The story is told that, when Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Last Supper, he searched for thirteen models to portray each character in the painting. One day, he found a young man who exactly portrayed Jesus as he imagined him to be. The young man’s face exuded love, tenderness, caring, innocence, compassion and kindness.

Ten years later, as Da Vinci was drawing the project to completion, he began the search for an individual to model Judas Iscariot. He found a prisoner, whose face held all the Judas-like qualities for which he had been searching. Permission was granted for the prisoner to model. As the man witnessed the portrayal of Judas taking place over time, he became visibly disturbed, until he eventually broke into sobs. When Da Vinci asked him what the matter was, the man replied, “Don’t you remember me? Ten years ago, I was your model for Jesus!”

The man told of how he had turned his back on Christ, and over time had been sucked by sin to the lowest level of degradation. Sin had taken its toll in his life, and it reflected on his countenance.

The story, unsurprisingly, is apocryphal. Urban legend site details how the story evolved over time. Despite the mythical nature of the story, it does illustrate something of the way in which we tend to view Judas Iscariot.

The truth is, Judas was a lot less like a monster, and a lot more like you and me, than we would care to admit. Because of that, there is every danger of quite ordinary, sophisticated people today turning into a Judas Iscariot.

The man

The word “Iscariot,” by which Judas is universally known in the Gospel accounts, simply indicates that Judas was from Kerioth, a town in southern Judea. The other disciples were all from Galilee. Interestingly, Judeans typically considered themselves superior to Galileans. In Acts 2, those listening to the apostles preach were amazed that such eloquent preaching could come from the lips of Judeans (v. 7). There were more Gentiles in Galilee than in Judea. To the average Jewish onlooker, Judas was perhaps considered the best of the disciples.

It is possible, though we cannot say for sure, that being from a more “privileged” region led Judas to considering himself superior to the rest of the apostles. Nonetheless, to the disciples themselves, Judas was just another follower of Jesus.

There is no record in the Gospels of Judas’s call to ministry. We can be sure that such a call occurred, “for he was numbered with us and obtained a part in this ministry” (Acts 1:17). He had evidently made a profession of faith, been baptised and followed Jesus from the time of John the Baptist’s ministry to the very end (Acts 1:21–22). Since John baptised those who showed evidence of repentance (Matthew 3:8), we can surmise that Judas showed such evidence.

The other disciples never considered Judas to be an outsider in any way. Peter included him when he spoke of the disciples forsaking all and following Christ (Matthew 19:27) and again when he professed, on behalf of the group, believe in Jesus as Messiah (John 6:69). When Jesus prophesied at the Last Supper that one of them would betray him, no one immediately pointed an accusing finger at Judas. Instead, they all wondered if they were the guilty party (Matthew 26:22). Despite the fact that Matthew, an experienced tax-collector/accountant, was part of the group, the disciples had selected Judas as their treasurer (John 13:29). He appeared sufficiently trustworthy to handle the group’s finances.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that Judas was excluded when Jesus gave the apostles miraculous gifts to use in their ministry (Matthew 10:1ff). Like the other eleven, he cast out demons and healed the sick. To his contemporaries, he was an ordinary man.

The motive

Judas is one of only two individuals in the Bible named as a “son of destruction” (John 17:12). The other is the man in 2 Thessalonians 2:3–4 who “opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” Outwardly, Judas was just like the rest of the disciples—an ordinary man—but his motive made him something far more insidious.

At one point toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, Judas’ motive is made quite clear. A woman came to Jesus, and broke open an expensive bottle of perfume in order to anoint his feet. Matthew 26 and Mark 14 reveal that several of the disciples were indignant about this, complaining that the ointment could have been sold and the proceeds used to minister to the poor. John 12, however, reveals that Judas was the ringleader in this complaint, and adds that “he said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it” (v. 6). Coupled with the record of his agreement to sell Jesus to the religious leaders, it is quite clear that his motive was financial.

