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The Life of Jesus - Series 13: Episode 4

The tragic failure of the disciples

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 26:69-27:10
Mark 14:66-15:1
Luke 22:54-71
John 18:15-18
John 18:25-27

The tragic stories of Peter and Judas are told. Peter is forgiven but Judas kills himself.

The tragic stories of Peter and Judas are told. Peter is forgiven but Judas kills himself.


Hello and welcome! This is Series 13 and Episode 4, in which we discuss 'the tragic failure of the disciples' at the time of Jesus' arrest and trial. Two very sad stories are going to be told in this episode, one about Peter, and the other about Judas Iscariot.

Introduction and Recap

We are following the story through on the Thursday night, the last week of Jesus' life, into the events of Friday morning. This night is filled with activity, and if you have been following the episodes beforehand you will know something about the story, which we will quickly remind you of before we get into the details of what we are going to talk about in this episode.

As you will probably be aware, Series 11 and 12 have been telling the story more broadly about the last week of Jesus' life, and how he came into Jerusalem in triumph on Sunday, what we call Palm Sunday, and then went into the Temple compound and overturned the market traders' tables on the Monday. Then he spent another day in the Temple compound on Tuesday, where there was a confrontation between him and the religious leaders with question-and-answer and debate. On Wednesday, we find him in Bethany, just outside the city, where he is at a meal, and Judas Iscariot decides at that point to leave the group of disciples and head off to the city to betray Jesus to the religious leaders. That is the broad background of the context here.

We are in the Feast of Passover. Jerusalem is crowded, full of people, and the main Passover feast is due to take place on the Friday. The whole week is building up to a major religious celebration but while that is going on, the bigger story is the conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment. On the Thursday, Jesus spends the evening with his disciples in what has become known as the Last Supper, which we looked at in some detail in the second half of Series 12, with lots of different teaching and events that took place during that supper. From our point of view, a very notable thing was that was the moment when Judas Iscariot left the table, left the meal, and went back to the High Priest and the religious authorities for the second time and told them where he predicted Jesus was going to be a little later on in the evening. He got his prediction right because Jesus left the upper room in the city of Jerusalem, where he had been sharing the meal late at night, and walked out of the city, down into the nearby Kidron Valley, and stopped towards the bottom of that valley at a place called the Garden of Gethsemane. John 18 tells us that Jesus often went there with his disciples and Judas remembered that, so he said to the rulers, ‘Let's go together to the Garden of Gethsemane and I think we're going to find him, there, later on in the evening, resting.’ That is exactly what happened.

Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane. He spent time praying and agonising over the events that happened. Suddenly, all the disciples were sleepy and Jesus was trying to wake them up. Judas appeared with a great crowd of Temple guards, armed with lots of lights and lanterns, so that they could see, and he betrayed Jesus with a kiss. This led to Jesus' arrest, and all the disciples scattering to many different places. That is an important point for our story today but what we have seen in the last episode is that Jesus was taken to the High Priest's home, which is in the city, and all the distances here are within easy walking distance. He was taken to the home of the High Priest. The High Priest's name was Caiaphas, the senior religious official in the land, who ruled over the Sanhedrin council, and had authority over the Temple and all the other priests working there.

The scene that we saw in the last episode, is the scene in which the first of our two events takes place that we are going to look at in this episode. The scene from the last episode is that Jesus is taken into the High Priest's house and the Sanhedrin council members are hastily gathered together in the middle of the night. They are literally called upon to come from their homes, from their beds, from their rest, from their sleep in the middle of the night, to have a trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. In our last episode, we saw that false evidence was brought, and was ineffective. Jesus was very quiet, but answered positively when the High Priest asked, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?’ He said, ‘You have said so. I am.’ Then he predicted that he would come back again in glory to this world. At that point, the High Priest and the Sanhedrin accused him of blasphemy: tore his robes; condemned him; spat on him; hit him; and they prepared to hand him over to the Romans in the morning. That is the scene that we have to keep in our minds. That is what is actually happening at this particular time.

