Sermon: Sunday, 19th February, 2023
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Luke 22:31-34
When my children were younger, they’d often walk along walls, which was a bit concerning. There’s a lot of danger when you are walking along a wall. However, the thing was, myself and Sarah were always there, and we had a hold of them.
1. An adversary
Christians are people who believe that there’s much more going on in life than what we can see with our eyes. There is a whole unseen spiritual realm out there. In fact, the greatest reality in the universe is God himself, and we know that he is invisible. Angels exist, but are invisible to us most of the time. And fallen angels, or demons, also exist.
‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ (Ephesians 6:12)
Christians are unashamed to believe in the supernatural. As Jesus addresses the disciples, he gives them remarkable insight into what is going on in this unseen realm. The disciples have an adversary and he is called Satan. He is a fallen angel. ‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.’ (Luke 22:31) The ‘you’ here is plural, speaking of Satan’s attacks on all of the disciples. And by extension, this includes us today.
Jesus also states Satan’s purpose in attacking Christians. He wants to sift them as wheat. This means that he will place severe trials before the disciples, designed to separate them from God, and from their faith in God’s promises, just as a kernel of wheat is separated from the chaff in the sifting process. What does it mean when it says: ‘Satan has asked to sift you?’ This means that Satan is not able to attack Christians any way he chooses. He needs permission from God in order to do so! This might sound strange to us, but it’s actually a great comfort. In a world full of evil, including supernatural evil, it is good to know that Satan is on a leash, and has no access to the children of God, without God granting the permission. What does this remind you of? It’s very much like what was going on in the book of Job. ‘But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.’ The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’ (Job 1:11-12)
Satan’s malice and hatred towards Job is clear for all to see. But it is also clear that Satan is ultimately under the authority of God and is hemmed in by that authority. Satan wanted to sift Job, he’s going to sift Peter, and he does the same today to all Christians.
You can put your own name in this passage, if you are a Christian. ‘Fiona, Fiona, Satan has asked to sift you.’ ‘Craig, Craig…’ Satan wants to separate you from your trust in Jesus. He wants us to doubt God’s goodness and God’s promises. And it’s not even always obvious to us that this is happening. He is subtle. ‘… Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.’ (2 Corinthians 11:14) We need to take this seriously. I wonder if Jesus calls Peter ‘Simon’ to underline his weakness and frailty. He doesn’t call him ‘Peter’ here, which means ‘the rock’. Like Simon, we too are weak and frail and sinful. Do you ever wonder why the Christian life is so hard? Do you ever wonder why you’ve fallen so many times? It’s because of your own weakness and sinfulness and it’s also because we have a dangerous enemy who wants to bring us down.
“There is no enemy so dangerous as that restless, invisible, experienced enemy, the devil.” (J C Ryle)
2. An advocate
We don’t want to be depressed by the passage before us this morning, and we don’t need to be! Because our dangerous enemy isn’t the strongest being in the battle for our souls. We have a wonderful Advocate in Jesus Christ. If all we had was a terrible adversary, then how could be ever keep on the Christian path? How could we finish the race? We’d leave Jesus forever. But we have far more than a dangerous enemy. We have Jesus, who is praying for us. What is he praying? V32: But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.
“The continued existence of grace in a believer’s heart is a great standing miracle. His enemies are so mighty, and his strength is so small, the world is so full of snares, and his heart is so weak, that it even seems at first sight impossible for him to reach heaven. The passage before us explains his safety. He has a mighty Friend at the right hand of God, who ever lives to make intercession for him.” (J C Ryle)
This is a wonderful truth for us! ‘… he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.’ (Hebrews 7:25)
As Christians, we often think of what Jesus has done for us in the past, dying on the cross for our sins. However, we need to think far more about what he is doing for us right now. Just as he prayed for Simon Peter, he also prays for us. He prays that our faith would not fail. That’s why Paul can say : ‘… being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 1:6)
Let’s get more personal. If you’re a true follower of Jesus, and you screw up and make a right mess of something, you will probably feel very far from God. You might find it a real struggle to pray or open your Bible. You might just feel guilty, ashamed, and that you’ll never get out of the quicksand we feel as if we are in. During those times, Jesus is right next to you praying for you. He is interceding for you in prayer saying: ‘Father, don’t let go of them’ and ‘Father, bring them to a place of repentance’ and ‘Father, restore their joy in the Lord and help them to serve you once more’.
