The Sifting of Simon Peter

The word of encouragement and consolation and hope that I want to offer you today from God's Word is that, if you love God and are called according to his purpose, if you are despairing of your own resources and looking to Christ for hope, then to you belongs a most wonderful promise: Jesus prays for you, and he will never let Satan destroy your faith and bring you to ruin.

Do you know why we need a message of hope and encouragement the Sunday after Easter? It's because our worst spiritual and emotional collapses often follow in the wake of our happiest, most victorious experiences. Maundy Thursday was rich and holy. Good Friday was sober but sweet ("Today you will be with me in Paradise"). Easter morning was glorious ("Begotten anew to a living hope through the resurrection"). Easter evening was moving ("No Greater Love"). But then came Monday morning. And I know personally of three of our people whose burdens have brought them to tears this week. It's almost like a law of nature with me. I've gone home at night and said to Noël, "Well, tomorrow is going to be real hard to bear." And she says, "How do you know that?" And I say, "Because today was so great."

Easter Sunday to Blue Monday

In Luke 22 we have a record of some of the things that happened at the Last Supper. In verse 15 Jesus said, "I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer." What a precious meal it must have been! And even though Jesus had to give a mild rebuke to his disciples for their concern with who the greatest was, yet he followed that up in verse 28 with an astonishing and reassuring promise:

You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

There must have been a stir of excitement. What a prospect: the great messianic kingdom established, and the apostles ruling with Jesus! Talk about a spiritual high!

But then came the sobering words of realism in verses 31–34. The kingdom is not yet fully come. So Jesus portrays life as threatened and fraught with spiritual difficulties. But in doing so he reveals a promise that I could scarcely live without, especially in the week after Easter.

"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren." And he said, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death." He said, "I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me."

Only hours after being told that he would be a ruler in Christ's kingdom, Peter is going to crash. From the heights of joyful anticipation and confidence to the pit of failure and bitter weeping in one night. Think it not strange that Easter Sunday should be followed by blue Monday. But take heart; Jesus prays for his own and will never let Satan destroy our faith and hope.

Satan Demanded to Have You

Let's take verses 31 and 32 a phrase at a time and see what the implications are for that time and for ours. "Simon, Simon, behold Satan demanded to have you." The first thing to notice here is that the word "you" is plural. (This is obvious in Greek, not English.) Jesus is telling Simon Peter that Satan has demanded to have all the disciples. To whom has Satan made this demand? Probably to God the Father. In the book of Job Satan is pictured as having access to God and making demands of him. Listen to this interchange, which may be typical of how Satan opposes us:

Then Satan answered the Lord, "Does Job fear God for nought? Have you not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth your hand now and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face!" And the Lord said to Satan, "Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand." (Job 1:9–12)

Then when Job's faith does not fail at the loss of his family and possessions, Satan returns to God and says,

"Skin for skin, all that a man has he will give for his life. But put forth your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face!" And the Lord said to Satan, "Behold he is in your power, only spare his life." (Job 2:4–6)

So both in Job and in the words of Jesus, Satan must go to God for permission before he can trouble the lives of God's children.

Two implications from this are important for our lives. One is that Satan has a lot of power in this world. Jesus calls him the "prince" or "ruler of this world" (John 16:11), and Paul calls him the "god of this age" (2 Corinthians 4:4) and the "ruler of the authority of the air" (Ephesians 2:2). He blinds the minds of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4) and holds them in his snare until God releases them through the gospel (2 Timothy 2:25, 26). He can take life, as with Job's children; ruin health, as with Job's body (cf. also Luke 13:16); torment with demons (Luke 11:18); provoke evil deeds (Luke 22:3); and cause natural disasters (Job 1:19). The fact that Satan has such power in the world should give a kind of seriousness to our lives which unbelievers don't have. It ought not to make us paranoid or fearful, but sober and earnest in our prayers and persistently conscious of needing God's power. When the enemy is supernatural, so must the weapons be. We are aliens and exiles in the world not merely because our values differ from those who don't know God, but also because our struggles are different than those who don't know Satan.

