THE BEGINNING OF THE END.
IT was inevitable that the burning words of indignation which Jesus had uttered on this last great day of His ministry should exasperate beyond all control the hatred and fury of the priestly party among the Jews. Not only had they been defeated and abashed in open encounter in the very scene of their highest dignity, and in the presence of their most devoted adherents; not only had they been forced to confess their ignorance of that very Scripture exegesis which was their recognised domain, and their incapacity to pronounce an opinion on a subject respecting which it was their professed duty to decide; but, after all this humiliation, He whom they despised as the young and ignorant Rabbi of NazarethHe who neglected their customs and discountenanced their traditionsHe on whose words, to them so pernicious, the people hung in rapt attentionhad suddenly turned upon them, within hearing of the very Hall of Meeting, and had pronounced upon themupon them in the odour of their sanctityupon them who were accustomed to breathe all their lives the incense of unbounded adulationa woe so searching, so scathing, so memorably intense, that none who heard it could forget it for evermore. It was time that this should end. Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Priests, Scribes, Elders, Annas the astute and tyrannous, Caiaphas the abject and servile, were all now aroused; and, dreading they knew not what outburst of religious anarchy, which would shake the very foundations of their system, they met together probably on that very evening in the Palace of Caiaphas, sinking all their own differences in a common inspiration of hatred against that long-promised Messiah in whom they only recognised a common enemy. It was an alliance, for His destruction, of fanaticism, unbelief, and worldliness; the rage of the bigoted, the contempt of the atheist, and the dislike of the utilitarian; and it seemed but too clear that from the revengeful hate of such a combination no earthly power was adequate to save.
Of the particulars of the meeting we know nothing; but the Evangelists record the two conclusions at which the high conspirators arrivedthe one a yet more decisive and emphatic renewal of the vote that He must, at all hazards, be put to death without delay; the other, that it must be done by subtilty, and not by violence, for fear of the multitude; and that, for the same reasonnot because of the sacredness of the Feastthe murder must be postponed, until the conclusion of the Passover had caused the dispersion of the countless pilgrims to their own homes.
This meeting was held, in all probability, on the evening of Tuesday, while the passions which the events of that day had kindled were still raging with volcanic energy. So that, at the very moment while they were deciding that during that Easter-tide our Passover should not be slainat that very moment, seated on the slopes of Olivet, Jesus was foretelling to His disciples, with the calmest certainty, that He should be sacrificed on the very day on which, at evening, the lamb was sacrificed, and the Paschal feast began.
Accordingly, before the meeting was over, an event occurred which at once altered the conclusions of the council, and rendered possible the immediate capture of Jesus without the tumult which they dreaded. The eight days' respite from the bitter sentence of death, which their terror, not their mercy, had accorded him, was to be withdrawn, and the secret blow was to be struck at once.
For before they separated a message reached them which shot a gleam of fierce joy into their hearts, while we may well imagine that it also filled them with something of surprise and awe. Conscious as they must have been in their inmost hearts how deep was the crime which they intended to commit, it must have almost startled them thus to find "the tempting opportunity at once meeting the guilty disposition," and the Evil Spirit making their way straight before their face. They were informed that the man who knew Jesus, who had been with Him, who had been His disciplenay, more, one of the Twelvewas ready to put an immediate end to their perplexities, and to re-open with them the communication which he had already made.
The house of Caiaphas was probably in or near the Temple precincts. The gates both of the city and of the Temple were usually closed at sundown, but at the time of this vast yearly gathering it was natural that the rules should have been a little relaxed for the general convenience; and when Judas slank away from his brethren on that fatal evening he would rely on being admitted without difficulty within the city precincts, and into the presence of the assembled elders. He applied accordingly to the "captains" of the Temple, the members of the Levitical guard who had the care of the sacred buildings, and they at once announced his message, and brought him in person before the priests and rulers of the Jews.
Some of the priests had already seen him at their previous meeting; others would doubtless recognise him. If Judas resembled the conception of him which tradition has handed down
"That furtive mien, that scowling eye,
they could have hardly failed to notice the man of Kerioth as one of those who followed Jesusperhaps to despise and to detest Him, as almost the only Jew among the Galilæan Apostles. And now they were to be leagued with him in wickedness. The fact that one who had lived with Jesus, who had heard all He had said and seen all He had donewas yet ready to betray Himstrengthened them in their purpose; the fact that they, the hierarchs and nobles, were ready not only to praise, but even to reward Judas for what he proposed to do, strengthened him in his dark and desperate design. As in water face answereth to face, so did the heart of Judas and of the Jews become assimilated by the reflection of mutual sympathy. As iron sharpeneth iron, so did the blunt weapon of his brutal anger give fresh edge to their polished hate.
Whether the hideous demand for blood-money had come from him, or had been suggested by them; whether it was paid immediately, or only after the arrest; whether the wretched and paltry sum giventhirty shekels, the price of the meanest slavewas the total reward, or only the earnest of a further and larger sumthese are questions which would throw a strong light on the character and motives of Judas, but to which the general language of the Evangelists enables us to give no certain answer. The details of the transaction were probably but little known. Neither Judas nor his venerable abettors had any cause to dwell on them with satisfaction. The Evangelists and the early Christians generally, when they speak of Judas, seem to be filled with a spirit of shuddering abhorrence too deep for words. Only one dark fact stood out before their imagination in all its horror, and that was that Judas was a traitor; that Judas had been one of the Twelve, and yet had sold his Lord. Probably he received the money, such as it was, at once. With the gloating eyes of that avarice which was his besetting sin, he might gaze on the silver coins, stamped (oh, strange irony of history!) on one side with an olive-branch, the symbol of peace, on the other with a censer, the type of prayer, and bearing on them the superscription, "Jerusalem the Holy." And probably if those elders chaffered with him after the fashion of their race, as the narrative seems to imply, they might have represented that, after all, his agency was unessential; that he might do them a service which would be regarded as a small convenience, but they could carry out their purpose, if they chose, without his aid. One thing, however, is certain: he left them a pledged traitor, and henceforth only sought the opportunity to betray his Master when no part of the friendly multitude was near.
