Why did Jesus call Judas to be one of His Apostles? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke to help us understand Judas’ decision to betray Christ in light of God’s sovereign purposes.
In the previous two sermons, we have looked at the same passage, Luke 6:12–16, in which Jesus chose twelve from His disciples to be numbered among His Apostles. We have also looked at some of the biographical considerations of these chosen men. Today, we will look at the last four in the group, so once more we will be reading the same text:
Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and he continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, He called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; James and John; Philip and Bartholomew; Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot who also became a traitor.
Never have so many owed so much to so few as the people of this world owe to the ministry of these men selected and empowered by Jesus to spread the gospel of His kingdom around the world. You have just heard the veritable Word of God. Receive it with the fullness of its authority and power. Let us pray.
Again, our Father, as we consider more of those chosen to be Apostles, we ask that You stoop to the weakness of our understanding and give us, by Your Holy Spirit, illumination that we might understand what is written here in Your Word. For we ask these things in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Three Lesser-Known Apostles
The last four Apostles we’ve not mentioned except in the reading include James the son of Alpheus, also known as James the Less, Simon the Zealot, Judas the son of James, and finally, Judas Iscariot. There is precious little information given to us in the New Testament about the first three men. Much has been written and spoken about the last of the four since his betrayal of our Lord. So, I’ll give most of the time this morning to Judas, but before we turn our attention to him, let’s look briefly at the first three.
James the Less: Missionary to Syria
First is James the son of Alphaeus, who is also known as James the Less. Some people understand “the Less” to refer to the idea that he was younger than the other James, the brother of John. Still others argue that “the Less” means he was shorter in stature than the other James.
We hear almost nothing about this James in the New Testament. Perhaps the most significant New Testament record of James is that which was performed by his mother. On two different occasions, a woman by the name of Mary is mentioned and said to be the mother of James and Joses, presumably this James.
What was great about James’ mother was that she was one of the Marys present at the foot of the cross on the day of crucifixion. She was also one of the Marys who went to the tomb of Jesus before the break of dawn to anoint His body with spices. It was James’ mother, along with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, to whom the angels announced the resurrection.
Tradition tells us that James was a missionary, as were many of the others. He went to Syria, but around AD 63, he was recalled to Jerusalem and tried by the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem as a heretic. He was taken to the pinnacle of the temple and told publicly to renounce Jesus. Instead, James reaffirmed his conviction that Christ was the Messiah and the Son of God, whereupon he was thrown to the ground from the pinnacle of the temple. But that did not kill him, it merely broke his leg. So, to finish the job, the executioners came and hit James in the head with a large stone and killed him.
Simon: The Zealot
Simon the Zealot is interesting, of course, because of his nickname. He was numbered among the party of first-century Jews known as zealots. The zealots were not zealous simply about spiritual matters, but the object of their zeal was political. These were the men who came together and were passionately committed to the overthrow of the Roman government and the hope of driving them from the land.
The zealots made up, for the most part, the mass of Jews who retreated to Masada. Under the Roman attack, they were finally driven to throwing themselves off the mountaintop to commit suicide. Some have described the zealots as ancient terrorists, like the Al Qaeda that we deal with even today.
It is one of the strange acts of providence that Jesus would select for His inner core of Apostles both a tax collector, who was raising tribute to support the Roman cause, and a zealot to work side-by-side—talk about a miracle of public relations. Jesus got these two men on His team and got them to work together.
Tradition tells us that Simon also was a missionary. He went to North Africa, to Spain, and then to Britain. There, in the year AD 74, he suffered martyrdom as he was sawn in half.
Judas, Son of James: A Fellow Martyr
Before we go any further, let me remind you of the description of the saints that we read in the roll call of the heroes of faith, in Hebrews 11:35–39:
Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.
And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.
The saints of the Old Testament were joined in the company of martyrdom by so many of these Apostles chosen by Jesus. Apart from Judas, ten of the eleven were killed for their faith, and their blood, as it has been said again and again, became the seed of the church.
Their lives represent a testimony for us, that to be a Christian at this time in history was to put your life on the line. In every generation of Christians throughout church history, every believer should be prepared to give his or her life in martyrdom for the Lord.
Finally, we have Judas, also named Thaddeus in the New Testament. Next to nothing is known about him, except that through tradition we understand he was martyred in AD 70 by being shot with arrows and killed.
Judas Iscariot: The Traitor
That brings us to the last Apostle mentioned, the man whose name is identified with treachery and betrayal, Judas Iscariot, about whom much is written in the New Testament. I want to consider his role in God’s plan for redemption. In our text, we see that he was selected by Jesus to be an Apostle.
