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The Tragedy of What Might Have Been

John 18:1-5

1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, into the which he entered, and his disciples.

2 And Judas also, which betrayed him, knew the place: for Jesus ofttimes resorted thither with his disciples.

3 Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons.

4 Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, Whom seek ye?

5 They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them.


John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote, “For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’” Those words are the sad commentary on many a life. People start with such great promise and have such golden opportunities. But they make the wrong choices and miss their opportunities and so never reach their potential. Their lives are the “tragedy of what might have been.” 

Some years ago I read an editorial entitled “The Dostoevsky Who Might Have Been” Christianity Today, 1981). He was a Russian child of a surgeon, a gifted intellectual, an up-and-comer of czarist society. He was a young socialist, and his first novel was a bestseller, lauded by critics and the public alike. He was only 25 when it was published. Fame and quick success went straight to his head, and he began to drink, to party, and to carelessly criticize the czarist government. 

Arrested and jailed for antigovernment activity, he was sentenced to be shot. At the last minute, the czar pardoned him and reduced his sentence to a decade of confinement in Siberia. In Siberia the New Testament was the only book allowed him, and he read it at every opportunity. Not long after his release he wrote to a woman who had befriended him during this period. He said, “To believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more manly and more perfect than Christ, and not only is there nothing but I tell myself with jealous love that there can be nothing, besides can anyone prove to me that Christ was outside the truth and it really was so that the truth was outside Christ, then I would prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth.” Dostoevsky returned to his life in Russia when his sentence was up and wrote four classics. But he never really grew as a Christian. He began to drink again, became a compulsive gambler, and nearly went bankrupt. He died penniless in 1881—a cautionary tale of what might have been.  

That same thing might be said of Judas. Judas was a man “who might have been.” The Bible offers scant information on Judas. We know that he was from Kerioth, a town in southern Palestine, thus making him the only one of Christ’s companions not born in Galilee, an outsider among the 12. There is no reason to suspect that Judas joined the little band of disciples with treacherous intent. He, like the rest of the disciples, recognized Christ as a leader of tremendous stature, and like the other disciples he forsook his former life to follow him. At first there was nothing to distinguish Judas from the other 11 brethren as they walked the roads of Palestine with their Master. Together they shared the hardships and the intimacy, venturing into hostile villages, braving well-aimed stones from the opposition. They ate out of the same dish, drank from the same cool springs, sat at night around the same fire listening to the Master explain this phrase, that parable. They saw his miracles and felt the power of his personality. 

Judas was obviously the kind of man who invoked the trust of others. For he was chosen as treasurer of the group, receiving all contributions and doling out cash for purchases and alms. This is even more remarkable when you know that men with true bookkeeping experience, like Matthew the tax collector, were among the disciples. Clearly, if Jesus and the others had not trusted him, they would not have assigned him this job. 

But in time Judas betrayed Jesus. He heard that a price had been put on the head of Jesus. A contract had been let on him and Judas made the bargain with the enemies of Christ. He eventually sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, the usual price of a slave.

Having completed the transaction, Judas then led the people out to the Garden of Gethsemane where he knew Jesus and his disciples would be. They were accustomed to meeting there. By a kiss on the cheek, the customary way to greet a rabbi, he identified Jesus, who was arrested and taken off for trial and crucifixion.

When Judas saw that Jesus was condemned, he tried to return the money he had been paid. But the high priest would not accept it. Judas then turned away in despair to hang himself. 

There is a lesson in all of this for us. It is not enough to know the story of Jesus, to have all the facts of his life. Nor is it enough to have Christian friends and move in Christian circles. Those things mean nothing. Judas had all of that. And you can have all of that and still have a Judas heart. You must come to a place of personal commitment to Jesus Christ. That was a part of Judas’ problem. Though he had firsthand knowledge of Jesus, hearing his teaching, seeing his miracles, and feeling his presence—and though he moved in Christian circles and associated with Christian friends, he never made a commitment of himself to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. 

Beware of a Judas heart. It happened once, and it can happen again. His story then is the tragedy of what might have been. What led to the downfall of Judas?

