John 13:21-38 Predictions of Betrayal and Denial
Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July, 15 2007
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. First of all, I guess you all heard the news that this week the Vatican took a bold step into the 16th century, reviving both the Latin mass and the dogma that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. After nearly six centuries of intense theological discussion and ecumenical dialog we are back where we were in the days of Hus and Luther. So, a word of warning, according to official Vatican teaching, this Adult Bible Class is being brought to you by someone who is banned from heaven because he is Moravian. I hope you don’t mind.
In the Atwood household we’re getting ready for a big trip to England. I’m giving a paper at an academic conference, and it worked out that I could bring along Julie and the children. While we are there we will get to visit with some of the Moravian clergy and visit several of the Moravian churches. We’ll also have time to see the Tower of London, where one of my ancestors was imprisoned during the Civil War – at least according to one genealogy. We’ll also go to Stonehenge. Apparently Strawhenge and Woodhenge were blown down by the big bad wolf but Stonehenge survived. We’ve been learning the language in preparation, too. I’ll tell you all about it when we return.
Reclining at Table: This week we are continuing our discussion of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in the Gospel of John. I talked so much about the importance of footwashing last week that some in the class looked worried that I would try to reclaim this old tradition. Though I think footwashing is a good religious ritual, I do not think we need to make it a third sacrament. In our modern world in which the equivalent of footwashing would be a pedicure at a spa. Somehow I think a pedicure in church would not quite get at the lesson of humility and service that Jesus was proposing. Our lesson for today follows naturally from the story of the footwashing. Jesus reminded his disciples that they were not greater than their master. If he was willing to put on the form of a servant and wash their feet, they should humble themselves in loving service for others. Today’s lesson presses this point home more poignantly. If the Teacher and Lord was willing to die for his followers; his followers should be willing to give their lives for others. This is a hard teaching and the disciples fell short of it.
There is an historical tidbit that might help you imagine the scene that John describes in ch. 13. Jesus and his disciples were reclining at the table. We need to remember that chairs are a fairly recent invention and they are not at all necessary. Tables were low to the ground and the diners sat on cushions or reclined with their heads resting on their left hands. Food was prepared in such a way that you could eat it in a civilized and human fashion – with one’s fingers. The most honored guests at a formal dinner would sit closest to the host. This is the position of an unnamed disciple. During the meal he will lean his head back and rest it on Jesus’ chest. This is the first direct mention of this “disciple whom Jesus loved” in the Gospel of John.
We should note in passing that John never tells us who was at the dinner other than to say it was Jesus’ disciples. We assume that the Twelve were there, like the other gospels, but John doesn’t say so. In fact, there is nothing in the NT to indicate that only 12 male disciples were at the Last Supper. It is likely that Mary Magdalene other female disciples were present for the last meal, but we cannot know for sure. It is only the Catholic Church that makes a theological point about the gender of the people who dined with Jesus. The papacy claims that women cannot be priests because women were not there at the Last Supper. John’s Gospel, at least, gives no support for that kind of argument!
Read: John 13:21-38
Troubled in Spirit This passage begins with the statement that Jesus was troubled in spirit, which recalls two previous times Jesus was troubled: at the raising of Lazarus and in his final public discourse. Three times Jesus’ spirit is deeply disturbed. He dreads the drama that is about to unfold. He is angry that he will be betrayed by someone he lived with, someone he taught, someone he shared his bread with, someone he trusted, someone he loved was planning to betray him. In all four gospels, Jesus predicts the betrayal. The early church took this as evidence that Jesus was omniscient like God. He already knew what was going to take place, and he still went through with it. The key point in John’s version is that Jesus’ spirit was troubled that night because he knew that he had lost one of his followers to evil. This is a message that the church must always remember. A person can hear the gospel, be taught right from wrong, and even loved with the love of Jesus, and still choose to turn his or her back on all of that.
Peter nods to the Beloved Disciple as a sign that he should ask Jesus who the betrayer is. Jesus apparently whispers to him that it would be the one to whom he gives a piece of bread to. I say apparently because later in the text he says that no one knew why Judas left the table. The truth is that we do not have a videotape of the Last Supper and cannot recreate all of the details of that evening from the accounts in the Gospels, any more than we can determine exactly what was said the night Abraham Lincoln died. But we can be certain that on the night Jesus was arrested, one of the twelve left the supper early and returned with an armed guard. All of the gospels agree that the disciples themselves were surprised that Judas betrayed Jesus. None of them stopped him.
