Great Texts of the Bible
Sifted as Wheat
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan asked to have you, that he might sift you as wheat: but I made supplication for thee, that thy faith fail not: and do thou, when once thou hast turned again, stablish thy brethren.—Luke 22:31-32.
1. Our Lord has just been speaking words of large and cordial praise of the steadfastness with which His friends had continued with Him in His temptations, and it is the very contrast between that continuance and the prevision of the cowardly desertion of the Apostle that occasioned the abrupt transition to this solemn appeal to him, which indicates how the forecast pained Christ’s heart. He does not let the foresight of Peter’s desertion chill His praise of Peter’s past faithfulness as one of the Twelve. He does not let the remembrance of Peter’s faithfulness modify His rebuke for Peter’s intended and future desertion. He speaks to him, with significant and emphatic reiteration of the old name of Simon that suggests weakness, unsanctified and unhelped: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan asked to have you, that he might sift you as wheat.”
2. The imagery of the passage is borrowed from the Old Testament. There was a day, says the author of the Book of Job, when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. Like them, he has his petition. He has cast a malignant eye, in his going to and fro in the earth, upon the prosperity and the integrity of one righteous man. He is well assured that the two things are one. The integrity is bound up in the prosperity. God has made a hedge about him, so that no evil comes nigh his dwelling. Let his prosperity be touched, and the integrity will go with it. He desires to have him. And God says, Behold, he is in thine hand. Such is the figure. He is to be tried. He is to be tempted. Satan begs him of God, that he may sift him as wheat.
Now, about a week or fortnight after this, I was much followed by this Scripture, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you.” And sometimes it would sound so loud within me, yea, and as it were call so strongly after me, that once above all the rest, I turned my head over my shoulder, thinking verily that some man had, behind me, called me: being at a great distance, methought he called so loud. It came, as I have thought since, to have stirred me up to prayer and to watchfulness; it came to acquaint me that a cloud and storm was coming down upon me; but I understood it not.1 [Note: Bunyan, Grace Abounding.]
The Lord’s words, addressed specially to Simon, give to the whole circle of the disciples an indication of—
“Behold, Satan asked to have you, that he might sift you as wheat.”
1. All the disciples were in danger. The Saviour here forewarns the whole band of Apostles that Satan had asked to have them, that he might sift them as wheat. Hitherto he had only been permitted to sift them with a gentle agitation. Now he sought permission to shake them violently, as wheat is shaken in the sieve; to toss them to and fro with sharp and sudden temptations; to distract their minds with dismal forebodings and apprehensions, in the hope that they would be induced to let go their fast hold of Faith, and take refuge in utter and irretrievable defection. Our Lord states this plainly, because it was important for them to know the full extent of their danger, in order that they might be on their guard. He does not tell them so plainly how far Satan’s assault upon them would be attended with success. His disclosure stops short just where it would appear to be most interesting to His hearers. And this is generally the case with the Divine communications. Vain man would always like to be told more than it is good for him to know. But God draws the line, not with reference to our curiosity, but with reference to His own gracious purposes for our well-being. The Saviour warns His disciples of their danger, to induce them to watch and pray. If He had told them more—if He had revealed to them all that was to happen within the next twenty-four hours—they would have considered their fate as sealed, and would have given way to utter despair. But, while withholding this information, He told them something else which, instead of harming, was calculated to encourage and help them. Having excited their fears, by telling them what their adversary purposed against them, He threw into the opposite scale the cheering intelligence of what He would do and had already done for them. He told them, that He had chosen one of them, whom He would take under His special protection—not for the sake of that individual alone, but in order that his preservation might be the means of saving them all.
