Read the passage here.
Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent and we are continuing our walk through the final chapters of the gospel of Matthew – that is, the passion narrative, or the part of the story leading up to Jesus’ death. The chapters that we are looking at today are a little odd in that they don’t have to do with Jesus – at least not directly. The verses that we’re looking at today have to do with Peter and Judas.
It’s not entirely clear why these passages are included here, which is to say that it’s not entirely clear what Matthew was trying to do/say – obviously they’re related to Jesus’ trial, conviction, and ultimately His death. And obviously, many lessons, insights, and truths can be (and have been) discerned from the passages. But Matthew’s point isn’t immediately clear. So what I want to focus on is that, in summary, it’s possible that they are placed here because of their relationship with one another. Specifically, it may be that we are intended to read the stories of Peter and Judas together in order that we may compare them with one another.
Both Peter and Judas are peculiar among the story of the disciples because of their failure. Now, to be sure, all of the disciples can be said to have failed Jesus. And Judas’ failure is obvious and clear – he offers up Jesus to the religious leaders. But in Matthew’s gospel, among the disciples, Peter is often singled out for his shortcomings – on the lake, when they saw Jesus walking on the water, Peter is the one who is noted for his “lack of faith” (even though, as Chris noted, none of the other disciples got out of the boat) (Mt. 14). Peter is the one to whom Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan,” even though none of the disciples understood that He had to die (and even though Peter is the one who declares that Jesus is the Messiah just a few verses earlier) (Mt. 16). And a few verses ago, it is Peter who is called out for his eventual denial of Jesus (that we read about here), even though all of the disciples abandon him. Poor Peter…
So let’s take a look at today’s passage and see what’s going on.
We’ll look first at the passage concerning Peter. Now it’s important to note that, while the passage deals with Peter (and his betrayal, specifically), the person and character of Jesus hangs over the scene. If we recall the final verses of last week’s passage, the soldier’s mock Jesus, spitting on him and hitting him. Matthew 26:67, 68 say:
67 Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him 68 and said, “Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?”Matthew 26:67-68
This is important because several verses prior to that, at 26:31-34, we saw Jesus tell the disciples:
31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:
“‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
32 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
33 Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
34 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”Matthew 26:31-34
Therefore, we can see that Matthew’s response to the soldier’s mocking, “Prophesy to us, Messiah,” is (in some way) precisely this passage. That is, Matthew further demonstrates Jesus’ messianic and divine credentials even in the midst of His humiliation.
Now, with this in mind, and it’s important because we’re going to come back to it later, let’s return to the narrative of Peter’s denial, proper. We read:
26:69 Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said.
70 But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
71 Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
72 He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”
73 After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.”
74 Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”
Immediately a rooster crowed. 75 Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.Matthew 26:69-75
Now this passage itself is pretty straightforward. So I don’t have too much to say about it. However, I would like to point out a couple of things.
Firstly, apart from the fact that Peter’s threefold denial fulfills Jesus’ prophesy that Peter will deny him three times, I think the repetition serves to demonstrate the completeness of Peter’s denial. Now there has also been some writing on the possibility that this episode demonstrates an escalation of Peter’s denial:
In the first denial, Peter simply says that he doesn’t know what the servant girl is talking about; in the second, he actually says that he doesn’t know Jesus; in the third, he curses the accusation and swears (in the midst of several people now) that he doesn’t know Jesus.
Now certainly this escalation is possible and even likely, but my personal inclination is that this simply underscores that Peter’s denial isn’t merely an accident (so to speak) or a reflexive action. I think that the repetition demonstrates a certain degree of commitment to the denial.
Which brings us to the second point: That is, why did Peter deny Jesus? It’s certainly possible that Peter (and the other disciples) were afraid of reprisals due to their association with Jesus. Jesus had just been arrested and tried by the Sanhedrin. It’s certainly possible (probable?) that the disciples were afraid of a similar fate.
However, something to think about is precisely that the disciples could have been (arrested). The disciples were with Jesus when He was arrested and if the authorities wanted to arrest Jesus’ accomplices as well, they likely could have – then and there. The fact that the disciples were ignored suggests that the religious leaders didn’t care about them.
Now this doesn’t mean that follow-up arrests weren’t possible or that the disciples were out of danger (of that sort), and it is certainly possible that the disciples were nevertheless afraid of this possibility. But it also suggests (to my mind) that something more is going on.
So, what seems more likely the case (to me, at least) is that Peter’s denial was precipitated by a crisis of faith. Peter (again, along with the other disciples) had been following Jesus for years. The buzz on the street had been that this Jesus might possibly be the Messiah. The disciples believed it and Peter had declared it. As we’ve seen, the disciples had expectations of this Messiah (despite Jesus’ repeated teachings). And even though Jesus spent those years changing, molding, and reforming those expectations, it would have been hard for the disciples to let go (as we’ve seen).
So when Peter denies Jesus three times, I suspect that at least part of what’s going on is a re-evaluation of his allegiance to Jesus, the Messiah, in light of those dashed expectations. Peter’s hopes and expectations had been crushed. What was he going to do now? In other words, the question put to Peter might well have been, “are you one of the fellows who thought this was the Messiah?”
