Luke 22:31-34 “‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.’”
There has been this argument ten minutes earlier as to who was the greatest of the disciples, and no doubt it revolved around their chief personalities, Simon Peter and John. Jesus then addressed Peter even though he doesn’t call him ‘Peter’ though Jesus himself had given him this new name. His birth name was Simon, but Jesus had said to him, “Thou art Peter.” That is his new name, “The Rock,” a strong character on which others can rely, but in this instance, when Jesus addresses him, he reverted to his natural name, “Simon!” but he repeats the name as a mark of endearment and concern; “This is my word just to you.” But the one who should have been the solid leader was on the verge of denying Jesus again and again. It is one of the great moments in the history of the Christian church when we witness the fall of one of its most promising leader, an event which, alas, was going to be repeated in the succeeding centuries.
Peter had no doubts about the strength of his faith. He wanted to allay the fears of Jesus, and replying Peter assured him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” (v.33). In his mind he was ready for martyrdom for the cause of Christ, but Jesus knew better. He didn’t say, “Oh, that’s so good to hear Simon. I am glad you have such strong faith,” rather he took the new name, Rock, and he said very soberly to him, “I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows today, you will deny three times that you know me” (v.34). It was such a put-down. Jesus knew Peter better than he knew himself. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. We are crying out for inspiration each Sunday but Jesus might see that we need rebuke and correction and instruction in righteousness.
So here was a personal warning given by the Lord to Peter. Our Saviour displays such pastoral care over this man whom he had chosen and loved and prayed for, a man for whom he will shed his blood. Here he warns him of the danger that lies ahead. Sometimes we look at some piece of Christian wreckage, a wrecked life, a wrecked home, a wrecked business and we say, “Why didn’t someone tell him? Why wasn’t the peril made clear? Shouldn’t someone have warned him? Why did the pastor marry them?” And the answers are that we didn’t feel we had the authority or certainty to do this, we were a little cowardly; we didn’t know what lay ahead. The Lord Jesus alone has that knowledge. Our duty was to be sensible and loving when we dealt with them, willing to listen to their reasons, and love hopes all things. We hoped that things would work out and that this new chapter in their lives would be a walk in the Spirit. That was our hope. We don’t know the future, but we know the Lord of the future and we commend our friends to him, and we long for them to seek to live a blameless life before them.
The Bible is full of warnings about the futures of all of us. Paul warns Timothy, “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits.” He expresses his concerns more fully to the Ephesian elders, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears” (Acts 20:29-31). Part of any faithful gospel ministry is to urge people to be on guard, to watch and pray, to remind them of the god of this world, the spirit that is now at work in the children of disobedience, that he goes about looking for those whom he can devour. Be on your guard this week! Be on your guard today! We are engaged in a holy war. So what was the particular warning that our Lord gave to Simon?
1. SATAN ASKED GOD FOR SIMON IN ORDER TO SIFT HIM AS WHEAT.
Imagine a group of young girls abducted and held as prisoners in the stronghold of an evil man, and one night he asks for one of the girls. Think of the horror of hearing that request, not only for the girl he’s named but for all the others. Now multiply that evil a million-fold, that the Prince of darkness, Beelzebub, could ask God for permission to place you in his sieve to see if he can shake the faith out of you. He is that brazen! You are going to be handed over for a time to Satan, the master of cruelty and wickedness. In the passage before us the main target is Simon, one of the leaders of the Twelve. If Satan can have Simon Peter then none of the Twelve is safe. Peter’s experience of Jesus Christ, his witness of the miracles, his hearing of the Sermon on the Mount and his taking the bread and wine in the Upper Room – all is nothing to the devil. He targets men at the top of Christian profession, men who have had many gospel privileges and blessings. He will direct his bow and shoot his fiery arrows at them. It takes just a single arrow to get through and you are in trouble. To be ‘asked for’ by Satan would chill the courage and weaken the resolution of the most mature Christian here.
The Lord Jesus tells Peter in the hearing of the others that Satan has demanded that God give him Simon Peter. Perhaps you are thinking how does Satan convey his demands to the Lord? How can such a request be made? I mean in what context exactly does Satan present himself before the Lord? We have to say that it is certainly not in heaven. Satan cannot enter that ‘city bright’ because ‘closed are its gates to sin.’ But God is everywhere accessible to men and angels and demons. He not only keeps an eye on Satan, no, Satan is chained to him, like a dog on a lead wants to chase and fight another dog and its owner simply yanks the lead and stops him. So Satan was lunging for Peter and immediately our Lord knew his intentions and intimated so far but no further. Satan is not subtle. We are not ignorant of his devices.
