The Worst Thing

MATTHEW 11 of 12

Today, we’re in Matthew 27. And the life of Jesus is coming to an end. The teachings of Jesus ended last week with the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. And over the last chapter (chapters 26) Jesus has had one last meal with his disciples, has wrestled in prayer about his embedding death, and has been brutally, violently arrested.

Even though Jesus himself isn’t doing the teaching, we shouldn’t think that Matthew’s story has stopped teaching. In the midst of all the chaos of Jesus being arrested and executed, the dialogue is still dynamite. We’re still being taught… if we’ll listen. Matthew knows where this story is headed—he knows that Jesus looks last but he’s actually going to be first—and so Matthew keeps on pointing us to the narrow road even when while Jesus is dying.

Let’s hear what Matthew is saying:

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed. So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matthew 27v1-5)

Early in chapter 26, Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’s twelve closest students, had agreed to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. But now as chapter 27 begins, he’s filled with regret and trying to get rid of this blood money. And eventually, despair destroys Judas.

Then the bulk of chapter 27 is Jesus on trial before the regional Roman governor named Pontius Pilate, and then Jesus being beaten and tortured and crucified. And eventually that leads to these terrible moments:

From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27v45-54)

In the span of just over a chapter, the Jesus-revolution is dead. The narrow road seems to be a dead end. The crowds have turned on Jesus, the twelve disciples are disbanded, one of the disciples has killed himself, and the would-be king himself has been executed. The church and the state have killed Jesus.

We’ve been trying to focus our attention on the details that only show up in Matthew’s gospel. We’ve been hoping that focusing on those places, these passages, these details will help give us a good taste of Matthew’s story, and how Matthew is teaching us to follow Jesus.

Today is no different. There are two details in our passage today that only show up in Matthew. Matthew is the only gospel-writer to include the detail of Judas’s suicide (v5) and the only gospel-writer to include the detail of the dead rising at Jesus’s crucifixion (v52). The tragic detail about a man in despair—a man desperate for a way to make things right—a man saying, “I’ve sinned—this was a mistake.” And the puzzling detail about tombs breaking open—and about the dead rising—the dead coming to life—after Jesus was raised from the dead.

These two details are only in Mathew, and both of them gnaw at me a little. Judas’s suicide gnaws at me because taking your own life—that kind of pain, that kind of despair—is unthinkably horrible wherever it occurs. And the dead rising gnaws at me because—well, it’s just weird, isn’t it? What’s going on there?

So let’s talk about these two passages and then we’ll come to the table.

First Judas. Nobody really knows why Judas betrayed Jesus. It definitely happened. Even the most liberal, progressive, skeptical of scholars agree that there was no reason why the church would make this up. He agreed to betray Jesus back in chapter 26, verses 14-16. Some people speculate that maybe Judas was greedy—just a corrupt money-grubber. He got tired of not being able to make money on the whole Jesus thing… and so he decided to make money by turning Jesus in. Other people have speculated—especially based on his reaction here in Matthew—that maybe Judas was impatient. That Judas actually still believed that Jesus was the Messiah and he was just trying to get the ball rolling.

(“I’ll deliver Jesus over to them, they’ll try to arrest him and then the fireworks will begin. Jesus will show his power as king and the kingdom of heaven will arrive.”)

Whether he was greedy or whether he was impatient, nobody really knows why Judas did it. But he did. And in Matthew 27, Judas is overcome with regret. And not just the regular kind of regret—this is something incredibly deep. Judas is overcome with guilt and shame and hopelessness. He says (v4): “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood”

He has sinned, and he owns it. In that way, Judas is ahead of most of us. Most of my life, I spend distracting myself or busying myself or just generally avoiding the hard regrets and realities of my life. He’s handed over his friend, his teacher, an innocent man, to one of the worst kinds of deaths imaginable.

In every single one of our lives, we have places or habits or patterns or areas or relationships or decisions that we regret. Mistakes we’ve made. Regardless of why we did it—it’s hard to say why we do a lot of things—regardless of our motives, we look back and say: “I missed the mark there. There is no way that this thing—this situation, this path, these circumstances—are what God had in mind. I have sinned.”

