Dark Acts of Unbelief (John 13:21-38)

The word betrayal denotes horrible breaches of trust, unfaithfulness, treachery, and duplicity. In the history of a nation, it is acts of treason whereby someone gives “aid and comfort to the enemy.” In the history of the church, it is the immoral behavior of pedophile priests, money-grubbing televangelists, and inexcusable silence in the face of racism or sexism. In families, it is adultery or child abuse. In our individual Christian lives, it is following the tugs of flesh over Spirit and offering our pitiful rationalizations for sin over repenting in genuine sorrow.

Today’s sermon is about betrayal. No, actually it is about two acts of betrayal. And I hope there is more to be learned here this morning from the second than the first. I have certainly prayed while preparing it that God will use this sermon not to drive anyone to the despondency of a Judas-response to failure but to the gracious restoration of a Simon Peter-response. For this lesson is ultimately not about Judas or Peter but – as all the Gospel of John was originally crafted to be – Jesus.

The light of Jesus dispels the darkness of Satan. The grace of Jesus conquers the sins we commit and even the addictive power of sin in our hearts. The forgiveness of Jesus is greater than the judgment and condemnation of our arrogant disobedience.

Holy Father, I fear to preach this sermon but know that you want it preached. I fear for the tender and sensitive heart who is so overwhelmed with his or her failure that a Judas fate of self-destruction is frighteningly close at hand. Please do not let Satan pervert this message of hope into a means of further censure and shame. I plead for the power of your Holy Spirit to shine the light of Jesus’ love, compassion, and pardon into those hearts – to affirm a Simon Peter fate of healing and growth out of failure to all who turn to him. In the name of Your Beloved Son, Jesus, Amen.

The Heart of Judas

Writing more than sixty years after the event, John penned his Gospel with the memory of Judas constantly in mind. As early as chapter 6, John has mentioned Judas Iscariot only to add comments like “he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him” (John 6:71; cf. 13:2, 11, 18, 21, 26-30). He did not, of course, know that in the early or middle stages of their time together as disciples. I’m not even sure John grasped him as a betrayer in the episode we are about to read. Though it should have been clear, why didn’t he do something if he and Peter grasped what was happening?

Yes, Jesus knew what Judas was up to that night. But when did he know? It isn’t clear. One thing that does seem clear to me is that Jesus did not pick Judas back at the start of his ministry and manipulate him to that awful deed. If Judas betrayed the Son of Man because God willed and arranged the event, he was obedient rather than disobedient to the divine will and thus should be honored rather than despised for his deed. Judas wound up fulfilling a divine prediction, but the ability to predict accurately testifies to God’s timelessness (i.e., ability to know past, present, and future simultaneously) rather than to his activity in bringing about all things that happen.

Karen Weaver tells about teaching a Vacation Bible School class that included the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. After telling the story, she went through a series of review questions. “Who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver?” she asked. Her own seven-year-old son spoke up immediately. “I know!” he said. “It was Judas the Scariest!” Technically incorrect – but dead right.

Judas heard Jesus teach. Invited to follow him, he made that decision. Then he was able to benefit not only from the public teaching but to be with him in private, unguarded moments. He got to ask his personal questions and hear Jesus respond to them – as well as the thousands asked by his close colleagues. He went out on those two-by-two missions with the other apostles. He healed the sick and cast out demons. Why, he was a man of such perceived stature and integrity that the group chose him to be its treasurer. On the one hand, it is interesting that the worst he could do in betraying Jesus was not to divulge the sins of his private life or to show how the alleged miracles weren’t really divine powers at all. The worst he could do on that fateful night was to lead a group of weapon-wielding men to a place where he knew Jesus went often to pray. On the other hand, he is remembered solely for how his relationship with Jesus ended. How a life, a ministry, or a relationship ends is absolutely critical either to validate or to discount everything that has gone before.

We are still at the table with Jesus and the Twelve for his final Passover Meal with them. Then, for the third and final time in this Gospel, we find Jesus “troubled in spirit” – as he had been at Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:33) and in thinking about his cross (John 12:27) – and find out why. He is broken-hearted less for himself than for Judas.

After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night (13:21-30).
There is no more potent use of literary skill anywhere in the Gospel of John than in the closing line of this paragraph: “And it was night.”

From the beginning, John has seen Jesus as heavenly light shining into the world’s darkness (John 1:5a). Yes, he knows “the darkness did not overcome it” – could not overcome it! (John 1:5b). God’s purposes through Christ are sovereign, and those purposes will triumph gloriously. Along the way, however, there will be some who are overcome by the darkness and who do choose the night. “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

Judas left that room into the harmless literal darkness of a Thursday night and to be consumed by the damning symbolic darkness of a decision made to reject Jesus. Yes, “Satan entered into him” – but not against his will. Yes, “Satan entered into him” – but only because he had long ago invited him in through his greed and duplicity within this group. Yes, “Satan entered into him” – but in concert with Judas’ own will in the matter and not by coercion. For John, there is no Shakespearean or Freudian analysis. There is simply the raw fact that Judas made his final, fateful choice to join the side of darkness against light. Thus the All-Powerful God of Heaven and his agent Jesus of Nazareth would be challenged by the Prince of This World through his agent Judas.

