Replacing Judas (Acts 1:15-26)

Replacing Judas (Acts 1:15-26)

The reality is this: Left to ourselves we are traitors like Judas, but in Christ we are faithful disciples. It is a sobering warning as well as a call to faith.

Just before Jesus ascended he gave his disciples a promise and a commission. First he told them to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father—which was to send the Holy Spirit. He told them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Last week we emphasized the way in which these disciples responded by gathering together and spending much of their time in unified prayer. They were continually together and praying with one accord. This morning we will see something else they did in the days between Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost.

We will see how the apostles dealt with the loss of one who had been “numbered among them”. What ever happened to Judas? What does this mean for the vacant position he held as one of the apostles? Will they replace him? Why would they need to replace him? And how would they replace him?

Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.

Acts 1:15-26

This is the Word of the LORD.

When you think of Acts as a whole, this passage most likely doesn’t stand out as one of the most exciting episodes. But the fact that they replaced Judas is included for our edification. How so? In spite of the fact that they cast lots to determine between the two candidates, we see a strong commitment to the Word of God and the practice of corporate prayer.

We emphasized prayer last week, but we see them praying again just before casting lots. Prayer and the Word of God are two means of grace that we will see several more times throughout Acts.

We should also recognize it is more than an interesting story about an unfortunate character. Our church and home needs to understand what replacing Judas is all about, because it has direct implications for how you think about yourself and God.

First, we will consider how Judas had no one to blame but himself for his apostasy: Abandoned by Forfeit (15-19). Second, we will note how Matthias was Appointed by God (20-26). The latter speaks of the sovereignty of God in the plan of redemption, but we must see the former as a sober potential for anyone within the church.

Judas’ Office Was Abandoned by Forfeit (15-19)

There were more than just the apostles and family members gathered for prayer. There were about 120 people altogether (Acts 1:15). This may point to Jewish law that required 120 individuals to establish a “new community.”

Peter’s boldness and leadership qualities are immediately evident (Acts 1:16). He displays complete confidence in the Word of God by attributing the words written by David to the Holy Spirit. The inspiration of Scripture includes both divine and human authorship. The Holy Spirit speaks through human authors.

The apostles are not left to themselves. Not only is Jesus interceding for them in heaven, the Holy Spirit is guiding their reading of God’s Word on earth. Pentecost was not the inauguration of the Spirit’s ministry. This verse is an example of how the Holy Spirit was active prior to Pentecost. God speaks to His people through His Spirit by His Word. This was true from the first time Moses began to write Genesis. Pentecost was a unique empowering that we will look at further next week.

Peter is convinced that Judas needs to be replaced. Jesus chose twelve apostles because it symbolized a connection with the tribes of Israel. There is continuity between the old and new covenant community. Jesus was not establishing the Church when he appointed twelve apostles, He was appointing a remnant that would carry the covenant promises to the nations. Jesus was appointing a righteous remnant that would symbolize the full number of the elect from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Returning the number of apostles to twelve is the primary emphasis of this passage, affirmed by the fact that Matthias is never mentioned again.

But before we get to the process of replacing Judas, Luke pauses to reflect upon the role he played in the earthly ministry of Jesus along with the disciples for three years (Acts 1:17)! The theological significance of this verse is that God used Judas to accomplish his purpose, not only for redemption, but for his earthly ministry.

First, it speaks to the sovereignty of God who is able to use the wicked intentions of man to accomplish His good purposes. We saw that in our Genesis series, especially in the life of Joseph. The evil intentions of his brothers served to save the nation of Israel. What was meant to destroy one life, God used to save many lives. In this case, God gave Judas a position which he knew would lead to the death of His Son. God’s purpose for establishing His kingdom involved the wickedness of man.