That's one implication of Jesus' words: Satan is real, has great power, and must be reckoned with seriously and soberly in this age. But a second implication is that Satan's power is by permission from God. There are not two ultimate powers in the universe. There is only one: God. When Satan wants to have the disciples, he must go to God first. That's an important word for our day, because the demonic forces of unreason and insubordination and hate and violence are becoming so strong and ever nearer to home that our faith in God's supremacy may be tested to the limit. We will need to remember words like these: "Satan demanded to have you," and their meaning: Satan cannot hurt us any more than God permits.

This raises a very important and hard theological question: Why would God grant to his archenemy any of his demands? As soon as you start to think about that question you realize that it is part of a much larger one, namely: Why does God tolerate the activity of Satan at all? Revelation 20:2, 3 tells us that at the end of this age, when Christ returns, God is going to bind Satan and confine him for 1,000 years, "that he should deceive the nations no more." Then after the 1,000 years and the final victory of God he will be thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10) forever. God has the right and the power to put Satan out of commission, and the question that we ask in our finitude and ignorance is: Why doesn't he do it now? Why go on century after century permitting Satan to wreak havoc in the world?

It may be that this is none of our business and that we should trust the wisdom and goodness of God without an answer. But I think the Scriptures indirectly suggest a possible answer, which may encourage and strengthen our faith. I think the reason God permits Satan to persist in his "sifting" work is that in the end it will be good for the church and will bring more glory to God. It's clear from the whole NT that God intends to bring the bride of Christ to perfection through affliction and temptation (1 Peter 1:6; 3:17). We must suffer with Christ if we would be glorified with him (Romans 8:17). Through suffering and trial our faith is refined. We are drawn to rely ever more heavily on God, and we are moved to cherish his grace more strongly. Satan has his role to play in fanning the flames of our refining furnace, and so God awaits the appointed day of judgment.

Not only does the ongoing work of Satan ultimately do good for the church, but it also will bring more glory to God. I picture God as an omniscient general whose aim is to fight and win the war in the way that will bring him most glory for his magnificent, strategic wisdom and power. Instead of steam rolling over the enemy all at once, he combines strategic advances and retreats that allow the enemy some illusion of success and brings out all their arrogance and hate for the general, so that it can be seen for what it is. In his wisdom the general knows when the end should come. He will give way for a time to allow the enemy to rage in defiance, and then when sin is seen for all that it is, he will close in and destroy the enemy in such a way that none can doubt the wisdom and glory and power of the general.

So Satan has power, but it is all by permission, and it is never out of control. We must be sober in our prayers, fight the good fight, and anticipate the victory of God at the perfect time.

Satan Aims to Sift Out Your Faith

Now Jesus goes on in verse 31 and says, "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat." The "you" is still plural. Jesus is telling Simon what Satan intends to do to all the disciples. What does Satan aim to do? What does "sifting like wheat" refer to in real life? The best clue comes in the next sentence where Jesus says, "But I prayed for you that your faith fail not." Satan aims to sift Simon and the others like wheat. Jesus aims to keep Simon's faith from failing. So probably "sifting like wheat" means doing something to make the disciples' faith fail.

We can imagine a picture like this: Satan has a big sieve with jagged-edged wires forming a mesh with holes shaped like faithless men and women. What he aims to do is throw people into this sieve and shake them around over these jagged edges until they are so torn and weak and desperate that they let go of their faith and fall through the sieve as faithless people, right into Satan's company. Faith cannot fall through the mesh. It's the wrong shape. And so as long as the disciples hold to their faith, trusting the power and goodness of God for their hope, then they will not fall through the mesh into Satan's hands.

Therefore the sifting of Simon Peter and the others is Satan's effort to destroy their faith. And this remains Satan's main goal today. It is relatively unimportant to Satan whether we are healthy or sick, rich or poor; what he wants is to sift out our faith. If he can do it by suffering, he will try that; if he can do it by wealth, he will try that. Peter learned a good lesson that night. Some 30 years later he wrote in 1 Peter 5:8, 9: "Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Resist him firm in your faith." Jesus pictured Satan as a farmer shaking Christians in his sieve, trying to tear them apart from their faith. Peter pictures Satan as a lion who can devour anything but faith. The only person that can fit through Satan's sieve is an unbeliever. The only thing that will fit down the lion's throat is an unbeliever. This is the victory that overcomes Satan's sieve and Satan's throat, our faith (1 John 5:4). If we hold it fast to the end, Satan cannot destroy us. That's why John writes to the church of Smyrna in Revelation 2:10:

Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.