This puts things into slightly different perspective. One wonders what went through Judas’ mind when he first followed Jesus. Did he expect Jesus to be a dynamic preacher who would have money rained upon him? If so, he found himself bitterly disappointed (cf. Matthew 8:20)! Eventually, he agreed to betray Jesus for the amount of money that would normally be paid for a regular slave: thirty pieces of silver.

Judas, in short, was covetous. And covetousness, says Paul, is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). He was the consummate hypocrite. He professed concern for the poor but was looking only to enrich himself. And when he finally betrayed the Lord, he did so with a kiss!

Further, he was a coward. Though Jesus made it plain at the Last Supper that it was Judas’ personal choice to betray him, when that betrayal happened Judas did not act alone (Matthew 26:47). Unable to face the Lord on his own, he came with an armed escort.

David once described what it was like to be betrayed by a friend (Psalm 55:12–15, 21; see also Psalm 41:9), and this was no doubt the experience of Jesus.

We must be clear about one thing: Judas was not once a believer who lost his salvation. He never really trusted Jesus in the first place. His faith was a veneer. It is interesting to read the exchange between Jesus and his disciples in Matthew 26:21–25. When Jesus told them that one of them would betray him, they asked, “Is it I, Lord?” They recognised him as lord. But when Judas spoke, he said, “Is it I, Rabbi?” To Judas, Jesus was simply another rabbi, a wise teacher, but not Messiah.

The misery

Judas was a “son of destruction.” He was characterised by destruction, misery and ruin. Even when he felt the weight of what he had done, he chose suicide over the Saviour. Forgiveness was possible, but he wanted none of it.

Judas was a responsible recipient of judicial blindness. For three years he heard Jesus preach the gospel of reconciliation. For three years he ministered alongside the Lord, no doubt sharing the message of forgiveness with others. At the same time, he persistently rejected it himself.

Jesus never treated Judas any differently. In fact, at the Last Supper Jesus dipped the bread and handed it to Judas. Charles Ryrie tells us that “at Eastern meals it was customary for the host to offer one of the guests a morsel of bread as a gesture of special friendship.” But this served only to harden his heart. As MacArthur notes, “When Judas accepted the morsel from Jesus’ hand without repentance or regret, Satan took possession of him in a way that is frightening to contemplate.”

His persistent refusal to repent led to him being given over to a reprobate mind. He had heard Jesus warn to religious leaders of the unpardonable sin while committing it himself. And so the last word on Judas in the New Testament is a miserable one: “Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18).

The message

As terrible as all of this is to consider, we must realise, as MacArthur observes, that “Judas was no more naturally sinful than any other person ever born.” Rather than demonising him, we should ask a sobering question: Is Judas alive in me?

The awful truth to be highlighted is that someone can be close to Christ and yet ultimately be cut off! The author of Hebrews emphasised this truth when he wrote,

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

(Hebrews 6:4–6)

Judas’ conduct changed when he met Jesus, but the Lord is interested not only in changing conduct, but in changing character. The challenge to us is to beware of superficial assurance.

At one time, Judas returned with the other disciples on a high. They had just experienced great victory in ministry, and had been used by God to perform miraculous deeds. When they expressed this excitement to Jesus, he replied, “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:17–20). Sadly, Judas never heeded these words.

We do well to heed what Judas ignored. Are our names really written in heaven? We may have prayed a prayer or turned over a new leaf, but if our names are not written in heaven, we await the same fate as Judas Iscariot. Are we willing to sell out Christ for the measly thirty silvers of sin, career, relationships, position, popularity or sport? If we follow Christ for selfish motives, we should not be surprised when our affection turns to hostility.

In many respects, Judas was as ordinary as you and me. And yet he was guilty of the highest form of irreverence and treason possible. I doubt that he ever intended to be possessed by Satan, but his continual hypocrisy opened a door that Satan gladly entered. May this sober us, and cause us to examine our hearts. May we take heed lest we, too, fall! May we look to the Saviour, and with heartfelt resolve turn our backs on sin, self, Satan and the world; and let us take up our cross and follow the Lord Jesus Christ.