Updated: May 18, 2020
I had the opportunity to preach through Matthew 26 at my church last weekend. We looked at the acts of betrayal committed by Jesus’ closest friends at the end of his life. It was interesting to read through this chapter of the Bible with fresh eyes. Normally, when I think of the people who betrayed or rejected Jesus, I think about the Pharisees who constantly challenged Jesus and plotted against his life or I think about Judas, “the bad seed” in the group of twelve disciples. But what struck me as I read through the chapter this time was that ALL of Jesus’ friends deserted him. ALL of the people who were closest to him and should have been the most prepared to remain faithful til the end wound up turning away from him in his darkest hour.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear about some type of scandal that takes place, I want to get to the bottom of it. I want to figure out what went wrong and how I can prevent that from happening in my own life. I could look at these stories of betrayal and try to figure out what went wrong for each person so that I know what to avoid. Maybe Judas betrayed Jesus because he wasn’t fully invested and his greed got in the way. Maybe Peter betrayed Jesus because he got too prideful. But then we see that everybody else betrayed Jesus, too. So if we’re trying to find some fatal flaw that all these people have in common that causes them to betray Jesus, it’s simply that they’re human. That’s it. If you are human, you will betray Jesus at some point. You will be unfaithful to him in some way.
So that’s pretty discouraging. If I just ended this right here, we could all go and just wallow in how awful we are and how there’s no hope for any of us. Or we could go in a different direction where we figure God knows we’re all going to sin anyway so there’s no point in trying to obey. Let’s just live it up. But neither of those options are what God would call us to. There is more to this story.
One thing that has struck me over and over again as I have been reading through and studying the gospel of Matthew is that Jesus is primarily concerned about our hearts. Lying behind every parable, every command, every interaction, we see this desire for us to have pure hearts. We also see this warning that if our hearts are not right, we will be led to act in a way that is contrary to God’s will. It all starts with what is going on in our hearts. It’s not simply about behavior modification. So even if you are doing great things for God’s Kingdom, if your heart is not right, you could also be doing things that are tearing down God’s Kingdom.
In the midst of thinking about the importance of a healthy heart, my dad had a heart attack a few weeks ago. Thankfully, he’s doing fine, but this was his third heart attack. And after his last one, which was a big one, he had bypass surgery. And then he made some changes in his life so that he could be more healthy. He started eating better, and he’s been working out. He’s retired now so his stress level is much lower. He goes in for regular check ups and stress tests. STILL he had another heart attack. So of course he’s continuing to make some modifications. He’s on a couple new medications. He’s adjusting his diet more. But here’s the thing, even if he does all the right things, there is no assurance that he won’t have another heart attack. Ultimately, if there is something wrong with his heart, then he can’t prevent a heart attack just by modifying his behavior. Now, that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t do all those things. There are clear benefits to those healthy behaviors and if he just lives however he wants to live, that would definitely make things worse for his heart. But he can’t necessarily control what happens.
For me, that is really frustrating and also really scary. I want to have control. Just like I want to know what my dad can do to make sure that he never has another heart attack, I also want to know what I need to do to make sure I never betray Jesus. I want the list of things that I need to do and the list of things that I need to avoid so I can feel safe. But it doesn’t work like that. There are definitely ways that Jesus commands us to live, but you could be doing all the right things, and if something is wrong in your heart, you could still fall into temptation.
So what do we do with that?
Fully Surrender to Jesus
We need to be fully surrendered to Jesus. We need to view him as Lord over our lives, and we need to trust him. The distinction between Jesus just being a good teacher or being the master of our lives is of utmost importance. In Matthew 16, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” and they respond by saying that most people think he’s a prophet, maybe even John the Baptist or Elijah come back to life. And then Jesus says, “But who do you say I am?” Peter is quick to respond, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Yet, right after that declaration, Peter rebuked Jesus for predicting his own death. He didn’t trust that Jesus knew best. Jesus’ response to that is found in Matthew 16:24-25…
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for me will find it.