Satan desires us, great and small,
As wheat to sift us, and we all
Not one, however rich or great,
Is by his station or estate
No house so safely guarded is
But he, by some device of his,
No heart hath armour so complete
But he can pierce with arrows fleet
For all at last the cock will crow,
Who hear the warning voice, but go
Till thrice and more they have denied
The Man of Sorrows, crucified
One look of that pale suffering face
Will make us feel the deep disgrace
We shall be sifted till the strength
Of self-conceit be changed at length
Wounds of the soul, though healed, will ache;
The reddening scars remain, and make
Lost innocence returns no more;
We are not what we were before
But noble souls, through dust and heat,
Rise from disaster and defeat
And conscious still of the divine
Within them, lie on earth supine
No longer.1 [Note: H. W. Longfellow, The Sifting of Peter.]
(1) The devil has not only sought them; he has obtained them, that he may sift them as wheat. The words are even stronger than the Authorized Version renders them; it is not only “Satan hath desired,” but “Satan hath obtained his desire.” We might even translate them, “Satan hath got hold of you.” And the pronoun is plural; it was not only Peter, but all the twelve, that Satan had desired, and had for a space obtained. The one who was always the ready spokesman for the rest, and who, through his impetuous rashness, was to thrust himself into the fire of temptation, was to give the most flagrant proof of Satan’s possession, in that he would deny with cursings his Master and his discipleship; but all were to be overtaken and to be found wanting, in that they would forsake their Lord in His dire extremity, and would leave Him in the hands of His foes. Satan had desired and had gained them all.
Twice in the New Testament this figure of sifting or winnowing is brought before us, and, strange to say, the sifter or winnower in the one case is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and in the second case the wicked tempter. St. John the Baptist, when speaking of the coming Messiah, says, “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor,” etc. And here we have that very Messiah speaking of the devil sifting even His Apostles. By “sifting” is meant testing, shaking those to whom the process is applied in such a way that part will fall through and part will remain.
The sifting of wheat is a most hard and thorough, but a most necessary, process. The wheat, as it has grown, has become associated with the protecting chaff, which it is necessary should be blown away, and with the foreign substances taken from the earth and from the air, which must be separated. Before the wheat is ready for use it must be sifted or winnowed; no pains must be spared to make the process as thorough as possible. Only an enemy to the wheat, or a disbeliever in its true powers, would desire to spare it such an ordeal. As it falls, after such a process, solid and clean, into the receptacle which has been prepared for it, its value is greatly enhanced. There is now no doubt about its true nature and the work to which it should be put. It carries out all the points of the analogy to notice that Peter is not promised that he shall be saved from the sifting process; no hand is put forth to hold him securely sheltered; no cloud wraps him away from danger. Peter is too valuable to be thus treated. If he is wheat, he must be sifted.
When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward—in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing—the historic Christian Church—was founded upon a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.1 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, Heretics.]
(2) The devil will do his best to scatter the wheat, and keep the chaff. Throughout the ages the Spirit of Evil reveals a cynical distrust of goodness. Between the time of ancient Job and the self-confident Peter, the Spirit of Evil had not changed in character or method. Now he has asked to have Simon that he may sift him, sure that his character is unsound, and that all his professions are chaff. His failure with a hundred Jobs meantime has not given him any confidence in goodness. Evil never can believe in good. Still is this Satan hurrying to and fro throughout the earth, peering into every keyhole of character to find baseness there, sneaking into every corner of the soul to catch it in its depravity. Years after this sifting of Simon, in which the Spirit of Evil repeated the work upon Job, to whom he came as he said, “from hurrying to and fro in the earth,” the sifted Peter speaks of Satan, in his first letter (v. 8) as the “peripatetic, a wandering, roaring lion, intent on finding prey.” That is the history of evil, and in nothing has it a surer manifestation than in its scepticism concerning goodness.
Milton, in his most masterly manner, has delineated the sneering diabolism of distrust in that “archangel ruined.” Evil begins its infernal career in its utter lack of faith in goodness; and its Satanic spirit is most manifest when virtue appears to have a blackened heart, righteousness to have been insincere, and truth to be only a concealed falsehood. Here is the very profession of evil.
