Making sense of betrayal

Have you ever been betrayed by a friend?

Maybe you told them something in confidence which they blabbed to someone else. Maybe you expected them to stick up for you and they threw you under the bus. Maybe they were nice to you in person and told lies about you behind your back.

Any of these behaviors, and more, could earn a person the name of “Judas.”

Poor, lost Judas. We can only speculate about his motives for betraying Jesus. Was it greed? Ambition? Zealous nationalism? All of the above? Whatever the truth of the matter, he is remembered solely for what he did. In Peter’s words, Judas acted as a “guide for those who arrested Jesus” even though “he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry” (Acts 1:16-17, NRSV).

Jesus knew in advance that he would be betrayed, and he knew who would do it. By contrast, it’s unclear how much the disciples understood of Judas’ treachery. But I can imagine how deeply they themselves felt betrayed as the events of Gethsemane unfolded, and as they looked back on that fateful night: Judas, we trusted you. You were one of us. How could you do such a thing?

How does one make sense of such a deeply hurtful act?

It helps, of course, to be on the post-resurrection side of history. Beyond that simple fact, though, Peter did what believers still do today: interpret the pain of the present in light of the prophecy of the past.

Luke’s account of Judas’ death is in some ways quite different from the one in Matthew’s gospel (Matt 27:3-10). In Matthew’s version, Judas felt guilty for what he had done. Apparently, he had not expected things to go so far. He threw away the silver he had been paid to betray Jesus, and committed suicide by hanging himself. The chief priests used the silver to buy a burial field which became known as the Field of Blood because it was purchased with blood money.

In Luke’s version (inserted as an aside to Theophilus in Acts 1:19-20), Judas himself seems to have bought the field. It became known as the Field of Blood because it was there that Judas died in a gory scene reminiscent of a horror movie: his body burst open and his guts poured out.


I suspect Luke may be reporting what today we would call an urban legend, the story Jerusalemites told about the field and the origin of its name (cf. Acts 1:19). That’s not to say, though, that the legend didn’t have its basis in fact. We simply can’t know whether Matthew’s details or Luke’s are more accurate, and as Tom Wright has noted, no one in the early church seemed to care.

One thing both accounts share in common, however, is that both Matthew and Luke link the story to ancient prophecy. In Matthew’s case, it’s Zechariah 11:12-13 and Jeremiah 32:6-9. In Acts, Peter cites Psalm 69:25 and 109:8.

It’s worth noting how Peter, even before Pentecost, is already asserting his leadership. In a group of 120 Jesus followers, he stood up and spoke right out: “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas” (1:16). Despite his own betrayal of Jesus, Peter had been restored, and everyone knew it. They followed his leadership, accepting the fact that even Judas’ catastrophic failure of loyalty did not catch God by surprise.

Peter, of course, was not excusing what Judas did. But he did what we all must do in the face of betrayal: remember the sovereignty of God, and seek his will as to what to do next. More on that in Tuesday’s post.