Second, it causes us to face the utter depravity of man. The Bible never says God abandoned Judas, but that he abandoned Jesus, and lost his position among the apostles by forfeit. John Calvin argues, “Judas may not be excused on the ground that what befell him was prophesied, since he fell away not through the compulsion of the prophecy but through the wickedness of his own heart.”⁠1

Judas didn’t merely serve as a placeholder for Matthias; he ministered right alongside the other apostles. He served in such a way that no one ever questioned his intentions. It wasn’t as if Judas had this evil scowl on his face throughout his ministry (regardless of how the movies might portray him). When Jesus spoke of a betrayer at their last meal together, none of the apostles pointed their finger at Judas. Each of them wondered if they were the one who would betray him (“Is it I?” Matthew 26:22; Mark 14:19).

Even after Judas had been pointed out as the betrayer (It isn’t clear if the other apostles knew this), Jesus tells them they will all “fall away” that night. Peter counters that he will never fall away, even if everyone else will. And they all chimed in saying the same thing (Mark 14:31). It is as if one moment they were fearful about their lack of faithfulness (“Is it I?”), and minutes later they became proud and presumptuous (“I would never!”). And yet, that very night, they all fled away!

With the betrayal and death of Judas, the disciples would have been challenged to consider what their own hearts were capable of sinking to. As Robert Murray McCheyne has said, “The seeds of every known sin lie within each one of our hearts.”⁠2 Derek Thomas explains, “The reason why we have not committed certain sins is not any lack of desire on our part; it is simply a lack of opportunity. The Lord has kept us from the circumstances where we would otherwise have certainly fallen.”⁠3

This is a sobering thought isn’t it? It is a sign of the mature Christian who recognizes and confesses the weakness of his faith and practice.

How does the description of Judas’ death in verses 18-19 compare with Matthew’s account? Two problems arise when we attempt to reconcile the two:

  1. Who purchased the field? Acts tells us that Judas purchased the field, but Matthew says the chief priests purchased the field (Matthew 27:3-10). It is possible that the priests purchased the field with the money Judas threw back to them (Matthew 27:5). So the field was purchased in Judas’ name.
  2. How did Judas die? Acts tells us that Judas fell headlong and burst open and his entrails gushed out, but Matthew tells us that Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27:5). It is possible that his fall occurred after he hung himself. They might have left him hanging until a degree of decomposition took place, or he might have hung himself from a high place from which he fell and split open upon the rocks. We cannot be certain. What is evident is that Judas experienced a violent death, and there is nothing in Luke’s account that should call into question his credibility.

In fact, the anecdote about Akeldama, the Field of Blood, is important because it implies that the readers would be very familiar with this field and they probably knew its use and origins. If Luke were creating this event, he would not insert such historically verifiable notes. Matthew also references the field and its name (Matthew 27:9) providing further evidence of authenticity.

If Judas’ position was abandoned by forfeit, Matthias’ position was…

Judas’ Replacement Was Appointed by God (20-26)

Both quotes in verse 20 are from psalms written by David as personal laments (Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8). As Dennis Johnson points out, the psalms reflect upon “the dark treachery of one who repaid the friendship extended by God’s king with hatred and harm (see Psalm 109:4-5).”⁠4

Is this a proper use of the Old Testament? Yes. Peter must have been paying attention to Jesus’ teaching (Luke 24:44-49). It is possible Jesus pointed to these very psalms over the previous forty days that he had been teaching them. Jesus’ teaching gives warrant to reading Scripture in a typological fashion. The characters and events we read about in the Old Testament are types and shadows of Jesus. Jesus is a type of David.

Peter is now reading the Old Testament in the way Jesus taught him to. We can imagine him searching the Scriptures with great interest and an excitement to obey what he learns. Darrell Bock points out,

“The passage is in the Psalter so that God’s people will reflect upon the way God acts and cares for the righteous who cry out to God. Peter takes the principle expressed in the psalm as a summary of how God acts and applies it to an event where God has judged. In this sense, Peter is certainly within the psalm’s meaning and spirit.”⁠5

The narrative never rebukes the disciples for being impatient (nor does any other New Testament text on this point). Jesus’ teaching and these quotes from Psalms provide the apostles with adequate reason to seek a replacement for Judas.