We are going to trace the story of two of the leading disciples in terms of their actions at this particular time. We will look first of all at Peter's story and then begin to look at the story of Judas Iscariot. We will start with Peter, and John 18: 15 - 18, 

‘Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest's courtyard, 16but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the High Priest, came back, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in. 17“You aren't one of this man's disciples too, are you?” she asked Peter. He replied, “I am not.” 18It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.’

John 18:15-18, NIV

The Anonymous Disciple

The interesting thing about this account is that there is an anonymous disciple here who was known to the High Priest. There has been a lot of discussion about who this disciple is, and I think the best suggestion is that this is John himself. You will probably remember that he appears anonymously in the text as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, first referenced in John 13, and mentioned several times after that. John didn't like to identify himself by name, and he is probably known to the High Priest because John's Gospel indicates a very close knowledge of the city of Jerusalem, as if he had some direct contact with the city. He writes about events in Jerusalem for much of the time in his Gospel, unlike any other Gospel writers, and he may well be known to the High Priest. It could have been another disciple. I am assuming it was John, for the sake of our discussion. You will remember that the disciples scattered in the Garden of Gethsemane. As soon as Jesus was arrested and taken back into the city, they went off into all sorts of different places. They went back to the places where they were staying, or to see friends, or maybe just to gather themselves and try and work out what happened, and deal with their shock. It appears that two disciples, probably John with Peter, went to the courtyard of the High Priest's house. They wanted to find out what was going to happen with Jesus. They had a focus in their minds - to try and find out what was going on.

Peter's Story

Peter couldn't get into the courtyard because he wasn't known to them, and it was only the other disciple's introduction that allowed him into the courtyard. Servants are in the courtyard and, in the house the trial,  that has been described in the last episode, is going on. The servant girl questions Peter and he, interestingly enough, denies that he is a follower of Jesus. This is all taking place during the night. Peter is in a state of some shock. Matthew 26: 69 - 75 takes up the story and gives us a little more detail. Let us read it,

‘Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. 70But he denied it before them all. “I don't know what you're talking about,” he said. 71Then 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.” 72He denied it again, with an oath: “I don't know the man!” 73After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” 74Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don't know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. 75Then 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, NIV

What a terrible situation! What a tragic failure! Peter would have been recognisable to people because he was always at the side of Jesus wherever he appeared in public. He was the leading disciple, and his Galilean accent, was very different from the accent in Judea and Jerusalem. He was in shock. He was still coming to terms with all the things that happened, especially in the Garden of Gethsemane. One of the other things that must be difficult for him was that his impulsive action in the Garden of Gethsemane, led to Jesus rebuking him. He got a sword out and attacked the High Priest's servant, cutting off his ear, and Jesus healed the man. John tells us the man's name was Malchus. Here is Peter in the courtyard of the High Priest, so Malchus might have even been there. Though there is no record of it, Peter could have feared recognition by the man that he had attacked with a sword, just a few hours earlier. He had a sudden loss of courage; he was overcome with fear. Then the rooster crowed as the night turned to day and the dawn was upon them. Peter remembered what Jesus had said only a few hours earlier in the Last Supper. He had predicted that Peter would deny him. Peter, of course, had been very angry about that at the time but now he realised that Jesus had predicted he would deny him three times before the rooster crowed the next time, and that is exactly what had happened. Peter has a tremendously emotional response to this, realising suddenly how deeply he has failed Jesus. He leaves the courtyard, goes and finds some privacy, and he weeps, and he weeps, and he weeps with tears of utter sorrow for what he has done. What a tragic story!

Luke adds an interesting detail in the account. He adds the detail in Luke 22: 61,

‘The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.’

