Then Judas, who betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in that I betrayed innocent blood.”
But they said, “What is that to us? See thou to it.”
And he cast down the pieces of silver into the sanctuary, and departed; and he went away and hanged himself.
And the chief priests took the pieces of silver, and said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is the price of blood.”
And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in. Wherefore that field was called, the field of blood, unto this day.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was priced, whom certain of the children of Israel did price; and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord appointed me” (Matthew 27:3-10).
Judas Iscariot is a good reminder to us that people tend to be more complicated than we often imagine. As the betrayer of Jesus (Matthew 26:14-16), and a greedy man who was known for stealing (cf. John 12:6), it would be easy to just write Judas off as purely evil. It would be easy to have no compassion on him whatsoever; it would be easy, as Dante did, to relegate him to the complete bottom of hell, as one of the most evil people to ever walk the earth.
Yet Judas is not a psychopath. He is not pure evil. Yes, he does terrible and sinful things; yes, he is rightly deemed an adversary, or devil, by Jesus (cf. John 6:70). But when the realization came upon him that Jesus was not getting away this time, that he really had just betrayed an innocent man, Judas acutely felt his guilt. He was deeply sorrowful for his actions (Matthew 27:3). He tried to return the thirty pieces of silver he was given to betray Jesus; to us, this may not seem like a significant act of repentance, considering what he has done, but let us remember that he is known for being covetous and a thief. After being spurned by the religious authorities, he went off and took his own life (Matthew 27:4-5). He perceived what he had done: he had betrayed the Christ of God into the hands of the men who would kill Him. The weight of guilt and pain proved too much for him.
So why did he do it? The text never says. Certain possibilities come to mind. He is most likely called Judas Iscariot because he hails from Kerioth, a village in Judea (Joshua 15:25). Jesus’ Galilean disciples were ready for Jesus to go to Jerusalem, defeat the Romans, and restore Israel’s political fortunes; how much more so would Judas, a native of Judea itself? Perhaps Judas thought that by betraying Jesus he would spur the Lord and Messiah into finally standing up to His adversaries and to establish that Kingdom about which He kept talking. Perhaps he was hurt by Jesus’ rebuke regarding Judas’ criticism of the waste of Mary’s ointment (cf. John 12:1-8), and he wanted to get a little even. Perhaps the money was the motivation: he wanted to know how much the chief priests would give him in order to hand Jesus over (Matthew 26:15), and perhaps he just saw an opportunity to make a quick buck. Perhaps it was just the voice of Satan tempting him and he proved unable to resist (Luke 22:3-6). Or perhaps, as with the rest of Judas’ character issues, it is a mixture of some of all of these reasons.
Regardless of why Judas did it, based on his reaction, it does not seem that Judas really thought that it would lead to Jesus’ death. Judas was there to see Jesus escape from the crowd in Nazareth (Luke 4:28-30) and in Jerusalem (John 10:31-39). At least one of these events involved miraculous action. Judas most likely surmised that Jesus would either escape His enemies or defeat them outright. Judas believed, after all, that Jesus was the Christ; he saw the power Jesus manifested; he knew that the soldiers coming to get Jesus were really no match for Him.
But Judas did not know that Jesus was submitting to the plan of God, and that he was the catalyst, however willingly, of the terrible sufferings that Jesus would experience. When that realization came upon him, he saw the horror of what he had done.
