The Dismal Conscience


Matthew 27:1-10

Text Comment

Chapter 26 ended, as you remember, with Peter weeping bitterly over his three-fold betrayal of the Lord in the courtyard of the palace of the high priest.  Chapter 27 begins with Judas’ bitter remorse over his own betrayal of the Lord.  We have juxtaposed to one another two sinful men who were brought very low by their own conscience.

v.2       Having come to the decision to have Jesus executed, the religious leaders must now find a way to have their verdict implemented.  Only the Roman governor could order an execution.  Obviously, a charge of blasphemy would carry no weight with Pilate who was well known for his obstinacy in refusing to accommodate Jewish prejudices.  [France, 384]

By the way, we know quite a bit about the Roman daily round.  Vespasian, for example, was at his official duties before dawn.  The religious leaders would not have had to wait until later to seek an audience with Pilate. [A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 45]

Once handed over by the priests and elders to the Roman, the Lord would remain in the custody of the Romans until his death.

v.3       But now Matthew interrupts his narrative of the Lord’s trial to complete the story of Judas Iscariot, a narrative probably put here to form a contrast with the Peter episode immediately before.  Both men had betrayed the Lord, both betrayals had been predicted beforehand by the Lord himself, and both men wept bitterly in remorse over what they had done.  It was when Judas learned that Jesus had been condemned and would be executed that he was suddenly filled with remorse.  He saw then what the consequences of what he had done must be for Jesus and so, for the first time, he realized the enormity of his betrayal.  But if he were hoping for spiritual counsel or solace from the religious leaders, he was mistaken.  They had other things to worry about than the tortured conscience of the man they had used to get their way.  What is more, his conscience was their reproach and, no doubt, they were offended that he was so bitterly regretting what he had done for them.  Judas was as much as accusing them too.

v.5       The text suggests this was a spur-of-the-moment act on Judas’ part, a way of somehow repudiating his evil act and so dissociating himself from the consequences of it.

v.6       The priests condemn themselves and demonstrate their hypocrisy by now having scruples about the money they themselves had paid Judas to betray his master.  The money they paid to Judas their piety did not now permit them to put into the temple treasury.  Such are the tortured hypocrisies of the human heart; on one occasion so evil, on another such a champion of righteousness.

v.7       The traditional site of this cemetery, was in the Valley of Hinnom that ran along the southern end of the city.

v.8       The fact that the cemetery was purchased with blood money apparently became well enough known that the nickname stuck.  “Field of Blood” was certainly not the name the religious leaders gave to the cemetery!

v.10     The citation is a free combination of material from Zechariah and Jeremiah and is attributed to Jeremiah as the better known and more important OT prophet.  From Zechariah, in a passage about the coming Messiah, comes the 30 pieces of silver and the potter, and from Jeremiah the potter again and the buying of a field.

The term is not employed in this narrative, but the thing itself is very clearly at work.  Judas had a conscience and it struck him down.  As it were against his will, it forced him to face the wickedness of what he had done in betraying his best friend, the man whose messianic ministry he had been privileged to participate in and whose personal goodness he had been privileged to observe through the past several years. It demanded satisfaction from Judas, a satisfaction he had no means to provide.

O conscience!  Who can stand against thy power!

Endure thy stripes or agonies one hour!

Stone, gout, strappado, racks, whatever is

Dreadful to sense are only toys to this.

No pleasures, riches, honour, friends, can tell

How to give ease to this: ‘tis like to hell.

[Cited in Whyte, Bunyan Characters, IV, 47]

If hell were the invention of theologians, men would have thrown off the idea long ago.  It remains, not as the invention of men, but as the affirmation of the conscience, deep in the human heart.

That was Judas’ dismal discovery.  He hadn’t anticipated this.  His inner shame and misery were not part of his plan when he betrayed the Lord for money. But now that his deed was done, his conscience would not let him enjoy his success or the money he earned.  It would give him no peace.  It tortured him until he felt he could not bear to live any longer.  Judas’ conscience did not prevent him from committing his foul deed, but it did prevent him from enjoying it.  It prevented him from being able to live with himself afterward.

