Despite his insistence that he would follow Jesus even to death, Peter denied his Master when the pressure mounted against him. Continuing his expositional series in the gospel of Luke, in this sermon R.C. Sproul considers Peter’s sin and the source of restoration for God’s people when they fall.
This morning we’re going to continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke, and we’re in chapter 22. I will be reading a broken-up segment of Scripture, from Luke 22:24-34 and 22:54-62. I’d ask the congregation, please, to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
“You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
“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.”
Then we move over to verse 54:
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him to the high priest’s house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
When Jesus was in the upper room and gave the lengthy prayer of intercession, His High Priestly Prayer recorded by John, He asked the Father that He would sanctify His disciples, saying, “Sanctify them by thy word; your word is truth” (John 17:17). That’s what you’ve just heard—the Word of God, which is pure truth given for your sanctification. Please receive it as such and be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, again we ask that you would stoop to our weakness and help us in our frailty to understand the breadth and the depth of the things that we have just heard from Your Word. Speak not only to our minds, but our souls, that we may hide these words in our heart, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
A Quibble about Who Is the Greatest
The context in which Luke records the narrative of the denial of Peter is introduced by the record of a dispute that arose among the disciples during the Last Supper, one of the most sacred moments in the history of Christendom. The disciples were reduced to quibbling and arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest. Luke tells us that as they were disputing the question of greatness and authority, Jesus took this occasion to rebuke them.
He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in positions of authority are called benefactors.” It seems there’s nothing new in politics, as all those who are in positions of authority and lordship promise the people that they exercise their office simply for the good and well-being of their servants. We know that’s not always the truth, and, in fact, it’s rarely the truth. In any case, Jesus said:
This is not how it’s going to be with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines? Yet I am among you as one who serves.
You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father has assigned to me, a kingdom that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the tribes of Israel.
Scholars speculate that the reason this dispute arose at the Last Supper was that the disciples were jockeying for positions of honor. It was the custom in the ancient world that when a dinner was held, people were assigned places at the table according to their level of achievement or success or honor. So, here were the disciples, nudging each other out of the way: “I want to sit at the right hand; you sit at the left hand. You go back and sit in the back of the room because you’re low on the totem pole of honor.”
When Jesus was going through His great passion, knowing what He was about to face and getting ready to drink the cup that the Lord God had set before Him, it’s not difficult to see how disgusting it must have been for Him to observe this warfare among His followers who were elbowing their way for the greater honor. He said: “I’m going to give you a kingdom. My Father has assigned me a kingdom, and I’m going to assign you that kingdom. You’re going to sit on the thrones, judging all people, and you’re worried about which chair you have here at this meal?”
You have to wonder that maybe, just maybe, it was Simon who was in the middle of this dispute. As impetuous as we know he was, and as eager as he was to be the spokesman for Jesus, I can’t help but think that he’s the one who insisted that he be seated at the right hand of Christ. We don’t know that; I’m just guessing at this point. But in the midst of this dispute, Jesus turned to Peter and said to him, “Simon, Simon.”
Many of you have heard me preach on the significance of this literary construction among the Jews. When a personal name is repeated consecutively, that is a signal that the person is addressing somebody for whom he has deep affection. It only occurs about fifteen times in all of sacred Scripture. Even while on the cross, Jesus cried to the Father, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Or you might think of the pathos of the agony of David when he heard the news of the death of his son and cried out in lamentation, “Absalom, Absalom, my son, my son” (2 Sam. 18:33). Again, and again, and again we see this throughout Holy Scripture as a signal of communicating a tender feeling of affection. Now, when Jesus had every reason to be furious at Simon Peter for being involved in this dispute, He turned to him and He said, “Simon, Simon, Satan has demanded you that he may sift you like wheat.”
Jesus’ Warning to Simon Peter
We know that Satan had possessed Judas. He entered into Judas and was a cooperative partner with Judas in the betrayal of Christ. But in Peter’s case, we don’t see possession. Simon Peter was obviously a believer, and the Holy Spirit dwelt within his heart. I don’t think for a moment that Satan has the power to possess Christians, but he can harass them, he can tempt them, he can accuse them, and in this case, he wanted to sift them. So, Jesus said to Simon, “Satan has demanded that he may have at you, just like he went against Job in antiquity, and he wants to sift you like wheat.”