I suppose Satan has become a rather familiar figure to us and to our civilization. I guess most people in our town are aware of an evil figure they know of as Satan, certainly more than they know about the apostle Paul. Actually Satan appears very infrequently in the Bible. In the Old Testament he’s referred to just three times. He appears in Genesis 3, Zechariah 3 and in the first two chapters of Job. But stranger than that is the fact of how infrequently Satan speaks in the Bible. He speaks just three times, in the guise of the Serpent in Genesis 3, and again in Job, and then he speaks once in the New Testament at the temptations of our Lord Jesus Christ. These are the only occasions. In The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis has Satan babbling on all the time. He talks in fact like an Oxford don, but in the Bible he doesn’t speak very much. Of course you don’t have to talk a lot to do a lot of damage. It is what Satan does more than what he says that’s significant. Satan has no offices. He is not a prophet, and he has no priestly work to do, and his powers are severely limited by the restraints of God, so he’s got no kingly sovereignty. The Bible emphasizes this fact, of Satan’s abiding malice against God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The word ‘Satan’ means to carry a grudge against someone, and that’s Satan’s style. His work is to oppose men. He is the Satan, the adversary. He is the cynic who misreads and twists everything. He embitters a man against another. He plants grievances in our hearts against other men and spreads our grievances around. Satan is a very frustrated and disappointed creature for he can never accomplish what he desires. To hurt a Christian he has first to ask the Lord to whom each Christian is indissolubly joined; we are all in Christ. So the mark of Satan at work is not horrendous cruelty and sexual deviations, but a combination of the grudge, the accusation, the cynicism, and the twisting of everything in order to detract from the good. Where there is aching frustration and bitter disappointment there you will see the result of Satan at work.
Remember the context of these words. We mustn’t think that this Satanic desire for Peter was made months earlier. It was made then. In the Upper Room Jesus has been speaking of the honour and glory and power that Peter and the other apostles are soon to enjoy. He has told them, “And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (vv. 29&30), and then immediately Satan approaches the Lord and says, “I want Peter” (v.31). Satan was the rebel archangel Lucifer thrown out of heaven, and Satan wants every Christian to be cast out and brought low. He doesn’t want Peter exalted to heaven sitting on a throne. He desires Peter. “Give me Peter,” he says to Christ.
In other words, it was the Lord who, by magnifying Peter, provoked Satan to action. Our Lord instigated the testing of Peter. The whole initiative was his: “I confer on you a kingdom Peter and you will sit on a throne and judge men and angels.” “Let me get at him,” says Satan. You must remember that Satan is a creature and so Satan doesn’t know everything. That is, Satan isn’t omniscient – anymore than the virgin Mary. Satan doesn’t know today what all of you are thinking – anymore than the virgin Mary does. Only the Creator has exhaustive knowledge. Satan has a powerful organization, but to be all-knowing is an attribute of God. So Jehovah Jesus has told Peter of his coming enthronement, and Satan is there in Judas in that Upper Room (v.3). It’s the Lord who has turned the spotlight on Peter. It’s almost as if Satan didn’t know all that much about Peter’s rank and future significance until Jesus spoke. So it was God who took the first step. God put Peter in the crucible by announcing his coming glory. God threw down the gauntlet to Satan by speaking of such a future of the Twelve. It was God who was lowering the high strong hedge of protection around Peter, first announcing his plans for him, and then he lowered it again when he allowed Satan to tempt Peter by the question of a servant girl, and then he lowered the hedge some more with two more temptations. It was God who permitted Satan to devise and encourage the trials that happened to him. It was God who introduced Peter to Satan, and set the rules for what was to follow. The whole scenario is the Lord’s doing – just as it once had been with Job and his trials. Satan was one of the chief actors, but the script was written by God.
