Judas at the Last Supper

A Twilight Musing

A close reading of John 13 reveals two levels of narrative, as well as details about Judas and the Last Supper that, among the four Evangelists, only John relates.  On the surface level, Jesus is having an intimate last meal with His select Twelve before he is catapulted into the violence of arrest, torture, and crucifixion.  But threaded through this emotional leave-taking are several references to Jesus’ acute awareness of the impending betrayal by Judas, the “bad apple” of His chosen group.   Additionally, in counterpoint to the perfidious apostasy of Judas, the interactions between Peter and Jesus reveal an unperceived weakness that ends in Peter’s predicted triple denial of the Lord he has sworn to protect with his own life.  But though Peter, like Judas, betrays his Lord, his true repentance when he realizes what he has done is in clear contrast with Judas’s hard-heartedness and token repentance.  The mini-drama with Judas ends with his being sent out by Jesus to “do quickly” the deed that he had already decided on, immediately followed by Jesus’ unexpected affirmation that a process of glorification of both God the Father and God the Son has been paradoxically set into motion by Judas’s horrible plan.

The overall theme of Jesus’ Last Supper with His closest friends is the Master’s desire to impart to these men who are to carry on His ministry an understanding of what the relationship between them is to be when He is with them no longer.   He graphically demonstrated when He washed their feet that they were to serve one another in humility, and He admonished them afterward to love one another as He has loved them (vv. 34-35).  But even in the midst of telling about these delicate instructions, John alludes three times to Jesus’ acute awareness of immanent betrayal by Judas (vv. 2-3, 10-11, 18-19).  The Savior’s troubled spirit finally bursts out in the revelation that “one of you will betray me” (v. 21).  Jesus realizes that Judas’s treachery is to be the catalyst that begins the process of His being arrested and crucified, a cup of suffering that He dreads but knows is the very purpose for which He was brought into the world.  But when Jesus tries to share His burden, the disciples’ reaction doesn't show the indignation that might be expected from them, nor a determination to protect the Master from the traitor, but rather anguished inquiries as to the identity of the villain—each one assuming, it seems, that it is not himself (see Matt. 26:21-25).

The final moment in this mini-drama about Judas comes when Jesus reveals the identity of the traitor to the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (usually presumed to be John).  At the same time Judas engages in the identifying act of taking the morsel of bread from Jesus (vv.26-27), “Satan entered into him.”  In the other accounts (Matt. 26, Mk. 14, Lk. 22), Judas is referred to as merely dipping his bread in the sauce at the same time Jesus did, or even merely dipping in common with the rest of the disciples.  John is more precise about this instant than are the other evangelists, and that is understandable if he was the one sitting next to Jesus and even leaning in His direction.  It is possible that only John realized the full truth of Jesus identifying Judas, since the rest of the disciples seem not to understand Jesus’ parting words to Judas, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (v. 27).

Jesus’ next statement seems a strange reaction to the tension and anguish which have characterized these events so far.  “When he 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’” (vv. 31-32).  It is not clear at first what the connection is between Judas’s perfidy and Jesus’ being glorified.   Jesus has had to endure both the treachery of Judas and the spiritual density of the rest of the disciples as they proved to be more concerned about their own self-image than about Jesus’ safety.  In the face of all this, Jesus’ reference to being glorified as His betrayer goes out the door to deliver Him to His enemies and to death is puzzling.  But the connection becomes clear when we consider that in the events for which Judas’s betrayal is the catalyst, Judas’s tragic decision to betray His Lord is turned on its head, as God uses even the traitor’s evil heart as an instrument for accomplishing the salvation of the world through the Supreme Act of redemptive suffering.[su_pullquote]God uses even the traitor’s evil heart as an instrument for accomplishing the salvation of the world through the Supreme Act of redemptive suffering.[/su_pullquote]

Although Jesus predicted (vv. 37-38) that Peter, like Judas, would betray his Master, Peter’s offense, in contrast to Judas’s, is a manifestation of an unsuspected weakness, not a premeditated betrayal.  Peter’s ingenuous boasting is seen initially in this passage when he tries to reject Jesus’ washing of his feet, perhaps thinking that it would demean his Master and compromise Peter’s devotion to Him.  But when Jesus makes it clear that to refuse His offer is to “have no share” with Him, Peter goes overboard in the other direction.   Peter’s naïve feelings of superiority are made even more explicit when he boasts that he is willing to die for Jesus (v. 37), whereupon Jesus predicts Peter’s denials.   Peter wants to distinguish himself from the other disciples, and he ends up doing so, but not in the way he imagined and boasted of.

However, the responses of the two men to their realization of sin are starkly and significantly different, as seen in Matt. 26:69-27:5.  When Peter became agonizingly aware of what he had done, “he went out and wept bitterly” (27:75).  Judas, on the other hand, after making a gesture of repentance by returning the blood money to the chief priests and their cohorts, went out and hanged himself.  Although Judas heard, saw, and participated in the same lesson about humility that Peter did, he did not understand it and therefore learned nothing from his horrible mistake.  Peter, on the other hand, turned his bitter humiliation into an attitude that would eventually enable him to recognize how suffering is the path to the glory of fellowship with Jesus.

You may want to look at a couple of poems posted elsewhere on this site, “Son of Perdition” and “Cock-Crowing,” which depict the states of mind in Judas and Peter just after they have done their shameful deeds.

Image: "The Last Supper (1886), by Fritz von Uhde" by Fritz von Uhde - kunstgeschichte.uni-muenchen.de. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Last_Supper_(1886),_by_Fritz_von_Uhde.jpg#/media/File:The_Last_Supper_(1886),_by_Fritz_von_Uhde.jpg


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)