Both Judas and Peter betrayed the Lord with whom they had traveled and ministered for three years. But having done so, Peter wept bitterly and Judas hung himself in a field. Why the difference between the two men? What caused them to react in the ways that they did to the same basic act - betrayal?
It's easy for us to want to put it on their hearts, to write into the Gospels something devious and troublesome about Judas that just isn't there in Peter. We might even say that Peter is gentler and more meek than Judas, although any honest look at the Gospels would caution us against such a conclusion. Peter, throughout the testimony we have of him, is impetuous. Always has been. After all, it's Peter who decides he, too, can walk on water if Jesus will just give him the word. And climbs out of the boat to prove it. By contrast, we almost never see Judas speak. If we had to predict that one of the two of these men was dramatic and impulsive and extreme to the point that he'd take his own life, we'd have to guess that it would be Peter.
But, of course, it's not.
Thus, there must be something more to it than merely the heart of the man. There's got to be more to it than who they are at their core or who they believe themselves to be when they look in the mirror. And, in fact, there is.
A lot of it has to do with who they believe Jesus to be.
We're not talking here about "Son of God" or "great Teacher," for both men knew that Jesus was these things. What we're really talking about is what kind of God the men thought Jesus to be. What did they pick up on about Him in all that travel and ministry they were doing? How did each man think Jesus would respond to his betrayal?
Both men had seen the same miracles of Jesus. They had both been there when He drew the little child close to Himself. They'd both heard Him refute and rebuke the Pharisees and marvel the crowds with His wisdom. Both had heard the compassionate way that He spoke with the least of these. When Jesus sent the disciples out in twos to cast out demons and heal the sick, both Judas and Peter had been sent - maybe even together - and both had cast out demons and healed the sick. Both were there when He broke bread in the Upper Room, when He fed the five thousand, when He fed the four thousand, when He walked on the water. Both had the full wealth of His ministry to draw on when asked, Who do you say I am?
But come right down to it, and Judas sees only the power of God while Peter sees the grace of Him. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Judas hears Jesus say that it's better for him to never have been born than to be a betrayer, looks in the mirror and sees a betrayer, and kills himself, for isn't that what Jesus has said? He might as well be dead. He believes in the power of God, and God is incredibly disappointed in him right now. He's just waiting for the hammer to fall, then decides he doesn't really have to wait any more and beats himself to oblivion with the same powerful force he's sure God has reserved for him.
Peter catches Jesus's eye in the courtyard and knows that He knows but believes with all of his heart that if he could just talk to Jesus one more time, He'd have some word of wisdom, some comfort, some grace for him that would enable him to look in the mirror again at all. He catches Jesus's eye, and even though he can't look at himself, he can't stop looking at his Lord. He believes in the grace of God, and there's so much he's not willing to throw away merely because of his own human-ness; there's still something greater here.
For Judas, Jesus was a movement, a prophecy, an act of God. For Peter, Jesus was a friend, a brother, the very person of God.
And when it came right down to it, that made all the difference. Peter embraces forgiveness and goes on to become a rock of the church, an apostle's apostle, a living testimony to the grace of God. Judas cowers from God's fury and goes on to become a carcass in a poor man's field, the first body in a graveyard for those who have no one to bury them.
To some extent, then, yes, it does matter what's in your heart. But it also matters what's in your eyes. Having met Jesus, what do you see in Him? What have you learned from living and loving with Him? What does He make you believe about yourself, about your life, about your God?
Do you believe in grace?