Standing in the True Grace of God, Lesson 1, part 2

Originally posted September 17, 2017, at Women of Purpose

As we resume our summary of lesson 1, we pick up in the middle of Luke 22:24-34. Having already discussed the disciples’ arrogance and Jesus’ rebuke that they must humbly serve those they lead, we move to verses 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.”

Jesus here emphasizes the weakness of his friend when he addresses him as, “Simon, Simon.” In this warning, we see Jesus’ tender concern for the man he has come to love and has been training up for leadership in his church. He knows that Simon Peter will suffer a devastating fall within the next many hours, and he wants Peter to return from his disgrace remembering not only his own failure, but the grace of the Lord, so that he might “strengthen (his) brothers,” based not on his own strength, which was small, but on Christ’s strength, which was wholly sufficient.

Jesus warns Peter that “Satan demanded to have you (ya’ll) that he might sift you (ya’ll) like wheat.” He is addressing Peter, but telling him that all the disciples are about to undergo this severe trial. Sifting like wheat doesn’t sound so bad to our modern ears, but it was a violent process by which chaff was removed from wheat and required strong shaking and tossing in the air. Indeed, they would all flee when Jesus was arrested later that very night.

Jesus then shifts from speaking in the plural about all the disciples, to addressing Peter specifically, “but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail.” Oh, the deep encouragement to know that he who decrees our days and knows our weaknesses is praying for us! Here he tells Peter that he is praying for him, and Paul assures us that he is praying for us even now:

Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? Romans 8:34-35

Jesus, the founder and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2), is telling weak, impulsive, soon-to-fall Simon that he is praying that his faith would not fail. He has a purpose for Simon on the other side of the coming failure, a purpose for which his faith must prevail: “And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” William Hendriksen, in his commentary on this passage, writes, “To be sure, considered in and by itself, Simon’s fall was bad, very bad, tragic. Yet, once it had occurred, Simon must make good use of this bad fall. He must use it to strengthen his fellow disciples.”[1]

And don’t miss the assurance in Christ’s words, “when you return,” not if, but when. Peter would return—Christ’s promise is secure.

Peter, once again, instead of listening to what Jesus is telling him, declares, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Before we judge Peter too harshly, let us see in him a mirror image of our own inability to know our deceitful hearts (Jeremiah 17:9). He does know for certain that he loves his Lord; he doesn’t realize the depths of his own weakness. He should have prayed with David, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139: 23-24)

Jesus’ response reminds this impetuous man that he will need to stand firm in Christ’s promise: “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day until you deny three times that you know me.” Peter can’t say that he wasn’t warned. Yet, Jesus gives this warning as a reference point for Peter to remember so that when he does fall he can recall the precious promises made by the Lord that his faith would not fail and that he would return to strengthen his brothers.

And now we turn to the garden of Gethsemane, in Matthew 26:36-46. The shorthand version of this episode is that Jesus goes to pray for strength to face the final stretch of his Messianic mission, and the disciples—friends—he asked to accompany him can’t stay awake to pray. We learn more about Jesus in this passage than we learn about Peter. For one thing, Peter is not recorded as saying anything, he just repeatedly falls asleep. For another, it’s not a stretch to imagine ourselves in Peter’s weary place. I know for certain that I would have dozed off. After a long day, a great deal of teaching in the upper room, a full meal, walking to and settling down in a quiet, dark garden… lights out—I’m snoozing.

What we learn about Jesus here, though, is important.

Our Lord is entering his final hours leading to the cross. He will be increasingly isolated as he walks this road to Calvary, with the betrayal of one and abandonment by the rest of his disciples. He will endure the sham trial and ridiculous interrogations from the religious and political leaders, and the torture and mocking of the soldiers before he alone is nailed to the cross to bear on his own shoulders the massive weight of sin. The sinless Son of God, eternally pure and holy, the second person of the Trinity who has enjoyed perfect loving fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit from before the beginning of time, will cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

Knowing all this, what does he ask from his friends? Companionship.

He goes before his Father, praying in agony—yet without sin—asking if they have left any means unexamined by which his mission could be accomplished without the cross. His anguish is so great that he sweated blood (Luke 22:44).

“To be sure, he had been a curse-bearer throughout the days of his humiliation, but now he was becoming overwhelmed with the curse; and this consciousness would not again leave him until he was able to say, “It is finished” (Gal 3:13). He knew that he was giving his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45); that he, the sinless One, was being made “sin,” that is, the object of God’s wrath (2 Cor. 5: 21). Is it any wonder then that he said to his three closest disciples, “Stay here and keep awake with me?” The sorrows of death—not just physical death, but eternal death in the place of his people—were coming upon him, more now than ever before. That is why he speaks of “sorrow to the point of death.”[2]

Jesus knows sorrow. He knows our sorrows. When we suffer, he gets it! He understands! Yes, his friends failed him when he needed them. Because of their weakness, they fell asleep. Our friends will fail us; we will fail our friends. Yet we can be assured that he will, without fail, be with us in his strength when we need him. We can be sure of this because he provided for our greatest need—even through his dread of the solution—by facing the horrors of the cross in our place and bearing on our behalf the infinite wrath of his infinitely holy Father against our infinitely treasonous sin.