Satan Made me Do it: There is a detail unique in John’s account that has given rise to a lot of speculation. It says that Satan entered Judas when Jesus gave him the piece of bread. This dipping of bread, presumably into wine, and giving it to a disciple sounds a lot like Holy Communion, but it sounds like it was the giving of the bread that caused Satan to enter into Judas. There have been people through the centuries who have argued that it was Jesus who chose Judas for this task, but I do not think that is what the evangelist was trying to say. He has already mentioned that the devil had induced Judas. I think John was creating a dramatic moment to emphasize that even as the Lord was feeding Judas with his own hand, Satan was opposing him.
Jesus told Judas to do quickly what he was planning to do. This is also unique to John’s Gospel. The tension in this scene is portrayed dramatically in the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” when Judas accuses Jesus of wanting him to betray him. I think it is far more likely that Jesus knows that the plans have been made. The truth is that it didn’t take a miracle for Jesus to know who his betrayer would be. It is likely that Jesus had warning of what was going to happen. The other gospels indicate that the betrayal had already happened before the supper even began, and there is little doubt that Judas had already had conversations with the authorities before that last meal. Once Jesus decided to follow his path all the way to the cross, he was eager for the end to come quickly.
There may be another, subtle message here in John’s Gospel. Throughout the Gospel, with the possible exception of the prophetic cleansing of the Temple, Jesus never used force. He has only used power for healing. The whole gospel has shown that individuals must make a decision about whether to walk in the light or the darkness; to love or to hate; to trust or to fear. At the very end, he gives Judas the choice to stay or betray him. He washes Judas’ feet; he feeds him; he shows his love for him; and then he lets him leave. Do it quickly if that is what you have decided to. And Judas freely chose to leave.
Night And it was night. This is one of those poignant phrases in John that is loaded with symbolic meaning. This statement has nothing to do with the time of day; it is a statement that Judas has chosen the path of evil. John’s Gospel draws a contrast between Jesus as the Light of the World and the forces of darkness that seek to overwhelm the light. Humans are rarely so bold that they sin in broad daylight in full view of others. Even then, they usually wear masks to hide their identity. Night is the time for crime and the hatching of plots. When Judas left, the darkness was strongest. Here we need to recall the opening lines of the Gospel that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Neither Judas, nor the Sanhedrin, nor the Roman Empire, not Satan could kill the light of the Word of God.
We will see Judas only one more time in John’s Gospel. He will appear with a band of soldiers to arrest Jesus in the Garden. John does not tell us about Judas’ conversation with the Sanhedrin or his reasons for betraying his master. Nor does he tell us about Judas’ remorse and suicide. Once Judas leaves the supper, he is lost. The master’s final teachings on love and communion with God are not given to the one who chose darkness. I think we can leave aside the ancient idea that Judas was a hero as well as the modern theory that Judas is merely a symbolic figure named for the Jews. This story of a disciple handing his teacher over to the enemy to be tortured and killed is too shocking and too painful to have been made up by the early church. This is history, and it does serve as a brutal reminder to all who eat at the Lord’s Table that we also might betray our Lord.
Where I am Going: Once Judas has left, Jesus gives a cryptic statement that now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. I say cryptic because it continues to baffle scholars and theologians. Even the Greek is awkward here, with shifting tenses. We discussed the idea of God being glorified in Jesus earlier in ch. 12. Some scholars think this is just a duplication of that earlier statement. Others think this is a post-resurrection statement misplaced here. The most likely interpretation is that John viewed the crucifixion as a moment of glorification – a time when God was fully revealed in the Son of Man. The departure of Judas began the process of the trial and crucifixion; therefore the glorification had begun. It is also possible that this statement has nothing at all to do with the betrayal by Judas and is simply an introduction to the final discourse of Jesus. In other words, an editor stitched two stories together with the phrase, “when he was gone.” If this is the case, then the glorification would refer to the full revelation of the will of God that Jesus is about to give in his final discourse to his disciples. I think this is the most reasonable interpretation. The disciples are about to receive revelation.
