Many Christians have often pondered the lives of Peter and Judas, with the desire to understand whatever differences and similarities may have existed between the two men. I have sometimes been asked why Judas was not forgiven for his sin while Peter was; other Christians have gone so far as to insist that Judas is still saved.
Though it is quite certain that Judas is among the damned, what was the real difference between Peter and Judas that brought about such an awful end for Judas and a blessed end for Peter? And what important lesson can we learn today from the lives of these two apostles?
When we examine the Bible passages that center on these two men, we learn enough about their characters to understand a little more about what motivated their actions. Contrary to how modern movies about Jesus often portray Peter, he was actually a religious man even before Jesus came into his life. He once responded to Christ with the statement, “I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:14), showing that he lived his life attempting to obey the laws and ordinances of God.
Unlike the self-righteous religious leaders of the day, Peter was also very aware of his own sinful state, declaring to Jesus, “depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:8). Peter was so open to the inspiration of God that he was able to understand that Jesus was the Son of God (Mt 16:16-17).
We can also learn a lot from the way Jesus viewed Peter. It is quite clear from Scripture that Jesus saw within Peter something very special, an inner strength and a sincerity of purpose in following Him and in serving God. At the very beginning of their relationship, Jesus surnamed him Cephas, which means a stone (Jn 1:42). He also declared that the Church would actually begin its growth through Peter (Mt 16:18); this was fulfilled when Peter declared the first sermon of the Church where thousands were converted and the Church began its rapid expansion (Acts 2:14).
Of all the apostles, it was Peter who had enough faith that he could walk out on the water to Christ before being distracted by the strong wind around him (Mt 14:28-30). Though Christ called him a man of “little faith” after he sank (Mt 14:31), we must remember that it was highly unlikely that any of the other apostles had enough faith to even begin to walk on the water. The term “little faith” was used quite often by Jesus for others as well (Mt 6:30; 8:26; and 16:8). We almost get the feeling that Jesus expected more out of Peter when He said, “Wherefore didst thou doubt?”
It is this strength and sincerity of purpose that Jesus saw in Peter that may have been the reason Satan wanted to “sift him as wheat,” which Jesus responded to by praying for Peter (Lk 22:31-32). When Jesus predicted that Peter would deny Him, He also foretold his restoration, and even instructed him to later strengthen his Christian brothers (Lk 22:32). We know from the writings of the Apostle Paul, that the resurrected Jesus appeared first to Peter before the other apostles (1 Cor 15:5), again showing a special place for Peter in Jesus’ heart.
Peter’s sincerity and determination to loyally follow Jesus is very apparent. Even though Jesus rebuked him at one point for allowing himself to be used by Satan to tempt Him (Mk 8:33), it was most likely what Peter mistakenly felt to be best for Jesus at the time. Peter also felt unworthy to have Jesus wash his feet, and he stubbornly resisted the effort at first (Jn 13:6). And when Jesus told Peter that he would deny Him, Peter insisted that he was willing to follow Jesus even to prison or death (Lk 22:33).
After this conversation, it is most probable that Peter was more determined than ever to follow Jesus, regardless of the consequences, hoping to prove his faithfulness. We find the first evidence of this when they came to seize Jesus, for it was Peter who took action and fought, slicing off the ear of the high priest’s servant (Jn 18:10). Even though it was quite obvious that they could not win in a battle without angelic or divine intervention, Peter stood up for Christ. As Judas planted a kiss of deception on the cheek of Jesus, Peter drew his sword in defense of Jesus.
What followed after this shows even more Peter’s loyal nature. Unlike most of the other apostles, he did not desert Jesus, but instead followed Him, even into the enemy’s camp (Lk 22:54). We must remember that if Peter had not followed in loyalty, he would have most likely never have been in the dangerous position which ended up in a denial of his master. After Peter followed Jesus into the court of the high priest and was accused of being a follower of Jesus, he began to deny Him, even cursing and swearing (Mk 14:71). Yet, this denial was most certainly driven by fear. After the denial, Jesus looked upon Peter, who then went out and “wept bitterly” over what he had done (Lk 22:61-62).