Whatever Judas’s original motivations, he suddenly realizes that he is very far from where he wants to be. He is very far from the life of heaven—the kingdom of heaven—that Jesus has been talking about. Because Judas knows the Bible. He remembers what the ancient scroll of Deuteronomy says:

“Cursed is anyone who accepts a bribe to kill an innocent person” (Deuteronomy 27v25)

He knows that what he has done has ripped—has torn—at the very fabric of the universe, and he’s living a cursed kind of life. According to the ancient Jewish scriptures, the world was created for shalom—for peace, for wholeness, for health—and he has been going in the wrong direction.

In Matthew 27, I think Judas is looking for someone to give him hope. This is the worst thing in his life—the worst thing he has ever done in his life—and it’s driving him to despair. He’s looking for someone to give him hope. Looking for someone to grant him atonement. Someone to say: “You’re not stuck in a curse… that stupid decision—that gigantic mistake—is not the end of the story. Forgiveness, peace, wholeness, shalom, with God, with others, with yourself—it is possible.” He’s looking for someone to tell him: the worst thing in your life doesn’t define your life.

That’s why he comes to the chief priests. If you want hope, if you want atonement, if you want assurance of forgiveness, if you want to be reconciled with God and the community—well, you go to the chief priests. Judas has this moment of looking honestly at his life—at where he is and what he has done—and he says: “I have sinned.” And the chief priests respond (v4): “What is that to us? That’s your responsibility.”

It’s this deeply ironic moment in Matthew’s gospel, because it’s the moment when the religious geniuses admit that they can’t help with anything that matters. “That’s your business, man. That’s your responsibility.” Judas is confessing his sin, and they’re dumping it back onto him. And it crushes him. Judas is overwhelmed by the hopeless, the despair, the shame, the guilt, the curse.

So Judas (v5) threw the money into the temple, and went away and hanged himself.

I think Matthew is teaching us right here. By telling us the tragedy of Judas’s death, he’s showing us the alternative to the narrow road of Jesus. He’s showing us the wide road that leads to destruction. When we look for hope anywhere other than Jesus we eventually wind up in despair. That’s where we’re left.

We’re left in a world that says, that mess, that problem, that area, that’s your responsibility. You feel stuck in darkness? You feel under a curse? You feel hopeless? What is that to us? Your sin is your sin. Your curse is your curse.

The moment of Jesus’s death in Matthew could not be in more different. The crucifixion is a surreal, strange picture. Darkness has come over the entire land (v45), and if we take Matthew’s story seriously, this isn’t just a bad moment for Judas. Chapter one of Matthew onward, Jesus is Immanuel—God with us—God in the flesh. And the church and the state just killed him. The best of human history—the Jewish faith and the Roman government—have killed God himself.

This is a bad moment for the human race—for human civilization, period.

We’re outraged by the headlines and happenings in the world, but this is worse than any false imprisonments, worse than police officers being murdered, worse than any unjust use of force, worse than any tsunami or famine or epidemic.Worse than anything. This is the worst thing in history. The pinnacles of human history in the ancient Jews and Romans (the best we can do as a species) have murdered God.

The only truly just man. The only truly true man. The only truly good man has just been murdered. Justice itself, truth itself, goodness itself, everything beautiful—murdered. This isn’t just about the worst thing in one person’s life. If we take is seriously, this is the worst thing in human history.

There’s this moment on the cross in verse 46 when even Jesus himself—even God himself—seems to despair. Jesus cries out: “My God, my God, why—?” In the middle of the human race doing the worst thing imaginable—the worst thing in history—we have God himself crying out with our question. It sounds something like the cry of every human heart:

“Why? Why is this happening? Why do bad things happen? Why suffering? Why don’t you help? Why have you allowed this, God? Why have you abandoned me?”

It sounds like Jesus is resigning himself to the confusion and anger and despair that we—the rest of human race—feels so often. It’s the worst moment for Judas and the worst moment in human history. But as we hear Jesus cry and watch Jesus die, we see that this is actually God’s finest moment.

Jesus is being crucified outside the city walls, but inside the city—in the heart of the temple—in the holy of holies—the sacred curtain separating the world from God is being torn (v51). It’s like God is showing his displeasure and judgment on this whole system, on these religious geniuses, who offer no hope to anyone. That leave people in their despair, that would leave people in their curse—that would just say, “that’s your responsibility, that’s your sin, that your curse.”