1. It is a tragedy of misplaced values.

One, it is the tragedy of misplaced values. Judas put money above his Master. Covetousness, an inordinate desire for money, was at the root of Judas’ sin and failure. The love of money is the root of all evil. Jesus warned that money is more than a medium of exchange; it is a god that bids us to worship it. It had Judas’ heart and that’s why he betrayed Jesus. 

Money actually came to mean more and more to him as the years went on. It eventually meant more to him than the Master did and sold him out for a price. But such an act never comes all at once. There is always a marked progression in it. The revelation of his mean-spiritedness hits us in the middle of a deeply moving scene. We are in Bethany, a peaceful village some two miles from Jerusalem. Jesus has a close friend there, Lazarus, whom he had miraculously raised from the dead. The Lord and his disciples are honored at a banquet at which the risen Lazarus is present. One of Lazarus’ two sisters, Mary, anoints Christ’s feet with precious ointment, wiping his feet with her hair. Judas is vexed by her generosity. “Why was not this ointment sold for 300 pence and given to the poor?” he maliciously asks. The Master cuts him short: “Let her alone!” Mary’s gesture of devotion, he explained, is but a symbol of his own imminent death—dead bodies, rather than the living, are anointed. 

2. It is a tragedy of small discrepancies.

Two, it is the tragedy of small discrepancies. Judas’ act of betrayal flowed from an attitude that is seen in this story that began with small discrepancies. It was Judas’ free, deliberate choice of evil that made him the betrayer of Christ. We see him start with small irregularities. John tells us that he was a “thief”—a pilferer of the funds he held in trust—and did not care for the poor whom Christ had given into his charge. The Greek word for “thief” does not describe the bold, brazen kind of man who walks into a 7-Eleven with a Saturday night special and demands that the clerk hand over the cash. It describes rather a sneaky, conniving kind of person who never has the boldness to come out in the open. Judas was a sneaky, beady-eyed man who loved money more than he loved the Master. It was the love of money that gave him his final push.

Beware of small discrepancies and irregularities. Beware of innocent flirtations and the compromise of convictions. Big falls result from little sins. 

3. It is a tragedy of a hardened heart. 

Three, his is the tragedy of a hardened heart; he refused the appeal to love. Even after Judas has agreed to betray Jesus, it is not too late. He could still back out. At the Last Supper the air is heavy with foreboding. Christ is aware by now that one of the disciples has contracted to betray him. Though he has humbly washed Judas’ feet, along with those of the others, he has made a distinction: “Ye are clean, but not all.” As he glances around, his eyes come to rest on Judas. He reveals to Judas that he knows the plot. 

We may fool our fellow men, but we never fool him. He always knows our heart. Throughout the meal Christ treats Judas with kindness and consideration, giving him a chance to back out of the conspiracy. As the meal comes to an end, Jesus says, “One of you which eateth with me shall betray me.” And they began to be sorrowful, and to say unto him one by one, “Is it I? And another said, is it I?” Then Jesus gives them a warning: “The Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! Good were it for that man if he had never been born” (Mark 14:21). Though Jesus knew what Judas was up to, he would not let him go without a last appeal and warning. Here is love’s last appeal to him. 

But his mind is set; there is no changing it. And there will be no compulsion from Christ. He has given us wills that are free—even to betray him. His love appeals to us and his truth warns us, but his power will not force us. What an awful responsibility is ours. We are free men. He never coerces—we choose. Our Lord seeks to woo and win us but never to coerce us. If we will not respond to love, he will not force us. 

None ever goes away without repeated warning. The tragic fact is we tend to become more of what we are. A depressed young man tends to become a bitter old man. A complaining young lady tends to become a cantankerous old woman. A sincerely committed young Christian tends to become a godly older person. A faithful young man tends to become a courageous old man. Of course, growth in grace is a work of God, but those who permit God’s grace to do its work when they are young tend to grow into intimacy with the Lord as they age. 

If our hearts are calloused against God, they tend to grow more that way. Judas, now firmly set upon treason, goes out to do his work. He knows that Christ will spend the night with his disciples in the rock-strewn olive grove of Gethsemane. To keep the soldiers from laying hands on the wrong man, Judas will walk up to Jesus and kiss him on the cheek. It is the proper way to greet a rabbi, and he undoubtedly had done it many times before. “Hail, Master!” he says.  

To the traitor’s greeting, Christ graciously replies, “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” Note how Jesus addresses Judas as “Friend.” 

