Why did Judas betray Jesus with a kiss? The simplest explanation is of course the one we find in Matthew and Mark. It was the prearranged sign by which Judas identified Jesus to the arresting soldiers (Mark 14:44, Matt. 26:48). Ok. But that explanation still leaves a major issue unanswered. Why a kiss? There are certainly far less intimate ways to identify someone, pointing or a simple tap on the shoulder being among them. Why a kiss? The answer requires a bit of background.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey days before the betrayal, he publicly proclaimed himself the Christ/Messiah, the Son of David, the rightful king of Israel. The crowd of people present that day certainly understood his actions. Their interpretation is found recorded in each of the four Gospels. In Matthew they shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” In Mark they say, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” In Luke we hear them proclaim, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! And in John they cry, “Blessed is the King of Israel.”
The question we need to ask is why did these people connect Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey with an implicit claim to the throne? Matthew and John of course point to a prophetic fulfillment of Zachariah 9:9,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
And this is typically where our answers end.
But there’s an even bigger reason to connect Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem with his claim to be king than this short verse in Zachariah. We know that the act of riding a mule into Jerusalem was the sign by which Solomon was proclaimed king of Israel. This event is found in 1 Kings 1. The ride on David’s mule is there emphasized, being repeated three times. This is a particularly crucial event in Israel’s history. It’s Israel’s first dynastic succession. Though Saul had been the first king of Israel, he had no dynasty. He and his sons were killed and the rule passed to a new line in David. It’s not until Solomon’s coronation in 1 Kings 1, however, that we find David’s royal linage established. And it’s established in none other than Solomon’s ride into Jerusalem on David’s mule. Given this events historical and symbolic importance, I believe its probable that it was repeated in all subsequent coronation ceremonies. In the same way George Washington’s personal decision to swear on a Bible has been repeated in all subsequent presidential inaugurations, so the riding into Jerusalem on a mule formed the basis for future coronations. Jesus, by entering Jerusalem on a donkey, appears to be invoking a royal ceremony which the people recognized.
In this specific act, Jesus publicly proclaimed himself to be the restoration of the fallen house of David. In 2 Samuel 7, God had made an eternal promise to David that one of his sons would sit on Israel’s throne. And yet by the time of the Gospels, David’s throne had been empty for more than five hundred years. Psalms 89, bemoans this situation. In it God says, “
Once for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
His offspring shall endure forever,
his throne as long as the sun before me.
Like the moon it shall be established forever,
a faithful witness in the skies.” (89:35-37)
And yet the Psalmist grieves the fact that God has now
cast off and rejected;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust. (89:38-39).
Psalms 89 looks back on the original promise made to David in 2 Samuel 7. And its 2 Samuel 7 which is especially important for our understanding of David’s successors and therefore Jesus’ self understanding as He enters into Jerusalem. It explains what it means for Jesus to be the “Christ,” “the Son of David” and yes, even “the Son of God.”
In 2 Samuel 7, David tells Nathan the prophet of his plans to build a “house” for God. David has built himself a “house of cedar” and thus finds it unbearable that the ark of God should still reside in a tent. Nathan endorses the plan but then suddenly changes his mind when he receives a message from God. God says He doesn’t want David to build him a “house.” Instead God promises to make a “house” (i.e. dynasty – note the play on words), for David.
“Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’” (2 Samuel 7:11-16)
Note that the Son of David has a special relationship to God. The king is here described as God’s son. Oddly, God is the father of David’s son. By this point you should be recognizing the echoes in the Gospels. In the Gospels, God himself calls Jesus his “Son” while Jesus calls God his “Father.” In reading 2 Samuel 7 it’s also quite natural to see a reference to Solomon since Solomon, the first son of David, did in fact build a “house” or temple for God. But it’s also important to see in this promise a note to Jesus’ self understanding. Jesus first act, after his entrance into Jerusalem (again, in the manner of Solomon’s coronation) is to inspect and “cleanse” the temple. The establishment of a “house” for God is the special prerogative of David’s son. Jesus acts accordingly. And the people respond with appropriate anticipation.
The problem, however, is that Jesus’ coronation doesn’t occur in the way the people expect. Jesus is subsequently crucified which would suggest that Jesus was just a pretender, a false claimant to David’s throne. But that’s not how Mark and the other Gospel writers see it. They do indeed place Jesus on the throne but it’s ironically the cross, the moment of Jesus’ greatest glory. We know this is how the Gospel writers see it because of the details they choose to emphasize.