The English word conscience comes from the Latin “conscientia” which means joint knowledge, knowledge that one shares with someone else.  “Con” means “with” and “scientia” means “knowledge.” In its ordinary use, then, conscience refers to that knowledge that we hold in common with another, namely with God.  Thomas Aquinas defined the conscience as “a man’s judgment of himself, according to the judgment of God in him.”  It is a universal experience of mankind that this knowledge, this conscience is largely autonomous in its operation.  It acts independently of our will and sometimes, as in Judas’ case, contrary to and in defiance of our will.  We can sometimes suppress or stifle its voice, but often when it speaks, it is in a strange way a separate and distinct voice within ourselves.  It addresses us with an authority we did not give it and can’t take away from it.  The Puritans called the conscience “God’s spy in our [hearts]” and “God’s deputy and vice-regent within us.”  [Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 107-122]  “Every man carries within him another ‘I,’ a second personality, which observes him from outside, as it were, and passes objective judgment upon his motives and conduct, indeed, upon his whole being.”  [Carl F.H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics, 512-513]  Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca knew of this second self, this inner judge, but mankind awaited the Bible to explain its origin and account for its universal and powerful working within the human heart.  As one scholar has written, what the Apostle Paul said about the conscience has left “more impression on the moral history of the world than all that Aristotle and Seneca ever wrote.”  [Davison in Henry, 514]

And it is an important theme in the Bible. Though the word is not used in Genesis 3, the fact is plainly present. It is the conscience that compelled Adam to hide in shame from the presence of the Lord.  It was their conscience that made Adam and Eve suddenly ashamed of their nakedness.  They knew what they had done was evil.  God did not have to tell them, their conscience had already passed its judgment and condemned them.  And from that beginning onward, the conscience has played its role in the life of every human being.

The conscience, the Bible teaches, is connected with the very essence of human life, with the divine image in man, and with the knowledge of God that is implanted in every human heart.  It is part of what Calvin called “the seed of religion” implanted in every soul.  It is a fact of human life impossible to dispute, but a fact that evolution and natural selection certainly have no explanation for.  The conscience is not, in any obvious way, a product of nature. This is not a power or a characteristic of human life that nature selects as something that helps us to survive.  It drove Judas to his death and has done the same to many others.  It makes a man miserable more often than it makes him happy. It condemns more often than it approves.  G.K. Chesterton once observed that there is no more universal human experience than that of an uneasy conscience.

The existence of the conscience and its operation in the human heart is one of the great arguments for the existence of the Christian God.  As John Duncan, the famous Rabbi Duncan, once said, “God must be distinct from the cosmos or conscience is all a lie.”  And, on another occasion he said, “A bad demiurge [– that is, a god less than the God of Holy Scripture –] could never had made me with such a conscience.”  [Moody Stuart, John Duncan, 222]

Now the Bible recognizes that the conscience may become evil.  It may cease to speak according to the truth.  Paul says that a man who constantly ignores his conscience and sins against it may wound (1 Cor. 8:12) even sear his conscience (1 Tim. 4:2). He can defile it (Titus 1:5) and, finally, silence it.  A conscience may be weak, Paul says (1 Cor. 8: 7, 12), and it needs to be instructed in the Word of God.

“My conscience is not so,” said Queen Mary Stuart to John Knox.  “Conscience, Madam,” Knox replied, “requires knowledge; and I fear that right knowledge ye have not.” Works, ii, 283]

A conscience may be falsely instructed until it approves of evil and hates the good, or it may be silenced, or nearly silenced by much sinning. Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio used always to say, “Let conscience be your guide.”  But the conscience is fallen too and susceptible to sinful influences.  I remember some years ago a practicing homosexual man who called to inquire as to whether Faith Presbyterian would be a church for him.  I encouraged him to come, but told him that we would not be tolerant of homosexual behavior because the Bible wasn’t.  “My conscience is clear,” he said.  One can have a clear conscience about sinful things.  It is the terrible result of continually doing things you know to be wrong.  Your conscience gives up and leaves you to do your evil without warning or rebuke.

There are prominent figures in our popular culture who seem genuinely to have managed to silence their conscience, though, perhaps it only seems to us to be the case. There are many in our own day who have learned to call good evil and evil good.  Still, when one’s conscience does not condemn him, even though it should, the act, Paul teaches, however sinful, is not so bad as the act of someone who knows something to be evil and does it anyway, who acts in defiance of his conscience. That may explain why perhaps a good number of these very men who condemned Jesus to die, later believed in him and were saved, but Judas was condemned forever. Their sin was not as bad as his.

Why after all was Judas not at the Lord’s trial? The Gospels make it clear that he was not present.  If there were any living man who could have given damning evidence against Jesus it would have been Judas Iscariot. But he did not testify against the Lord. It was in his interest to prove the Lord guilty and he was obviously not above betraying him with false testimony.  Why then did Judas not come forward?  Why did he not go the whole way and make it still easier for the Sanhedrin to convict Jesus of a crime? There is only one possible answer.  His conscience wouldn’t let him.  Bad as he was, he could not do this.  He had sinned against his conscience once, but that was more than he could do.  How much evil is prevented in this world because even very evil men and women cannot stand up to their conscience!  Judas had violated his conscience once, but couldn’t bring himself to do it again.  But now his conscience was taking revenge for that first act of betrayal.  There was no relief to be found in having done less evil than he might have done; he had done far too much already.

