On the subject of failure, Winston Churchill is alleged to have said that ‘success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts’. That sentiment marks so many of the men and women in the Bible who achieved greatness through God – the courage to continue. Such people struggle but find their strength in God, they make mistakes but gain forgiveness, they fall but are lifted up. In short, they are mirrors of us in their failure, and models for us in their success. In His grace, God has populated the Bible with people ‘subject to like passions as we are’, Jas. 5. 17, so that we can learn lessons and gain encouragement from His treatment of them.
One such occasion is found in Luke chapter 22 verses 31 to 34, the lead-in to Peter’s denial. Remembering the Passover with His disciples, the Lord has a special message for Peter – as He does for Philip in John chapter 6 verse 4, and for Thomas in John chapter 20 verse 26 – and it is wonderful to remember that the Lord still has messages for individuals today.
The personal word to Peter starts with the double address ‘Simon, Simon’. It is interesting that, instead of the new name, Peter, which the Lord gave him in John chapter 1 verse 42, the Lord uses the old name, Simon. This may reflect the reality of the struggle all believers face between the sinful flesh and the Spirit, the struggle Paul speaks of in Galatians chapter 5 verse 17 when he talks about ‘the flesh’ and ‘the Spirit’ which war against each other because they are ‘contrary the one to the other’. Although Peter has been given a new name, he doesn’t lose the old one; even though we have been made new creatures in Christ the old sinful disposition is not removed, and so there is an ongoing battle in all of us. The encouragement comes from the fact that though Peter loses this particular battle the Lord knows it all in advance and is still prepared to use him. The Lord has complete knowledge of His failing servants, for ‘like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust’, Ps. 103. 13, 14.
The Lord doesn’t simply know all about us, He cares about us. The Lord tells Peter that ‘Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat’, Luke 22. 31. Satan desires to sift, to shake, to destabilize all Christians. This is potentially a scary thought, nevertheless the next verse starts with the comforting word ‘but’. Satan may be working against us, but the Lord is working for us. This is something Paul expands on when he writes, ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’ Rom. 8. 31.
We discover how the Lord is ‘for us’ in the specific assurance given to Peter, ‘I have prayed for thee’. In the face of adversity, the Lord, the Creator, the almighty God of the universe, is praying for a single servant about to fall. Satan may long to sift all the Lord’s followers (the plural pronoun ‘you’ encompasses all the disciples) but the Lord focuses on just one (using the singular pronoun ‘thee’, showing He is speaking only of Peter). The Lord cares for the individual child of God.
And it gets even better. The Lord doesn’t simply pray for Peter in general, but for Peter’s faith in particular. The difference may seem small but it is evidence of expert understanding. Just as a skilful mechanic’s understanding goes beyond, ‘Your car is broken’ (which is evident to all) to accurately diagnosing the precise problem with that car, ‘Your fan belt needs replacing’, so the Lord Jesus knows the specific, individual needs of each of his failing servants.
Lest we limit the Lord’s prayerful interest to Peter, John chapter 17 offers encouragement to all believers. On the eve of Calvary, the Saviour said to His Father, ‘Neither pray I for these alone [the apostles], but for them also which shall believe on me through their word’, John 17. 20. Whatever we face, whatever makes us feel weak, whatever makes us feel lost, whatever makes our faith waver, the Lord is working with us and is working for us. This truth may remind us of the words to a popular hymn:
‘Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea:
A great High Priest, whose name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me'.
Luke chapter 22 continues beyond the prediction of Peter’s failure. The Lord, who has acknowledged that Peter will deny Him, doesn’t pray that Peter won’t fail but that Peter’s faith will not fail; that Peter won’t be so discouraged by his lapse that he ‘throws in the towel’. The Lord’s petition is a powerful thing; in fact, it is a guarantee it will come to pass. This confidence can be seen in the Lord’s careful choice of words: ‘when’, not if, ‘thou art converted’. Peter was going to get through this because the Lord had prayed for him. Because of the Lord’s continual intercession for us, we can have confidence that whatever we endure He is able to bring us through.
But why does the Lord tell Peter he is going to fail at all? I like to think that it is a kindness. The emphasis is not so much on Peter’s weakness as on the Lord’s grace. In disclosing Peter’s slip the Lord foregrounds His mercy, assuring Peter of restoration and future service.
Personal failure is not the end. John reminds us that ‘if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous’, 1 John 2. 1.
The final point to make is that Peter learnt from this. The proof is found in his First Letter, where we discover he learnt that the devil is an ‘adversary … a roaring lion … seeking whom he may devour’, 1 Pet. 5. 8. More importantly, he learnt the truths he records just before and after this warning about Satan’s antagonism, that ‘[God] loveth and careth for you’, v. 7, and that ‘the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, [will] make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you’, v. 10. Satan’s ferocity should always be viewed in the light of God’s faithfulness.
Every believer should remember Peter’s important life lesson. Because Peter fell and was lifted up, he was the better able to strengthen his brothers and sisters. Although we fail, the Lord knows, cares, and prays for us. Indeed, as Peter discovered, He can even use our failures to equip us for the accomplishment of His great purposes for us. After all, ‘we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose’, Rom. 8. 28. This should fill us with the courage to continue.