The word used to describe Judas’ “repentance” is slightly different from the normal one. It has the same prefix, but a different suffix. It begins the same, but ends differently. Herein is a parable.
The camera that is intensely focused on Jesus’ trial and crucifixion pans away only twice; in both instances the focus is the failure of one of His disciples. You’re meant to contrast the two. Together, Peter and Judas are the best illustration of 2 Corinthians 7:10, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Douglas Wilson once tweeted, “As you contemplate repentance, be sure to distinguish ice shattering and ice melting.” Judas was shattered, but he was still ice. He was still cold. He was still hard. Peter was melted. Peter changed. Peter repented. Repentance does mean brokenness, but only brokenness coupled with warm faith.
Judas’ repentance is like that of Esau, Pharaoh, and Saul. It is, as Spurgeon quipped, “a repentance that needed to be repented of.” The prefix was pronounced perfectly, but the suffix was garbled. Pharaoh’s pronunciation of repentance sounded good at first, “This time I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Plead with the LORD, for there has been enough of God’s thunder and hail. I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer (Exodus 9:27-38),” but he muddled the rest of the word, “But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses (Exodus 9:34-35).”
In Judas, Esau, Pharaoh, and Saul we see sorrow, conviction, grief, and remorse, but we do not see repentance, and one way in which we do not see repentance is that we do not see faith. Repentance turns from sin, to Christ. Judas ran to the priests seeking to make things right. If he had the eyes of faith, he would have cried out to the only one who could make things right. Instead of trying to pay back, He would have looked to the one who was paying. Instead of finding priests who care nothing for his troubled conscience, he would have found the great High Priest who alone could purify his conscience (Hebrews 9:14). Worldly grief leads to death. When you are truly aware of your sins, if you have not faith in Christ, your only other option is the deepest despair. Hung on a tree, Judas was cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
And here is where another, surprising, but comforting contrast pops out at us. We are not merely to compare Peter and Judas, but Jesus and Judas. Two men would hang on a tree this day. Both would be cursed of God. But whereas Judas was cursed for his own sins, Jesus was cursed for the sins of others. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24).”
Let your despair, let your sorrow, let your guilt drive you to a tree, to a place of execution, to a cursed place of darkness, to a place of wrath and judgment. And may it be your sins upon that tree, but may it not be you. May it be Christ. Look to the cross of Christ and you will see both the ugliness of your sins, and the beauty of redemption. This is the only sight that can produce true repentance, because it is the only sight that can produce true faith.