But Jesus Prays for Your Faith

It is a great encouragement to know that God is always stronger than Satan, and that by faith in him we can avoid Satan's destruction and gain a crown of life. But the text is not yet done; God's word of consolation and hope goes farther. We need for our daily struggles some encouragement that in a time of suffering and weakness we will not abandon the faith and curse God. We need some reassurance that the ups and downs of our faith will not end someday in a permanent down and fail utterly. And Jesus gives us that encouragement and reassurance in verse 32.

Simon, Simon, behold Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail, and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.

It is encouraging to know that God is infinitely stronger than Satan, and that if we simply trust God to the end, he will give us eternal life. But it is doubly encouraging, doubly hopeful, that Jesus Christ and God the Father do not stand back and watch to see if we will have the strength to endure in faith. In fact, I am sure that if the Holy Trinity were not busy day and night strengthening my faith, it would evaporate in a minute. Notice Jesus prays to his Father for Simon (now the word "you" is singular in verse 32: I prayed for "you," that is, Simon). He asks God to do what needs to be done in order to preserve Simon from destruction.

And Jesus is completely confident that his Father will answer his prayer, because he says, "And when you have turned, strengthen your brothers." Jesus knows that Simon will deny him three times. He says so in verse 34. But evidently Jesus does not consider this brief denial to be the utter failure that Satan is after. It is a temporary weakness, a brief faltering of confidence, but it is followed quickly by bitter tears of repentance (Luke 22:62) and turning. Jesus knew he would turn from his sin because he had prayed for him, that his faith not fail utterly. The Father granted Satan the power to sift Simon, but, in response to Jesus' prayer, he did not let Simon fall through the sieve. Nor will he ever let any of his children fall through Satan's sieve. Here is the double weapon of hope and encouragement that he gives us: not only is God willing and supremely able to save forever all of us who trust him; he also conspires with the Son to keep us trusting to the end. We are not left without a shield against the enemy, nor are we left to hold this shield of faith merely by our own strength. God will always see to it that faith has the victory and that his children have faith.

This is the meaning of that terrific text in 1 Peter 1:3–5,

We have been born anew unto a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

The almighty power of God guards us for our eternal salvation by working in us the perseverance of faith in answer to Jesus' prayer. I love to think of God the Father and God the Son collaborating in our salvation. Jesus shows in another place how they work together to keep us safe. In John 10:27–30 he says,

My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one.

No one can snatch them out of my hand, no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand, because we are one hand, and it is mightier than all. Simon Peter, I have prayed for you; my Father and I have conspired to hold you tight; and so your faith will not fail. And that same promise applies to all God's children. Lay hold on it and be encouraged by it whenever you start to doubt that your trust in God will endure to the end.

The Strengthened Becomes the Strengthener

But there is one last thing I want you to see in the text. This is not to lay a burden on you, but only to increase your joy. The joy we have in the promises of God is always doubled when it bubbles up over the brim of our life and spill over onto others. What about the other ten apostles (not counting Judas)? Satan was going to sift them too. Did Jesus pray for them? Yes he did. But he did not ask the Father to guard their faith in the very same way he guarded Peter's. God broke the back of Peter's pride and self-reliance that night in the agony of Satan's sieve. But he did not let him go. He turned him around and forgave him and restored him and strengthened his faith. And now it was Peter's mission to strengthen the other ten. Jesus provided for the ten by providing for Peter. The strengthened becomes the strengthener.

There is a great lesson here for us. Sometimes God will deal with you directly, strengthening your faith alone in the wee hours of the morning. But most of the time (we might say ten-elevenths of the time) God strengthens our faith through another person. God sends us some Simon Peter who brings just the word of grace we need to keep on in the faith: some testimony about how "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning" (Psalm 30:5). Eternal security is a community project. Whenever God encourages your heart with the promise that in Satan's sifting your faith will not fail, then take that encouragement and double your joy by using it to strengthen your brothers and sisters.