It must have been a difficult conversation for Simon Peter.
Jesus said, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of 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.”
It happened on one of those nights when things just keep getting worse. Jesus was betrayed, just as He had predicted. And all the disciples, Jesus’ closest companions, had abandoned Him. Even Peter, who had refused to accept Jesus’ dire prediction, had denied knowing Jesus, almost to His face. In fact the only thing redeeming about that night was that Jesus had been right about how bad things would get. He had been right about everything.
We hear these stories and due to our teaching-intensive treatment of Scripture can miss the humanity in them. We miss, for example, what it must have been like for Peter. Peter is often characterized in sermons as impulsive and brash, as though he were a bumbling idiot with too much zeal for his own good. But place yourself in the circumstances of that evening: Your hopes coming unraveled before your very eyes and your closest Companion and Teacher predicting his own death, and your own betrayal of the friendship you shared, and ask yourself how you would respond.
Peter is often characterized in sermons as impulsive and brash, as though he were a bumbling idiot with too much zeal for his own good. But place yourself in his circumstances and ask yourself how you would respond.
I think Peter was not so much impulsive and over-zealous as he was hopeful and fiercely loyal. It is natural (if not noble) that when someone predicts a future that would bring your own loyalty into question that you would deny it. It is also natural for you, having betrayed your closest friend in His moment of need, to weep bitterly. If you cared at all.
Peter was heartbroken because he cared. Which brings us to a question: Where is God? Where is the abundance Jesus promised His servants? Why is God letting this happen? Where is the Good God who is concerned above all else with Peter’s ultimate happiness?
The answer is found in Jesus’ own words to Peter: “Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat.” Much is said in these few words. First, Satan had to ask permission to do what he was about to do. The events about to unfold were not a case of Satan running riot. The events in our own lives never are. It was a case of Satan only being permitted to do what God the Father allowed.
Secondly, God’s purpose was sifting, not destruction. Sifting is a process of removing the unwanted portion of the wheat stalk from the good portion. It is symbolic of removing the impure from the pure. There was method to the madness that was about to befall Peter’s world. The goal was personal transformation.
Knowing what we know about Satan, it is doubtful he actually asked to sift Peter. He most likely asked instead that he cause his downfall. But Jesus here is transposing God’s purpose upon the limited free reign Satan has just been granted. What the enemy means for evil, God intends for good.
Knowing what we know about Satan, it is doubtful he actually asked to sift Peter like wheat. It is more likely he asked to be the cause of Peter’s downfall.
But none of this strikes us as abundant life, does it? None of this strikes us as victory over the devil.
Let’s be honest: If God were in the business of granting Peter victory, he would have simply given him the power to be victorious. God would have allowed him not to deny Jesus. He would have allowed Peter to come to Jesus’ aid, just as Peter tried to do in the garden of Gethsemane when he drew a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. By today’s standard, Peter was acting in faith. He was stepping out of his comfort zone. If God were really in the business of victory, God would have and should have blessed such efforts with success and not failure.
Then again, Peter would not have come to learn a very important lesson through these events: That the Kingdom of God would not be established through human strength alone, but by God’s power.
If not for his bitter tears, Peter would not have come to learn a very important lesson: That the Kingdom of God is not established through human strength alone but by God’s power.
After the resurrection and before Pentecost, Peter meets Jesus again and has another difficult conversation: “Simon, do you love me?” Jesus asks. I do not know if you have ever been asked this question by someone close to you, but I am sure you can imagine that it would carry with it a great amount of pain. Peter answers and says yes. But Jesus asks a second time, and then a third. At which point, Peter says, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.”
Why did Jesus persist? A popular explanation is that with each request, Jesus was undoing each denial Peter had made on the night Jesus was betrayed. This is poetic, but I am not sure it is true. I am not sure any amount of interrogation on Jesus’ part would be enough, in Peter’s mind, to remove the guilt he felt for betraying his closest friend. Rather, Jesus was bringing Peter to the point of realizing a vital truth in the Kingdom of Heaven: Our love for God and our human failure to express that love in a manner worthy of God are two very different things.
Peter loved Jesus, but he would only become the person he desired to be for Jesus through God’s strength, not his own. Jesus persisted in asking Peter whether he loved Him not because Jesus needed to know, but Peter needed to know. Peter needed to know his love for Jesus was enough, and whatever else he lacked would be provided. And it would be very soon, on the Day of Pentecost.
The Planting of Abundant Life
So what about abundant life, victory and Peter’s ultimate happiness? Most assuredly, from the moment of Jesus’ first prediction to Peter on the night of His betrayal, God was bringing it about. But it was taking place not in the fabric of life’s circumstances but in the most important place where life’s drama unfolds here on Earth: The interior of the human heart.
Jesus’ abundant life for Peter was taking place not in the fabric of life’s circumstances but in the most important place where life’s drama unfolds here on Earth: The interior of the human heart.
In the dark events that transpired, Peter was never on his own, not even in his bitter tears. God knew what He was doing. Peter had not been abandoned; on the contrary, he was undergoing preparation. The circumstances may have seemed hopeless and devoid of life, but on the inside, something was emerging. Something beautiful. God was laying a foundation within Peter that would not only give him a newfound revelation of the greatness of God’s love but also provide him the strength and humility of character that would allow him to be the leader of a movement that would turn the world upside-down.
This year, my prayer for each of us is that we know the loving embrace of our Father, and the assurance of His abiding presence. Whether in the shadows of night, the bitter tears of our own failure, or the glory of our own Pentecost, make no mistake: He is at work.
And that work is beautiful.