There may have been occasions when we’d been stirred in hearing from Scripture of the great blessings that lie before us, the kingdom that God has prepared for them that love him, the inheritance incorruptible, undefiled and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for us, the glories that eye has not seen or ear heard nor has yet entered into the heart of man, what God has reserved for us – everything that is going to be ours, a place where sickness is no more, no pain, no sorrow, no death, a new heavens and a new earth, and in the midst there will be our Saviour, in all his beauty glorified, the Lord Jesus Christ and our eyes will see him, even his beloved face and we shall hear his words of welcome. Our hearts may have beat with expectation for the joy that would be set before us. Then, jealous of our joyful assurance and privilege, Satan aches to have us.
He is a hateful merciless creature. You think of the long, painful dying of some of the most godly of men. Satan is sifting them as wheat even on their death beds. He is shaking them to the depths of their beings. He is taking all the comforts of the gospel from them. We imagined that they would die surrounded by their loved ones, able to pray, able to appreciate the Scriptures, feeling something of the presence of Jesus Christ and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, but instead of that they are troubled in their minds. They are unable to respond when we pray or we quote a hymn to them. We can’t seem to get through to them. They are in a sieve on their death beds; they are being winnowed and shaken by Satan, and he is keeping them from this glory. So Satan asked God for Simon to shake and destroy his trust.
2. CHRIST ASKED GOD THAT PETER’S FAITH WOULD NOT FAIL.
When Satan spoke to God he asked that God would give him Simon to shake his faith to its very foundations; but Jesus, when he prayed, asked God to save Simon. “I’ve prayed for you,” he told Peter. Soon our praying Jesus would be arrested and whipped and mocked. They’d put a crown of thorns on his head and hit him in the face. Then they’d proceed to nail his hands and feet to a cross of wood and hang him up by them until he was dead. Jesus knew that all this weakness lay before him, in the next 24 hours, but he was not so distracted by that as to forget about Peter’s trials. Jesus’ suffering did not prevent him praying with power for Peter. “It’s all right Peter, even though the Prince of darkness is going to shake you and sift you. I’ll let it happen, but at the same time I’ll pray for you so that you won’t be destroyed.” If Jesus in his former state of humiliation had confidence in the effectual nature of his praying to keep Peter, then now that he is risen as the conqueror of death and raised to the right hand of God, surely his prayers for us today are vastly more effectual?
i] Consider his position. Our Lord is now back where he’d always been, when the prophet Isaiah saw him, “high and lifted up.” His train once again fills the temple. He is once again surrounded by seraphim who cover their faces, who cover their feet and who fly while crying to each other their appraisal of him, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” His position speaks of his relationship with God the Father, as his eternal and only begotten Son. His position speaks of his power, as the omnipotent Creator and Sustainer of the universe. His position speaks of his great glory, this One who is terrible in majesty. This is our Intercessor. This is our Advocate. The one who has a name above every name represents our case before the tribunal of God. He is the one who persistently and ceaselessly defends us against the accusations and assaults of Satan.
ii] Consider his permanence. Remember the great words of Paul concerning this fact. The apostle says of Jesus, “he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” The letter to the Hebrews says of him “he continues ever, in an unchangeable priesthood.” Because Jesus Christ never dies, because he continues forever as the eternal Son of the living God, he’ll never abandon his priestly office. He will never renege on his vocation. He will never drift off to sleep. He will never become fed up of interceding for you. He’ll never be so full of some huge events, revivals and reformations, somewhere else 5,000 miles away that he’ll have no time for you. He will continue to pray for you without interruption as though you were the only person in the whole world. When you have grown weary, he will not tire. When you have failed, he will not fail. When you are inconsistent, he remains consistent. When you’re distracted, he is attentive. When you’re weak, he remains strong. When you’ll waver, he remains resolute.
There is no-one like him and you’ve never met any person you can compare to Jesus. Though there are times he’s mystified you, he’s never betrayed you or abandoned you. You’ve had friends, loved ones, family members who at times have dashed your hopes by their inattention and their lack of commitment. They haven’t come up to your expectations. Such is not the case with the Lord Jesus Christ. He keeps his promises. He tells us to be faithful and he sets the example for what he demands from us by being ever faithful, ever sure. What he says, that will he do. “I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail” (v.32). This is his permanence.
