Gospel of John: Setting the Scene


When something really huge goes wrong, it often feels like some colossal random event. Someone blows up in your face and you say, “Wow, where did that come from?” Or the roof falls in and you say, “But it was fine a minute ago.”

Usually big things can be traced back to some small, insignificant fact, or event. That someone’s been simmering on something for quite some time until they blew. The termites might have been feasting on your ceiling beams for years before the roof caved.

In this week’s posts, Judas had been having one small rebellion after another, and covering it over by pretending to love Jesus until finally, it seemed like out of the blue to the other disciples, he did something unbelievably awful.

Today, we set the scene


Just Before Passover

It was just before the Passover, and Jesus had secured a room for them to have a meal together. Mark’s gospel indicates this would be to celebrate the Seder, and the other two Synoptic gospels agree. If the Seder, then it would be in a somewhat unusual, but not unheard of, timeframe, for according to John’s gospel this meal would take place before most would be observing Passover.

Jesus knew the time for him to die had come. Back in chapter 1, John the Baptist had identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. The Passover lamb had first been sacrificed thousands of years before, when God’s judgment was about to roll down on Egypt. The firstborn of every household, both of person and of animal, was about to be taken.

But in order to save God’s people, the Lord instructed  the people to sacrifice a lamb without any defects and paint its blood on the door posts of every Hebrew family’s home, as a sign to God that blood had already been shed for this household. God was willing to pass over judgment of sin on that house and move on.

Every home held death that night – either by God’s judgement or by the lamb’s sacrifice. Thought the people did not know it then, the lamb’s blood was a symbol for Jesus’ blood that would one day cause judgment to pass over every person who put their faith in Jesus as God’s Passover Lamb.

As Jesus thought about what was to come, he was moved by an overflowing love for all of his disciples. In these next few hours, Jesus intended to love his disciples to the very end, and to show the full extent of his love, his agape, for them.

The Devil’s Work

Jesus was aware of the invisible, spiritual forces of the kingdom of darkness at work all around them.

Now supper being come, the devil already had thrown into the heart in order that Judas of Simon Iscariot would deliver him [Jesus] up for judgment,

John 13:2

It reads strangely, does it not?

I spent a long while thinking about this verse, and tried to translate it as cogently as I could, then checked other translations—Dr. Nyland’s The Source, Young’s Literal translation, Marianne Meye Thompson’s commentary on John, and at last Jo-Ann A. Brant’s commentary John, which finally brings clarity to the ambiguity, as she puts it.

Most translations move the word order around to make “the heart” (or “the mind,” in some translations) belong to Judas. But the truth is, in the Greek there is no “of” to connect the heart with Judas or anyone else. So, into whose heart had been cast this determination to deliver up Jesus?

The devil did the throwing, and Judas did the delivering.

The ambiguity rests.

Perhaps Jesus’ ancient opponent, the Serpent of Eden, who suspected Jesus had come to crush the head of evil, had been sifting the disciples all the while, and narrowed his focus on Judas, the son of Simon who was an inhabitant of Kerioth. Perhaps Satan had been tossing around ideas about who he thought he could turn, and finally settled on Judas. He threw that idea and caught it back. He was right, of course. Judas would turn that night.

What Jesus Knew

The reader of hearts and discerner of souls knew that Satan was bringing about a crisis, and that his catalyst was going to be Judas, one the Lord’s own disciples.

As Jesus and his disciples arranged themselves around the low table, they reclined on cushions, leaning on their left elbow so their right hand would be available to eat with.

  • John sat on one end, to Jesus’ right, the place of honor.
  • Next to him was Jesus, the head of the table.
  • Then came Judas on Jesus’ left, the place reserved for the intimate friend.

The rest of the disciples arranged themselves in a “U” around the table with Peter at the very end, sitting across from John, as they were close friends.

Judas had continued on a willful pattern of deception, greed, and self-serving decisions. The devil had been given many inroads into Judas’ heart. When it came time, Judas found himself welcoming the idea that would betray the very things he had thought he believed in. It had begun with pilfering a little money from their communal purse.

Who knows why.

Judas’ Inner Workings

Maybe he had initially told himself he was just borrowing a little, after all, it was partly his already as a member of the Twelve, and he would slip the sum back in as soon as he could. But he never did.

Perhaps Jesus spoke quietly with him about it at some point, though I am inclined to believe Jesus did not. I am inclined to believe Judas got it into his mind he was getting away with stealing right under Jesus’ nose, and that fed into a declining respect for Jesus as his rabbi, and created a growing skepticism about Jesus’ claim to be Messiah.

I think Judas made countless little rationalizations to himself about being compensated for the responsibility of dealing with their accounts. That he was more trustworthy than Matthew, anyway. Tsk! That nobody could begrudge him the little bit, and then the little bit more, he skimmed off the top. After all, was he not one of the poor, now, following Jesus all over the place, sleeping outside in the rough, eating raw grain he had to winnow himself as he walked?

That night, I wonder if Judas thought about the place he had been given at the table?

Did he suspect Jesus knew he had been embezzling their money?

Did he believe Jesus could read hearts and discern souls?

Did he wonder if Jesus knew what was in his own heart?

Or did he—as any proper narcissist would—believe his position of intimacy at the table meant Jesus really was a fool and had entrusted himself to a thief and traitor?

Jealousy and Envy

Putting all the gospel stories together, it seems the disciples had yet another argument about who was greater than who. I think their seating arrangement is what touched off the argument, who would get to sit next to Jesus and who would get stuck at the end.

There were three disciples who had been included on several momentous occasions by special invitation of the Master:

You will note, in the links, that Mark’s (Peter’s) Gospel makes a point of describing all three events. In the last chapter of John’s Gospel Peter would press Jesus about John’s destiny, and receive a rebuke for asking.

And apparently all the disciples had been jockeying for position since early in their sojourn with Jesus.

There are at least four references to these arguments:

  • At one point, it seems, the disciples came to Jesus to ask him who was greatest among them. They had surely noticed Jesus’ extra attention on Peter, James, John, and to some extent, Andrew. However, Judas son of the Iscariot carried their common purse.
  • Similarly, there was another occasion (I think, though it is often linked with the above story) when Jesus asked his disciples what they had been talking about. Their reluctance to answer tells me this was a fresh argument. It prompted Jesus to sit a little boy on his lap (probably Peter’s son, which is why it is recorded in Mark’s Gospel) as an example of what he meant by his answer.
  • It seems James and John had taken their mother into their confidence on this issue. They must have talked about it so much she finally decided to take matters into her own hands. So, she put it to Jesus directly, to accept her sons as his left and right hand men.
  • Now, at this final meal together (the disciples probably sensed something significant happening, but I doubt they really understood Jesus would be laid in a tomb in the next 24 hours), an argument again arose

[Last Supper | The Brooklyn Museum / James Tissot, Public Domain]

2 thoughts on “Gospel of John: Setting the Scene

  1. Respected sister Joanne and family in the Lord.Good morning from Nepal.How are you ?We are fine here in Nepal.Thank you for your precious prayer. We family appreciate  towards your precious prayer ahead continue in the Lord.Thank you for your update with love of God. I have blessed continue reading your new post.Hope that will be continue ahead. We pray for your great commitment. We appreciate to you.Please pray for Nepal also.Looking to talk and write more to you  soon.God bless you.Ps.126:5,6I Cor.15:58 Joyfully Serving HimPastor, Prem & Elisa thapaNepal

    Liked by 1 person

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