In This Chapter
And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon, listen carefully! Satan demanded to have you all [the disciples] in order to sift you all like wheat. But I have urgently pleaded [with my Daddy] for you [Peter] so that your faith may not fail completely; and when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death!” And Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow today before you deny three times that you know me.”
A Quick Dip1
Listen carefully: In this passage, we encounter a funny little Greek word that is used to grab someone’s attention: idou. We have no single English word that contains the same force of idou, which means, “Pay attention! Listen carefully! What I am about to say is very important!”
Demanded to have: This particular Greek word is difficult to translate because its meaning is complex. The verb means that Satan demanded to have the disciples for a trial period and that his demand met with success. In other words, God granted his permission for the testing. Please note that, once again, this is an aorist verb denoting a one-time event: Satan could only have the disciples for this one moment in time.
Sift: There were two types of sifting in Bible times. A large sieve was used to separate the chaff from the wheat; a smaller sieve was used to sift impurities from the finer grain. The appropriate sifting image for this passage, in my opinion, is the second image. Satan is not separating chaff from wheat, as John the Baptist described in Luke 3:17. No, the sifting here is much more refined; the impurities sought at this point in time are hidden within the midst of some of God’s finest grain.
Urgently pleaded: The Greek word used in this passage originally meant to be in need of. Over time, this word developed the meaning to petition (in a way which involves the idea of urgent need), or more simply, to beg. Most translations of this text record Jesus telling Peter, “I have prayed for you,” but as we see, this translation fails to capture the urgency of Jesus’ petition which really means: “I have begged for my Daddy to give you what you so desperately need.”
Fail completely: The Greek word here is ekleipo, and our English word eclipse comes from this verb. Besides referring to a total eclipse of the sun or moon, ekleipo contains several additional meanings. It can mean to cease completely, or to die out, as when a species dies out. It can also refer to money, as in “when the money runs out.” In each of these examples — light, life, or money — the eclipse, the destruction, or the wiping out referred to is complete. Nothing remains during a total ekleipo.
Turned back: This word can mean to twist, turn around, or to change one’s course of action. When someone turns back, she leaves the old behind and moves in a new direction. However, this movement is not haphazard; it involves a deliberate turning towards something or someone. Theologically, to turn means to intentionally change one’s relationship with God for the better.
Strengthen: This Greek word offers some concrete images. To strengthen can mean to physically take something or someone in hand and turn it firmly in a certain direction. A good example of this is when one stakes up a vine. After the staking, the vine grows upright rather than sprawls all over the ground. My favorite image of strengthening, however, is that of setting a post in concrete.
- When you pray for a loved one who is facing a personal crisis, what do you say?
- When Jesus urgently pleads for Peter, what is his request? How does Jesus’ prayer for Peter compare with your prayers for your loved ones?
- What happened when Jesus prayed for Peter? What happens when we pray for others? Do our prayers really make a difference? If so, how?
Loved Ones in Crisis
Imagine. Someone you love is facing a crisis. You feel as though you are standing beside a lake. Looking out, you can see a storm brewing in the distance, and your loved one is sailing directly toward the darkest cloud. To make matters worse, you know that there is neither an anchor nor a paddle in the boat, and the person you care for so deeply has simply refused to wear a life vest. The wind picks up; you hear thunder in the distance. You know what’s coming. What are you going to do?
Jesus faced a similar situation with one of his dearest friends. It was the night before his death, and he was in the upper room with his disciples. After instituting the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus predicted his betrayal by one of the chosen Twelve. Immediately the disciples began to discuss who this might be, and the discussion soon escalated into an argument over who was the greatest. Jesus had to interrupt and chastise his followers with a lesson about true greatness. He then turned to express his grave concern for one of his closest friends, Simon Peter.
