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Not Projects, but People

John’s account of the Last Supper has its own distinct flavor compared to the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. For example, he includes Jesus’ teaching by way of foot washing but excludes the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Beyond what is or is not included, John records the identification of Judas as Jesus’ betrayer with rich symbolism. For example, the beloved disciple is more or less described as being “in the bosom of Jesus,” which should remind us of John’s earlier words that Jesus, the Word, is the one who is in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18), as the New American Standard makes clear. This language symbolizes the close association of the beloved disciple with his Lord, an intimate association that contrasts with the more transactional interaction between Jesus and Judas.

In that interaction between Jesus and Judas, there is also rich symbolism, for the signal by which Jesus identifies Judas as his betrayer closely ties its significance to the earlier-quoted Scripture reference, “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (Ps 41:9 ESV, quoted in John 13:18). Thus, the signal Jesus chose was clearly intended to convey rich symbolism to at least the beloved disciple but also to us who have read the gospel of the beloved disciple since.

But there is more. In addition to the rich symbolism, the whole episode lacks any substantial dialogue or discourse. Peter merely nods to the beloved disciple to give him the signal to ask about the identity of Jesus’ betrayer. So also, there is very little said when Judas is identified; the rich symbolism does much of the talking. Now, this dearth of substantial dialogue just might be unremarkable except that nearly every word of the next four chapters will be dialogue and discourse!

With all that said, I want to engage in just a small measure of speculation by asking this question: Why did John use all this practically wordless symbolism to identify Judas as Jesus’ betrayer? In my own reflection on that question, it struck me that Judas must betray Jesus in order that the Scriptures might be fulfilled and God’s plan of redemption continue to unfold. As a consequence, a general exposure of Judas to the whole table of disciples very well may have worked against Christ’s own ministry and mission of which he was clearly conscious as John points out earlier in the chapter (cf. John 13:2-3). Thus, I think that the practically wordless symbolism can be explained at least in part as a concealing revelation. It was concealing in that the rest of the table did not understand what was going on, but it was revealing in that the beloved disciple was “read into” what Jesus already knew.

All well and good, but maybe a second question might bubble up in your mind: Why, then, did Jesus identify Judas as his betrayer to the beloved disciple at all? Or to back it up, why did Jesus satisfy Peter’s curiosity by identifying Judas to the beloved disciple? After all, the disciples could have pieced it all together ex post facto. I think this whole episode shows Jesus’ real love for John (the beloved disciple) in answering a question he didn’t have to answer at all.

And that should remind us that Jesus doesn’t view his mission as merely a project to be completed, nor, by extension, does he view any of his followers as projects. Rather, John was a real person with a real question and real interests, and Jesus answered him as a person and not as a project. To be sure, in the following verses, Jesus also engages with Peter as a person, though Peter’s attempts to turn the gospel upside down mean that he is engaged with rebuke (though it was an equally loving response according to the personality of Peter).

Our takeaway from this reflection should be a greater appreciation for Jesus’ loving engagement with his people. Quite unlike the attitude that children should be seen and not heard, Jesus engages with spiritual children (of which we are all to varying degrees) and answers questions and satisfies curiosities that are not strictly necessary. Far from being an austere religious leader, our Lord engages personally with his people in a way that should embolden us to humbly yet hopefully ask about things that are not strictly necessary. To be sure, God’s grace in the Lord Jesus Christ extends even to the way in which he interacts with his people.

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