The Adversary and the Intercessor
June 7, 2016
I love the hymn "Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners" - but one line makes me uncomfortable every time I sing it: "Jesus! What a strength in weakness! Let me hide myself in him; tempted, tried, and sometimes failing, he, my strength, my vict'ry wins." Sometimes failing? How about many times...often...frequently? I need the strength of Jesus every day because I am incredibly weak and full of sin. My heart is covered with more than enough nooks and crannies on which Satan can get a handhold through temptation to pull me down. Recently, the words of Jesus to Peter in Luke 22:31-32 have been a source of great comfort to me in my struggle against sin and temptation: "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." In these verses we see two prayer requests - Satan's demand to shake us to pieces, and Jesus' intercession to uphold us when we fall. We see as well the ministry that results due to the prayer of Jesus. In the experience of Peter's denial of Jesus and his repentance, our hearts find hope. Several things stand out from Jesus' opening words to Simon Peter - "Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat..." First, notice that Satan's request is violent: he desired to sift the disciples (the "you" in Luke 22:31 is plural) like wheat, shaking them through a sieve, as it were, breaking them to pieces, and bringing them to ruin. Just as he was permitted to assault Job and his family violently, so Satan is allowed to afflict the eleven, and Peter in particular, with grievous effect. He seeks to devour us as well, and so we must be watchful (I Peter 5:8). Second, recognize that God at times grants Satan's requests and accedes to his "demands," at least in part. Though the Scriptures are clear that God is never the source of sin or temptation (James 1:13-15), yet it is plain from the disciples' experience following these words that the sovereign God, while not allowing Satan to "have" His elect ultimately, is willing to give us over to Satan's temptations. This is a sobering reality, and in part should lead us never to be surprised when we fall into grievous sin. To be sure, we ought never to be satisfied in or content with our sin, for which we are always responsible - yet we shouldn't be surprised by it either. Third, never forget that Satan must ask permission of God to tempt and try us. We see this reality in the experience of Job (Job 1:6ff.), and here in the life of the disciples. Satan does not have absolute, sovereign sway over us, but is limited - he prowls about like a roaring lion, yes, but he is a lion on a leash. There is comfort in knowing that Satan cannot do to us whatever he might wish, but must submit to the will of our loving heavenly Father. We also find incredible hope in the fact that while Satan our adversary desires our harm, Jesus our Priest intercedes for us: "...but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail." If the shaking of Satan is terrifying, even more assuring is the praying of Jesus! Jesus prays for Peter in particular (the pronoun here is singular), knowing that he will bear the brunt of the devil's assaults, and must rise to lead the weary band of disciples after the resurrection. He prays that Peter's faith will not give out totally. If Peter were left to his own strength and pride, surely he, like Judas, would fall and never get up again. But He who always lives to intercede for the saints (Hebrews 7:25; Romans 8:34) knows and can sympathize with our weaknesses, since He has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). He knows our peculiar sin struggles, and knows how to pray most pointedly in our time of need. The prayers of Jesus are effectual, and they are fervent. Therefore "the righteous man falls seven times, and rises again" (Proverbs 24:16). Our hope in time of temptation is not found within ourselves, but in the heavenly throne room, where the Lord rebukes the accuser, clothes us with His righteousness in place of our sin, and empowers us to walk in His ways with greater and greater delight every day (see Zechariah 3:1-7). That brings us to the final thing Jesus' words to Peter teach us: when we are tempted and actually fall, the prayers of Jesus on our behalf drive us to repentance and ministry to others in their time of weakness (cf. I Samuel 12:19ff.). "And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers." Jesus' words prophesy not only Peter's denials, but his reaffirmation of faith (see John 21); and they lay out his mission of encouragement, reinforcing, and helping the weak (cf. I Thessalonians 5:14). God's purposes in allowing Satan to sift us like wheat are many. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, "The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave, for a season, his own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends" (WCF 5.5). One of the "sundry other" goals of God in leaving us to ourselves is to equip us with patience, understanding, and ability to support those who would fall around us. He equips us for ministry through our own failures. He turns our evil to good. Are you tempted, tried and frequently failing? Hear Jesus: though God allows Satan to shake you, Jesus is praying for you, that your faith will not fail. So when you fall, get up, and turn your trial against your enemy, using it for the good of those around you, and the glory of God.