in the life of Joseph who had been betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery to Egypt. We read in Genesis 50:20,
“As for you [Joseph’s brothers], you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20).
There are several practical lessons we learn from this entire scenario.
First, our God is sovereign over all of history, not just the good and beneficial events but even the most devious and seemingly destructive ones. That does not mean he is the moral cause of all events, but he does, in some mysterious fashion, exercise supreme, providential authority over all. He will win! He is in control, not ISIS, not the Taliban, not the government of Russia or the U.S. God rules supreme over all.
Second, such is the nature and power and sovereignty and wisdom of God, that he can take the most wicked of human sins, sins that on the surface might seem as if they have derailed God’s purpose, and use them to bring glory to himself and to bring good to his people. Nothing can overcome God’s determination to glorify his name and to bring you and me into the fullness of his eternal blessings.
Finally, if God foreknew and foreordained the betrayal, arrest, scourging, and crucifixion of his Son, and he did, and caused it all to bring salvation and deliverance and healing to you and me and great glory to himself, then we can trust God in the worst of circumstances to know that “all things work together for good” for “those who love God” and “are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). We may not understand how it happens, but we can, with God’s help, trust that it is so.