But of this be sure,
To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to His high will
Whom we resist. If then His providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve Him.1 [Note: Milton, Paradise Lost, i. 158.]
Watts painted his Miltonic Satan with the face averted from the light of the Creator with whom he talked. For title, these words were used: “And the Lord said unto Satan, whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.” The Satan the painter conceived is a mighty power ruling over the evils which were unconnected with sin.2 [Note: M. S. Watts, George Frederic Watts, i. 97.]
2. The disciples had brought the peril upon themselves. They gave, as it were, an invitation to Satan to come into their company. They had evidently not paid any great regard to Christ’s teachings concerning love and humility. The evil spirit of envy and ambition which they had harboured among themselves was the scent which attracted Satan to that particular upper room. These men, by their angry strife or calculating worldliness, lit, as it were, a beacon which brought the Spirit of Evil to the battle. If these Apostles had had more of the spirit of true prayer, if their spirits had been more humble, if their hearts had been more guileless, and their characters attuned by discipline to the teachings of the Lord, the devil would never have been attracted to that upper room, his eye had never shone with triumph at their bickerings, nor had they stood in such danger of an awful overthrow.
There was in Peter in particular one great defect—a large amount of self-confidence, which made him quick at speaking and acting; and self-confidence in the New Testament is always treated in one way, as that which shuts out confidence in God. It is the enemy of faith. Faith is insight, and self-confidence is a blinding influence. Again and again there is pressed upon us the necessity of a lowly estimate of self; “Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted”; God who dwells “in the high and holy place,” dwells also with him who is of a humble spirit. If God was to dwell in Peter, if the Divine was really to take up His abode in him and rule him, if the impulsive and vehement strength of the man was to be made a steadfast and certain fire, and to be hallowed by the Divine indwelling, so that he might lead the Apostles during those critical times which were coming, then clearly his self-confidence must be purged out of him, he must be sifted as wheat, the grain must be separated from the chaff.
But the others were not less guilty than Peter. It is not the case that he, who should have been a pattern to the rest, proved the weakest of all, and the first to fly. When the chief priests came with a band of soldiers to take Jesus, Peter was the only one of the Apostles who made even a show of resistance. Peter and one other were the only two who followed Jesus into the palace of the High Priest. Peter’s failure, when it did happen, was owing to a train of circumstances from which his brethren, by their more hasty and precipitous failure, were exempt. Satan on his first sifting, shook out all the other Apostles; but it required a stronger temptation, a more violent agitation of the sieve, to unfix the faith of Peter. And as Peter was the last to fall, he was also the first to rise and put together again the fragments of his shattered faith. From that hour he was an altered man. He added to his zeal, steadfastness; he exchanged his confident boasting for humility and dependence upon God. In this blessed recovery, do we not plainly see the influence of Divine grace? Are we not reminded immediately of the Saviour’s words—“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan asked to have you, that he might sift you as wheat; but I made supplication for thee, that thy faith fail not.”
My feelings being easily excited to good as well as bad, I am apt to mistake an excited state of the feelings for a holy state of the heart; and so sure am I of the deception that, when in an excited state regarding eternal things, I tremble, knowing it is the symptom of a fall, and that I must be more earnest in prayer. Self-confidence is my ruin.1 [Note: Norman Macleod, in Memoir, i. 129.]
3. Peter and the others were unconscious of peril. There they recline, rising now and then to emphasize their angry words. Their minds are occupied only with thoughts of place and power in some fancied coming kingdom. The strife grows keen, and all forgetful of their Master’s loving words, humility is banished from the room, and self-assertiveness speaks loud with its imperious voice. All unconscious of the tempter’s presence, these men dispute among themselves, and it was not till afterwards that Peter was informed by Christ that the devil’s eye had been intently set on him, and that, whilst he had been claiming to be greatest, Satan had almost claimed him for his own.
