I’ve never felt sorry for Judas. I feel sad when Peter denies Christ. But I feel angry when Judas betrays Him. How could he do it? Why did he do it? That is your Lord. Your friend. And you gave Him up for what? For money!
But as I prepared my Good Friday sermon I returned again to Judas’ treachery. Preaching from Matthew 27, I was confronted with a side of Judas that I rarely consider: The contrite Judas. Knowing what he had done was wrong, Judas returns to the chief priests to declare, “I have sinned!” And yet there is nothing left for him but despair and death.
The story of Peter is not a tragedy. It is a comedy (in literary terms). It’s an all’s well that ends well sort of story. But Judas is a real tragedy—a warning for those who would abandon Christ.
The story of Peter is not a tragedy. It is a comedy (in literary terms). It’s an all’s well that ends well sort of story. Peter repents and is restored. But Judas is a tragedy. A real tragedy. Consumed by guilt, Judas is utterly alone in a world without grace. And then he hangs himself. But it is a tragedy worth telling. It is a warning for those who would abandon Christ. And it is a reminder of what we have when we remain in Christ. It shows us the darkness of human sin and the brilliant light of God’s mercy. This is the tragedy of Judas…
Consumed by greed
Judas was a thief. An embezzler to be precise. John tells us that he was the keeper of the money bag and used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:6). And his lust for money would be his downfall. I have heard many theories about why Judas betrayed Jesus, but the Bible consistently teaches that the motive was simple: greed. He approaches Jesus’ enemies and asks, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15).
It’s hard to believe that Judas would do this just for money, until we remember how many warnings Jesus gave about money. He teaches in the parable of the sower that faith can be choked by the deceitfulness of wealth (Matthew 13:22). And He was clear that you can’t serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and lover the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 7:24). Greed is idolatry, says the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5). For Judas, Jesus is not Lord—money is. And he would gladly give up Jesus for his true master.
What makes Judas’ exchange so much more tragic is how worthless his prize turned out to be. Realising his guilt, Judas throws the money into the temple and leaves (Matthew 27:4-5). Those thirty pieces of silver become worthless to him. Meaningless. Nothing. And he gave up everything for it. Judas reminds me of Esau, who gave up his inheritance for what turned out to be nothing more than a vegan dish. And afterwards, as the writer to the Hebrews recounts, “Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done” (Hebrews 12:17).
Led by Satan
Both Luke and John tell us that as Judas set out to betray Jesus, Satan entered him (Luke 22:3; John 13:27). He had been prompted by the devil already (John 13:2), but at the moment of his betrayal he is completely consumed by the prince of this world. Rather than absolving Judas of his sin, it heightens it. Judas was not merely a thief consumed by greed. He was child of the devil and a servant of wickedness. In his betrayal, Judas had changed allegiances. He left the path of light and returned to the dominion of darkness. As John recounts, “As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night” (John 13:30).
Judas’ betrayal reminds us of the spiritual reality behind those who oppose Christ. A war is waging. The battlelines are drawn. And we need to pick sides. As Paul teaches, we all at one time used to follow the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient (Ephesians 2:2). And such allegiance demands punishment. Jesus warns Judas, “Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24). Those who side with the devil are deserving of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3). This is the price we pay for opposing Christ. Darkness in this life. Judgment in the next.
But what makes Judas so tragic is that he leaves the side of Christ to join with the enemy. He abandons the grace and mercy of the Lord’s table and walks out into the night.
Abandoned to despair
It is hard to grapple with the idea of a repentant Judas. Whatever you might call it – Judas was clearly contrite. In Matthew 27:3-5 Judas is filled with remorse, acknowledging that he has sinned, and returns the blood money. So, is Judas forgiven? Will we see him in glory? Sadly, I don’t think so. To be sure, God is gracious enough to forgive Judas. And Christ’s death is sufficient to atone for his sin. But the last tragedy of Judas is the worst: he doesn’t return to Jesus. He seeks grace and mercy—or, at least, to escape from what he’s done—but he doesn’t seek it from the only person who can help him.
Judas had rejected Christ and thrown his lot in with this group of religious leaders. And it is to this group of priests that he turns now in his darkest hour. Crying out to them that he has sinned they reply, “What is that to us? That is your responsibility” (Matthew 27:4). There is no mercy. No grace. Judas comes full of remorse but leaves with guilt and despair. And so, he hangs himself. The chief priests’ response represents the cold, dark world we enter should we ever turn away from Christ. It is a harsh, unkind world that doesn’t care if you fall and refuses to help lift you up. It is the world of you’re-on-your-own. A graceless world of pride and despair.
The chief priests’ response represents the cold, dark world we enter should we ever turn away from Christ. It is a harsh, unkind world that doesn’t care if you fall and refuses to help lift you up. It is the world of you’re-on-your-own. A graceless world of pride and despair.
But against the backdrop of such dark, heartless indifference, God’s overabundant grace in Christ shines all the more. Hear these words of comfort afresh:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
As the chief priests turn Judas away, Jesus goes to his death for you and me. What a beautiful Lord we serve, that he died for us while we were sinners. What a kind and loving Father, that He received us with open arms when we came home.
The greatest tragedy of Judas is that he didn’t turn back to Christ.