"Distrust no man's strength so much as thine own"
There was a very remarkable thing that happened in the upper room when Jesus celebrated his last Passover with his disciples before he suffered. He had said that one of them would betray him. And then, as Matthew tells us, “they [each] began to say to him one after another, ‘Is it I, Lord?’ ” (Matt. 26:22).
I say this is remarkable because eleven of the twelve disciples had no consciousness of ever having formed the intention to betray him, yet each one asks, “Is it I, Lord? Am I the one?”
The disciples had come to understand that Jesus “knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (Jn. 2:24-25). And now he announces that one of them would betray him and rather than saying, “No this can’t be! Surely not!” Or, “Surely not me!” They each “began to say to him one after another, ‘Is it I, Lord? Is it I? Am I the one?”
See how distrustful they were of themselves. Though they were not conscious of ever having formed the intention to betray him, they were aware of just how morally weak they were and how susceptible they were to falling.
And consider: no one pointed an accusing finger. Peter didn’t say, “It’s James or John, isn’t it? I’ve been suspicious of them ever since they asked to sit one at your right and at the other at your left. When you didn’t give them a firm ‘yes’ in answer to their request, I bet that’s when they began plotting against you.”
We don’t find anyone saying, “I bet it’s Peter. He’s had a big head ever since that time in Caesarea Philippi when you commended him for his faith.”
No, we find nothing of the sort. We don’t even find them pointing a finger at Judas. Instead, each one held himself in suspicion. They all knew that Jesus knew them better than they knew themselves. And so they ask, “Is it I, Lord?”
Scripture bids us to beware of the remaining corruption in our hearts. Although we have been born again by God’s Spirit and have been justified by his grace, and though the work of sanctification has begun in us, it will not be complete until the day we are glorified and we are confirmed in righteousness, made unable to sin. We must, therefore, not trust to the goodness of our own hearts. The Lord told Moses to tell the people not to follow their hearts (Num. 15:39).
Consider how unlike the world this counsel of the Lord is. The world is constantly telling us through its music and novels and movies to trust our heart, to follow our heart, to listen to our heart. It asks us, “What is your heart telling you?” But this is a counsel of despair. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
We would do well to understand how easily our hearts are misled. As long as we are in this life we must never think ourselves above falling. In fact, we are most prone to fall when we think we stand.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
Seal it for Thy courts above.
— Robert Robinson, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
The disciples showed a great deal of wisdom here in being distrustful of their own hearts. “Is it I, Lord? Though I am not aware of ever having intended any such thing, is it I? I know how prone I am to sin. There is nothing of which I am not capable. Is it I who will betray you?”
Indeed, there is no one, apart from God’s grace, who is not capable of betraying the Lord. What would any of us become apart from the grace of God? Why did David pray, “Take not your Holy Spirit from me,” if it was not because he feared what would become of him if not for the sanctifying influence of God’s Spirit? He saw what had happened to Saul, when God withdrew his Spirit from him as a consequence of his persistent sin. Scripture says, “Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil Spirit from the Lord tormented him” (1 Sam. ). David saw what kind of man Saul became when the Spirit of the Lord departed from him. He didn’t want the same thing to happen to him. Therefore he prayed, “Take not your Holy Spirit from me.” He feared what he would become without the sanctifying work of God’s Spirit.
We would do well to have a similar distrust of our own strength. What does Paul say to the Corinthians? “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. ). Thomas a Kempis, in his work, The Imitation of Christ, says it like this, “Distrust no man’s strength so much as thine own.”
The disciples were beginning to understand this – beginning to understand that there was no sin they were not capable of committing, even betraying the Lord. And so when Jesus announced that he was about to be betrayed, they became sorrowful, first that it should happen at all, and second that they might be the one by whom it might happen.