iii] Consider the reasons he has to receive an answer for his intercession. Why should he be sure that Peter’s faith would not fail, that God would grant him what he asks for? It is because of what Jesus is going to be, the full and comprehensive answer for my guilt, weakness and shame. He was soon to be propitiating all the wrath of a sin-hating God, so that the terrors of law and of God with me could have nothing to do. “My Saviour’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.” The storm of God’s anger towards all that’s been cruel and mean in me will be appeased on Golgotha’s hill, and there will be a great peace between God and me. God is eternally satisfied to look on the risen exalted Christ at his right hand and then pardon me comprehensively – for all my blameworthiness. My divine satisfaction is there before God. His sacrifice on my behalf has made full atonement. It is totally acceptable to God. Jesus has suffered the just punishment for my sins. Atonement for those same sins God will not twice demand. So when Satan comes and buffets Simon, and raises the issue of his swearing and cursing and denying his Saviour, then the great Intercessor at God’s right hand is the pledge of Simon’s acceptance before God. Christ’s blood has achieved pardon for all my sins.
If a man has given you a million pounds, would he begrudge you a further 50p. for the parking meter? Of course not. In like manner, if God has spared not his Son for you, what good thing will he withhold from you? Ask him for the 50p – courage to go to the dentist, wisdom in planning the party, a parking place, a safe drive to Shrewsbury. Of course, God will withhold no good thing from those who trust his Son. It is the constant pledge of Jesus the Lamb of God, sitting there at his right hand on our behalf that makes God our loving attentive Father. Jesus not only shed his blood for the remission of our sins, but the effectiveness of that shed blood continues to this day, and it will continue for evermore. What he did on the cross two thousand years ago he continually keeps before his Father in heaven on our behalf. Are there many times when you can do little more than hang your head in silence, dumb and sad before God? But you have a Friend in the throne room of the royal palace of heaven. He has been enthroned there by God at his right hand. He could not be any nearer God, and he is there for us, to pray for us, to obtain mercy for us, that we may also find grace to help in time of need.
iv] Consider what Jesus prayed for. He didn’t ask for many of the things that we might have asked for. He didn’t pray that Satan would leave Peter alone; Satan was permitted to make this attack. Jesus didn’t pray that Peter would never sin. Permitting the temptation was God’s way of showing Peter the limits of his strength. Jesus didn’t pray that Peter would have a rich and easy life, with one spiritual success after another. Jesus only prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail. If Jesus Christ is the all-wise God, and this is what he prayed for Peter, then we can deduce that saving trust in God must be the most important thing for us to have. Saving faith is the very thing Satan was trying to destroy in Peter. If Peter were to stop believing, then he’d no longer belong to Jesus. This is what Satan always wants to take away from us, the faith in Christ that makes a believer a believer. The point of Satan’s attack on a believer is to pull out the plug of faith, to disconnect us from God. Our faith joins us to the Lord. Saving faith is a connecting grace, the point of contact between the believing soul and the living Christ. If, therefore, Satan could manage to pull out that plug then we are lost men.
Consider everything that we would lose if our faith were to fail. The Bible says that we are justified by faith. Take away faith, therefore, and we can’t be righteous before God. The Bible says that without faith it is impossible to please God. Take away faith, therefore, and nothing we do is accepted by God. The Bible says that faith enables us to extinguish the fiery darts of the evil one. Take away faith, therefore, and the devil will destroy us. The Bible says that the righteous will live by faith. Take away faith, therefore, and you take away life itself, for the believer is nothing without his faith.
On the other hand, if we still have faith, then we live invincibly in the power of Christ. The stories of the Bible prove that by faith people “conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight,” and “received back their dead by resurrection” (Heb. 11:33-35). This is the faith that Jesus prayed for Peter to have: a faith that saves in any and every situation – even unto death.
This is the prayer that Jesus loves to pray for all his disciples – the Saviour’s prayer for a sinner’s faith not to fail. Jesus is busy praying this way for us right now. The Bible says that Jesus Christ “is at the right hand of God . . . interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34). It says that he “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). Jesus Christ is the infinite intercessor; he lives to pray for us.
v] Consider the encouragement of an interceding Saviour. If only we could hear Jesus whispering our worthless names into the ears of his Father, and we could listen to what he was saying to him about us and our struggles and needs, then what courage we’d take to live for him through every trouble in life. Jesus is praying for us, that our faith will not fail. He is praying about our chronic pain, that in our physical weakness we will not stop trusting in the goodness of God. He is praying about our troubled marriage, that in our alienation we won’t stop trusting in his love. He’s praying about our financial situation, that in our urgent concern about paying the bills we won’t stop trusting in God to provide. He is praying about our secret discouragement, that in our night of dark despair we won’t stop trusting him to lead us into the light. He is praying about our wandering into sin, that we’ll never stop trusting in his forgiveness. Jesus is praying for everything we need.
