Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross is as familiar as it misleading. Completed in 1951, it depicts a crucified Jesus, suspended high above still Galilean waters. Is it a comment on Christ’s victory? Perhaps, but look again. Something’s not right. There’s no blood nor bruises, not even nails in his hands and feet. Dali’s Jesus isn’t suffering. He’s floating above all that, ‘not even touching this earth’ comments Francis Schaeffer.
This isn’t John’s Jesus. As the disciples’ feet are drying in John 13, we glimpse a Saviour who is ‘troubled in spirit’ (v21). 99% of the people we’ll ever meet will give no clue to what’s going on deep down in their lives but here we’re given an insight into the heart and mind of God in flesh. What do we see? Anguish.
Jesus has been troubled before, but not like this (John 11:33; 12:27). This pain is personal: ‘truly, truly I say to you, one of you will betray me’ (John 13:21).
Of course, we all know who will betray him for his name has meant betrayal ever since. In 2001, when Spurs captain, Sol Campbell, signed for Arsenal, there was only one way the White Hart Lane faithful could respond. At the next north London derby, hundreds of posters appeared across the stands, each bearing a single angry word: Judas. We know what it means. Yet, as his disciples gathered to celebrate the Passover, not one of them had a clue what would happen next. Even if they had been told, they wouldn’t have believed it. Judas was one of them; a gospel-preacher with the gift of healing (Luke 9:1-2) and a voice for the poor (John 12:5-6). As they settled down to eat, Judas was at Jesus’ right side, not Peter, James or John. If anyone were to betray Jesus, it couldn’t be Judas.
Doesn’t that explain what happens, or rather doesn’t happen, next? Peter mouths, ‘Who?’ and John leans in to ask his Lord. This isn’t a private conversation, everybody’s watching. ‘It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it,’ Jesus says, synchronising words with dipping and bread passing (John 13:26). He couldn’t have been clearer yet no one jumps the table to nail the betrayer. It couldn’t be Judas and even when Judas leaves abruptly in verse 29, the disciples are none the wiser.
Jesus knew. He’d known since reading Psalm 41 as a boy: ‘Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me’ (Ps. 41:8). From the moment they met, Jesus knew (John 6:64).
Now Jesus’ hour had arrived, and the man to start the clock lay next to him with clean feet. Can you feel the weight of Jesus’ distress? The word for Jesus’ emotional state is used elsewhere to describe raging waters. Don’t be mistaken, our Saviour is churning up inside.
Yet, despite the anguish, he’s no victim. Jesus is totally in control.
Anguished yet assured
As my wife and I walked the path between Mumbles Pier and Three Cliffs Bay we paused to look down at the water. Waves frothed violently and couldn’t have looked angrier as they smashed the rocks beneath our feet. Further out, the mood changed. As the sun set on the horizon, the water stilled. The disturbed waves were backed by an ocean of calm.
That’s Jesus, anguished yet assured, provoked yet at peace within. He knows betrayal will come and he also knows through whom. Yet not even Satan can play his part without Christ’s prompting (John 13:27). Sending Judas on his way, Jesus is bossing the scene. Can you sense the kingly authority? Distressed, yes, but never destroyed. Like a symphonic conductor, Jesus not only knows what melody comes next, but cues the players and counts them in. He’s controlling it all.
The most painful things
The power of Bible stories is often lost with our familiarity of them. As the disciples’ feet are washed, we already know about the betrayal and the betrayer, but they don’t. For them, this would be a trauma they would relive for the rest of their lives. Three times (John 13:22, 23, 27) we glimpse their shock and in describing it for us, John is preparing us for the moment when, seemingly out of the blue, those closest to the Lord, walk away from him.
Don Carson has suffered much. Growing up in the hostility of Quebec, he’s battled diseases three times that almost took him out and for decades cared for his wife as she’s lived through cancer. In a talk he gave in 2013 he shared, ‘But the most painful things are betrayals by Christian friends. My wife and I cried much, much more over [a friend’s betrayal of the faith] than we ever did over the cancer.’
When something like this happens, it’s tempting to consider the role we played. Could I have done more and done things differently? Inevitably the answer is ‘yes’, but friend, be at peace. Notice who it is that discipled Judas. He didn’t have a bad teacher. Walking with Jesus for three years, Judas had heard his teaching, saw his life up close, yet still walked away. In his book about Judas, Colin Smith writes, ‘The human heart is beyond understanding and there is something incomprehensible about a person who abandons the faith they once professed.’ Some will leave and we will grieve, entrust them to the Lord and pray for protection.
You can walk away
That’s not all. Jesus also gives permission to leave. It’s the staggering freedom that God grants. The Creator himself says we’re free to go. Not even Jesus stopped Judas, but before you do, consider the stakes. Judas goes out, and it was night, John says in 13:30. This is more than eyewitness detail, it’s code for spiritual, eternal darkness. To leave Christ is to leave the light of life. Don’t go. There’s only stillness in those shadows.
Look again at who you’re leaving. Can you sense a love that burns for us even at our indignant, determined worst? The one who taught us to love our enemies is here living it out, taking Judas’ feet and washing them clean. He offers him bread, not just fulfilling the Scripture, but making a gesture of friendship, a late stage offer of reconciliation and forgiveness.
It’s not too late. Even as Jesus sends him with the words, ‘What you’ve got to do, do quickly’ (John 13:27), he’s not cutting him off, but forcing his friend to make a choice; longing that Judas would disarm and choose life again. It wasn’t just his own sufferings that troubled Jesus’ spirit. Jesus loved his betrayer and he loves you too with a love robust and brave enough to forgive the worst and welcome you back. A love that compelled him to be crucified. A love that compels us to stay. A love that will not let you and me go.