What were the motives of this man? Who can attempt to fathom the unutterable abyss, to find his way amid the weltering chaos, of a heart agitated by unresisted and besetting sins? The Evangelists can say nothing but that Satan entered into him. The guilt of the man seemed to them too abnormal for any natural or human explanation. The narratives of the Synoptists point distinctly to avarice as the cause of his ruin. They place his first overtures to the Sanhedrin in close and pointed connection with the qualm of disgust he felt at being unable to secure any pilferings from the "three hundred pence," of which, since they might have come into his possession, he regarded himself as having been robbed; and St. John, who can never speak of him without a shudder of disgust, says in so many words than he was an habitual thief (John xii. 6). How little insight can they have into the fatal bondage and diffusiveness of a besetting sin, into the dense spiritual blindness and awful infatuation with which it confounds the guilty, who cannot believe in so apparently inadequate a motive! Yet the commonest observance of daily facts which come before our notice in the moral world, might serve to show that the commission of crime results as frequently from a motive that seems miserably small and inadequate, as from some vast and abnormal temptation. Do we not read in the Old Testament of those that pollute God among the people "for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread;" of those who sell "the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes?" The sudden crisis of temptation might seem frightful, but its issue was decided by the entire tenor of his previous life; the sudden blaze of lurid light was but the outcome of that which had long burnt and smouldered deep within his heart.
Doubtless other motives mingled with, strengthenedperhaps to the self-deceiving and blinded soul substituted themselves forthe predominant one. "Will not this measure," he may have thought, "force Him to declare His Messianic kingdom? At the worst, can He not easily save Himself by miracle? If not, has He not told us repeatedly that He will die; and if so, why may I not reap a little advantage from that which is in any case inevitable? Or will it not, perhaps, be meritorious to do that of which all the chief priests approve?" A thousand such devilish suggestions may have formulated themselves in the traitor's heart, and mingled with them was the revulsion of feeling which he suffered from finding that his self-denial in following Jesus would, after all, be apparently in vain; that he would gain from it not rank and wealth, but only poverty and persecution. Perhaps, too, there was something of rancour at being rebuked; perhaps something of bitter jealousy at being less loved by Christ than his fellows; perhaps something of frenzied disappointment at the prospect of failure; perhaps something of despairing hatred at the consciousness that he was suspected. Alas! sins grow and multiply with fatal diffusiveness, and blend insensibly with hosts of their evil kindred. "The whole moral nature is clouded by them; the intellect darkened; the spirit stained." Probably by this time a turbid confused chaos of sins was weltering in the soul of Judasmalice, worldly ambition, theft, hatred of all that was good and pure, base ingratitude, frantic anger, all culminating in this foul and frightful act of treacheryall rushing with blind, bewildering fury through this gloomy soul.
"Satan entered into him." That, after all, whether a literal or a metaphorical expression, best describes his awful state. It was a madness of disenchantment from selfish hopes. Having persuaded himself that the New Kingdom was a mere empty fraud, he is suffered to become the victim of a delusion, which led him into a terrible conviction that he had flung away the substance for a shadow. It had not been always thus with him. He had not been always bad. The day had been when he was an innocent boya youth sufficiently earnest to be singled out from other disciples as one of the Twelve a herald of the New Kingdom not without high hopes. The poverty and the wanderings of the early period of the ministry may have protected him from temptation. The special temptationtrebly dangerous, because it appealed to his besetting sinmay have begun at that period when our Lord's work assumed a slightly more settled and organised character. Even then it did not master him at once. He had received warnings of fearful solemnity (John vi. 70); for some time there may have been hope for him; he may have experienced relapses into dishonesty after recoveries of nobleness. But as he did not master his sin, his sin mastered him, and led him on, as a slave, to his retribution and ruin. Did he slink back to Bethany that night with the blood-money in his bag? Did he sleep among his fellow-apostles?All that we know is that henceforth he was ever anxiously, eagerly, suspiciously upon the watch.
And the next daythe Wednesday in Passion weekmust have baffled him. Each day Jesus had left Bethany in the morning and had gone to Jerusalem. Why did He not go on that day? Did He suspect treachery? That day in the Temple Courts the multitude listened for His voice in vain. Doubtless the people waited for Him with intense expectation; doubtless the priests and Pharisees looked out for Him with sinister hope; but He did not come. The day was spent by Him in deep seclusion, so far as we know, in perfect rest and silence. He prepared Himself in peace and prayer for the awfulness of His coming struggle. It may be that He wandered alone to the hilly uplands above and around the quiet village, and there, under the vernal sunshine, held high communing with His Father in heaven. But how the day was passed by Him we do not know. A veil of holy silence falls over it. He was surrounded by the few who loved Him and believed in Him. To them He may have spoken, but His work as a teacher on earth was done.
And on that night He lay down for the last time on earth. On the Thursday morning He woke never to sleep again.