For a brief moment the two desperate groups confront each other, weapons gleaming in the shifting light of torches. Peter strikes a servant of the high priest with his sword and cuts off the man’s ear. “Put up again the sword,” Jesus commands him, “for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” Christ is led away and there is nothing but silence and the chill wind of dawn among the olive trees.

Judas must have attended the trial of Jesus. We can’t be sure, but we do know that the shock of seeing Christ condemned unnerved him, and remorse overcame him. We may imagine him, the silver still jingling in his moneybag, arriving at the Sanhedrin. “I have sinned” he shouts. “I have betrayed innocent blood!” The priest leaves to go to the Temple. Judas follows and flings the money onto the stone floor. Then the words of Matthew, who has left us the only contemporary account: “Judas went out and hanged himself.”

Obviously Judas never expected the story to end this way. Many believe that Judas was simply attempting to force Jesus’ hand. Jesus was moving too slowly for him, and he thought he might force him into taking action against Rome and declaring himself as the Messiah. When this didn’t happen, he came to a point of despair.

At this point when Judas realized his mistake—that he had betrayed innocent blood, that he had sinned. Even then it was still not too late. I have to believe that if Judas had thrown himself down at the foot of the cross and begged forgiveness, the Lord would have granted it. But Judas went in confession to the wrong person. He went to the priest who would not hear it and who rejected him. He obviously didn’t adequately understand the mercy and grace and the forgiveness of God. So he saw no hope and in despair committed suicide. He became depressed. Why? If he hoped to force the hand of Jesus against Rome, he may have dreamed of becoming the secretary of the treasury in Jesus’ new kingdom. No doubt he never intended it to come to this. 

So Judas despaired. Depression is that midnight of the soul that sees no way out. So Judas committed suicide—one of the five people in the Bible who did that. Every year thousands of young people do the same thing. In fact, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teenagers, after only accidents. 

But the Christian is never without hope. So long as there is life, there is hope. When he saw that what he had done to Jesus did not result in his militaristic expectations, Judas was engulfed in excruciating, pathetic remorse and self-incrimination. He ran to the leaders of Israel to try to intercede to save the friend whom he had sold for the price of a slave. Now Judas was the slave of a new master: his own self-will, manipulation, and clever cunning. What does a man like that do with his failure?  

He desperately needed Jesus’ forgiving love, but he was too late! He had taken Jesus’ destiny into his own hands. Now he had to do the same with himself, he believed. The same hands that had clutched the piece of silver in a clever scheme now twisted his mantel into a ropelike noose to hang himself. But the rope broke and he fell on the rocks beneath, splattering open the tissues of his guilt-ridden, tension-infested anatomy.

But Judas was not the only one who failed Jesus that night. While be betrayed Jesus, Peter denied him and all the rest of the disciples deserted him. Now look at the contrast of what Judas did with his betrayal and what Peter did with his denial. One committed suicide; the other wept bitter tears of failure. One determined his own judgment; the other accepted the judgment of God. One put an end to himself; the other experienced what God did to put an end to self-atonement. For one, failure was the ultimate hopelessness; for the other, failure was the fertile soil of ultimate hopefulness. 

How do we handle our mistakes and errors today? Like Judas or like Peter? The cross, which was the essence of one’s denial and the other’s betrayal, now looms as our only hope. Christ died for both Judas and Peter. Only Peter realized the gift and went on to become a flaming preacher and mediator of the grace he had experienced. For today and all my days, I want to choose Peter’s confession, tears, and joy of a new beginning.

I remind you again—it is not enough to have a knowledge of Jesus or to have Christian friends. Judas had both of those. He saw Jesus, heard Jesus, and knew Jesus as none of us will ever know him. And he moved constantly in Christian circles. But he never made that personal heart commitment to the Lord Jesus. What about you? We must come to a place of commitment, or the Judas heart may reign in us. 

Beware of the Judas heart. Don’t put anything or anyone above the Lord. Don’t ignore his warnings. Don’t despair and give up. Our Lord accepts you—now will you accept him? The situation is never hopeless, but we are sometimes. Fear, despair, and self- incrimination rule us and destroy us. It’s not too late for you. You can be made right with Christ today.

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Paul W. Powell - www.PaulPowellLibrary.com

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