Faithful to the Fallen
June 6, 1999
“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.” Luke 22:31-32
This text gives us a peek behind the scenes of history. For just a moment the veil is lifted, the curtain parted, and we catch a glimpse of amazing things that are normally off-limits to human beings. In these words of Jesus we learn about a high-level conference between God and Satan.
If the thought sounds strange to you, as it does to me, let me remind you that it is not unparalleled. Job 1 records a similar scene when it tells us that one day when the angels presented themselves to the Lord, Satan came with them to stand before the Lord. But there is a crucial difference. In Job 1 it is God who suggests Job as a suitable target for the devil; in our text it is Satan himself who desires to “sift” Peter like wheat.
I am reminded by all this of a book written many years ago by Donald Grey Barnhouse called The Invisible War. In that monumental book Dr. Barnhouse traces the long war between good and evil, light and darkness, the angels and the demons, and ultimately between God and Satan. He points out that Satan’s goal all along has to be derail, delay, and destroy God’s plan through any means possible. Many of those attacks came in and around the cross because that was the climactic moment when Satan was decisively defeated.
From this text we learn an important truth that helps us understand our own temptations better. Let us never forget that Satan wants something from us in the moment of temptation … and so does God! The one would destroy us and the other wants to deliver us. In this case we see how Satan’s temporary victory in Peter’s life leads to a much greater victory for God in the end. So it is for us as well. Our defeats, bitter as they are, can lead to great spiritual victories.
I. Satan’s Desire
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.” The word translated “has asked” is a bit stronger than that in the Greek. It means something like a strong demand. Satan set his eyes on Peter and determined to bring him down by any means possible.
I find it comforting that Satan must ask God’s permission before touching any of his children. Sometimes Christians become frozen in fear because they have given Satan too much credit. Sometimes we talk as if Satan were a kind of “Junior God,” almost God but not quite, as if he has, say, 90% of God’s power, 90% of his wisdom, and so on. But that is quite different from the biblical picture. Satan is always revealed as a creature of great power and cunning who is nevertheless first and always a created being. He has no power independent of God. He can only do what God permits him to do. As Martin Luther put it, the devil is “God’s devil.” One Puritan writer called him “God’s lapdog.” Surely this is more biblical than viewing him as some evil force equal with God. If he is God’s equal, he wouldn’t have to ask permission before attacking Peter.
I should note also that the “you” in this verse is plural. Satan wanted to destroy all the apostles but he specifically targeted Peter. This makes sense when you think about it. Satan goes after spiritual leaders. He starts at the top because if he can knock off the leader, others will no doubt fall in short order. That’s why the devil goes after leaders first—elders, pastors, deacons, teachers, leaders, and parents.
His desire is to “sift” God’s people by putting them under such pressure that they will give way and their faith be proved spurious. If that is the case, why would God permit his children to be put in such a bad position? Precisely so that he can prove that even under severe pressure, we can survive if we depend upon his grace. In Peter’s case that meant actually falling into sin and being restored later.
II. Christ’s Prayer
“But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.” These simple words contain amazing reservoirs of truth. First, they tell us that Christ knew in advance everything that Peter was about to do. He knew about the denials, the cursing, the repeated lies Peter was about to tell, and he knew about the bitter tears he would shed when he saw Christ taken away in judgment. Even more than that, he knew that one day Peter would become a mighty preacher of the gospel. He saw it all—the pride, the reckless boasting, the shameful denials, the broken heart, and the deep repentance, and the new resolve to serve the Lord. He saw it all before any of it had happened. He saw it before Peter knew anything about it.
Second, Christ’s response to Peter’s fall is to pray for him. Hebrews 7:25 tells us that Christ prays for us in heaven and it is because of his prayers that we are saved “to the uttermost.” In a deep sense our salvation depends on the moment-by-moment prayers of Jesus for his people. Not in general or by groups, but one by one he prays for us: “Lord, there’s Mike and I know he is struggling. Help him to stay strong. Sharon needs your help, Father. Julio is about to fall into temptation. Don’t let him be utterly destroyed. Megan wants to do right. Help her to have the courage she needs.” What an awesome thought—that the Son of God prays for us. Without his prayers we would never make it.