Have you ever wondered what was really happening in the upper room that evening? And concerning this passage in particular, what was going on between Jesus and Peter? According to Luke 5:1-11, the relationship between Jesus and Simon Peter began at the lakeshore where Jesus used Peter’s boat as an offshore pulpit. You know the story: When the lesson ended, Jesus told Peter to put into the deep for a catch. Tired from a luckless all-nighter and sure that the fish were on the bottom of the lake escaping the heat of the day, Peter only reluctantly obeyed. Yet, as the miraculous catch filled the boat, Peter fell to his knees amidst all of those flopping fish and implored, “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Yes, the relationship began with Peter on his knees, humbly confessing his unworthiness to remain in Jesus’ presence.
However, as Luke’s Gospel unfolds, we see a shift in this relationship. Named as one of the Twelve and then included as a member of Jesus’ most intimate circle,2 Peter grew ever bolder. Always the first to answer Jesus’ questions3 and unafraid to blurt out any opinion or idea,4 Peter emerges in this gospel story as the confident leader of Jesus’ band of followers. However, the best illustration of Peter’s transformation from a penitent sinner to a poised pupil can be found in Luke 18:28. Jesus had just encountered the rich young ruler and commented that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Those around Jesus responded, “Then who can be saved?” but Peter piped up, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” At that moment, boldness turned into boasting, and we must ask ourselves, “Whatever happened to that humble man who once knelt in that boatload of fish?”
So now we return to the upper room where we hear Jesus predict his own suffering, death, and betrayal. Treachery sits at this very table. As the disciples begin to discuss among themselves who the betrayer might be, somehow their concern for Jesus’ upcoming tribulation turns into an argument — not over which disciple is the traitor, but over which disciple is the greatest. And, understanding Peter, I think it is highly probable that he was the one who started the argument. In my imagination, I can see Andrew turning to Peter in the midst of the buzz and asking, “Is it you? Are you the betrayer?” And I also imagine Peter’s blistering response, “Who, me betray Jesus? Are you crazy? I’m not the traitor; I’m the Rock! Jesus said so himself. Listen, when Jesus came down from the mountain that morning with the list of the twelve apostles, whose name did he call out first? Mine! I was his number one pick! And who was the first one to confess Jesus to be the Christ? Me, of course! No, I’m not the traitor of this group, I am the greatest in this group, and you should know that, Andrew…”
As that argument unfolded around that table, Jesus listened to his friend Simon Peter, and Jesus watched those ever-darkening clouds that had been brewing in the distance for some time. Jesus already knew exactly what was coming for Peter. Before this gathering, out in some lonely place — perhaps even in the garden of Gethsemane — Jesus had spoken with his Daddy about Peter and the other disciples. During that private prayer time, God had revealed heavenly and earthly events to his Son. Reminiscent of the book of Job, we see Satan standing before God and demanding his best — the Twelve — so that he could sift them like wheat. As the accuser, it is Satan’s job (and his pleasure) to find the worst in people and reveal this to God. Sifting is a good image to use here. Whenever I make bread, I always sift my flour in order to remove any lumps or impurities. After the sifting, I am always left with the bad stuff staring up at me from the sieve. This was what Satan wanted to do, to sift the disciples so that all of their bad lumps would be brought to light. When Satan had finished, the disciples’ guilt and shortcomings would be staring them in the face.
God revealed this demand to Jesus, and God revealed the lumps that Satan would find: the betrayal, the denial, the abandonment, the failure, the lack of courage and loyalty. Jesus could see the guilt, and Jesus knew that although such a harsh revelation would be painful for all of his followers, it would be particularly devastating for Peter. What would this impetuous disciple do when he saw all of those horrible lumps of failure? Could Peter have ended up like Judas, with a noose around his neck?
Yet there he sat — voice rising, face reddening, fist pounding the table — the force of his temper adding bluster to the stormy dispute. Totally self-absorbed and bent on a campaign of self-promotion, Peter had become unplugged, adrift, completely disconnected from his power source. Yes, Jesus could see that his friend was sailing into trouble with no anchor, no paddle, and no life vest. So, what did Jesus do? Jesus said, “Idou,” asking for Peter’s undivided attention. Then Jesus told Peter about his private prayer.