It was Peter who leapt out of the boat when he learned it was Jesus on the shore after His resurrection (John 21:7). It was during this encounter that Jesus questioned him about how much Peter really loved Him (Jn 21:15-17). The emphasis was not on whether Peter loved Him, but to what degree, driving home the point that genuine love is conveyed in sacrifice of self. The reaction from Jesus during all three responses in which Peter professed his love was “then feed my sheep.” Jesus was telling Peter to show his love by loving and caring for his Christian brothers and sisters. Jesus also implied in this same conversation that Peter would die for Him when he was old (Jn 21:18). In the end, tradition tells us that Peter gave his life as a martyr for Christ after decades of loyal service.
What we learn about Peter from the Bible is that he had a sincere heart for God. His love for Jesus was real. He knew he was a sinner in need of salvation. Though Peter’s actions may not have always been wise, the overall pattern of his relationship with Jesus was one of loyalty and faithfulness.
He failed Jesus and denied Him while trying to prove his faithfulness, a failure that was the result of fear rather than ulterior motives of disloyalty. His repentance after the fact was genuine, with a mournful weeping of having denied the Lord he loved. Peter was a man whose heart was right with his Lord, a man whose temporary downfall was caused by taking his eyes off of Jesus and trying to serve God in his own strength.
When we examine Judas’s character and lifestyle, we find quite a different story. Judas was the treasurer of the group, the one who held the money. When the woman poured the bottle of expensive ointment over Jesus’ feet, it was Judas who complained, declaring that the money could have been used for the poor (Jn 12:6-8).
Yet, we are told in this same passage Judas’s objection was because he was a thief who was stealing from the group’s money, and not because he really cared for the poor. Even in this incident, we see no real love or concern about Jesus, and only a false piety about the poor. Judas was more concerned about money than he was about Jesus. We can almost assume that there was absolutely no genuine concern about Jesus whatsoever.
According to the Scriptures, though Jesus often spoke encouraging words to Peter, He never spoke anything positive or encouraging to Judas. Jesus himself said that Judas was “a devil” (Jn 6:70-71). He also said that it would have been better if Judas had not even been born (Mt 26:24). Unlike the love Jesus had for Peter, there is no such evidence of any like emotion for Judas. This is because Jesus knew that Judas’s heart was full of self-interest and ulterior motives.
When Judas went to betray Jesus, we are told that Satan actually entered into him (Lk 22:3), and likewise again when he went to lead the hostile group to Jesus (Jn 13:27). Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss to the cheek, even calling Him “Master” in the midst of his awful betrayal (Mt 26:49).
Again, the betrayal itself was led by Judas’s selfish desire for money. He betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver (Mt 26:15), the price of a slave. This dishonorable valuation of the Son of God shows Judas’s true heart; his desire was for money rather than for Christ.
Though Judas eventually threw the money away and then went and hanged himself (Mt 27:3-5), it was most likely from an overwhelming guilt that God allowed him to experience as the self-inflicted punishment for his crime. The only repentance we see in this action is Judas’s recognition that he had sinned by betraying “innocent blood,” but there is no evidence of belief in Jesus as the Son of God. That Judas seems to have expected a different outcome seems possible since we are told that his return of the money took place only when he saw that Jesus had been condemned (Mt 27:3). After all, even Judas knew that the Jews of his day could not carry out capital punishment under the existing Roman occupation.
Why was Judas really following Jesus? Was it because he believed that Jesus was the Son of God? Most likely, from what we learn of his motives, Judas did not actually believe in Jesus for who He really was. At some point he may have believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah expected by the Jews of his day, a reigning king who would set up his kingdom over the world. Is it possible that Judas believed that he would be the treasurer of this great kingdom? Did he finally become disillusioned as time went on and he realized that Jesus was not here to defeat the Romans and set up His kingdom after all? Or, by forcing the confrontation, was he trying to speed up the establishment of the kingdom he imagined he would be part of?
