A lesson from Peter, Judas, and the two thieves

Sermon for Holy Tuesday

+  Luke 22 – 23  +

Out of all the things to consider from the Passion History, let’s focus this evening on what the Holy Spirit teaches us from Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, and from Judas’ remorse, and from the thieves on the cross.

In Peter, Judas, and the thieves, we see the ugliness of sin show itself in different ways, and we also see their different responses to sin and to Christ.

We have Peter, the devout disciple of Jesus who once confessed his faith in Christ so boldly: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” And even on Maundy Thursday night, Peter boldly objected when Jesus foretold his falling away: Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death. No doubt Peter believed his own words earlier in the night. But when the moment of truth came, when the three moments of truth came, each time Peter went back on his word. Each time Peter turned his thoughts and the confidence of his heart away from Christ and toward his own devices, toward the cross he might have to bear if he were to confess his friendship with Jesus. So he denied his Friend, his Savior, his God. He refused the cross and walked away from His Lord. Three times.

But then the rooster crowed and the Lord Jesus turned and looked right at Peter, recalling to his mind the fateful prediction Jesus had made hours before and the horrible crime Peter had committed in denying the Christ before men. Jesus had once said, “Whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.” Confronted by the Word of Christ and the gaze of Christ, Peter acknowledged his sin; he repented. Repentance includes both sorrow over sin and faith in Christ, who bore that sin on the cross. Peter went and wept bitterly over his sin. “What have I done?!?” But to that sorrow, faith was added, so that Peter turned again to Christ in his heart—to Christ who doesn’t save the deserving, but the undeserving. And so Peter was restored and forgiven—forgiven as Peter applied to himself the words Jesus had spoken earlier that same evening, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.”

Then we have Judas, who may have believed in Christ at some point, though it seems he was never really sincere in his faith, never wanted Jesus as a Savior from sin. He was an impenitent thief, even before he chose to sell his Lord for thirty pieces of silver. He was so angry at Jesus’ kindness, like His kindness shown to Mary when she anointed Him with that costly perfume—that was the last straw. He was ready to be done with Jesus. So he sold Jesus to the highest bidder and betrayed the Son of Man with a kiss of phony friendship.

Luke doesn’t mention it, but the other Evangelists do: Judas was driven to remorse after he saw that his actions had led to Jesus’ death sentence. Apparently he thought it wouldn’t come to that. He was sorrowful over having betrayed innocent blood. But that wasn’t yet repentance, because he put no faith in that blood to cover his sins. He despaired of God’s mercy and imagined his sins to be more powerful, more important, more valuable than the blood of Christ. So he hanged himself and was condemned before God.

Then we have the thieves on the cross, both of whom were criminals, robbers, rebels, both of whom had been impenitent unbelievers, with no prior association with Jesus until they were hung beside Him on their own crosses. One of them, now facing imminent death for his trespasses, still wanted nothing to do with Jesus. He would rather go to hell than rely on the blood of Christ. But the other—the other sees the guiltless Lamb of God, or as the sign above His head read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” and he believes and seeks pity and pardon from that King. And he receives it! He finally enters into Christ’s kingdom, even there on the cross, and has Paradise promised to him before the day’s end.

Four men—all sinners from birth. Four men—none of whom deserved anything from God but condemnation. One, a devout believer who stumbled severely, but repented and was received back again. One, a hypocrite who recognized his sin of betrayal but still didn’t look to Christ for forgiveness. One, a robber who never acknowledged his sin nor believed in Jesus. One, a robber who finally did acknowledge his sin and believed in Jesus.

Two of these men—Peter and the one robber—were eternally saved. The other two were eternally condemned. What was the difference? Was it the gravity of their sins against God? No, Peter’s denial of Christ was just as damnable as Judas’ betrayal, and the two robbers committed the same crimes. What was the difference? Was it the desire of God that two of the four be damned? No, for God says, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. What was the difference? Was it that Christ didn’t do enough to make up for sins of the two men? No, He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. What, then, was the difference? The difference was that Peter and the one robber were brought by the Holy Spirit to repentance, while Judas and the other robber resisted the working of the Holy Spirit, pointing them to Christ as their Savior. Two were saved by faith. Two were condemned in unbelief.

Who in the world isn’t like one of those four men? The believer who stumbles, the hypocrite who pretends to be a Christian but doesn’t believe, the heathen who is never converted and the heathen who finally is. Notice what we don’t have in the whole Passion History: the believer who never stumbles, the disciple who commits no sin. There is a lesson for us in this, and St. John summarizes it well in his first epistle: My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. Always turn back to Him, your Advocate with the Father, if you do sin. Always know that God earnestly desires your repentance, not your death. And see in the Passion History how Jesus never, ever turned away the one who looked to Him for mercy, but always forgave, always restored. And He always will. Amen.

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