When it was once said to him, “I would fain know what the devil is like in shape and character,” Doctor Martin said, “If you would see the true image and form of the devil, and what his character is, give good heed to all the commandments of God, one after another, and represent to yourself a suspicious, shameful, lying, despairing, abandoned, godless, calumnious man, whose mind and thoughts are all set on opposing God in every possible way, and working woe and harm to men.” The devil seeks high things; looks to that which is great and high; scorns what is lowly. But the eternal, merciful God, reverses this, and looks on what is lowly. “I look on him who is poor and of a broken heart.” But what is lifted up, He lets go; for it is an abomination to Him.2 [Note: Luther, Table-talk (ed. Förstemann), i. 140.]
4. But the power of Satan is strictly limited. God reigns though Satan sifts. The powers of evil are in God’s holy hands. Evil is not altogether its own master, and cannot therefore be the master of the world. “Over all” is now “God blest forever!” “And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand, only spare his life.” So God permitted Job’s trial and stood behind the demoniac forces which racked the sufferer, restraining and checking them. Then look at this case. “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan asked to have you, that he might sift you as wheat; but I made supplication for thee, that thy faith fail not; and do thou, when once thou hast turned again, stablish thy brethren.” So said his Master when the incarnate God permitted Simon’s trial. So He has always intimated that He “stands within the shadow keeping watch above his own.”
Alas! we live in the kingdom of the devil ab extra; therefore we cannot hear or see any good ab extra. But we live in the blessed kingdom of Christ ab intra. There we see, though as in a glass darkly, the exceeding, unutterable riches of the grace and glory of God. Therefore, in the name of the Lord let us break through, press forward, and fight our way through praise and blame, through evil report and good report, through hatred and love, until we come into the blessed kingdom of our dear Father, which Christ the Lord has prepared for us before the beginning of the world. There only shall we find joy. Amen.1 [Note: Luther, Letters, v. 684.]
It is a strange thing that so fine a spirit as Satan is let loose to do so much mischief, but he is only “the prince of the power of the air,” not of the power of the spirit. I believe there may be more devils than men. They are legion, and go in companies, so far as we can gather from the hints of Scripture. I think each temptation that assails a man may be from a separate devil. And they are not far off; probably our atmosphere was the place of their original banishment. And there they live—air-princes. But mark, they have no power over the innermost spirit; nay, they can have no knowledge of the secrets of the heart of man. No single heart-secret is known to any single devil. These are known only to the Searcher of the hearts, who is also their Maker. Some good Christians disquiet themselves by forgetting this. I would say that our adversary can look and hear, see and listen, and make inferences. He has only a phenomenal knowledge, and that not perfect. He is but a creature, and cannot know the secrets of the universe. It ought to comfort all men that only our Maker knows our constitution.2 [Note: John Duncan, Colloquia Peripatetica, 181.]
“But I made supplication for thee, that thy faith fail not.”
1. Our Lord anticipates the devil. His intercession precedes the tempter’s attack. He presents Himself as the Antagonist, the confident and victorious Antagonist, of whatsoever mysterious, malignant might may lie beyond the confines of sense, and He says, “My prayer puts the hook in leviathan’s nose, and the malevolent desire to sift, in order that not the chaff but the wheat may disappear, comes all to nothing by the side of My prayer.”
“Intercession,” it has been said, is “the divinest gift of friendship.” Somebody may be thinking of a child far away upon the frontiers of the Empire. Ah! severance is the penalty of Empire, and what a pain it is—what a deep wound—in a parent’s heart! You have not seen that absent child for many a year. You almost dread meeting him again, lest you should not recognize him or he you. He writes to you not quite so frequently or intimately as he used to write; absence and distances soon or late chill the warmest hearts, and you and he are moving slowly apart, like ships bound for different ports on the infinite deep. What can you do for him? One thing only,—you can pray. Prayer is the wireless spiritual telegraphy transcending time and space. You are near him, if ever, in your prayers.