He’s saying: “The path is clear, the curtain is gone, and I’m coming for you.”

Mark and Luke talk about that curtain being torn from top to bottom, but Matthew just keeps piling on the strange things happening when Jesus died. Read verses 51-52. The temple curtain gets torn in two, and the world itself shook, and the chunks of the world we call rocks get broken, and the chunks of rock we call tombs get broken open. The earth is convulsing—like creation itself is having a seizure—and rocks are splitting and boulders are breaking, and those limestone hobbit holes called tombs are breaking open.

And the dead are rising.

“The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life and came out of the tombs after Jesus’s resurrection.” (Matthew 27v52-53)

That is super strange. Strange enough that no other gospel records it. It’s almost the picture of a water-tower breaking open—it’s filled up so much that when it breaks, everything around it gets drenched. Jesus is so full of life that when he breaks, when he dies, life literally spills into every corpse thirsty for it.

In the strange details that Matthew makes sure to include, I think he’s basically saying the same thing that Paul says in Galatians 3:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Galatians 3v13)

The early Christians knew the Bible just like Judas, and Paul here quotes another part of the scroll of Deuteronomy. But where Judas looked for hope in other places—and despaired—the earliest Christians looked for hope apart from themselves and trusted the mercy of God revealed in the cross. They saw that on the cross, Jesus wasn’t just passively joining the rest of the human race in confusion or despair. Oh no. Jesus wasn’t under any kind of curse himself. Jesus is the one human being who has never sinned. Jesus is the one human being who has never strayed from the way of love.

This moment Matthew gives us of tombs breaking open and then later of the dead coming alive—the dead rising—this is a picture of what Jesus’s death means and what God is like. In any way we are cursed—in every way we are cursed—God takes that into himself. The cross is God’s way of pulling poison—the poison of death—out of the human race. In any way—in every way—that you or I or Hilary or Donald or Pope Francis or Judas Iscariot have ever ripped and torn at the very fabric of the universe, Jesus has chosen to taken that curse on himself.

To the point of “my God, my God, why—?”

This is where Matthew’s gospel has brought us: Immanuel—God with us—dying our death and spilling his life into the world. And this is what the love of God is always like—pulling our poison into himself and pushing his life into us.

The love of God is endlessly like the cross. The narrow road of love has led Jesus to death, but even death isn’t a dead end for Jesus. It’s actually his way of loving a world full of betrayers. In the cross, God says:

“That is your responsibility… but now it’s my responsibility. I take it. I take it all. Your sin is my sin. Your curse is my curse. That worst thing in your life doesn’t define your life; I define your life. My love, my mercy, my death, my resurrection—these are the things that are truest about you.”

It’s like a blood transfusion for the universe. Jesus pulls the poison of death and drenches the world in life. Matthew is showing the worst thing—the worst thing in Judas life and the worst thing in history being used for good. For ultimate, history-shaping, universe-changing good. There is no sin that God himself has not felt, and there is no sin that God himself has not forgiven. And there is no worst thing that cannot be gathered by God and used for good.

We are invited to believe this.

God takes the world’s curse and showers the world’s corpses with new life. The question is this: will we believe this good news? Even in death—even in suffering—even in confusion—the narrow road isn’t a dead end. The only dead end is forever choosing to look somewhere besides Jesus for hope.

The worst thing in history was transformed by God into the best thing for history. And If God can transform the worst thing in history then God can transform the worst thing in my life. The areas where you feel discouraged, the places where you feel shame or despair, the decisions—whatever they were motivated by—that now feel like historic mistakes, these things do not define you. God’s plans are bigger than our biggest mistakes. God’s forgiveness is bigger than our worst decisions and darkest sins. God’s mercy is bigger than the curses we bring upon ourselves, And God showers corpses with new life. You, I—all of us—are invited to believe this good news every moment of our lives. Maybe especially when darkness cover the land.

So may your life be defined by God’s mercy and not your mistakes. May you believe that the cross is what God is like. May you trust he’s always pulling your poison and pushing new life. May we have the courage and faith to follow Jesus on the narrow road of self-giving love with confidence that it will never dead-end.