“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.” (Luke 22:31-34 ESV)
None of us like to think about our lives as flawed or imperfect, that we fail to achieve our potential. But the reality is that each of us fails in our attempt to serve God as He deserves to be served, and as He demands to be served. Some of us may fail more often than others, and we may fail more often some weeks than others. But one of the great sureties in life is that we will sin.
I believe that Jesus’ statement to Peter before Peter’s “denial-denial” not only shows us how God expects us to respond to those failures, but gives us a great reason to rebound and come back stronger and more determined to serve God than ever.
In this chapter, Jesus has just instituted the Lord’s Supper, and the disciples have descended into bickering about who would be “the greatest” in the kingdom. Jesus rebukes them and at the same time reassures them that they all play crucial roles, sitting “on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.”
It’s at this point that Jesus turns and addresses Peter specifically. Because he was the group’s dominant personality, its leader, its “rock” (John 1:42)? Or was it because Jesus knew that Peter’s failure would in some ways be greater and more discouraging than that of his companions? Regardless of the reason, Jesus tells him that all the apostles are about to face a great trial. (The “you” in v. 31 is plural; Jesus would seem to be saying that Satan has demanded to sift all the disciples, not just Peter. It’s not until v. 32 when the “you” changes to singular, referring specifically to Peter.)
Jesus presupposes that Peter is going to fail his test: “and when you have turned again…” Peter’s faith might fail him in the moment, but it did not desert him, and Jesus tells him to hold onto it, and to not allow an evening of weakness keep him from fulfilling the very crucial role of strengthening his brothers, all of whom would be going through the same guilt, fear and doubt as he would have to overcome.
Jesus essentially tells Peter: “They’re going to need your strength. So don’t let your coming failure consume you.”
Think about the power of that statement and the implications for us today when we face sin and difficulty in our lives. How many of us have been faced with that trial from Satan and failed? Jesus doesn’t excuse those failings, but he doesn’t dwell on them, either. He simply asks: “What are you going to do after that? How are you going to respond?” Will our faith fail us? Or will we get back on track and resume the work of serving God?
People have a tendency sometimes to react to failures like Judas did: with self-pity, guilt and a feeling of such shame that we don’t believe we can ever come back (Mtt. 27:3-5.) Jesus calls Peter – and each one of us – to remember that it’s not just about us. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who still need our help, our strength, our faith.
Elijah sat under a tree alone in the wilderness and wished for death right after God had used him to score a massive victory over Ahab and the prophets of Baal. It seemed that he was still alone in his fight, and in a time when he should have felt triumphant and ready to take on the kingdom itself, he felt dejected and alone. God’s response, in effect, was “Isaiah, there’s work to do. Get back to it! And you won’t be alone.” (I Kings 19)
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:14-16)
The old saying is “when the horse bucks you off, you get back on.” Jesus calls us to do the same thing. When you fail, turn from it, and get back to the work God has given you to do. Is there a greater joy than knowing that no matter my failing, God hasn’t abandoned me. I don’t have to do “penance”, I don’t have to sit in the spiritual doghouse. I just need to keep striving for the kingdom of God, and ask God for forgiveness. He is “faithful and just” to do so (I John 2:9).