Matthew has set up two very intentional parallels regarding Judas in his account of these events. The first is with Simon Peter. In Matthew 26:69-75, Matthew describes how Peter denies Jesus three times. Peter feels immense guilt for doing so; he goes off and wept bitterly. He had let Jesus down. And then, a few verses later, in Matthew 27:3-10, Matthew relates how Judas felt guilt for what he had done. Both Peter and Judas felt guilt. Both proved repentant at their actions– they were both very sorrowful. But Peter’s repentance led him to turn back to Jesus, receive forgiveness, and to change from a denier of the Lord to a full confessor and witness of Jesus before the Jews and the nations (cf. John 21:15-19, Acts 2:14-36, 3:11-4:22). We have little doubt that Peter, despite having denied Jesus, entered into His glory. Judas, however, did not turn to Jesus. He did not wait to see what would happen, to beg for forgiveness before the Risen Lord. Had he done so, is there any doubt that Jesus would have forgiven him if he was truly repentant? Instead, his guilt led him to seek atonement from the very ones who gave him the money, those who also had Jesus’ blood on their hands, and was spurned even by them. Drowning in guilt, Judas kills himself. Despite repenting of what he had done, Judas did not turn back to God in Christ for forgiveness. Crushed by worldly guilt, he takes his own life, and what hope can we have for him in eternity on account of it? Thus Paul will later teach the Corinthians that there are two forms of guilt– worldly guilt that leads to death, and godly guilt that leads to true repentance (2 Corinthians 7:8-10).
Yet it is the second parallel that Matthew is making that is often missed if we are only focusing on Judas and his character. Judas is not the only actor here; we also have the example of the chief priests and elders.
We have declared that Judas feels great sorrow for what he has done. This sorrow is very deep because he knows who Jesus is and therefore the enormity of the transgression he has committed. He wants to make good in some small way, and so he takes the money back to the Temple (Matthew 27:3). He desperately seeks atonement for what he has done.
One would think that he has done wisely in heading to the Temple. After all, according to the covenant between God and Israel, the Temple is where God dwells and where sacrifices are to be offered for sin (cf. Leviticus). Atonement and forgiveness of sins are to be found by bringing one’s sacrifice to the Temple and having it offered before God. One of the most important reason for the Temple’s existence is to facilitate this atonement, and the chief priests are the very ones who have been given this task (cf. Leviticus 16).
Yet Judas does not receive any such comfort. Judas confesses to them that he has sinned by betraying innocent blood (Matthew 27:4). What do they tell him? “What is that to us? See thou to it” (Matthew 27:4). The very priests who are to minister to God on behalf of the people, offering the sacrifices brought by contrite Israelites, show complete disinterest in Judas’ problem. They declare that he has to see to his own atonement himself.
As it relates to Judas himself, we see that the betrayer is now betrayed. Jesus put trust in Judas, allowing him to maintain the money bag even though he pilfered from it, establishing him as one of the select Twelve, and Judas betrayed him. Now, the religious authorities to whom Judas entrusted himself, getting their money for handing Jesus over, whose “day job” it is to facilitate atonement for sin, refuse to do anything for him. They do not deny his claim; they “piously” refuse to put the money back into the treasury, for they know it is the price of blood, and that is why they buy a field with it (Matthew 27:6-10). If Judas’ claim of betraying innocent blood is true, than their guilt is not much less than his own. But they are content– regardless of Jesus’ conduct, He was a threat to the “system,” and that threat was being removed. The show would go on. The chief priests and elders maintained their authority and stature among the people.
Yet, in reality, they have just sold themselves out. As this relates to Jesus and the office of the Temple, Matthew is making it clear that the Temple and its authorities are being superseded. The chief priests and elders are more right than they imagine when they cast Judas off, for in reality, their sacrifices and their attempts toward atonement now prove insufficient. Salvation and forgiveness are coming through Jesus who is being crucified; the sad irony is that the cost of Judas’ atonement was being paid for as he was going through these actions. The Temple system, with its corrupted chief priests, was morally bankrupt. Within forty years, the Romans put an end to the whole pretense. Matthew is showing that God’s sentence against them was just.
The betrayer is betrayed; in the process, the whole system proves its own condemnation. At that moment it was hard to imagine that their machinations were really leading to the opportunity for all men to receive salvation through the redemption for which Jesus was paying with His life. The great tragedy is that, as far as we can tell, none of them proved willing to receive true forgiveness. Judas was repentant but directed it wrongly; he took his own life. The chief priests and elders, as a whole, never seemed to humble themselves, and the Romans would do it for them. Let us learn from their examples. Let us repent with godly grief, turning to the Lord, seeking His forgiveness, and changing our ways for the better!
Ethan R. Longhenry