One of my greatest fears is that, as I grow older, I will harden into a particular shape. What I mean by that is this: I’ve seen so many people who, as they age, become very rigid in their outlook on the world. An older gentleman has already seen enough of the church and theology that he’s decided where he stands, and no one will shake him from his dogma. An older woman has decided that Political Party A is the cause of all that’s wrong with the country, and no amount of reasoning will change her mind. Another older man complains incessantly about the “kids” who are so disrespectful; he’s convinced that this is the root of evil in society, and don’t you try to disagree with him. To be old and unteachable is one of the saddest fates I can think of. (And truth be told, many people don’t wait until they’re old to become unteachable.)
One particular shape we can harden into is that of a bitter and fearful person. I wish I could say I don’t see this much, but I do. This is a person who’s been burned in the past, betrayed by someone she trusted. So now this person builds a wall around herself, keeping out anyone and anything that might pose a threat to her safety. She’s under lock and key; she doesn’t want to be hurt again.
Jesus, too, was betrayed and abandoned by his closest friends. How did he respond? Did he harden into a fearful person, surrounding himself with a protective shell?
We’re nearing the end of the last week of Jesus’ ministry before his death. Mark relates the story of how Jesus prepared to celebrate the Jewish Passover festival. Just like his preparations to enter Jerusalem (Mark 11:1–6), Jesus has everything planned out. He tells them to look for a man carrying a water jar, which would have been unusual since that was the responsibility of a woman or a servant in that culture. They find the man, who shows them a guest room that is ready for them to use. Whether or not Jesus has arranged this in advance is not clear; the point is that he is orchestrating the final week of his life. Jesus isn’t walking into a deathtrap—he knows exactly what is taking place.
So when they begin celebrating the Passover, Jesus warns them about what is coming: “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” His betrayer will not be a random member of the crowd but one from his trusted inner circle. I’m sure this was not easy for Jesus to know. How would you respond if you discovered one of your treasured friends or family members was looking for a way to hurt you?
When his disciples hear these words, they are devastated. Mark records that they begin asking Jesus, one after another, “Is it I?”
Think about that for a moment. This tells us that Judas is not an aberration. He is the betrayer, sure, but it could have been any one of the other disciples. They are all weak and vulnerable; under the right circumstances, they might be the ones who hand Jesus over to his enemies. Jesus is surrounded by unreliable, unfaithful friends. He confirms, “It is one of the twelve.”
Jesus also says, “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” It has always been God’s plan that Jesus will be betrayed by Judas. From the foundation of the earth this was ordained to take place. Yet Judas is not acting as a puppet; he is entirely responsible for his actions. Jesus has known his betrayal is coming, and he knows that Judas is perfectly happy to be the betrayer.
So how does Jesus respond? Does he hold his disciples at arm’s length? Does he refuse their company? Does he do his best to protect himself so he won’t be hurt?
No. Instead, Jesus takes the Passover bread and breaks it. He says to his disciples, “Take; this is my body.” The bread is a symbol of his own body that will be broken for them. Then he takes a cup of wine and gives it to all of them to drink (even Judas!). He tells them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
Jesus responds to betrayal and unfaithfulness by allowing himself to be broken and poured out for those who will abandon him. His bloody death inaugurates a new covenant, better than the covenant that came through Moses. With this new covenant, God promises, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.…They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquities, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33–34).
Jesus promises that a new kingdom is coming. It is so close that he says, “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” And to bring his disciples into this kingdom, God will change their hearts to know him and to love his law. He will forgive them for their sin, for their rebellion against his reign.
That is the beauty of the gospel. Jesus’ disciples have done nothing to deserve this awesome gift. He gives his very self on behalf of traitors and cowards—on behalf of you and me. We have wounded him and killed him, but he invites us to his table as his dearest friends.