Or your child may be drifting into sin. He has gone like the prodigal into the far country. He has not yet like the prodigal “come to himself.” He has ceased to visit you, even to answer your letters. He is dead—all but dead to you—while he lives. Oh! it is only prayer that, if God will, may help you to help him. Some day perhaps he will arise and come to his father; and you will welcome him; and the past will be no more. It will be the answer to your prayer. “I have made supplication for thee,” said the Saviour, “that thy faith fail not.”1 [Note: J. E. C. Welldon, The School of Faith, 100.]
2. The prayer of our Lord was personal. It was a particular supplication for Peter. The precise terms in which Jesus prayed for Peter we do not know; for the prayer on behalf of the one disciple has not, like that for the whole eleven, been recorded. But the drift of these special intercessions is plain, from the account given of them by Jesus to Peter. The Master had prayed that His disciple’s faith might not fail. He had not prayed that he might be exempt from Satan’s sifting process, or even kept from falling; for He knew that a fall was necessary, to show the self-confident disciple his own weakness. He had prayed that Peter’s fall might not be ruinous; that his grievous sin might be followed by godly sorrow, not by hardening of heart, or, as in the case of the traitor, by the sorrow of the world, which worketh death: the remorse of a guilty conscience, which, like the furies, drives the sinner headlong to damnation.
In the first parish where I laboured lived a man who was not only agnostic in his attitude towards things religious, but even derided them, and was wont to chaff his wife on her devotion to her church. The wife, however, went on her quiet but earnest way, living out her religion in the home. One morning very early the husband awoke and discovered his wife beside his bed absorbed in whispered prayer. Her pale, upturned face was fixed with intensity upon the Invisible, and her warm hand was resting upon his own, she supposing him to be asleep. As the husband’s eyes opened on the unexpected scene, the suggestion came like a flash to his soul, “My wife’s God is more real to her than her husband is. If she is so earnest for my welfare as to rise at such an hour and pray alone for me, it is time I had some care for my own soul”; and he instantly arose from his bed, knelt beside her and added his own prayer to hers. He gave his heart to God on the spot, and that very morning came to the early meeting at the church and announced his change of heart; the next Sabbath he united with the church. The conviction of reality in the wife’s intimacy with God was what roused and brought him; the wife had something to impart, which of itself wrought to open the husband’s soul.1 [Note: H. C. Mabie, Method in Soul-Winning, 20.]
(1) Peter needed special prayer because of the pre-eminent position that he occupied. Those who play the hero on great occasions will at other times act very unworthily. Many men conceal and belie their convictions at the dinner-table, who would boldly proclaim their sentiments from the pulpit or the platform. Standing in the place where Christ’s servants are expected to speak the truth, they draw their swords bravely in defence of their Lord; but mixing in society on equal terms, they too often say in effect, “I know not the man.” Peter’s offence, therefore, if grave, is certainly not uncommon. It is committed virtually, if not formally, by multitudes who are utterly incapable of public deliberate treason against truth and God. The erring disciple was much more singular in his repentance than in his sin. Of all who in mere acts of weakness virtually deny Christ, how few, like him, go out and weep bitterly!
(2) There was something in the temperament of Peter that called for special intercession. Of all the disciples who were to be sifted, or brought under temptation, it was to Peter alone that Christ’s heart went out in urgent entreaty. But why for Peter rather than for the others? Why should the merciful feelings of His heart be concentrated on him? Was it because he was nearer and dearer, and more amiable than the others; more equable in disposition, more exemplary and mild? No, for he was the reverse of this. Peter’s eminence among the disciples at this time was not of this kind. He was hot-headed, rash, and egotistical, unstable and inconsistent. At one moment he was brave as a lion, heroic in all his impulses, and tense in all his purposes; the next he was timid, vacillating, and cowardly. You see him at one moment sword in hand, foremost to defend his Master; the next he stands by the fire in the court-yard stamping and swearing, denying with oaths that he knew any such man as Jesus. But why should Christ pray for such a man? one is naturally led to inquire. Why did His love go out so warmly and tenderly towards one capable of so much treachery and falsehood, one so selfish and unreliable? Why select him from the other disciples, and lavish upon him so much tender solicitude and prayer?