There’s a special turning point in each of the first three Gospels where Jesus asks his disciples the question everyone has been asking, who is Jesus? “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29, Matt. 16:15, Luke 9:20) Peter declares, “You are the Anointed one.” In other words, Peter says you are “David’s son, the Christ, the messiah, the king, the rightful heir to the throne.” It’s a significant hair-raising announcement. And it’s with this announcement that Jesus turns his attention to Jerusalem and his ultimate destiny. Jesus warns them not to tell anyone what Peter has just said and at the same time begins to teach them that he will be rejected, killed and three days later rise again. The disciples, however, choke on this prediction. Peter rebukes him. When he said “Christ” he clearly didn’t mean “loser.” Instead he meant a royal kick-ass leader who would free Israel from its foreign oppressors. But Jesus in-turn rebukes Peter, teaching his disciples that to save ones life is to lose it and to lose ones life is to save it. This pattern is repeated two more times in the journey to Jerusalem. When Jesus predicts his death, the disciples express pride in their earthly position and Jesus in turn must once again adjust their perspective through a paradoxical teaching. To be the greatest you must become the least. To be first you must be last. To rule you must become a servant.
The last example of this pattern occurs when James and John approach Jesus with a request to sit on his right and left in his glory. Jesus has just told them he is going to Jerusalem to die but they apparently still believe he’s going up to sit on a golden throne. Jesus, however, knows that his glory is the cross and his questions to them specifically points to that. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They, not at all understanding what’s he’s talking about, nod their heads with blank stares, saying that they are able. But Jesus says, “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (Matt. 20:23, Mark 10:40)
This is significant because the only place we find anyone on Jesus right and left in the Gospels is in the crucifixion. Mark 15:27 says, “they crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left.” Its clear that when the disciples ask to sit with Jesus in his glory, Jesus points them to the cross. The cross is his glory. The placing of the thieves on Jesus right and left comes significantly at the culmination of a long list of coronation elements (15:16-27). With Pilates order to have Jesus crucified, Mark tells us that the soldiers lead Jesus into the praetorium and there assembled the whole battalion before him. In this act Mark’s original readers would have heard echoes of the coronation of Caesar who was himself proclaimed Lord through the vote of the praetorian guard. Mark then tells us that they clothed him in a purple cloak (a color only rulers could legally wear) and put a crown of thorns on his head. They saluted him, “Hail, King of the Jews,” on bended knee in mock homage. They post his charge, “the King of the Jews.”
The Gospel writers find a further irony in the “sarcasm” of the soldiers act. Jesus is indeed receiving the kingdom in the cross. In losing his life, he’s saving it. In serving, he’s becoming Lord. This is truly his coronation. His inauguration. Jesus’ crown is in fact bestowed in the crucifixion.
So what does this have to do with Judas’ kiss? The answer is found in Psalms 2. It’s one of the psalters coronation hymns and as such it was sung at the inauguration of each new davidic king. It tells us something important about the historic coronation ceremony but in that it also tells us about the ironic coronation of Jesus found in the Gospels. Read Psalms 2 with that in mind.
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
“Kiss the Son…” Some translations hide the explicit connection by rendering it “do homage to the son.” The action is of course homage but the literal verb is “kiss.” And the word kiss is relatively rare in the Old and New Testament, least of all an imperative to kiss the son/the anointed king.
Is there a connection to Judas and Jesus here? I think there absolutely is. We know that the disciples recognized Jesus as the christ, the king, the son of David. We saw this in Matthew 16, Mark 8 and Luke 9. They went to Jerusalem to see Jesus established on the throne. They knew the davidic coronation script. They knew what it meant for Jesus to enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey. But for some reason Judas lost faith. I think in light of the Gospels it’s quit probable that Judas couldn’t get over Jesus’ rejection of traditional messiah role. He realized there would be no earthly glory and thus he chose to sarcastically betray Jesus, the supposed “son”, with a kiss. His kiss is deeply ironic. As with the soldiers, He mocks Jesus in his claim to be the rightful king of Israel. And yet in the Gospels we find it is the Lord who turns his sarcasm into an further layer of irony and its is the Lord who enjoys the last laugh.