What an image Jesus used. We know that in the agricultural system of the day, it was so important to separate the wheat from the chaff. There were different ways that the farmers carried out that responsibility. When it was harvested, there would be a great pile of chaff and wheat together. Of course, no farmer would have the time to look over that heap and say, “This is a piece of chaff and this is a piece of wheat,” and separate them that way. They were far more productive than that. The most common way to separate the wheat and the chaff was to go for the winnowing fork. They would stick the fork in and throw the bundle of chaff and wheat up into the air, and the chaff was so much lighter than the wheat that the slightest current of air would carry the chaff away. The wheat, however, would fall straight down, and the job of separation would be complete. But there was another way, often performed by women, where they would use a sifter. They would take both sides of the sifter, with the wheat and the chaff within it, and they would shake it back and forth, sometimes violently. In the process, the chaff would be separated from the wheat.
Jesus was saying: “Simon, this task of separating the chaff from the wheat does not require a skill set of great power. This is unskilled labor.” In a word, He was saying: “Simon, you think you’re so strong. You think you can stand through anything, but Satan would sift you like wheat. You are a piece of cake, and it’s going to be simple to do you in.”
Listen to how Simon responded. Peter said to Him: “Lord, don’t worry about Satan sifting me. I’m ready. I’m ready to go with You both to prison and to death. Nothing like the sifting of Satan is going to stop me from my commitment to You. I will be with You to the very end, no matter what it takes or what it costs. I promise that I will be there for You.”
Jesus said, “Peter, I tell you that the rooster will not crow this day until you deny three times that you even know me.” When Peter said to Jesus, “I’m ready; I’m prepared to go with you to prison and to death,” he did not tell the truth. What he spoke was a falsehood, but it wasn’t a lie. All lies are falsehoods, but not all falsehoods are lies. For a falsehood to be a lie, it requires intentionality such that a person knows something is not true, and he falsifies the truth by intentionally distorting it or twisting it or denying it. No, this wasn’t a lie. Simon really believed that he was ready to go with Jesus to prison or to death. He couldn’t believe the warning Jesus gave that Satan would sift him like wheat: “Not me, Lord. I’m with you till the last drop of death.”
The Rooster Crows
Then we move over to the rest of the story, beginning in verse 54: “Then they seized him (that is, Jesus) and led him away, bringing him to the high priest’s house, and Peter was following (note this) at a distance.” Then we’re told that the people had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together while the initial portion of the trial was taking place. A short distance away, the spectators were gathered. It was cool, so they built a fire in order to keep warm, and Peter sat down among them.
Then we read that a centurion came by, noticed Simon Peter, and said, “I think he’s one of those men.” No, no, no, no—that’s not what the Bible says. It wasn’t a centurion with a club or a sword; it was a servant girl. It was a servant girl who had no power, no authority, and no possible way of directly bringing harm to Simon Peter. She saw him in the light, looked closely at him, and said, “This man also was with him.” But Peter said, “No, I wasn’t.” Peter denied it, saying: “Woman, I don’t know the man. I have no idea who this fellow is.” A little later, someone else came and said, “You too are one of them.” Peter said, “Man, I am not.”
The other gospel writers fill in some of the blanks and don’t bleep out all of the expletives. We are told directly by sacred Scripture that Simon Peter accompanied these denials by crude words of cursing: “Blankety blank blank; I don’t know the blankety blank guy!” He was that emphatic in his denial.
Still, after an hour, another one came and said, “Certainly, this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” Peter said, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” At the very second that those words escaped the lips of Peter, there was a sound that interrupted the stillness of the dawn—the sound of the rooster crowing.
What a sound that was for Simon Peter. As soon as he heard that, he remembered the saying of the Lord, how He said to him, “Behold, before the rooster crows today, you will deny me not once, not twice, but three times.” The Lord turned as He was coming out. He heard the rooster too. He turned to Peter, and what did He say? Absolutely nothing. He didn’t need to say anything. All He did was look at Peter. Their eyes met.
Two Shameful Betrayals
Can you imagine what Peter felt when he sensed the gaze of Jesus looking upon him just moments after he had three times publicly denied that he even knew Him? Then “he went out and wept bitterly.” It wasn’t that Simon just teared up a little bit. It wasn’t that he simply experienced a little bit of shame. He wept bitterly. His shoulders were heaving. He was sobbing like a baby because he’d been sifted like wheat and publicly denied that he even knew Jesus. Who can grasp the depths of the shame of that moment?