This short section of Luke is quite amazing. We find two things placed side by side: we have an adversary who tries to destroy our faith, and we have an advocate who prays that our faith would not fail. Whose strategy do you think will win in the end? God will keep you by his power. Yes, you may fail. Yes, your faith might burn low, but it will never be extinguished. Why not? Because Jesus is praying and praying that sustains you by his almighty and unsurpassable power.
Perhaps you are struggling in your faith today. Perhaps you are far from God and wonder what the future holds. You need to rub verse 32 right into your heart just now: ‘But I have prayed for you… that your faith may not fail.’
Notice too what Jesus does not pray for Simon Peter. He doesn’t pray here that he would be taken out of the trial. Like it or not, God allows these trials for a purpose, and we’ll come to that shortly. Rather, Jesus prays that Peter’s faith would be sustained.
Jesus prophesises that Peter will fail. In verse 32, when Jesus says ‘and when you have turned back’ this implies that Peter is going to sin, and then he is going to have to repent. But Peter doesn’t understand how dangerous Satan really is. Nor does he understand his own weakness. He says in verse 33: ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.’ I’m sure Peter really believes this. But he is grossly overestimating his own strength and underestimating his need to rely on Jesus in the time of temptation. Relying on himself will have disastrous consequences. He is overconfident.
Each one of us has to go back to 1 Corinthians 10:12 on a regular basis: ‘So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’ Jesus punctures Peter’s pride by detailing just how he is going to fail: Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.’
Young people, you might hear your parents warning you about the dangers of alcohol, or drugs, or of having sex outside of marriage, and like Peter you might say or think: ‘That might happen to other people but it will never happen to me’. That’s exactly what Peter said. The right way to think is this: like Peter I am weak and could easily fall into that temptation. Those of us who have been Christians for a longer time are also just like Peter. We must never say, ‘That will never happen to me.’ ‘I’d never have an affair.’ ‘I’d never stop going to church’. ‘I’d never mistreat my friends or family.’ You might even think that you would never deny knowing Jesus, and then there’s a conversation at work where Christianity is mocked, and Jesus is mocked, and you don’t say a word. You deny Jesus.
Here’s the truth: unless we live each day sincerely asking God for help in all areas of your life, we are in great danger. We must live actively depending on the grace of God. And God’s grace comes to us through prayer, reading the Scripture, in Christian fellowship at church and in the Lord’s Supper. God uses these things to keep us strong.
Why does God allow Satan to tempt us? What is God’s aim for us in these testing times? I think part of the answer is found in verse 32: ‘And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ There’s a beautiful truth here: God is so gracious and powerful that he can even take our failures and work them for good. Of course, this is no reason to be flippant about sinning against the LORD. But it ought to give us tremendous hope when we find ourselves in a spiritual mess.
Did anything good come out of the time when Peter denied his Saviour? Of course, it did. Think of an older, more mature Simon Peter. There was much less pride and more prayerful dependence on God’s grace. There was a deeper appreciation of God’s forgiveness which must have helped him to forgive others. Think of Peter instructing other Christians and what he could tell them from his first-hand experience. He could tell them about just how bitter sin is and warn others of the danger of spiritual pride. He would also be able to minister to Christians who had fallen into deep sin; he would be able to encourage them to repent and return to Christ. He could explain to them that it is possible to be useful in God’s service again, if we humble ourselves before him.
Friends, the same is true for those of us who have fallen into sin, but have been forgiven and restored by Jesus. We will be able to encourage and strengthen the weak, and to do so with genuine humility and gentleness, because we know what it is like to fall ourselves. If we are discipling newer Christians, we can warn them of the dangers of temptation and sin and of the need to guard our lives and hearts with prayer.
“He who has been through deep waters has the experience that enables him to be of help to others.” (Leon Morris)
Peter stumbled but was brought back to a place of faith and loyalty to Christ, through the power of God. Jesus wants him, in turn, to strengthen other Christians who stumble and fail. You might well be able to do this too.
It’s really important that older and younger Christians mix well together in the church. I hate the idea of segregating by age, having a service for young people and a more traditional one for older people. It’s totally unbiblical and means that younger Christians miss out on the wisdom older Christians are able to share. We need to be creative in church to ensure we mix together as much as possible, even as we enjoy another church lunch together.
As we close, becoming a Christian isn’t about what we can do for God but about what God can do for us. When we cry out to him for forgiveness, he saves us. And as we go on in the Christian life, he keeps us.