What does Jesus say to his friend in crisis? First, Jesus reveals to Peter what God has already revealed to him: that the disciples are about to be sifted by Satan. Jesus wants Peter to know that a difficult test is coming and that the test is not from God. The waves that lie ahead will come from the devil himself. It is important for Peter to understand that it is not God who will be stirring the sea. Next, Jesus tells Peter, “I have urgently pleaded for you.” In the Greek, this word pleaded invokes an image of a humble beggar: lowly, powerless, in desperate need, and completely at the mercy of the giver. Luke uses this same word to describe the request of the leper who begs Jesus, “Make me clean,” (5:12) and the desperate father who pleads for Jesus to help his demon-tormented son (9:38). Both the leper and the father have urgent requests, both are completely powerless in their sufferings, and both beg unashamedly for Jesus to meet their needs.
In an aside, it is important to note that Jesus immediately responds to these desperate needs, but not by turning to God in prayer. Jesus heals the leper; Jesus casts out the demon. You see, Jesus does not ask God to meet these urgent needs because he knows that God has already given him the power to meet these needs himself. This raises several important questions for me: Whenever I see someone in need, do I pray for God’s help when God has already given me the power to help this person myself? Do I ask God to feed a hungry person when I have food to share? Do I ask God to comfort someone whom I could visit? Do I ask God to change something in my family, church, or community when I have not lifted one finger for that cause? It is important to understand that Jesus never asks God to carry out the work which God has set before him to do. And neither should I.
Praying for Peter
Here in Luke 22, however, we see Jesus on his knees before his Father, pleading urgently for a beloved disciple who is about to face his greatest challenge. During this sifting, Jesus will not be with Peter; he will not be able to help his friend. So Jesus turns and begs for his Daddy to help Peter in his stead. Although we do not have Jesus’ exact words, Jesus indicates that the purpose of his prayer — the desire behind the request — is that Peter’s faith would not completely fail. Jesus’ prayer must have sounded something like this: “Daddy, please help Peter. During this sifting, don’t let his faith be totally eclipsed.”
If this indeed was Jesus’ request, then I must confess that this is not the prayer I would expect to hear. I mean, if Peter were my friend, I would not have prayed, “Don’t let his faith fail”; I would have prayed, “Don’t let Satan sift him.” I don’t know about you, but when I pray for people, I try to pray away the hardships, difficulties, trials, and painful events which they are facing. However, Jesus does not pray like this. Unlike me, Jesus does not use prayer in an attempt to change the circumstances surrounding his friend. Jesus does not use his intercessory prayer to try to control God’s actions — to try to make God change his mind and refuse Satan’s request.5 Jesus does not even use this prayer to try to control Satan’s actions — to thwart Satan’s test. Why not? Why doesn’t Jesus pray in order to stop the sifting?
Because Peter needed sifting. So did the others. Think about Peter, arguing at that table. Jesus saw the brashness, the overconfidence, the self-dependence, and Jesus understood that if Peter was to become the leader — the servant leader — that Jesus wanted him to be, then Peter needed sifting. He needed to see his own lack of greatness. Peter needed to see the truth, to have his failures and frailties revealed right under his nose. Indeed, all of the disciples needed to see their shortcomings and be humbled to the servant status that would make them the truly great apostles which they were to become.
Yes, Jesus understood that Peter needed to be sifted, but Jesus also knew that in that sifting Peter’s faith would be shaken to its very core — choked by the grip of fear, eclipsed by the darkness of his own doubt. Indeed, Jesus saw the need and Jesus begged — but look again at Jesus’ prayer. For what does he ask? Again, not for what I expect. If it were me, I would have asked for a brilliant burst of faith to totally overpower the darkness of Peter’s doubt. But not Jesus. Jesus pleaded, not for a blinding flash, but for a glimmer — for one tiny pinprick of light to prevent a total eclipse of Peter’s faith. Just a glimmer. Remember Jesus’ prayer when he fed the 5000? Once again, we discover that Jesus never asks for more than what those around him really need. My prayers of intercession should be the same.