(3) Judas needed special intercession as well as Peter, but he put himself beyond the reach of grace. Judas sins and falls to his utter ruin: Peter falls and is restored. What accounts for this difference? Is it entirely because Christ prayed for the one disciple and never prayed for the other? None of us, surely, would say that it is. We are compelled to look at the matter in the light of their character. Judas is cool, crafty, calculating, selfish; Peter at heart loves that which is holy and just and true, and hates that which is wrong and vile. He may fall into sin by his rashness, but he hates it when once he sees it; and he knows how to repent and seek forgiveness and restoration. His heart is tender and true. His tears of penitence are genuine. He is such an one as may be prayed for. There is material in him to work upon. The life of the soul is not extinct. The Divine breath will fan it into a flame again.
He weeps, and bitter are his tears,
As bitter as his words were base,
As urgent as the sudden fears
Which even love refused to face.
O, love so false and yet so true,
O, love so eager yet so weak,
In these sad waters born anew
Thy tongue shall yet in triumph speak.
Thou livest, and the boaster dies,
Dies with the night that wrought his shame;
Thou livest, and these tears baptize—
Simon, now Peter is thy name.
A rock, upon Himself the Rock
Christ places thee this awful day;
Him waves assault with direful shock,
And cover thee with maddening spray.
But safe art thou, for strong is He:
Eternal Love all love will keep:
The sweet shall as the bitter be;
Thou shalt rejoice as thou dost weep.1 [Note: T. T. Lynch, The Rivulet, 132.]
3. Our Lord did not ask for Peter that he might be exempted from temptation, but simply that his faith should not fail. Faith meant everything to Peter. It was the foundation on which all that was good and noble in his character was built up. And the trial went to strengthen his faith. Peter’s vanity was sifted out of him, his self-confidence was sifted out of him, his rash presumption was sifted out of him, his impulsive readiness to blurt out the first thought that came into his head was sifted out of him, and so his unreliableness and changeableness were largely sifted out of him, and he became what Christ said he had in him the makings of being—“Cephas”—“a rock,” or, as the Apostle Paul, who was never unwilling to praise the others, said, a man “who looked like a pillar.” He “strengthened his brethren,” and to many generations the story of the Apostle who denied the Lord he loved has ministered comfort.
4. In Peter’s case, good came out of evil. The sifting time formed a turning-point in his spiritual history: the sifting process had for its result a second conversion, more thorough than the first—a turning from sin, not merely in general, but in detail: from besetting sins, in better informed if not more fervant repentance, and with a purpose of new obedience, less self-reliant, but just on that account more reliable. A child hitherto—a child of God indeed, yet only a child—Peter became a man strong in grace, and fit to bear the burden of the week.
The bone that is broken is stronger, they tell us, at the point of junction, when it heals and grows again, than it ever was before. And it may well be that a faith that has made experience of falling and restoration has learned a depth of self-distrust, a firmness of confidence in Christ, a warmth of grateful love which it would never otherwise have experienced.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
“Do thou, when once thou hast turned again, stablish thy brethern.”
Our Lord’s meaning was that a new power of personal helpfulness was to come to Peter through his sad experience, which he should use in strengthening others to meet temptation. Then, when he had passed through that terrible night, when he had been lifted up again, when he had crept back to the feet of his risen Lord and had been forgiven and reinstated, he had double cause for gratitude—that he himself had been saved from hopeless wreck and restored, and, still more, that he was now a better man, prepared, in a higher sense than before, to be an apostle and a patient, helpful friend to others in similar trial.