Now turning to the story of Judas, you’ll recall that when we looked at the story of Jesus’ anointing (by the woman with the perfume – Mt. 26:6-16), we posited that this may be precisely the train of thought that’s going through Judas’ head when he decides to turn Jesus over to the authorities – when he decides that he’s had enough of Jesus (if you’ll forgive me for the heavy-handed interpretation). Judas realizes that Jesus isn’t any sort of Messiah that he’d been expecting.
This brings us to the verses about Judas in our passage today. We read that,
When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.Matthew 27:3
Now this begs the question, “what exactly did Judas think was going to happen?” We might read this as if Judas is somehow surprised by the outcome, and realizing that Jesus was going to die, regretted what he had done. And of course that’s possible.
But it’s worth noting that, in our English translations, the NIV reads:
- 3 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse… (NIV, NASB)
- (Lexham) 3 Then when Judas, the one who had betrayed him, saw that he had been condemned, he regretted what he had done…
- (But NRSV) 3 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented… (which tends to have more theological implications for Christians – also KJV)
- (Most interesting, for our purposes, is the ESV) 3 Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesuswas condemned, he changed his mind…
Now remorse, regret, and repent all seem to have an element of emotional component that isn’t necessarily involved in merely changing one’s mind. Obviously this is a result of interpreting what is meant by the Greek (μεταμεληθεὶς), but I’m not in a position to tell you what’s the best translation. Neither am I inclined to recommend to you a “best” English translation. I merely want to point out that how we understand Judas’ “repentance” or change of mind seems to be precisely the point.
In short, though both Peter and Judas seem to have betrayed Jesus (admittedly in different ways), and both Peter and Judas seem to have experienced some sort of remorse, regret, or repentance, the quality of that change of mind appears to be different. In other words, in what way did Judas (and Peter) change his mind?
Now I want to be careful here because Matthew does not really give details or clarify what the difference was between Peter and Judas. We are firmly in the realm of assumptions and guesswork here. What we know is that they ended up in wildly different places.
But here’s some of what I think might be going on: Firstly, it’s important to recognize that what we’re seeing here is exactly what Jesus talks about throughout the gospel. Throughout Matthew, Jesus speaks repeatedly of the fact that some will accept Jesus as the Messiah, some will accept the message of the Kingdom, some will accept Jesus as King, and some will not. We see it in the parable of the two sons, we see it in the parable of the tenants, and the parable of the ten virgins (with the lamps), we see it in the parable of the seeds. We repeatedly see the message that some will get it, some will want it – some will understand and believe what Jesus is talking about – and some will not. Some will choose to not.
And I think what we’re seeing in Judas is the final conclusion of his inability or refusal to accept the kind of Kingdom that Jesus is talking about.
Again, I’m making some assumptions here. But remember that what seems to precipitate Judas’ decision to betray Jesus is the anointing with oil episode. After several announcements by Jesus that he is going to die, this anointing episode is described by Jesus as preparation for his burial. Remember how contrary this is to the expectations and assumptions that people held about the Messiah – including Judas and the disciples. But this seems to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Judas and he decides to turn Jesus over to the religious authorities.
Now returning to our verses today, we see that Judas feels remorse or regret, he changes his mind or repents when he finds out that Jesus has been convicted (“condemned”). What if (again, I’m guessing) what Judas realizes is that Jesus’ words had been proven true? What if he realizes that Jesus wasn’t just being pessimistic, but He was being prophetic? In the same way that Peter’s denial proves Jesus prophetic (in light of the soldiers’ words), maybe Jesus’ conviction proves his words prophetic in Judas’ mind?
Now at this point, maybe Judas starts to wonder if Jesus really is the true Messiah. And maybe he starts to wonder if everything Jesus said about the kingdom is true and right after all. And so I wonder (again, pure speculation on my part) if Judas’ reaction is not so much because he has betrayed Jesus, but because he realizes that everything that he thought he knew about God and the world was wrong. And now he has to decide what he’s going to do about it.
Peter’s experience is similar. Whether or not his words of denial are born out of fear or disappointment, the episode proves to Peter that Jesus’ words had been true all along. And they had been truly true. Peter likewise realizes that Jesus had been right all along. And Peter responds to the vindication of Jesus’ words with weeping. As we know, there’s much more to Peter’s story (though Matthew doesn’t tell it). But Judas’ response is to take his own life.
And I think that’s where we find ourselves as we follow Matthew’s testimony. As we’ve been working through the gospel, we began (and continued) with the premise that Matthew’s main purpose is to demonstrate that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah. Matthew is showing his readers, he’s showing us, that Jesus is the true Messiah and that His kingdom is the true kingdom.
Again, Peter’s response is to weep – and as we know, to truly repent. We know, and many of Matthew’s readers would likely know, that Peter became a pillar of the community. He would be instrumental in sharing the truth of Jesus and His kingdom.
Judas’ response is to give up. If Jesus was the true Messiah, and if Jesus’ kingdom was the real kingdom, he wanted nothing to do with it.
So the question is, what will we do? This is the question put to us by Matthew’s gospel. If Jesus is who He says He is, if the kingdom is what Jesus says it is, if the world isn’t what it’s supposed to be (no matter how many times people tell us we can be whatever we want to be, we can accomplish anything that we put our minds to, we can fix it if we can just find the right formula, technique, organizational matrix, or whatever) – if the world isn’t what it’s supposed to be but it can be (and will be) because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, then what will we do? How will we respond?
How will we respond to the revelation that the king has come? How will we respond to the invitation that we too can be part of His kingdom?