How does Peter respond upon hearing about Satan’s demand and Jesus’ prayer? Peter blurts out a bold declaration: “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death!” For me, these words have always sounded like a statement of loyalty, but let’s look at them again. Now knowing the dynamics of the upper room, we can almost read Peter’s mind: “Jesus has prayed for my faith? This is the last straw! If he’s worried about someone’s faith and loyalty, he should be praying for Matthew, or Thaddeus, or Thomas. I’m not worried about Satan; let him sift all he wants. I’m the Rock! I have all the faith I need!” And Peter’s verbal response to Jesus is like a slap in the face. When Peter exclaims, “I am ready to go to prison with you…,” he is really saying, “I don’t need your prayers.” Peter is truly blind to his own need. There is no life vest in his boat.
It appears that Jesus’ prayer had no impact on his friend. And I myself feel completely at a loss. I mean, if Jesus didn’t try to stop Satan’s sifting and if Jesus’ prayers failed to bring about any change in Peter’s attitude, then why did Jesus even bother to pray? What did Jesus expect to achieve from this prayer? And what can you and I ever hope to accomplish by praying for our friends?
Why, indeed, does Jesus pray, and why does he choose to pray in this manner? This is a critical question for us. We have already seen what Jesus does not do. Jesus does not use intercessory prayer as an instrument to control; he does not use prayer as a lever, crowbar, or prod in order to forcibly get something that he wants. No, in all of the passages we have studied thus far, Jesus has always used prayer as an instrument to strengthen: to strengthen both his own and others’ relationships with his Daddy. And here in this passage, Jesus uses intercessory prayer in the same way — to strengthen Peter’s relationship with God.
How does Jesus do this? And does it work? When Jesus sees Peter’s blindness and bullheadedness, when Jesus realizes that his stubborn disciple will not plug in and will refuse to move closer, Jesus gets down on his knees and he prays for Peter the prayer which Peter himself should have been praying. He begs for what Peter himself should have been begging. Then, when the time is right, he tells Peter about the prayer. Jesus uses his prayer of intercession, not as a lever or crowbar, but as a model, an example, a blueprint for Peter to follow.
In this prayer, Jesus models three things for his disciple. First, he demonstrates a proper attitude. Jesus gets down on his knees. This attitude of humble begging stands in sharp contrast to Peter’s self-confident boasting. It serves as an example of lowliness, powerlessness, and complete dependence bowing before the feet of the all-powerful God. In this prayer Jesus teaches Peter — and the rest of us — that we should not attempt to face the trials of life alone. It is foolish to place our confidence in ourselves. Our boats are small. The storm is merciless. Life is fragile. We are going to need help. When Peter jumps into his boat and shoves off, defiantly watching the lakeshore, Jesus meekly reaches out and straps on a life vest. Jesus models for Peter how, in times of need, we should humbly reach for a Power who is infinitely greater than ourselves.
Secondly, in his prayer, Jesus models a proper request. In contrast to Satan’s bold, large-scale demands, Jesus humbly petitions for the one small thing needed for Peter’s spiritual survival. Jesus presents no eloquent, flashy, show-stopping requests; we have no sense of Jesus stepping up to the prayer plate in order to score a big run against Satan. In both his attitude and in his asking, Jesus models the same theme: humility before the throne of God.
Finally, Jesus models for Peter a quiet, rock-solid confidence regarding the outcome of these events. Jesus’ confidence stems from his private prayer. During Jesus’ prayer time, God revealed to his Son more than just Satan’s demands and Peter’s need. God also revealed how he himself would use Satan’s sifting and Jesus’ prayer to change his relationship with Peter. To Satan’s infinite frustration, the very act of sifting (which Satan had designed to crush Peter’s faith) would serve as the means by which Peter would be not crushed, but changed. Changed from brashness to humility, from self-dependence to God-dependence, from a self-deceiving blindness to an honest vision of God’s ability to accomplish mighty works through someone who had failed completely on his own. It was a change that would reshape Peter’s heart and soul. It was a change that would enable Peter to return and plant the other apostles in the rock-solid concrete of an immoveable faith.