1. Peter had now the qualifications for strengthening the brethren. He has known by experience the unforgetting, rescuing love of the Christ—the grace of God. O, what a reality it comes to be when a man has lost the chaff of himself and feels that he himself is freer to be and to grow! Pentecost rings yet with the eloquence of that once broken heart of Peter. Hope in Christ? What a certainty did it have to him! His first latter is called “the epistle of hope”; God has always been making hopefulness in this way. Jacob the supplanter had been made Israel—Prince of God; and now Peter was sifted out of Simon—sifted out with an experience which made him a ceaseless strengthener of men.
When Peter sank into the depths, his self-confidence was broken. At the moment of his lowest fall, while oaths were on his lips, “the Lord turned and looked upon Peter.” There was an expression in the Master’s face which made that look the truning-point in Peter’s life. He did not speak. There are times when words are not wanted—times, perhaps, when real feeling cannot speak. Christ simply looked at Peter—a look which told of real sorrow and real love, and had in it something of the reproach that a great love, when deeply wounded, must feel. It was enough. It brought to Peter’s mind all that had been so piteously forgotten; it brought back the real Peter; and “he went out and wept bitterly.” They were tears, I doubt not, terribly to witness—the tears of a strong man in deep agony; of a man broken down by remorse, a man who must shun his fellows, and creep away anywhere out of everybody’s sight, that no one may remind him of his shame. So he went for those three days, we know not whither, into solitude, till John found him and brought him to the tomb on Easter morning; but in those silent hours the work was done. His mind went back over the old story. He came to himself. The past lived again, as it does in such moments. How often he had been betrayed by his self-confident temper; how again and again it had led him into sin and shame; how ling before he had boldly cast himself into the lake, only to fail, at the critical moment, in showing any real faith. And so he would be brought to feel that which marks a real stage in a man’s development—when he pieces his life together, and sees that his weakness and error had early roots—that he had not to mourn a single faithlessness out of harmony with his real self, but that his denial was but the crowning catastrophe of a long story of self-confidence which was always poisoning his good, and plunging him deeper into sin and shame.
2. Peter took up the task laid upon him and justified to the full his Master’s confidence. He was a tower of strength to the Church, and warned all against the machinations of the Evil One, “who, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” Indeed, Peter’s fall, so far from damaging the cause of Christianity, was to be made an instrument for promoting its success. How strange! When a number of men are joined together in carrying on an enterprise of this sort, any weakness or wavering on the part of their leader is commonly fatal to the whole undertaking. Here the very contrary was to happen. Peter’s fall was to be the means of his brethren’s recovery from their worse fall. Such is God’s way of working in things spiritual. A pious man who has been betrayed into a great fall cannot recover himself in such a manner as to place himself only in the same situation as before he fell. He will be more earnest, more zealous, more watchful over himself, more anxious for the honour of God, than ever before. He will feel a desire, especially if his offence has been public and notorious, to make amends, humanly speaking, for the scandal he has brought upon religion. And not only is he disposed to promote the glory of God by stablishing or strengthening his brethren; he is also more qualified to do so. He has learnt another lesson, in addition to his former experience, of the deceitfulness of man’s heart and the deceits of man’s ghostly enemy. So it was with Peter. He did not rest satisfied with strengthening and entrenching his own position; he made it the great object of his life and labours to warn, to admonish, to exhort, and to stablish his brethren. We can see the evidence of this in his speeches, as recorded in the Book of Acts; we can see it also in his two Epistles, which we may regard as his legacy to the Church, his testamentary reparation for the scandal of his fall.
It was remarked by an old minister whom William Peebles used to hear, that the devil is just the believer’s fencing-master; for by trials and temptations he teaches him how to fight himself.1 [Note: A. Philip, The Evangel in Gowrie, 265.]