The strict qualifications articulated in verses 21-22 for Judas’ replacement once again point to the unique role the apostles played as the pillars of the church in the New Testament. It had to be a man who had been with them throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry (beginning with the ministry of John the Baptist to Christ’s Ascension). It was to be someone who persevered with them, unlike Judas.

It is striking that no women were considered. Scripture consistently portrays the selection of male leadership. The women played an important role in Jesus’ ministry. They were present at every critical point, including his death and resurrection. It’s possible some of them were with the apostles the whole time, just like Joseph and Matthias (whom, so far, we have never heard of).

But, when it comes to filling an office—a position of authority—it is always restricted to men. If Scripture permits women leadership, Scripture portrays nothing but missed opportunities (cf. Acts 6).

Two candidates are brought forward in verse 23, and the role of prayer and trust in the sovereignty of God are portrayed in verses 24-25. Just as Jesus chose the original apostles (Acts 1:2) they petition him to choose Judas’ replacement.

They trusted that God’s selection would be revealed through the casting of lots (Acts 1:26). This practice involved placing marked stones into a container and shaking them until one “fell” out. This was not foreign to the Church, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33).

Craig Keener points out that “Israel divided some of the land by lot (e.g., Josh 14:2; 18:6, 8, 10; Ezek 45:1); priests and Levites received their duties by lot (e.g., 1 Chr 24:5, 31; 25:8; 26:13-14), as Luke knows (Luke 1:9); lots determined the cities for Levites (e.g., 1 Chr 6:61-65) and who would settle in Jerusalem (Neh 11:1).”⁠6

The selection of Matthias was legitimate even though the means of casting lots is no longer the method for discerning God’s will. Scripture is sufficient (2 Timothy 3:16). If casting lots were to be the standard method, it would’ve been practiced in Acts 6:3. Instead, we never hear another word about the casting of lots in the rest of the New Testament.

Last week we emphasized their devotion to prayer, and here we see they were devoted to Scripture.

God is sovereign over the writing of Scripture, but he is also sovereign over the reading of Scripture. It is true that every time we open the Bible God is speaking, but not everyone who reads or hears has understanding. In all probability, Judas knew Scripture as well as any of the other eleven. But the fact that he does not persevere to the end is proof that he was never truly of them. He was “numbered among them,” and even held a position of authority in their ministry, but his ultimate apostasy revealed his true identity.

This passage is a sober warning to those who are in the visible church. Not all who are numbered among us truly belong to us. In the language of the Second Helvetic Confession: Not everyone relies upon the rock of Christ. Not everyone will be finally presented to Christ as a chaste virgin. Not everyone is a sheep under one Shepherd. Not everyone is a “faithful…lively member” of the body of Christ. The warning passages in Hebrews serve the same purpose. Some will go out from us because they are not of us (1 John 2:19). Apostasy remains a genuine concern of the Church.

On the other hand, those who abide in Christ will bear much fruit (John 15:4-5). The promises of God are unto “eternal life”. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). When we are faithless, he remains faithful (2 Tim. 2:13). Therefore, “let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).

So we’ve seen one who abandoned his position by forfeit, and one who was appointed by God to replace him.


The reality is this: Left to ourselves we are traitors like Judas, but in Christ we are faithful disciples. It is a sobering warning as well as a call to faith.

As we turn now to our closing hymn, let us consider this: My hope is built on nothing less—because anything else would necessarily be less—than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. No frame—regardless of how sweet—is worthy of our trust, including our own, especially our own.


1 Calvin, Acts.

2 Thomas, Acts, 18.

3 Thomas, Acts, 19.

4 Dennis Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, 8.

5 Bock, Acts, 87.

6 Keener, Acts, 778.