Why did Judas betray Jesus with a kiss? Greeting people with a kiss was common in Jewish culture, but why did he not just point Jesus out? Why pretend to be on Jesus’ side right till the end? Was there any significance to this act?
The story of Judas is one of the most tragic ones in history—sacred or secular. He was with the Lord Jesus for three and a half years. Jesus taught him from the Scriptures and would’ve had numerous conversations besides. Judas was also a witness to all that Jesus did. And yet, he did not have a genuine relationship with Jesus; he remained a son of perdition (John 17:12).
From the beginning, Jesus knew that Judas would betray Him. It doesn’t mean that, in choosing him, Jesus was setting up a plot for His betrayal. Neither was the choice a wrong one. Jesus, as the Perfect Man, chose Judas as His disciple.
The question before us now is twofold: the reason for betraying Jesus with a kiss and why Judas would’ve wanted to pretend as His friend even then. Though we have the incident narrated in all three synoptic Gospels, we do not find direct answers to either question anywhere. Thus we have to depend on logical deductions from the narratives in Matthew 26.48; Mark 14.44; Luke 22.47.
Before looking for the logical deductions from Scripture, here is an alternative attempt to answer the question. In dealing with this question in the Jan-Feb 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeological Review, Hershel Shank refers to a book titled ‘Pseudo-Cyril of Jerusalem On the Life and the Passion of Christ’. It is a new translation of an eighth-century Gnostic Gospel, written by Dutch scholar Roelof van den Broek. In the book, van den Broek claims that Judas had to kiss and betray Jesus as He could change His features—colour, height, hair, and even His appearance as a whole.
The story of Judas is one of the most tragic ones in history—sacred or secular
While it is true that Jesus could appear differently in various times, it was not the norm. Even when he appeared as a stranger after the resurrection, it had specific purposes. Besides this, we do not find Him as a shape-changer. Thus this explanation is only wild imagination without Scriptural support.
Let us note a few things first. We know that there was a crowd around when Jesus was arrested (Matthew 26:47). As it was late into the night, we can assume that it was dark in the garden of Gethsemane. And people might not always remember the facial features of a person.
DA Carson writes: “The need for pointing out the right man was especially acute, not only because it was dark, but because, in a time long before photography, the faces of even great celebrities would not be nearly so widely known as today” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, p. 546). Also, the Jewish authorities would have been keen not to arrest the wrong person.
In Jewish custom—as in most of the world—a kiss symbolises affection and respect. And Judas used it for the most treacherous act, the betrayal of the Son of Man!
But Judas could have identified Jesus by touching—even simply pointing to—Him. Why did he still pretend to be a friend by kissing Him? Jesus had never insulted Judas publicly for what he was going to do. He did not expose him before the Twelve. Even in the Upper Room, Jesus did not make it evident to others that Judas would betray Him. When Judas walked out, they would’ve had no reason to suppose evil intentions.
Thus, he was in the good books of the others till the betrayal in Gethsemane. Even when he came and kissed Jesus, they would’ve only perceived it the same way as he would’ve done it at other times. There was no reason to show his real nature till then. Thus he acted as a friend and used the symbol of friendship and affection to greet Jesus at his return.
The infinite love and grace of our Lord become starkly evident against the dark backdrop of the night
Jesus’ response to the kiss might have shocked Judas to the core. “… Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48), He asked. Judas never had an accurate understanding of the Lord. He might have thought of Him as a mere ‘miracle worker’.
The kiss of betrayal is significant. That Jesus would let Judas kiss Him, knowing full well everything that was about to happen, shows that He kept the doors open for him to return. The pointed question was to stir his conscience. The infinite love and grace of our Lord became starkly evident against the dark backdrop of the night.
The betrayal also fulfils the prophecies about the Messiah in the Psalms. David says, “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (Psalms 41:9). “For it is not an enemy who taunts me—then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked in the throng (Psalms 55:12-14). Though these texts immediately applied to David, the ultimate fulfilment was to happen with the Messiah.
The treachery also instructs us about Satan’s methods. He energised and worked in Judas to use a symbol of affection and honour to betray the Son of Man—to commit the vilest act ever. Satan acts in subtlety many times. That’s why the Bible instructs us to beware, examine, and prove all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).
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