From the time of which I speak the whole character, current and outlook of my life changed. The Scriptures lighted up, Christian joy displaced depression, passion for souls ensued, courage triumphed over fear in public religious exercises. Other people also recognized the realness of the change, and the whole providential course of life since has corroborated the divineness of the vision of that night. About that time the college was broken up through the occurrence of a case of smallpox among the students, and I went home. Calling on my pastor the next morning, and reporting the great change which had occurred in me, with quick sympathy he replied, “The Lord has sent you home in this frame just at the time when we most need you. The state of religion is low among us: the young people’s meeting has died out: you are the means to revive it.” Then taking a note-book and pencil he wrote down the names of about two hundred young people in the town, and putting it in my hands said, “There, go and bring them in. Lead them to Christ. That’s your work.” Encouraged by such a proposal, I set about it. The first visit I made was characterized by a soul-contest of hours resulting in the conversion of a young woman. That led to another and that to others until an entire Bible class of influential young persons surrendered to Christ. From that the work so spread that ere the summer was over nearly all the persons named in my note-book were converted and added to the several churches of the town.1 [Note: H. C. Mabie, Method in Soul-Winning, 16.]
3. One more turning there was to be in Peter’s life. He was in Rome—so the story runs—in the Neronian persecution. His faith failed. He fled from the city. But at the gate of the city he met the sacred form of his Master. He said to Him, Domine, quo vadis?—“Lord, whither goest thou?” And the Lord made answer, “I go to Rome, to be crucified.” St. Peter understood the words. He, too, turned back. He entered the city again. He was martyred there. That was his last, his supreme conversion. And by it he “strengthened his brethren.”
O Jesu, gone so far apart
Only my heart can follow Thee,
That look which pierced St. Peter’s heart
Turn now on me.
Thou who dost search me thro’ and thro’
And mark the crooked ways I went,
Look on me, Lord, and make me too
Thy penitent.2 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]
Sifted as Wheat
Arnold (T.), Sermons, iii. 114.
Benson (R. M.), The Final Passover, ii. (pt. i.) 207.
Broade (G. E.), The Sixfold Trial of our Lord, 53.
Bruce (A. B.), The Training of the Twelve, 476.
Burrows (H. W.), Parochial Sermons, 91.
Cuyler (T. L.), Stirring the Eagle’s Nest, 143.
Eyton (R.), The True Life, 281.
Farrar (F. W.), Ephphatha, 45.
Gunsaulus (F. W.), Paths to Power, 210.
Howatt (J. R.), Jesus the Poet, 253.
Hughes (H. P.), Ethical Christianity, 131.
Hyde (T. D.), Sermon Pictures, ii. 266.
Jerdan (C.), For the Lambs of the Flock, 74.
Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Saints’ Days, 296.
Laird (J.), Memorials, 209.
Lilley (A. L.), Nature and Supernature, 167.
Mabie (H. C.), Method in Soul-Winning, 11.
Macgregor (G. H. C.), The All-sufficient Saviour, 32.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Luke 13–24., 240.
Murray (W. H. H.), in The American Pulpit, iii. 305.
Nicholson (M.), Redeeming the Time, 268.
Parker (J.), The Cavendish Pulpit, 17.
Shepherd (Ambrose), The Gospel and Social Questions, 147.
Vaughan (C. J.), Counsels to Young Students, 65.
Welldon (J. E. C.), The School of Faith, 107.
Westcott (B. F.), Village Sermons, 92.
Christian World Pulpit, xxxviii. 172 (W. Hubbard); lxxviii. 317 (L. H. Burrows).
Church of England Pulpit, xxxi. 185 (W. McEndoo).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Holy Week, vi. 438 (A. Brooks).
Contemporary Pulpit, v. 270 (H. M. Butler).
Good Words, 1871, p. 722 (J. S. Howson).
Homiletic Review, New Ser., xxxix. 341 (W. S. Jerome).