Luke 22:61, NIV

just at that moment when he had denied him. Luke doesn't explain how this could happen but here we have Peter in the courtyard and Jesus in the house, being tried. Possibly Jesus was being moved from one part of the house to the other. Possibly Jesus was being held in a separate part of the courtyard briefly while the Sanhedrin was in private discussion. Possibly a door opened and he could look out into the courtyard. Peter caught a brief glimpse of Jesus, who looked at him just at this moment. This made his failure seem so much worse. At the end of this episode, we will see what happens to Peter later on, but this is a very low moment for him. The story is told very honestly and openly by the Gospel writers, even though Peter was the leading Apostle and the leader of the Early Church, the preacher of the first sermon on the day of Pentecost but before all that, there had been a terrible failure.

Judas Iscariot's Story

We are now going to turn to Matthew 27: 1 - 10, which tell us a far more tragic story - the story of Judas Iscariot. We have traced how he gradually became disillusioned with Jesus, and then suddenly made the decision he was going to betray him. He successfully led the guards to capture Jesus and arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane. What happened to Judas after that? Does he just disappear out of the story? No, there is more to be said about Judas. There is a tragic end that comes for him. Let us read this. Matthew 27: 1 - 10,

‘Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed. 2So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor. 3When 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. 4“I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That's your responsibility.” 5So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. 6The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” 7So they decided to use the money to buy the potter's field as a burial place for foreigners. 8That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, 10and they used them to buy the potter's field, as the Lord commanded me.”’

Matthew 27:1-10, NIV

Judas' story is very tragic. He was almost certainly present at the High Priest's house as well, probably in the house rather than in the courtyard. When he realises that Jesus has been condemned - he realised that Jesus' execution is almost certainly going to happen very shortly - he is overwhelmed with regret and remorse and guilt. He gives the coins he has been given, 30 pieces of silver, which is a big sum of money, back to the priests. He wants to give it to them but he ends up throwing it into the Temple compound. He ran to the Temple from the High Priest's house in a state of distress and he threw the coins on the ground. The Temple was closed to the general public but priests would have been there, and they picked up the money. They bought a field as a burial site and Judas committed suicide by hanging himself. There is one final detail which is the account of Judas' death in the book of Acts, which we need to add in. Acts 1: 18 - 19,

‘With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Aramaic, that is, Field of Blood.’

Acts 1:18-19, NIV

We need to connect these two accounts. What actually happens here is that the book of Acts has slightly compressed the narrative and the story, and it says that ‘Judas bought a field’, but in fact it was Judas' money that bought the field, and it was actually the High Priests who carried out the purchase of the field; Judas bought it in the sense that he paid for it through the money that he had been given, and was returned to the priests. He fell headlong into the field, his body burst open, and all his intestines spilled out. After he committed suicide, probably, his body was put in this field by the religious authorities. This is a good example of where you get two accounts that you need to think carefully about to see how they link together, and sometimes, when the narrative is compressed and is shortened, and just a few details highlighted, you need the other part of the narrative to work out what the exact implication of that is. What a tragic end for Judas Iscariot!

Thirty Pieces of Silver

Matthew 27: 9 - 10 comments on the significance of Judas Iscariot,

‘Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the 30 pieces of silver, the price set on them by the people of Israel and they used them to buy the potter's field as the Lord commanded me.”’

Matthew 27:9-10, NIV

This, in fact, is two prophecies brought together by Matthew. Again, he has compressed this slightly. He is bringing together a prophecy from Zechariah 11: 11 - 12, and Jeremiah 19: 1 - 13, which is a description of something that happened in that area. He is seeing some significance to events that happened in ancient Israel being recapitulated, or fulfilled, in a second kind of way - or in a typological way - in the life of Judas Iscariot. The 30 pieces of silver is interesting, because 30 pieces of silver are mentioned in the book of Zechariah 11: 11 - 12 as the price given for the fee for the prophet, Zechariah, who is also a shepherd for the people of Israel. It is money given to him for his services. Matthew is linking that idea with the fact that just as Zechariah, the shepherd who is a prophet, is worth 30 pieces of silver, so Jesus is, in a sense, worth 30 pieces of silver, the shepherd and prophet of the people at that particular time. Here, he is taking a concept from the history of Israel and seeing a fulfilment, something similar happening, which has a typological fulfilment in another generation.