Knowing this, Jesus tells Peter, “And when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Not, “if you turn,” but, “when you turn.” Jesus is certain that Peter will turn. And we know from the rest of the story that he did. According to Luke, when Peter scoffed, “I am ready to go to prison with you…,” that retort was the last boastful statement Peter ever made.
What part did Jesus’ prayer play in Peter’s turning? We have already stated that Jesus’ prayer seems to have had absolutely no affect on Peter’s brashness or blindness, at least not in this passage. Yet later, as tragic events began to unfold around Peter — Jesus’ arrest, the trial before the Sanhedrin, Peter’s triple denial in the courtyard, the crucifixion — as Satan sifted and the lumps were revealed, as the eclipse turned Peter’s world darker and darker, Peter must have remembered Jesus’ words: “I have pleaded for you so that your faith may not fail completely.” Drowning in a stormy sea, Jesus’ prayer must have been the lifeline that kept Peter’s head above water. It gave Peter something to cling to until the sifting had ended. It kept Peter connected and encouraged him to plug into the only Source that could possibly sustain him.
I have to believe that at some point during the eclipse, Peter “caught” Jesus’ lesson and fell to his knees begging, “Daddy, help me. Please don’t let my faith fail completely.” At some point Peter reached up. Peter moved closer. Peter found a new relationship. I also believe that God used Jesus’ example — Jesus’ prayer — to point Peter in this new direction and enable him to emerge from the battering not crushed, but changed.
Maybe you know someone who is facing a crisis. Perhaps a loved one is right now experiencing the violent jolt of Satan’s sifting. What can you do to help her? Call her up and offer a “Band-Aid” prayer? No. Do instead what Jesus did. Go out to your solitary place and pray about your loved one. Give God the opportunity to reveal heavenly and earthly events to you. It is indeed possible that God will show you Satan’s demands, this person’s need, and God’s plan to use these events to change your loved one’s relationship with him. Your Master may also be inviting you to help. If your friend is unplugged and separated from her source of strength, throw out a lifeline. Get down on your knees and plead to God for this person. Pray for her the prayer that she herself should be praying. Ask God to meet her need.
But don’t stop there. Jesus invites you to do the most important thing of all: when the time is right, share your prayer with this person. Share what God has revealed to you about Satan’s demands and God’s plans. Share your prayer, your urgent pleading. Give your friend the same model that Jesus gave Peter: demonstrate an attitude of humility, reveal your friend’s need, and express your complete confidence in her Daddy’s ability to meet that need and to use this situation to strengthen her relationship with him.
Don’t be surprised if you fail to see an immediate change, and don’t be upset if your loved one at first rejects your offered prayer. Remember Peter’s initial response to Jesus’ prayer. But also remember how, when the storm was at its darkest, God used Jesus’ prayer not only as a lifeline, but as the glimmer which thwarted the total eclipse of Peter’s faith. Because Jesus’ prayer was Peter’s glimmer of hope. Through it, Peter glimpsed the light. He caught the lesson. He survived the storm. Peter turned. And so will your loved one.
Chapter 13 Footnotes
1 The original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic words referred to in this section are listed in the Appendix, found in the free PDF download.
2 See Luke 8:51 and 9:28. Only Peter, James, and John were permitted to witness the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter and Jesus’ transfiguration.
3 See Luke 8:45, where Peter is the one to answer Jesus’ question, “Who touched me?” and 9:20, where he is again the first to respond to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”
4 See Luke 9:33. At the transfiguration, upon awakening to the sight of Moses and Elijah standing with the glorified Jesus, Peter blurts out, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three booths…”
5 Indeed, Jesus never uses any prayer in an attempt to control or change God. Why not? Because Jesus’ prayers reflect his teachings. Jesus taught us that God is perfect. If this is true, why would Jesus — and why would you or I — use prayer to try to change God? What exactly would we want to change?