Third, Christ does not pray for Peter to be removed from temptation. Instead, he prays that in the midst of his shame that he would not lose his faith altogether. “Father, Satan wants to sift him to destroy him altogether. Please don’t let that happen.”
What a revelation this is of God’s purposes for you and me. This explains so much about why we go through hard times. Many times God intends that we should face the truth of our own personal failures so that our trust might be in the Lord alone.
III. Peter’s Conversion
“And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” The King James says “when you are converted.” That’s an unusual thought, an unconverted apostle. Was Peter a believer? Yes, of course, and he had been a believer from the day he left all to follow Christ. But in some deep sense he had never been fully converted to God. His soon-to-be shocking failure would be the means God used to finish the conversion process in his soul.
Note the little word “When.” What a word of grace that is. Christ knew all about Peter’s coming fall but more than that, he saw that Peter would one day return to the Lord and be stronger than ever. Theologians call this the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. It means that those who have trusted Christ will maintain their faith to the end. Years ago I heard someone rephrase the doctrine this way. He called it the doctrine of the perseverance of God and the preservation of the saints. Because God perseveres with us, we are preserved safe through our many trials. Do we persevere? Yes, but only because God first perseveres with us. If he didn’t, we never would and never could.
I notice two encouraging facts about the way Jesus treated Peter: 1) He never criticized him and 2) He never gave up on him. Jesus knew about Peter’s denial long before it happened. He knew what Peter would do, he knew how he would react, and he knew the kind of man Peter would be afterward. That’s why he said, “When you have turned back.” Not if … but when! He knew that Peter’s heart was good, he knew after his terrible sin he would return to the Lord. Isn’t that wonderful? Jesus has more faith in Peter than Peter has in Jesus. He knew that Peter had important work to do—”Strengthen your brothers”—but it couldn’t happen without his fall and his restoration to the Lord. It had to happen that way or else Peter would never be fully effective for Christ.
There is an important principle at work here. A bone that is broken often becomes stronger after it is healed. Something in the healing process actually makes the break point stronger than it was before. The same is true of a rope that breaks. In the hands of a master splicer, the rope once repaired becomes stronger than it was before.
The same thing is true of our failures. God can touch our broken places and make us stronger than we were before. Though we fall and fall and fall, and though our faces are covered with the muck and grime of bitter defeat, by God’s grace we can rise from the field of defeat to march on to new victory.
That’s what happened to Peter. His guilt was turned into grace; his shame into sympathy; his failure into faithfulness.
Going Off the Cliff
I have already noted that Jesus knew about Peter’s fall, and even predicted it, but he never tried to prevent it. This raises an interesting question. If God knows about our failures even before we fail, why doesn’t he stop us? Why does he let us go headlong over the cliff? Here are three possible answers.
To show us the depth of our sin. As long as we stand on top of the cliff, we can brag about our goodness, but when we are lying at the bottom, bruised and broken, we are forced to admit the truth about ourselves.
To purge us from pride. I don’t think Peter ever forgot that sad night when he denied the Lord. Never again would he boastfully claim to be more courageous than the other apostles. So it is with all of us. Our failures are like Jacob’s limp. They serve as a perpetual reminder and a guard against overwhelming pride.
To prepare us for greater work we must do. In some way we can’t fully understand, Peter had to fall so that God could raise him back up again. The falling part was Peter’s own doing, the raising up came by the gracious hand of the Lord. But there is no getting up without falling down first. Even so our failures qualify us to minister to others we could never otherwise reach. I have seen divorced people who have experienced God’s grace greatly used to help others going through that same heartbreak. The same is true of those once trapped by drug and alcohol addiction, sexual sin, and those who have served time in prison. God uses our worst moments as preparation for work he has appointed for us.