Notice also that in acknowledging his own sorrow and anguish, the Lord Jesus shows us that when we feel the real effects of this fallen world and experience pain and sadness, we are responding rightly to that which is wrong about the world. Pain hurts. Grief brings sorrow. To feel these isn’t evidence of a lack of faith; to hurt and grieve is to agree with Christ that sin has brought brokenness into this world which God created to be good. It’s recognizing that there must be something better. That something existed in the Garden, was broken by Adam’s sin, and has been addressed by Christ’s atonement on the cross. Though we experience suffering and pain now, we can catch a glimpse of this elusive something when we are embraced by the peace of God which surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:7). When we reach heaven, we will find that something restored again in full.

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Revelation 21:3-5

At the end of this passage Jesus gently wakes his sleeping friends. “Rise, let us be going, see, my betrayer is at hand.” Strengthened by his Father after pouring out his fears in prayer, our Savior rose and, instead of fleeing, walked with firm step and resolute purpose toward his divine appointment with death.

We now come seamlessly to John 18:1-11, when Judas leads the band of soldiers and officials to the place where he knew Jesus would be. Jesus had gone to this familiar place not to hide from his arrest, but to anticipate it. The crowd arrives with lanterns and torches and weapons…

“Torches and lanterns . . . to search for the Light of the world! Swords and cudgels . . . to subdue the Prince of peace! This was a cruel insult. It proved how thoroughly his mission had been misinterpreted.”[3]

Jesus, the Omniscient One, steps forward and asks, “Whom do you seek?” When they answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and he answered, “I am he,” they all fell to the ground. This happens twice. The God-man they have come to arrest, by whose power they live and move and have their being (Acts 17:28), must practically hold them upright so they can take him into custody!

At his words, “I am he,” Jesus declared himself to be Christ the King. His captors have no power over him, indeed, he holds all the power in this interview. In his Royal Majesty, he is in complete control of the situation. And as High Priest, he protects his own, insisting that he alone is who they have come to arrest and his disciples are to go free.

Enter Peter: rash, impulsive, over-confident, misreading the situation—again—Peter. Wielding a sword, Simon Peter takes a swing at the high priest’s servant and cuts off his ear. (Oh, Peter…)

Jesus rebukes him sharply as he heals the man’s ear (Luke 22:51), “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Clearly, once his wrestling in prayer was finished Jesus was strengthened against any temptation to avoid the cross. Just as clearly, Peter still doesn’t understand his Lord’s mission. Peter must have seen the opportunity to begin the long-awaited insurrection against Rome, and maybe toss in a little overthrow of the current Jewish leadership while they’re at it.

Don’t worry, Peter will understand in time. Pentecost is coming.

But first, the cross.

And now, the final passage for our lesson: Luke 22:54-62. Jesus has been led away to the house of the high priest where his trial will begin. Peter, confused, bewildered, follows. He manages to get into the courtyard where a fire burns as various soldiers and servants of the high priest sit and talk. Peter has entered the belly of the beast—he is surrounded not by friends, not even by neutral bystanders, but by those who arrested his beloved Master and Lord. It seems that he was trying to simply blend in; sit quietly and not be noticed; be invisible. As he sits there with his heart pumping and thoughts racing, he is confronted by a servant girl, “This man also was with him.”

Was Peter caught off guard? His answer suggests that he was. “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later, another accusation is met with the same answer. Once set on his road of denial, he can’t change course. Haven’t you felt this yourself? Feeling his way in the dark, surely there will be a way made clear soon! Just keep going… I’ll find my way out… But he continues this course when confronted a third time and again, for the third time he declares, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.”

And here the events tumble together in a rush. “immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’”

 When Jesus looked at him, it stopped Peter cold. John Calvin writes:

“He must have received the look from Christ, in order that he might come to himself. We all have the same experience ourselves; for which of us does not pass by with indifference and with deaf ears. . . until he who alone turns the hearts of men deigns to look upon us. . . In looking at Peter, he added to his eyes the secret efficacy of the Spirit, and thus, by the rays of his grace, penetrated into his heart.” [4]

Peter was brought to a dead stop in his sin. The Lord had allowed him to go only so far, and no farther. This is grace. Knowing that we will and do still sin, though we are in Christ, is disheartening in the extreme. But knowing also that the Lord will not allow us to stray beyond the reach of his grace brings immeasurably great comfort.

In our final verse, we see the result of Peter’s being brought to himself: “And he went out and wept bitterly.” Here we see the sincerity of repentance in the tears shed by Peter. He does nothing by half-measures. Peter’s weeping is as everything he does—from deep within and wholly expressing what he feels in his heart and mind. He weeps, “bitterly, profusely, sorrowfully, his heart being filled with genuine regret for what he had done.”[5]

John Calvin teaches from this passage that, “By this example we are taught that we ought to entertain confident hope, though our repentance be lame; for God does not despise even weak repentance, provided it be sincere.”[6]

We must leave Peter here, but, never fear, Easter is coming. The tomb will be empty and Peter will learn at last what his Messiah has accomplished. Though Peter has been consistently misunderstanding what Jesus came to do, Jesus had a plan for him. Jesus knew from eternity past who Peter was—better than Peter knew himself. Jesus had uses for this raw material of a man that Peter would never have dreamed for himself. The Master patiently taught, lived by example, and dearly loved this brash, impulsive, on-the-one-hand strong, on-the-other-hand weak man. Jesus prepared Peter for his purpose by showing him his weaknesses and teaching him his deep need to rely on his Lord for strength.

[1] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1978), 974.

[2] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1973), 917.

[3] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1953), 378.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. III, translated by the Rev. William Pringle, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2009)

[5] Hendriksen, Luke, 995.

[6] Calvin, 266.

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