Love The Final Discourse begins with a “new” commandment: to love one another as Jesus has loved his disciples. Some people are surprised to see this listed as a new commandment. The OT commanded the people of the covenant to love their neighbors as themselves, and Jesus repeated that teaching. In the Sermon on the Mount, he told his followers to love their enemies. Assuming that John knew these teachings, how could he refer to the commandment for disciples to love each other as “new”? It does not even sound very challenging. It is much harder to love ones enemies than to love people in the church, isn’t it?
We need to be careful not to sentimentalize this love of Jesus or to use it as an excuse to turn away from the world. This commandment does not replace the other teachings of Jesus; it places a radical new demand on all disciples. Remember, this teaching comes after the footwashing and the departure of Judas. The rest of the Gospel of John will show what it means to love as Jesus loves. The new commandment to love one another is a commandment to lay down your life for your brothers and sisters in the church. It is a commandment to give your life in the service of Jesus; to lose your life rather than to save it. This is a love that I have not obtained; neither has the church.
If you know anything about the history of Christianity, you know that the church has not been a community of love the way Jesus intended. We do not need to rehearse that whole story here. All we need to do is remember that the Vicar of Christ approved the use of torture as a way to force heretics to “confess.” The Catholic Church sent armies bearing the sign of the cross to invade nations that did not worship the way Rome had decreed. Eastern Patriarchs and bishops had reputed heretics beaten and killed in Egypt, Greece, and Syria. At one time Protestant theologians approved of the murder of people who chose to be rebaptized. In how many wars have Christian brothers and sisters used every means imaginable to kill and maim each other? How often have we called for the Lord to trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored? How many Christians have enslaved and brutalized their brothers and sisters in Christ?
Jesus’ teaching on the night in which he was betrayed remains radical and challenging. I often hear people calling for the conversion of the whole world and for the triumph of the gospel in all lands. We forget that Jesus taught us quite plainly that the only way that the whole world will know who the disciples of Jesus are is by their love for each other. John’s Gospel is not the least bit ambiguous. It is Judas who comes with swords and clubs and violence. The disciples of Christ are those who are willing to love each other even unto death.
Peter It is no accident that it is at this point in John’s Gospel that Peter asks Jesus where he is going. Literary scholars point out that the love commandment interrupts the narrative. Peter’s question follows quite naturally from Jesus’ statement that where he is going they cannot follow him, but the love commandment is inserted to make one point very clear. This commandment to love is not as easy as it appears. Simon Peter, one of the pillars of the twelve, protests when Jesus says he cannot go with him. He says he is willing to lay down his life.
This scene with Peter is told in slightly different ways in all four gospels. The differences are significant enough to indicate that John was not copying from the other gospels. He has recorded a very old tradition that probably goes back to an historical event. All the evidence indicates that Jesus and Peter did have this kind of discussion that last night. Peter protested that he would never abandon Jesus; he would follow him through his arrest and even die with him. This is one of those bold speeches that we love in war stories. Readers of the Iliad or even the book of Samuel would recognize Peter’s bravado and cheer. Yes, Peter will give his life for the Lord. He will fulfill the commandment to love Jesus to the very end.
But Jesus stops him short. It is easier to proclaim one’s devotion than to follow the hard road. With chilling brevity, Jesus tells Peter that before the night is over he will deny that he even knows Jesus. Three times he will have an opportunity to stand with Jesus and die with him. Three times he will lie and hide in the shadows. Three times before the rooster crows, his love will fail. This story appears in all four gospels and there is no reason to know it other than our skepticism. But it is beyond all doubt that Peter did indeed deny Jesus that night. It is unimaginable that the church would have made up this story about the most important disciple. We will return to Peter in a few weeks. For now, let me leave you with this painful truth. When words of love and devotion pass your lips, think of Peter and Judas. It is all too easy to sing about love and profess our love for Jesus and our love for those who love the Lord. The Gospel of John does not call us to profess our faith and love with words, but with deeds. Jesus said, “As I have loved you, love one another.” How do you show that you love the Lord and all of his children in every church in every land?