Similarly, the story from Jeremiah 19 is taken as being significant. In Jeremiah 18 and 19 there is a very interesting prophetic issue going on, concerning a valley just outside the city of Jerusalem, the Hinnom Valley, which is right next to the Kidron Valley. The two joined on the side of the city and it was used as a rubbish dump at that particular time. In this valley, there was child sacrifice going on, and the Israelites were breaking God's law in all sorts of terrible ways. Jeremiah was called on, amongst other things, to take a pot, and to go down to this valley, and to smash the pot as a prophetic symbol that the nation of Israel, because of its sin, was going to be smashed to pieces when the Babylonians came and took them into exile. That is the story, very simply, of Jeremiah 18 and 19, which is in the mind of Matthew. Matthew sees the death of Judas Iscariot as a smashing to pieces of a human life, rather like the nation of Israel is going to be smashed to pieces by God's judgement for its sin in the Old Testament - his life is lost in the field, and in that valley outside the city of Jerusalem. Matthew anticipates that Judas' life will represent the life of Israel as a nation. It too, is going to be smashed to pieces by the judgement of God because it has not followed the revelation that it has been given through Jesus Christ. This is a rather complex prophecy, and a complex understanding of how it is fulfilled. I have just given a very simple outline. There is more detail that we could look at to try and indicate to you the kind of thoughts that Matthew had. He saw things that happened in the Old Testament, and he saw them being recapitulated in a different context, and so he mentions them here as a form of fulfilment.


Our concluding reflections on this episode - two very sad stories - is to think about Judas and Peter in the long term. Scripture makes it clear that Judas did not inherit salvation. He was judged eternally, as well as dying prematurely. In John 17: 12, Jesus says in his prayer for his disciples,

‘“None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.”’

John 17:12, NIV

Judas Iscariot accidentally fulfilled God's purposes by being the instrument by which Jesus was led to the position of dying but he did not act in faith; he didn't operate in faith, even though he had access to Jesus for those years. It is a terrible tragedy. But what about Peter? Peter was a man of faith; he was a man of courage; he was a man of energy and emotion, who did his best to follow Jesus. He stumbled tremendously at this particular time. He denied Jesus. He was humiliated and he went out and he wept bitter tears. What happened to him? Jesus in his resurrection, appeared to Peter personally, and also he restored Peter. In John 21: 15 onwards is a story of Jesus talking to Peter on the lake side in Galilee, and restoring him, encouraging and building him up again. Peter knew that he had been forgiven for the things that he had done wrong, that terrible denial, and the other impulsive actions of his life. He became a foundation, a really strong person in the Early Church.

This is a really helpful thing to conclude our episode thinking about, because I know that some of you listening to this will feel that sense of failure yourselves, and you will identify with Peter, as indeed I do. There might be failure in your life: failure to follow God wholeheartedly; and things you've done fundamentally wrong, that you deeply regret, even as you're listening to this episode. I want you to take courage from the fact that Peter was restored, and the Early Church was willing to write into the Gospels that story about Peter's failure. They didn't cover it up; they didn't pretend it didn't happen but they did also tell the story of Peter being reinstated by Jesus. They told the story of Peter's dramatic role on the day of Pentecost, and his tremendous influence on the Early Church and the many years that he served Christ and the two wonderful letters that he wrote that are in scripture for us. If we have failed - if we have sinned - we can be restored. The first thing we need to do is to own the responsibility for the things we h ive done wrong. That's what Peter did immediately. He went outside the courtyard privately and he wept, and he asked for forgiveness. He received that forgiveness and he was then restored and he glorified Christ for the rest of his life. We will continue the story in the next episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How can you be encouraged when you fail, by the experience of Peter?
  • Discipleship
    1. Why was Judas' sin so bad? What had he done? He lost his salvation but Peter didn't. Heart attitudes are important. Judas did regret what he had done.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. In this situation prophecies were fulfilled but did it have to happen like this?
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