The Heart of Simon Peter

With Judas dismissed from the room to his fate and his fateful deed, the conversation was not yet finished.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (12:31-38).
Although he would shortly begin reassuring them (cf. “I will not leave you orphaned . . .” 14:18), Jesus dropped a bombshell into their midst by saying, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ ” Leave it to Peter to be the one to reply and protest! What? You’re leaving? So where are you going? Why do we have to follow later? Can’t I go with you right now?

So where was Jesus going that Peter and the others couldn’t go? Heaven? Mmm, not exactly. But to heaven via the cross. To heaven at the end of a path of suffering. To God’s presence through suffering. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus had said in his Sermon on the Mount. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:10-12).

Peter and the other apostles weren’t deep enough yet in their faith or strong enough yet in their dedication to him to go with him through suffering into glory. As in everything else, Jesus would have to go first, show that it could be done, and wait for them to follow afterward. Indeed, Peter and others within this group would die for their faith. John would be one of the very few in their number to die an old man – and then not without having endured great persecution for Jesus’ sake.

Peter protested, “I will lay down my life for you!” No, Peter. That day will come eventually. In the near future, you don’t have it in you. “Very truly, I tell you,” said Jesus solemnly, “before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

Different Fates

Jesus’ words came to pass in both cases. Judas went into the darkness, betrayed Jesus to his enemies, and saw the fate he helped bring on the Son of God. Peter also fled into the darkness, betrayed Jesus before his enemies, and saw the fate he helped bring on the Son of God.

The final time we see Judas in one of the Gospels has him overwhelmed with regret, trying to return the thirty pieces of silver, and otherwise totally spiritually disoriented. It seems not to have occurred to him to seek out Peter and the others. He doesn’t weep before God and ask for pardon. He made a sharp wrong turn into the darkness – and kept pressing forward without repentance, going back to God, and being made clean again. And he died at his own hand – still in the darkness.

Peter, on the other hand, does not flee from his fellows. He is with them – all of them afraid, all of them guilty of fleeing, all of them guilty of betrayal in one form or another. And since he wept and remained with the huddled little group until Sunday morning, he was there to hear that the tomb was empty and that Jesus wanted to meet him in Galilee (Mark 16:7). “What? Me? Jesus wants to see me?” he must have thought. And he went, was pardoned, and was commissioned again to bear the gospel to others. Judas could have received the same thing.

A “FAX of Life” essay that generated more responses than any I can remember was about five girls who were dismissed from the Danville (Vermont) High School basketball team. They broke Coach Tammy Rainville’s zero-tolerance rule about alcohol over Christmas break. So, just before the varsity game was to begin on Friday night January 11 of this year, the teen-aged girls – four of them starters on the team – addressed a packed gym. No excuses. No challenge of the rule. No anger at the coach. They admitted what they had done and said they supported their coach and her policy. They walked off the court to thunderous applause.[1] Both God and humankind honor people who take responsibility, confess their sins, and ask for pardon.


Have you failed God? Have you chosen darkness over light? Have you been guilty of betraying the Son of Man? So have we all! You can stay on your course and press deeper into the darkness – until you heart becomes too calloused to repent. Or you can lament your sin, meet Jesus anew, and receive his forgiveness.

Church, the way we deal with one another will be the world’s signal as to whether such a thing is possible for sinners. And that is today’s text too: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Every unbeliever who ever walks into an assembly of Christians should ideally sense warmth, genuine care, and the love of Christ that gives her or him the confidence that God has created it to receive one more sinner out of the darkness into his light. Too often that atmosphere is absent. So what they experience is doctrinal strife, personal bickering, and coldness – more darkness. And they remain lost.

Nothing so astonishes a fractured world as a community in which radical, faithful, genuine love is shared among its members. . . . There are many places you can go to find people just like yourself, who live for sports or music or gardening or politics. But it is the mandate of the church to become a community of love, a circle of Christ’s followers who invest in one another because Christ has invested in them, who exhibit love not based on the mutuality and attractiveness of its members, but on the model of Christ, who washed the feet of everyone (including Judas).[2]
Peter’s failure to understand, his explosive outbursts, and his outright lies in the high priest’s courtyard were not only forgiven but rooted out over time by the power of the Holy Spirit. Then he was able to teach, comfort, and strengthen others out of his own personal experience.

May it be so here. Beginning today. For you.

In the dark night of betrayal when Peter and Judas turned away, Jesus stayed the course of confronting evil and gave the gift of himself to break Satan’s hold on frail humanity. And the giving has never ceased. So, if you will believe it, welcome to the fellowship of those who are going where Christ already has gone.

[1] Brad Usatch, “Varsity Girls Confront Mistake,” Caledonian-Record, Jan. 14, 2002; http://www.caledonian-record.com/pages/local_news/story/aeeaa3e8d.
[2] Gary M. Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), p. 387.


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