A few weeks ago, between Good Friday and Resurrection Day, I was reading through the Passion texts again. I noticed something interesting that I hadn’t picked up on before. (If you’re a Bible student, you understand this happens all the time.)
It is the brief exchange between Jesus and Peter in Luke 22.31-34:
” ‘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 brothers.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.’ ” (ESV)
The Enemy wanted to sift the whole band of apostles and, as one would do with a winnowing fan on the threshing floors of that day, blow them away. G. Campbell Morgan quotes Trapp, a Puritan commentator, as saying, “Jesus uses a fan, and sifts to get rid of the chaff; but the devil uses a fan and sifts to get rid of the wheat.” Jesus tells Peter that He prayed specifically for him, so that his faith would not fail.
Then, within a few hours, Peter–the same Peter who brashly lopped off the ear of the High Priest’s servant in Gethsemane–denies three times that he even knows the Lord! Were Jesus’ prayers for him ineffective?
Of course not. Could the prayers of the Son of God ever be ineffective? Let’s remember a couple of things here.
First, Peter’s faith didn’t fail. His courage did. There is a difference between the two, and Jesus’ exhortation, “and when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers”, anticipates this failure. The inability of Satan to “blow Peter away” is made evident fifty days later at the Feast of Pentecost, when Peter stands before three thousand of the same people who demanded Christ’s crucifixion and demands that they repent.
Second, while Peter gets the bad rap for denying the Lord, let’s face it–he is the only one there. All the other disciples flee, and Mark records that one young follower of Jesus–one wonders if it is Mark himself–neatly gives the soldiers the slip and runs away buck naked! (Mar 14.51,52) So let’s not be too hard on Peter. The early chapters of Acts do not portray him as a faithless man. Or a coward.
It’s interesting to me that Peter is the one who wrote, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pet 5.8) He represents one of the few cases in the biblical text where the devil hand-picks someone to devour (Job and Judas are two other familiar examples).
One of the great blessings of the cross work of the Son and the cemetery work of the Father is that Jesus, our Great High Priest, prays for us, too.