God often uses broken people to accomplish great things. If you doubt this, let’s do a roll call of broken saints!
Noah who got drunk
Abraham who lied about his wife
Jacob who was a deceiver
Moses who murdered an Egyptian
Rahab who was a harlot
David who was an adulterer
Paul who persecuted the church
Peter who denied Christ
Here is an amazing thought to ponder: Peter did much more for Jesus Christ after his fall than he did before. Before his fall, he was loud, boisterous and unreliable; afterward he became a flaming preacher of the gospel. Before, he was a big talker; afterward, he talked only of what Jesus Christ could do for others. He was the same man, but he was different. He was still Peter through and through, but he had been sifted by Satan, and in the sifting the chaff of his life had been blown away.
This is what Peter lost in his failure:
His rash impulsiveness
This is what Peter gained after his restoration:
New confidence in God
New determination to serve Jesus Christ
A willingness to use his experience to help others
The things he lost he didn’t really need; the things he gained couldn’t have come any other way. In the same way God redeems our mistakes by removing the things that brought us down and replacing them with the qualities we always wanted but couldn’t seem to find.
There is much in this story to encourage us. It was not the real Peter who denied the Lord; it was the real Peter who followed him into the courtyard. It was not the real Peter who cursed and swore; it was the real Peter who said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” When the Lord looks at you and me, he sees beyond our faults to the loyalty underneath. He sees our pain, our tears, and our earnest desire to please him. He sees us in our faltering attempts to follow him.
If We Knew the Naked Truth …
Last night a friend dropped by for a visit. During our conversation he mentioned a family in our church going through a hard time. I commented to my friend that if we knew the naked truth about every person in our congregation, we’d all run away screaming. I for one am glad I don’t know the truth about everyone. Let’s face it. We’re all broken people. Some of us just hide our brokenness better than others. There’s a little bit of Peter in all of us, and that’s why this story speaks on such a deep level.
What should we learn from these words of Christ?
The value of humility. If Christ’s handpicked Number One man could deny him, then none of us can claim to be beyond temptation. Peter wasn’t a bad man, but he was weak and he didn’t realize how weak he was until it was too late. A little humility is always in order. You’re not as hot as you think you are … and neither am I.
The need for patience with each other. Sometimes we act surprised when our Christian friends disappoint us. Perhaps we should be surprised when they don’t. Certainly we’d all be happier if we lowered our expectations to a level consistent with reality. Even on our best days, we will still sin and disappoint ourselves and others. It behooves us all to cut each other a little bit of slack.
The magnificence of God’s grace. None of us really understands God’s grace. This is the hardest of all Christian doctrines to grasp because it goes against our deeply-felt need to prove ourselves worthy. Grace says, “You aren’t worthy but I love you anyway.” That’s hard to hear and hard to believe—and sometimes very hard to extend to other Christians. Meditate on grace. Think about it. Rest in it. Rejoice in it. Talk about it. Share it. Sing it.
After I preached this message, I received words of thanks from several people. One friend said she found hope because like Peter she had made her share of mistakes. I replied that people with a past would find comfort in this sermon. As true as that is, it’s also true that we all have “a past” and therefore we stand in Peter’s shoes—greatly loved, capable of foolish choices, and yet redeemed and redeemable for greater things in the future. This is only possible by the grace of God.
This means that the God who forgives our past and our present intends also to forgive our future as well. What an awesome thought that is. You who read these words, take heart. You may be heading for a fall and you don’t know it yet. Take heart, the God who loves you enough to let you fall will himself pick you back up again.
Here is good news for all of us. God specializes in taking what is broken and putting it back together again. The church is a collection of broken people who have discovered God’s grace telling other broken people where they can discover God’s grace. The world takes broken things and throws them away. God puts them back together again. If you are broken, do not despair. Keep believing, and hang on to Jesus. In the end you will be like Peter—restored, renewed, and ready to serve the Lord again.