Pastor Greg Laurie of the Harvest megachurch in California spoke to his congregation Sunday about the possibility of being so close, yet so far from God, using the example of Judas Iscariot, who wilfully betrayed Jesus despite spending three years with Him.
Judas Iscariot is one of the most misunderstood people in the Bible, Laurie said as he began his message, titled "So Close, Yet So Far: Surprising Story of Judas Iscariot," part of the "God Came Near" series.
Some wonder if Judas was not really an evil man as he "helped" Jesus fulfil His mission or thinking that God hardened his heart, the pastor told the congregation.
"Judas acted on his own volition. … He went out of his way to betray Jesus," Laurie said.
Before going further into Judas' act of betrayal, the pastor explained why Jesus came to Earth.
Jesus came to give us life in its fullest measure, as John 10:10 says, Laurie noted. "Jesus came to seek us, save us and bring us into a right relationship with the Father," he added, referring to 1 Timothy 1:15.
Jesus came to die for us, Laurie went on to say, quoting Hebrews 9:26. "The crucifixion was not an unexpected turn of events." And Jesus came to break Satan's power in people's lives, as 1 John 3:8 says.
Coming back to the story of Judas Iscariot, Laurie said his very name suggests evil, "and we use it as a picture of something negative."
Judas was perhaps the most wicked man who ever lived on Earth, he added. "Judas wanted to betray Jesus. Judas did it for money. Judas initiated it."
Strangely, in the death of Jesus, both God and Satan were moving in the same direction, the pastor said. "Satan wanted Jesus humiliated, tortured, beaten and most of all, stopped. The father wanted Jesus sacrificed, atoning and risen."
Judas "was not a passive tool of providence; he made his choice and his choice made him," the pastor stated. It is true that Satan put the thought in Judas' mind, but he also found a willing accomplice in Judas, he explained.
Judas could have resisted that temptation, as he had spent three years with God in human form, Laurie added.
But Judas initiated the betrayal, according to Matthew 26:14-16, and he was in love with money. He was a great actor, a performer, a hypocrite, the pastor said.
In the upper room, according to Matthew 26:21-24, Jesus gave Judas a chance to repent when He told His disciples that not all of them were clean as He washed their feet Laurie said. Jesus said it clearly that one of them was going to betray Him.
When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that God's will be done, Judas came to hand him over to Roman soldiers, as recorded in Matthew 26:39-50. Yet Jesus called Judas His friend, giving him one last chance to repent.
Later, Judas did experience remorse, but did not repent, Laurie added, quoting Matthew 27:2-5.
We can be remorseful just because we are caught doing a wrong thing, and not because we did a wrong thing, the pastor explained. "To repent means being sorry enough to change our behavior."
Two men walked out of the Garden of Gethsemane that night, one who betrayed the Lord and the other who denied Jesus, Laurie said. But Judas walked into darkness and killed himself, and Peter walked into the open arms of God, he added.
The difference was that Judas had hardened his heart, Laurie suggested.
A church could also be a place where people can harden their hearts, the pastor warned. "Church can be a dangerous place," he said, adding that if people come to church out of mere duty or because someone wants them to come, with no desire to change, "I'm concerned." May be, you should just stop coming, he said, and explained, "Every time you hear God's truth and you don't respond to it, your heart can get hardened."
The Bible does say that God can "harden" people's hearts, but only in a way that He may "strengthen" their decision, whether it is to know God or to not seek Him in their lives.