Tale of Two Friends

For three years they did nearly everything together. They were inseparable. They ate together. Laughed together. Drank together. Celebrated together. Studied together. Wandered long dusty roads together while wondering if they would ever arrive at their destination. Wondered if they would find a friendly place to stay together overnight or if they would sleep once more under the stars with no shelter from the elements. Wondered together where they would find their next meal. Worried together that they might be targeted by roving bands of thieves. Worried together that crowds might set upon them in anger and pelt them with stones, perhaps killing them together.

They stared at each other, jaws dropped, baffled by what their teacher told them as they listened together.

Both friends heard their teacher tell them, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12).

Both friends scratched their heads when this man who taught with authority warned them, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). Even after their teacher died—he was himself a good friend to both of them—they still didn’t understand what he meant when he told them, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. . . . Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. . . . For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matt. 5:40, 44).

Both friends heard it the first time straight from Jesus’s mouth when he taught his friends to pray, “Our Father in heaven. . . . Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:9, 13). One of the friends would have been particularly wise to heed Jesus’s warning, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:21). The other friend would have been particularly wise to ponder Jesus’s question, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). Both friends would ultimately be cut to the core by Jesus’s command, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:14).

One of the friends would find that gate. The other would not.

* * * * *

Both friends huddled together in a boat, fearing for their lives, as a great storm raged on the Sea of Galilee. Yet their friend Jesus slept nearby and only calmed the wind and waves when these men woke him up in a panic. Both friends RSVP’d to attend the wedding at Cana in Galilee along with Jesus and saw him turn water into the highest-quality wine because he had come to give abundant life to all who asked. Never could any man have asked for a better friend.

Both friends saw Jesus walk on water. The worshiped him together and said, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). Both friends saw him make the lame to run and give the blind their sight. Both friends saw him weep over the death of his friend Lazarus, and both friends saw him raise Lazarus from the dead. Only this friend’s tears could turn others’ tears of grief into tears of rejoicing.

Both friends saw him feed the 5,000. He turned five loaves and two fish into a feast greater than any tailgate spread you’ve ever seen. This is the kind of friend who could broker peace between any two bitter rivals, even as he came to set son against father and daughter against mother (Matt. 10:35).

Both friends sat before Jesus as he disrobed in the Upper Room, poured water into a basin, and kneeled to wash their feet: worn, calloused, dusty, grimy, weary from three peripatetic years.

The three best years of their lives.

The three most glorious years of human history, when the God who upheld all creation by the word of his power selected 12 ordinary men as friends who would turn the world upside down.

He who hung the stars before time began came in the fullness of time to be born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Gal. 4:4-5).

As a sign of this new covenant between God and man, both friends received from Jesus the manna from heaven that would never spoil. “Take, eat,” Jesus told both friends, “this is my body.” He gave thanks to his Father and then offered both friends the cup of the new covenant, signifying the blood he himself would spill, that many might be forgiven of their sins (Matt. 26:17-28).

From this point on, the inseparable friends would separate, but both would witness horror unlike anyone else had known before then or since. And they would both suffer sorrow nearly as piercing as the nails that would be pounded into the hands and feet of their dear friend.

Because both friends would betray Jesus.

Both friends would abandon the man who had just washed their feet, the Son of Man who came not be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

At the hour of their friend’s greatest trial, both friends would abandon the man who said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” You are my friends, Jesus said, if you do what I command you—that is, love one another as friends, as brothers. So great was his love, in fact, that he would lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

These friends he loved to the end.

* * * * *

Both of these friends had succumbed to temptation from Satan. One of the friends had witnessed the glories of the Transfiguration, had seen Jesus face shine as the sun, had seen his clothes became as white as light, had heard the voice of the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matt. 17:2-5). We know this friend was terrified; why wouldn’t he be? Only one week earlier Jesus had rebuked his friend and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23).

And still this friend did not learn to trust Jesus, whom he had seen talk with Moses and Elijah. Jesus knew his friends would all run away when his time to suffer approached. Hardly, this friend boasted after their supper in the Upper Room. “Though they all fall away because of you,” he said, “I will never fall away. . . . Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matt. 26:33, 34). Not so, Jesus told his friend. “Tonight, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (Matt. 26:34).