So what we are observing in our text, and in the previous paragraph about Peter’s betrayal and his bitter weeping when he came to himself, is precisely what a powerful thing a conscience is and what an important thing it is, therefore, for us to take the conscience seriously. We should take it seriously in the lives of others and, supremely, in our own lives. What his conscience did to Judas should make us very careful of our own consciences.  The conscience of even a deeply sinful man, even a wounded conscience is so often God’s voice in the soul and that is a powerful voice indeed. The world is full of the proof of the power of a human conscience.

Start with Alexander the Great who, in a fit of drunken rage, ran one of his generals through with a spear. But once he saw that his man was dead and saw all his friends standing around him in shocked silence, he pulled the spear out of the dead body and tried to run it through his own throat.  Only the quick action of his officers prevented his suicide.  He spent the night and the next day in tears.  It was his conscience that made the most powerful man in the world a miserable weakling.

Or consider this. In 1977, career criminal Julian Imperial, with an accomplice, broke into the southern California home of 73 year-old Mary Stein and beat her to death with a piece of wood.  As the two mercilessly bludgeoned the old woman, she moaned her dying words, “Oh Lord, I’m coming home.”  That simple sentence, spoken by that old woman on the threshold of eternity, haunted Julian Imperial.  By God’s grace, a year after the murder he became a Christian.  Through the years that passed his conscience would not allow him to shake his sense of responsibility for his crime and his terrible shame for what he had done.  Although the police had given up trying to solve the case and were not looking at Julian Imperial as a suspect, he turned himself into the authorities and admitted his guilt in Mary Stein’s murder.  He is now serving his sentence.  He is in prison because he couldn’t help but submit to his conscience.  It was more powerful than all other considerations.

Bishop Butler was hardly exaggerating when he uttered his famous words about the conscience:  “Had it strength as it has right, had it power as it has manifest authority, it would absolutely govern the world.”  [Sermons, ii]

Like Judas, this man, Julian Imperial, had, in effect, gotten away with his crime.  No one was looking for him to punish him.  In Judas’ case Christ would soon be dead and the disciples were weak men with no political power.  He had done the bidding of the powerful and they would protect him.  He had his not inconsiderable sum of money to enjoy. No one would require him to pay for what he had done.  But his conscience cared for none of that.  He could not escape its terrible condemnation for what he had done.  It compelled him to be sick of himself and of life itself.  It made him ashamed to the point that he could not face himself any longer. It drove him to confess. [World (May 17) 1997] A conscience is a powerful thing if it can make a man give himself up to a lifetime in prison when he did not have to or if it can drive a man to end his life when, otherwise, he seemed on the point of enjoying worldly success.

So we don’t need Judas’ suicide to convince us of the power of the voice of a conscience inside a human mind and heart.  The world is chock full of illustrations of the power of the conscience over the life of a man.  But nowadays, we are much less likely to face this reality and to consider what it means.

In modern Western culture, conscience is an orphan.  Its paternity is questioned.  People have stopped thinking about where the conscience comes from or about the conscience being God’s own voice in their souls. They don’t reflect on the meaning of this strange power, this voice within them that is distinct from them and so often speaks against their will.  Its existence is found more annoying than it is found mysterious or demanding of an explanation.  Its demands for attention are resented. Why won’t it leave me alone? No wonder!  Modern culture is built on the rejection of the fact that man stands under an absolute moral imperative – that every human life will be brought into judgment at the last day – so it can hardly accept the idea that the voice of that distant judgment is already speaking within.  Conscience is the contemporary witness of human nature to the future last judgment.  If one refuses to believe in, or at least take seriously the last judgment, one must somehow deny or minimize the evidence of it in one’s own soul.

So it is not surprising that nowadays counselors try to help their clients escape their feelings of guilt or shame by telling them to ignore the voice of their conscience. Or they work to train the conscience so that it will not condemn a particular behavior. Modern American jurisprudence, minimizing the immense importance of the conscience to human life, has grown more and more skeptical of confessions.  It has worked hard to prevent suspects from being put under pressure to confess their crimes. It has made it harder for prosecutors to admit confessions into evidence. It has thrown up one impediment after another to the admission of an accused man’s confession into evidence against him.  But, no matter, confessions continue to be made.  Many are blurted out without thought of the consequences. They confess because they feel compelled to acknowledge the evil that they have done.  Their conscience demands it and the conscience is a greater power than the fear of punishment.