Sometimes we think we know better than God. We probably don’t walk around declaring that because intellectually we know that God is Creator and that he understands everything better than we ever could. He is Wisdom. He’s not just really wise. He IS Wisdom. And yet, how many times do we, as humans, know the teachings of God, know what we should be doing but then rationalize why that wouldn’t work? We can come up with a million reasons why we don’t need to forgive or love our enemies or trust God with our finances. This kind of justification shows the state of our hearts. It shows our pride in thinking that we know best, and it shows that we don’t fully trust God.
But Jesus is telling us that sometimes we have to give up what we think is best, and we need to do it his way. That is what is going to lead to life. There might be all these things that we think we need to hold onto or all these things that we think we are entitled to, but those might be the things that are actually leading to death rather than life. Those might be the things that are standing in between us and God. And we need to choose to surrender.
Check Your Heart
As we surrender to God, it’s not just a one-time thing. It is a daily choice. And it requires honest self-reflection. We should never get to a place where we become self-righteous and think that we are good because we’ve already sacrificed a lot or done a lot of great things for God. We need to keep checking our hearts.
One thing that I found interesting as I was thinking about Peter’s story of betrayal in Matthew 26 is that the marker that Jesus gave Peter that made him aware of his betrayal was the rooster crowing. Jesus said, “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” So when Peter heard the rooster crow, he realized what he had done. The sound of the rooster was something that Peter would have heard every morning. It was commonplace but Jesus used it as a reminder for Peter. On that particular day, we see Peter’s reaction to hearing the rooster crow. He wept bitterly. He was deeply grieved. But think about every day after that. The rooster would crow again the next day and the day after that and the day after that. Don’t you think that every time Peter heard that rooster crow, that he was reminded of his betrayal? I’m sure that in those 3 days before Peter would see Jesus again that there was deep shame every time he heard the rooster. After Jesus and Peter were reconciled, he wouldn’t have been living in shame anymore, but I’m sure it was still a daily reminder of what he was capable of. It was a daily reminder of his sin. It was a daily reminder to examine his heart. That’s what we need.
I love the verses in Psalm 139:23-24 –
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
That should be our daily prayer. It requires a lot of humility to recognize and accept our own brokenness, but it is vital to the state of our hearts. And it’s something that we can invite others into as well. God gives us community and sometimes when we have a hard time seeing our own flaws, it is helpful to have people who are close to us and whom we trust that can speak truth to us. They can tell us what they see and we can receive that with humility. And then we take that back to God, and we ask him to lead us in truth. And he will because he’s a good God.
Even if we do our best to fully surrender to God and we do our best to check our hearts daily, we will still fail at times. It’s part of that human condition. But we don’t have to live in shame when we mess up because God is full of grace. It’s important to remember that Jesus knew each of his friends were going to betray him before it happened. I don’t think that Jesus told them ahead of time that it was going to happen just to warn them. He knew that it would happen. But I think he wanted them to be able to look back after the fact and see that even though he knew they were going to betray him, he still accepted and loved them.
Jesus told his disciples in the midst of the last supper in Matthew 26:28-29,
This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s Kingdom.
That’s so beautiful in the midst of these stories of betrayal. Jesus knew they would all betray him and yet he not only told them that he was giving up his life to forgive them, but he also confirmed their place in his kingdom. This should give us so much hope. God shows us that he is so full of generosity and grace. We don’t have to earn our place in his kingdom. He gives it to us freely. We just have to receive it.
There is not a 5 step method for how we can avoid all temptation and live without sin. There is not a list that we can check off. But there is a way of life that Jesus calls into, and there is a process of refinement. It’s a constant cycle of surrendering our lives to Jesus, checking our hearts, and receiving grace when we fail. And we have to do each of those things over and over again.
Consider where you’re at in that process and what God is calling you to today. Are there areas of your life that you need to surrender to God? Do you need to spend some time in honest self-reflection and check out what’s going on in your heart? Or do you need to exchange the shame that you’re feeling and accept God’s grace?