The other friend betrayed Jesus more directly. He had been a thief all along. His friends trusted him with their money, and he had been stealing some of it for personal gain. Practiced in deception, this friend had pretended to be incredulous when during their last meal together Jesus identified him as the one who would betray him to his enemies. This friend had already approached the chief priests who had been looking for a way to kill Jesus and agreed to betray him for a mere 30 pieces of silver. The bread and wine that Jesus had blessed as the sign of the new covenant became for this friend a taste of everlasting judgment. For Satan had entered him (John 13:27).

This friend led a crowd with clubs to come and arrest Jesus so he could be tried and executed as an enemy of the Jewish people and the Roman Empire. As this friend knew from three years together, Jesus was unarmed but more than capable of evading arrest as he had so many times before slipped away from aggressive and demanding crowds. Yet he’d also heard Jesus many times before predict this very scenario, where the Son of Man would go to Jerusalem to suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes—the very authorities who had bought his loyalty—and eventually be killed and on the third day be raised from the dead (Matt. 16:21). After this friend gave Jesus the kiss of death, Jesus responded with a most remarkable comment: “Friend, do what you came to do” (Matt. 26:50).

Friend. A word used only three times in the whole Bible, all by Matthew in his Gospel. It’s not the same Greek word for friend that we see elsewhere. And all three times it refers to a binding relationship in which the addressed party has neglected his responsibility to the authority. Friend. Such a familiar word that we toss out so lightly for mere acquaintances, even digital relationships never consummated in person. Friend. Such an innocuous word that communicates so much about the privilege this man had enjoyed for three years with Jesus. And even in this infamous moment Jesus never angered at this friend who would hand him over to death for a handful of coins.

The other friend knew likewise that Jesus expected to suffer. How could he forget that Jesus had called him Satan for trying to rebuke the friend he had just confessed as the Christ, the Son of the living God? (Matt. 16:16) In return Jesus had renamed him as the rock on which he would build his church. And not even the gates of hell would prevail against him and this church! (Matt. 16:18). Still this friend couldn’t even stay awake to pray for Jesus in the Garden where the other friend would betray him.

Some rock.

Maybe he wanted to make up for this embarrassing lapse in courage when he took up the sword in defense of his friend Jesus. But the Christ would have none of it, because he would go willingly to fulfill his mission.

In any event the courage was a mirage. Just as Jesus said he would, this friend followed him to the place where he would be condemned to torturous death and denied even knowing him. And it didn’t even take much, either. He was confronted by three people who shouldn’t exactly strike fear into the rock of the church. Hell might not prevail against him, but he couldn’t stand up to a couple servant girls and a handful of busybodies.

Such haunting words are recorded in Luke 22:61: “And the Lord turned and looked at him.” Has anything so horrifying ever been said so plainly? What did he see in his friend’s eyes? What sadness? What agony? What hurt? What suffering? What betrayal from the friend who moments ago vowed, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death”? (Luke 22:33). The look pierced the soul of Jesus’s friend. Upon realizing what he’d done and remembering Jesus’s prophecy, this friend wept bitterly (Matt. 26:75).

The other friend fared even worse. His name would become synonymous with back-stabbing friends. We know he thought better of his betrayal, because he knew he had given up an innocent man to death. Don’t forget: Jesus had been one of his best friends! He saw it all! He knew no man had ever been so loving, so patient, so kind, so forgiving, so strong, so courageous, so compassionate. And he gave up his friend for 30 pieces of silver he couldn’t bear to keep. Wracked with guilt over this sin against his friend, he hanged himself. He knew his sin, but he did not repent and ask God for forgiveness.

With friends like these, Jesus hardly needed enemies.

* * * * *

Jesus did nothing but good. So why did the world hate him? Why did his friends betray him? Why did the authorities seek to kill him? Even so Jesus cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

That includes his friend Peter, the counterpart to Judas in this tale of two friends.

Peter’s story didn’t end with tears of failure and regret. Jesus wouldn’t let their friendship end with that betrayal, with that look. “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat,” Jesus told him in the Upper Room, “but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31). There may have been no power in Peter’s rash vows. But when Jesus calls you friend, nothing can ever break this brotherhood of blood.

Peter was the only disciple who believed the women who told them the good news that Jesus had been raised. He alone ran to the tomb to see for himself. And he marveled.

He never stopped marveling.

Jesus restored their friendship. He restored Peter’s position of prominence in the church, where he would strengthen his brothers. And the worst Emperor Nero could do to him would never dim his hope of eternity with his friend Jesus.

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