It’s not uncommon, dear friends, for Christians to be ashamed of Jesus. Sometimes we want to be secret service Christians, or Clairol Christians where only our hairdresser knows for sure. We want to keep a low profile in the world so that nobody will identify us with the Holy One. Jesus warned us, “If you’re ashamed of me before men, I will be ashamed of you before my Father” (Luke 9:26).
Notice the similarity between Judas and Simon. Both of them were ashamed. Judas was so ashamed that he also cried bitterly. He went out, took the thirty pieces of silver, and threw it on the ground at the feet of the scribes, the Pharisees, and the rulers. He loathed himself. He felt nothing except self-disgust. He was so disgusted and so broken that he didn’t just cry; he committed suicide. He went out and hanged himself, and that was the end of Judas in this world.
There was no suicide for Peter. There were tears. There was grief. There was profound remorse and daunting shame, but he didn’t quit. Why? Because he was stronger than Judas? No, the answer comes earlier in the text, a place that I skipped over intentionally where Jesus said, “Simon, Simon, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you.” There’s the difference.
When Jesus announced that somebody whose hand would be in the cup and who was seated with Him, sharing in the Lord’s Supper, would betray Him, each of the disciples went around the room, saying, “Is it I? Is it I? Is it I?” I’m sure Peter didn’t include himself in that inquiry because he was sure it wouldn’t be him. But when Judas said, “Is it I?” Jesus said: “Thou hast said, and what you have to do, do quickly. Leave the room, Judas” (John 13:27). Jesus knew he had already betrayed Him. He already had the silver, so Jesus said, “You go, and what you’re about to do, just get it over with.” But in the case of the denial of Simon Peter, Jesus said, “Satan is going to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you so that, not if you turn, but when you turn, strengthen the brethren.”
Jesus Prays for His People
This church is filled with artistic symbols and architecture. The Luther Rose appears on the front of the pulpit and at different places around the room. We have the symbols of the gospel writers and a portrait of Paul on the stained-glass windows. There are all kinds of symbols.
If you look over on the side of the transept, at the center symbol of that window is a chair. It signifies the session of Jesus, where, after He died, He was carried up into heaven by the shekinah cloud of glory, where He was seated at the right hand of God, where He would be given that position of authority as the King of kings and as the Lord of lords, and from which chair He would reign over all the earth. But not only did he ascend to His coronation, to His investiture as the King of kings to be seated at the right hand of the Father, but He also ascended to carry out the role of our great High Priest.
In the Old Testament, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies and present the blood offering, sprinkling the blood across the surface of the ark of the covenant. But as I’ve said before, there was only one Day of Atonement that was real, and it was the day after this night where Jesus poured His blood upon the altar of God and the mercy seat, when He experienced the full measure of the judgment of God and satisfied His justice for us.
Not only was Jesus the High Priest who carried the sacrificial animal for the atonement, but He also fulfilled the office of the high priest in perfection. He has since become our Mediator and our Intercessor.
I pray for our congregation in general. Frankly, I don’t have the time to pray for everybody in this church individually, but I have a rather lengthy list of people who are going through serious and significant strife, anguish, affliction, and pain in their lives. I pray for them by name every single day. It says in the Bible that the fervent, effectual prayer of a righteous man avails much (James 5:16). My prayers don’t avail that much because I’m not a righteous man, but I pray that the Holy Spirit will take my prayers of intercession to our Intercessor, who intercedes for His people every day.
If you’re a Christian, Jesus prays for you. Can you imagine that? This is what He says to Simon: “Yes, you’re going to deny me. Your fall is going to be grievous and exaggerated—but I’ve prayed for you. I’ve interceded for you so that when you turn (not if you turn), strengthen the brothers. Encourage them. Be a new example and a model to them; not one who is easily sifted by Satan, but one who will indeed follow Me both to prison and to death.”
I want to die well. Don’t you? There are only two ways to die: you die in sin, or you die in faith. I want to make sure I die in faith. In fact, I’m sure I will die in faith, not because I’m confident in my ability to persevere, but I’m confident in the ability of Christ to preserve me by His priestly intercession for me.
Beloved, does He pray for you? Do you have the assurance that, on this very day, Christ is praying for your eternal well-being? I hope that you will have that assurance, that you will rely on that assurance, that you will be strengthened by that assurance, and that you will encourage each other with that assurance.Â
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.