Surely these prayers will be answered, just the way God answered the prayer that Jesus prayed for Peter. The apostle’s faith didn’t fail. Although he turned away, he also returned, trusting that his sins had become forgiven sins and Peter went on with God. The same thing will happen in our lives. The Son of God is interceding for us with the Father. How can his petition fail? Jesus prays more wisely, more frequently, and more efficaciously than anyone. He prays more for us than we ever pray for ourselves. Therefore, although we may go through many difficult trials and even fall into wicked sin, as Peter did, we will not be lost, because Jesus has prayed that our faith will not fail. Whatever desperate situation we bring to him, with all of our complaints and objections, the Saviour of sinners holds up his hand and says, “but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32).
3. CHRIST PROMISED PETER RESTORATION AND USEFULNESS.
“And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (v.32). Do you notice that Jesus did not say, “And if you should turn back in repentance after you have denied me three times . . ,” No ‘if’ at all. “When you have turned back . . . You are going to fall but you are going to turn back because I have prayed for you.” The promise is made to Simon Peter grounded on our Lord’s intercession. Jesus has made up his mind that he is going to save Peter to the uttermost. He will save him. Even though Peter runs away and abandons him. Though Peter takes out a sword and tries to kill a man. Though Peter lies and denies having anything to do with Jesus, and though he laces his speech with swearing to shut up this girl with her innocent questions once and for all – yet Jesus will save this man with his reprehensible behaviour. He has made up his mind to do this; salvation to the uttermost. It is not for good people Jesus came; not for the righteous, but for sinners, sinners like Peter full of self-confidence and as weak as water, sinner like you. What a wonderful Saviour Jesus is, to know all this about Peter; to warn him of what is going to happen, to tell him when Peter gives him such assurances of his great faith and his readiness to face martyrdom – “Peter, you don’t know your own heart.” But Jesus knows our hearts and he is the one praying for us that our faith will not fail at such times. In other words, when we feel as wretched and guilty for falling into the same sins again and again and the devil says to us, “You are a hypocrite to ask for forgiveness again. You’ve gone too far now. You might as well acknowledge that you are not a Christian.” Then to have faith in the fact that though our sin abounds, Jesus’ love much more abounds. There is always mercy with him. Let us go to him and confess our sins, the sins we have committed for the thousandth time. Let us go because we have faith in his mercy and in our deserving. And you know what happened how Jesus caught his eye after his denials, and Peter went out and wept bitterly. The tears of repentance were commensurate with all his past proud, cowardly, violent behaviour.
You see how Jesus is preparing him here for the tears? He tells him that he has future work for him to do, that he wants Peter to do, and confirms that he must do it. You see that it is not that now Peter must wait for years, sitting in the back row, quiet and repentant. When Peter through repentance is restored to the Lord who knows his heart, then that Lord has a work for him. “when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (v.32). Peter would one day see Andrew or Bartholomew looking very sad, not praying in the prayer meeting, not taking part in the life of the church, spiritually very weak. When he talked with them about this they finally told him that they had sinned and had lost the joy of salvation. They couldn’t have told that to anyone better because he had walked that path and behaved in a sub-Christian way. “Let me tell you what happened to me . . .” Peter would say and then he told them of his falls but that Jesus had looked at him and it had broken his heart, but that Jesus had restored him, and used him mightily on the Day of Pentecost. “That is what you must do,” he told them. “You must confess your sin to the Lord and then go on in the Christian life. There’s a work for Jesus for you to do. Everything hangs on this; whether you love him or not. If you love him you will trust him and speak to him and ask for his forgiveness.”
Then Peter told them how he was restored by Jesus. “It was like this,” he said, and he told them what John tells us in John chapter 21 what happened at the end of a meal together. “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’ The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep’” (Jn.21:15-17). How are people strengthened? By eating good food, and the best food is prepared by the apostles, the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Peter and Paul, as they are found in the New Testament. Though we too have stood by a fire and warmed ourselves and denied our Lord and sworn we don’t know him, yet that same Lord prays for us for our forgiveness and tells us that he has still a work for us to do. Strengthen the brethren!
22nd July 2012 GEOFF THOMAS