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The twenty-four hours before the crucifixion of Jesus represent arguably the most impactful day in human history. No single library could contain the many volumes biblical scholars have written concerning the history-changing events that took place on that day. Among the many story lines are: (1) What God the Father was doing with his Son for our redemption, (2) The prophetic fulfillments that would transpire, and (3) The work of Satan both to destroy Jesus of Nazareth and to shakedown and render useless the leader of his apostolic band.
In his Gospel, Chapters 14-16, John recorded for us much of the teaching Jesus shared with the entire group of disciples in preparation for awaited THEM after his death, resurrection, ascension and the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. In another Gospel, Chapter 22, Luke recorded a brief, one-on-one dialog between Jesus and Peter in preparation for what awaited HIM during these critical hours. Here's the text:
Let's consider the two verbs Jesus used in describing the spiritual dynamic at work with respect to Peter on the eve of his crucifixion. Jesus told him: “Satan hath desired to have you.” The verb desired is 'exaiteō', “to ask out.” The prefix 'ex' intensifies a mere asking to the point of strong desire. Satan wanted SO BADLY to get his hands on Peter! Jesus used the middle voice, indicating that Satan had a PERSONAL interest in his request. Make no mistake! When our adversary the devil desires to get his hands on a believer to shake him down and to render him useless, it is ALWAYS personal!
Jesus tells Peter he has made a request of his own to the Father: “But I have prayed for thee.” The verb prayed is 'deomai', “to beg, make supplication.” It's from the root 'deo', which means “to bind.” The verb is passive voice, indicating Jesus was MADE to pray: that is, the stakes were so high in terms of Peter's future role in the Kingdom that Jesus felt compelled, duty bound, to offset the request of Satan with a request of his own. Jesus essentially was saying to Peter: “Satan has spoken to me concerning you; I have spoken to the Father concerning you. I'm going to give Satan what he wants; my Father is going to give me what I want. And what I want is for your faith to remain solid on the other side of the sifting that awaits you!” Jesus knew it was better for Peter to undergo a pre-Pentecostal shakedown than to experience a post-Pentecostal meltdown!
In my mind, it's important to distinguish the actual request of Satan from what Jesus told Peter. Satan NEVER has sifting in mind when he desires to get his hands on a believer! His single objective is destruction. As Peter later wrote, likely based on this experience: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may DEVOUR” (1 Peter 5:8). Again, Satan has no desire to sift us. Sifting separates chaff from wheat. The goal of sifting is elimination of chaff so only the wheat remains. After sifting, the wheat is suitable for further processing, consumption and nutrition. This is what Jesus had in mind for Peter, what he knew this 'sifting' experience would produce. But what Jesus envisioned as a sifting, Satan intended as a total smackdown with no hope of recovery!
Satan, the accuser of the brethren, saw Peter as nothing but CHAFF. If given the opportunity, he thought he'd be able to expose Peter for the fraud he was, shake him loose from his profession. But Jesus knew what he had in Peter—a grain of WHEAT in need of sifting, to shake him loose from his cocky self-confidence. In 22:33, Peter said: “Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death.” Jesus rejoined: “I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me” (22:34). In short: “Peter, your ego is writing checks your body can't cash!” When Peter disavowed three times to a damsel that he even knew Jesus, Satan must have thought he had succeeded in his mission. While Peter may have stumbled for a season regarding his PROFESSION, he ultimately remained solid in his PERSUSION! Jesus had given Satan what he requested. But more importantly, the Father had given Jesus what he requested!
Scripture teaches us Satan is a master of miscalculation. He NEVER envisioned Jesus rising from the dead to become the forerunner into the holiest on behalf of those who believe. As Paul told the Corinthians: “Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8). Satan is often too smart by half. When he succeeded in using Judas, the Jews and Romans to kill Jesus, he unknowingly sealed his own eternal doom in the Lake of Fire. When Satan succeeded in stripping Peter temporarily of his profession, he NEVER envisioned that his intended destruction of Peter would result in a sifted, persuaded apostle preaching in power with the result that three thousand souls on the Day of Pentecost would find personal salvation!
Jesus added: “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (22:32). The verb converted is 'epistrephō', “to turn upon, return.” The verb is an aorist (past) participle, active voice and intransitive use. Literal translation: “Once you are one having turned himself around.” If Jesus had used passive voice and transitive use, the sense would have been: “one having been turned around.” This is instructive. It demonstrates that sifting in itself and the forces involved do not turn a disciple around as if he had been turned by them. The sifting is rather a means to an end, the bringing of a disciple to a state of awareness whereby he turns himself in the right direction. And in Peter's case, it meant coming to realize what Paul described as: “no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). It's what Luke said of the Prodigal: “he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).
The goal of sifting is the strengthening of the believer. The strengthened believer is then equipped to strengthen others. The verb strengthen is 'stērizō', “to set fast, make stable.” Luke previously used the verb twice. In 9:51, he said Jesus had “STEDFASTLY SET” his face toward Jerusalem. In 16:26, he quotes Abraham telling the rich man there was a great gulf “FIXED” between them. After Peter had denied Jesus three times and “wept bitterly” (22:62) as a result, the ideas of 'conversion' and 'strength' were no doubt the last things on his mind. In those two words is the potential for us to imagine Peter thinking the worst: “Jesus will NEVER trust me again! I'm useless, all washed up as a disciple!”
The words of Jesus, however, had a prophetic element. He predicted a 'conversion' and a 'strengthening' were IN HIS FUTURE! We don't know at what point Peter might have connected these prophetic dots with his despair to get himself over the hump. But later, when Jesus met him on the shores of Galilee and twice told him “feed my sheep” (John 21:16-17), the message became clear: “Peter, I WANT to use you. I have a FUTURE in mind for you. My sheep need feeding, and YOU'RE THE MAN I want to USE to feed them!” There's nothing like a loving, reassuring word from Jesus to transform a DEFEATED, DISCOURAGED man into one DETERMINED to pick up where left off and march triumphantly into his future with a sense of his Lord's approval!
If you are a believer in Jesus, this dynamic of the Sifter and the Supplicator is going to play itself out at some point in your life, perhaps many times. Satan will have designs on you to discourage you, destroy you. But what he determines for evil God will have determined for your good. So whenever you find yourself in what seems to be the sifter, ask the Lord what bit (or bits) of chaff he desires to shake loose from your life. Do NOT allow yourself to get discouraged! Always remember, as the example of Peter teaches us, that oftentimes a BITTER experience can serve as the gateway to a BETTER and more profitable future!