In my first sermon on this text, I mentioned that when Jesus was praying all night, before He engaged in this selection process of those who would be His closest ambassadors, He prayed with the knowledge that one, probably Judas, would be His betrayer. I speculated at that point because we don’t know for sure that Jesus knew so early that it was Judas who would betray Him. My guess is that He did, but we certainly know from the Scriptures that Jesus knew before the fact, as He announced to Judas and the other disciples at the Last Supper.
First, we want to look at his name, Judas Iscariot. What is its meaning? What is its significance? Biblical scholars express a difference of opinion as to the meaning of the name Iscariot. Some argue that it simply refers to a section of Israel in Judea named Kerioth, so Judas Iscariot was from that place in Judea. If that were the case, that would mean that Judas would be the only one of the twelve who was not a Galilean, but rather came from the south.
Others argue that the etymology of the word Iscariot goes back to the Semitic word for “dagger,” which was the symbol of certain assassins. So, Judas has been called at times “Judas the Assassin” or “Judas the Dagger-Man.” Though he never used a dagger on Jesus, he did nevertheless stab Him in the back in his betrayal.
Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and led the soldiers into the garden that night in which Jesus was arrested. In the darkness, he indicated to the soldiers which one was Jesus by walking up to Jesus and kissing Him, thereby coining the phrase for all future history, “the kiss of death.” The kiss of death occurs when somebody does something that seems on the surface to be affectionate, loving, or complementary, when really it is an act of destruction and betrayal.
Let’s look at a passage that we find in the book of Acts. Very early in Peter’s speech at Pentecost, we find in Acts 2:22–24 these words:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know— Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it.
What I want us to focus on briefly this morning is this: here, the Scriptures tell us that Jesus was delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God. Jesus’ betrayal was not an accident of history. It was not a mistake that took place when somebody was disillusioned and, in his frustration, sought worldly gain for the blood of our Savior. No, this act of treachery was ordained by Almighty God from the foundation of the world, and that causes us no small amount of consternation. How could God ordain and determine eternally that such a one would betray the innocent blood of Jesus and then be held accountable for such treachery?
Could not Judas on the day of judgment say: “What else could I do? I was merely fulfilling Your purpose. I was simply doing Your will. It was You who ordained that Satan would enter into me, and then Satan made me do this diabolical act.” Judas would have as his trump card on the day of judgment the excuse either that “the devil made me do it,” or even worse, “You Almighty God, by Your predestinating sovereignty, made me do it.”
How do we deal with that alternative? Let me begin by saying that this is certainly not the first time in biblical history where we see wickedness perpetrated by people where they are working out the counsel of Almighty God.
The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart
Consider the greatest Old Testament drama of redemption: the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. When God heard the cries of His people and determined to redeem them from their slavery and bondage, in order to affect the great exodus of the Old Testament, God used the most powerful man on the face of the earth as the instrument in His hand: Pharaoh, the king of the Egyptians.
The Scriptures tell us that in the confrontation between Pharaoh and Moses, when Moses delivered the Word of God to Pharaoh and said, “The Lord God said that you’re to let these people go that they may come and worship Him on His mountain,” Pharaoh was inclined to grant the request, but then we read, “And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” So, Pharaoh obstinately refused to let the people of God go and a series of plagues visited the people of Egypt and Pharaoh. After each plague, you see Pharaoh beginning to relent, until you read, “And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Pharaoh remained obstinate in his resistance to the mandate of God.
Finally, we are told that the reason God hardened Pharaoh’s heart was so the people might know and clearly understand that it was God, in His grace, who delivered them—not Moses, the will of the people, or the benevolence of Pharaoh—salvation was of the Lord. Even still, we have this idea that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
The question we have is two-fold. First, Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Second, How did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?
Scripture is very clear as to why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart: so that it would be manifest, plain for anybody to see, that it was the Lord God Almighty in His mercy and grace who redeemed His people. That was one of the purposes. The other purpose was that God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart—and you must understand this—was an act of divine judgment. It wasn’t like Pharaoh was an innocent, righteous bystander who had only good intentions to do whatever he could to help these poor oppressed Jewish people. No, Pharaoh was altogether wicked.
The Removal of Restraints
One of the things that God does again and again in church history, and something that we should beware of, is that He exercises judgment in a poetic manner. He will give people over to their own wicked desires. One of the ways God exercises mercy and ministry to us is by restraint. He keeps us from living out the fullness of our sinful inclinations.