Whatever his thoughts on these matters, it is almost certain that he was following Jesus out of self-interest, with ulterior motives of his own gain in the material world. While Judas desired riches over Christ, his end was death, and even the silver he had received for his betrayal of Jesus was instead spent on a field where strangers could be buried (Mt 27:6-7).
True and False Faiths
Unlike the love of Peter shown toward Christ, we find no such emotion coming from Judas, but rather a heart with a love for money. While Peter was sincere in his relationship with the Son of God, Judas was not. As Peter struggled to serve and follow Jesus in loyalty and faithfulness, Judas maintained a secret agenda in which Jesus was merely a means to assist in achieving his selfish objectives. The major difference between Peter and Judas was the contrast of hearts that conveyed itself in the actions of the two men. Peter was a genuine disciple and believer in Christ; the faith of Judas was false.
What we can learn today from Judas is to examine our own lives and our own walk with God. Why are we following Christ? Is our faith sincere? Do we really love Christ? Or do we have ulterior motives advanced by claiming the name of Christ? Though Judas followed Christ as a means to line his pocket with cash, many today may follow Jesus for other ulterior reasons. Be it fame, popularity, money, respect, power, or anything else, it is no different than the false faith of Judas if our belief is not sincere. We need to look at our hearts and ask ourselves if we really love Jesus.
What we can learn from Peter is very enlightening for all genuine Christians today. Though Peter had a certain degree of true faith, his pattern of failure is seen in reliance upon his own strength, coupled with distraction from the threats around him that resulted in his taking his eyes off of Jesus. Before his denial, we can see Peter losing focus as he did when walking on the water, failing to stay fixed on Christ as the real source of his strength.
In both instances there is a mention of a weakened faith (Mt 14:31; Lk 22:32). Though Peter’s intentions were good, his failure to keep his gaze upon Jesus resulted in weakness and failure. Though, in both instances, he started out strong while focused on the Lord he loved, the moment he turned away to his own strength or allowed himself to be distracted by the threats around him, he failed.
Later, after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter became strong in faith, boldly standing up to great opposition even though Jesus had already ascended into heaven. While previously Peter had cowered from the accusations of those around the fire in the courtyard of the high priest, he now boldly confronted the high priest himself and all the other religious leaders with confidence and courage (Acts 4:5-20).
It seems that Peter, empowered by the Holy Spirit, had at last learned to stay focused on the master he loved regardless of threats that surrounded him. This is the same Holy Spirit that now dwells within and empowers all genuine Christians.
What we can take to heart from Peter’s life is that, regardless of the degree of our faith in Jesus, we have weaknesses as well. Our real strength comes from Christ, and we need to stay focused on Him no mater what confronts, threatens or tempts us. Nothing in the world is more important than our love for Jesus and His love for us. It is the love in our relationship with Him that really matters.
Stay Focused on Christ
The Love of God for us through Jesus is a wonderful thing, and meditation on that love can sustain us through many hardships and trials, helping us to stay focused on Christ even in the face of the fiercest confrontations with our faith.
St. Paul encourages us with: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
Though it is unlikely any of us will be walking on water anytime soon, we may someday find ourselves in situations where, as disciples of Christ, we need to stand up and do what is right. Some of us may even find ourselves in the face of death. Let us strive to always keep ourselves meditating on the Lord of our lives, to develop that love in our hearts for our Master, to put him first before all other things, to rely upon Him for our strength.
When Jesus declared, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rv 3:20), he was talking to Christians, not unbelievers. Jesus loves us and wants a deeper relationship with us all. May we learn from Peter and always keep our eyes and heart focused on the Lord we love. TP
Mr. King writes from Casa Grande, Ariz.