Older writers and older preachers used to talk a great deal about the conscience.  It was God’s ally in the human heart.  They appealed to it as proof of the reality of man’s guilt and of coming judgment.  They used it to call men to repentance and to prove the need for forgiveness.  They warned men against ignoring its voice.  They counted on the conscience to help them in summoning men to faith in Christ.  As John Henry Newman has it in one of his verses:

Thus the Apostles tamed the pagan breast,

They argued not, but preached, and conscience did the rest.

Nowadays, one hears very little of this.  But here, in the midst of the heart of the gospel, the account of the Lord’s trial and death, we have two instances of the conscience at work.  The conscience and the death of Christ speak a similar message. A conscience demands that a sinner face the enormity of his sin, the disgusting, unmanly, ugly nature of his wickedness, while Christ goes to the cross.  The one proclaims the need, the other provides the remedy.

The wiser observers of human life have always known very well this power of the conscience to speak of sin, guilt, and judgment.  At the beginning of Macbeth, after the title character had his ambition stoked by the three witches and saw his opportunity to become king by assassinating his faithful lord, he drew back from the prospect of committing so horrible a crime.  His hardened wife, mused of her husband:

 Thou wouldst be great;

Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it.

That is, he was not willing to face the terrors of his offended conscience.  After committing the murder, near the end of the play, Macbeth knows all to well that he will never silence his conscience.

 …that which should accompany old age,

As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,

I must not look to have; but, in their stead,

Curses, not loud, but deep…

We have two pieces of personal history set side by side in Matthew’s Gospel, both accounts of a man’s conscience powerfully at work, both studies in the reality and the influence of the conscience.  They interrupt the account of the most important event in the history of the world: the death of Jesus Christ for the sin of his people.  In the midst of the narrative of the accomplishment of the salvation of the world, we have two accounts of men tortured by their conscience.  This is not an accident.  Matthew placed Judas’ tortured conscience here, in the midst of Christ’s progress to the cross, even though it happened at least somewhat later.  At the moment the priests and elders were not accessible to Judas or in the temple.  Matthew puts the story here to put it next to Peter’s and to Christ’s.  Luke doesn’t recount this history of Judas and his conscience until the first chapter of Acts.  These two narratives of a wounded conscience directly concern Christ and his salvation as the demonstration of how desperately we need it. The witness of the conscience secures the foundation of all true faith in Jesus Christ:  the sinfulness of man, his true guilt before God, and his need of forgiveness, the forgiveness only Christ can supply.  In Peter’s case, he wept bitter tears but was restored and lives forever.  In Judas’ case, he was so remorseful that he took his own life, but then he went to that place where he deserved to go.  Have you thought of this?  Judas will not suffer as greatly as he might have because of the service his conscience rendered him.  He had the sense at the last to condemn himself for his crime.  That is to his credit though not his salvation.  You may feel it small consolation.  In the midst of and side by side with salvation, we see one man confessing and mourning his terrible sinfulness and have another man being condemned to hell.  The conscience sets before us the issue of human life, the account of Christ going to the cross provides the only possible happy resolution.

The difference between these two men, very obviously and emphatically, does not lie in the fact that one betrayed the Lord and the other did not.  It does not lie in the fact that one was guilty and the other innocent.  What these two men had in common was a conscience that condemned each for his sin, that threw up waves of shame in each man’s soul, and that left him mourning what he was and what he had done.

Everyone has need of forgiveness.  The best and the worst of men are alike in this respect. Everyone is guilty and needs cleansing from sin.  It is God’s gift to us that our conscience proves that to us over and over again, if only we will listen to it.

The difference between Peter and Judas is not in the witness of his conscience to his own evil: both men had that.  The difference is that Peter still had Jesus and Judas did not.  And the result was that Peter’s remorse led to a renewal of his faith in Christ and love for him and a faithful, fruitful life spent serving him.  Judas’ remorse led to despair because he could not see where to unload his terrible burden of guilt and shame.  His apostasy had removed the possibility of his turning to Christ. As one scholar put it, “conscience is the last thing left to man after he has squandered and lost all else that God has given him.”  [Luthardt, in Henry, 519]  A conscience cannot save you.  Only Christ can do that.  A conscience can force you to face your sin, can churn up waves of shame for what you are and have done, but it cannot deliver you from yourself.  Only Christ can do that.  Heed your conscience and turn to Christ.  That is the whole duty of man!