If it weren’t for the restraint of God, I can’t imagine the degree of sin I would’ve committed on top of what I already have committed, nor can you imagine the degree of your sinfulness were it not for the restraining hand of God’s grace upon your life. If we try to create a list of the most wicked people in the history of the world, people whose names will frequently appear on such lists will be people like Hitler, Stalin, Nero, Pharaoh, and people of this ilk. What do these men all have in common? What they all had in common was the virtual absence of restraint upon their lives. They had absolute power that corrupts absolutely. There was nothing to hold them in check except the sovereign restraint of God.
All God had to do to have Hitler become even more a Hitler was to remove His restraints and let Hitler do what Hitler wanted to do, to remove His hands from Stalin and to let Stalin in his wickedness do what Stalin wanted to do, to take away the restraint from Nero so Nero would live out the kind of life he was inclined to live. That is what it means to be abandoned by God and to be given over to Satan by God.
Martin Luther put it this way: when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, He didn’t create fresh evil in Pharaoh’s heart. There was plenty of evil already there. The way God hardens the heart is by removing the restraints and giving one over to one’s own wickedness. Pharaoh’s heart was already recalcitrant. It already was a heart of stone before God had any of the plagues afflict him.
What Man Means for Evil, God Means for Good
We see a similar story of Joseph in Genesis, where we have the classic example of the doctrine of concurrence in our broader doctrine of providence. The brothers of Joseph, in their jealousy and treachery, sold their brother to the caravanners, who then took him to Egypt and sold him on the slave market.
You know the rest of the story. They were later restored when the brothers were sent by their father down to Egypt because of the famine. They implored the Egyptians to give relief because of the storehouses that had been built under Joseph’s supervision.
When the sons of Jacob finally realized that the prime minister they were talking to was their brother, they were terrified. Joseph said to them: “Don’t worry because of me. I’m not God. You meant it for evil. What you did, you did out of your own wicked hearts, your own evil inclinations, your own wicked intentions, but above and beyond your own mortal choices and inclinations stood the sovereign plan of Almighty God, who was also acting with intentionality. You meant it for evil, but God was involved in this, and He meant it for good, because through your evil many people will find redemption.”
That is how God works. He works in and through even wicked agents. He works even through the treachery of human beings. It not as though God forced the brothers of Joseph to act in that manner, however. The brothers of Joseph did exactly what they wanted to do. They were jealous and wanted to get rid of their brother, and God used their wickedness, their sin, and their jealousy to prepare the way for God’s people to be redeemed.
“You meant it for evil; God meant it for good.” God has never intended anything that has ever come to pass except for good. Does God ordain sin? Of course He does. If He didn’t, it couldn’t possibly come to pass. Is it wicked for God to ordain sin? No. Sin is sin, and we don’t call good evil or evil good, but God’s involvement in it is perfectly holy and righteous.
The God Who Works to Redeem Us
One more example. Consider Job and the drama in that book. When Satan came and boasted that he was going to and fro across the earth and everybody there was in his pocket, God said, “Have you considered my servant Job?”
Satan laughed at God. He said: “Of course Job worships You. Of course Job follows You. You have given him everything a man can ever ask for: wealth, riches, fame, happiness, health, and family. You’ve put a hedge around him. You take that hedge away and let me at him, and he will curse You to Your face.”
You know what happened next. First, the Sabeans came and stole Job’s donkeys and oxen. Next, the Chaldeans came and stole his camels. The devil stirred up the Sabeans against Job, the devil stirred up the Chaldeans against Job, and God stirred up Satan to stir up the Sabeans and the Chaldeans.
How does God get vindicated in all of this? For one, it wasn’t like the Sabeans were righteous, innocent cowboys that loved nothing but goodness and truth. They had been coveting Job’s oxen and donkeys for years. They were cattle rustlers from the beginning. The only problem was there was a wall there, a hedge that prevented them from stealing Job’s cattle. All God had to do was tear down the wall, and the Sabeans and the Chaldeans came. They didn’t need God to implant any fresh evil implanted in their hearts.
In all these things, I am attempting to explain what happened with Judas. Judas was a devil from the beginning. Judas was an unregenerate, corrupt, treacherous, lying, thieving crook before he ever met Jesus. Yet, God worked through his corruption to bring about the greatest work of salvation in all human history. As was the case with the brothers of Joseph, Judas meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.
Oh, that the Lord God would use us for His good purposes, for His kingdom, and when He finds us, that He work through our good intentions rather than our evil ones. If the world were left to us, we would all end up in betrayal were it not for the grace and mercy of the God who redeems us. Let’s pray.
Father, we thank You that Your righteousness triumphs over all forms of human iniquity, and that even in our deepest hostility toward You, we cannot undo Your plan to save Your people. We are grateful that salvation is of You and that You, the Lord God, reign. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.