The night before Jesus was crucified embraced a number of dramatic events, not the least of which was an encounter between the Son of God and one of his most prominent apostles. The account of the episode is found only in Luke’s record. The text, as it appears in the American Standard Version, is as follows:
“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, establish thy brethren. And he said unto him, Lord, with thee I am ready to go both to prison and to death. And he said, I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, until thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me” (Luke 22:31-34).
In our study of this fascinating exchange, we first will note some textual considerations; then, we shall attempt to reflect upon some practical lessons.
- Peter’s Hebrew name was Symeon (cf. Acts 15:14), a Gentile form of which was “Simon.” One recalls that in Old Testament history Simeon was the head of one of Israel’s tribes. But when Jesus called Simon to discipleship, he gave him the name Cephas, an Aramaic term, the Greek form of which is Peter (petros), signifying a “rock.” The name was a prophetic indicator of the stability that eventually would characterize the initially impetuous apostle. The name “Simon,” however, was frequently applied to the apostle:
- on domestic occasions, e.g., in references to his home or his family (cf. Mark 1:29-30; Luke 4:38);
- in personal moments with Jesus (cf. Matthew 16:17; Mark 14:37), one of which is in the present text.
In this case, the Lord may be gently suggesting that “Simon” is not yet the “rock” he ultimately would become. This seems to be indicated by the double use of the name, which, in biblical literature expresses a degree of stress. Note Jesus’ use of “Martha, Martha” (Luke 10:41), “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem” (Matthew 23:37), and “My God, my God” (Matthew 27:46).
- The word “behold” in Greek is eidon, a form of horao, which, on occasion, is used as a warning. Here, the sense is close to “watch out”!
- The name “Satan” is a transliteration of the Greek satan, which means “adversary.” Sometimes the word is used generically; for example, the messenger of Jehovah became the “adversary” of Balaam (Numbers 22:22). In this context, ho satanas (note the article) represents the name of the arch-enemy of God and his people, the devil. For further study, see our chapter, “Satan: His Origin, Mission and Destiny,” in (Courier Publications,“The Book of Job”).
- The verb exaiteomai, rendered “asked” (ASV) or “desired” (KJV) actually is stronger than it appears. The preposition tacked on to the beginning of the word intensifies it. The term really means to “demand” (ESV). Surely it is a commentary on the arrogance of Satan and is rather reminiscent of the episode in the first chapter of Job. The devil views all humans as his — either by surrender, or in prospect.
- Christ informed his apostle that Satan demands to have “you” that he may sift “you” like wheat. A point often missed by the English reader is that these pronouns are plural; they embrace the entire apostolic band (and, in principle, all of us). However, the Lord presently shifts his attention to the needs of Peter personally. “I made supplication for thee (sou — singular) . . .”
Sifting refers to the ancient process of separating the wheat from the chaff by throwing the grain into the air, thus allowing the brisk Mediterranean winds to remove the lighter husks (for eventual burning), while the kernels fall to the threshing floor. The wheat and the chaff represent the godly versus wicked people (Matthew 3:12). Satan would be pleased if all were “chaff” — to “burn” eternally with him (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:10).
- But Jesus assures his apostle that he had made supplication for him against the diabolic plan. The verb rendered “made supplication” reflects an “urgent request” that emphasizes a “personal need” on the part of someone; it is a pleading prayer (Danker, pp. 213,218; Thayer, p. 126).
- Christ had prayed that Peter’s “faith” might not “fail.” The apostle’s “faith” was his conviction regarding the Lord’s identity (cf. Matthew 16:16), and the disposition, therefore, to trust and obey the Savior. The term “fail” translates the Greek, ekleipo (the word from which our English “eclipse” derives). The term implies a cessation, to die out (Danker, p. 306). Would the light of Peter’s faith cease to shine? It would not.
- Jesus indicated that Peter’s faith would pass through a crisis stage; happily, however, he would “turn again,” i.e., return to a state of vibrant confidence. The Greek term is epistrophe, used 36 times in the N.T. — with half of these in Luke’s writings. The stunning event of the Lord’s resurrection would reverse the apostle’s temporary lapse of fidelity (cf. Luke 24:34).
- Upon his return, Peter is admonished to “establish” (ASV) or “strengthen” (KJV) (from sterizo, to “fix firmly”) his brothers in the faith. The Greek verb, used 13 times in the N.T., means to prop up, strengthen, confirm, establish.
Catholic scholars appeal to this phrase in an attempt to assert the primacy of Peter — a cardinal doctrine of that apostate sect. Conway employs this text in support of his allegation that Peter was “the first of the apostles,” the “strengthener of the faith of his brethren,” and “the security of the Church against Satan and the powers of hell” (p. 147).
But the facts refute this baseless notion:
- Peter does not stand alone as the one who “strengthens” the brothers. The same verbal action is ascribed to: Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:22), Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32), again to Paul (Acts 15:41; 18:23), and likewise to Timothy (1 Thessalonians 3:2).
- In fact, the great apostle to the Gentiles longed to visit Rome so that he could “establish” (sterizo) the brethren there (Romans 1:11). This is a curious circumstance if Peter was the “head” of the Church in the imperial city!
- Chrysostom (c. A.D. 347-407), a theologian who lived in Constantinople, referred to this passage as illustrative of Peter’s great weakness. He suggested that the apostle’s fall “was more grievous than that of the others” (Homily 82). That ancient scholar knew nothing of Peter’s primacy based upon this text.
- George Salmon has shown that Catholic writers can demonstrate no solid appeal to this text as evidence for Peter’s primacy, earlier than the 11th century A.D. (p. 344).
Certainly Peter would be involved in strengthening the church (as the record in Acts and his later epistles clearly indicate) but he was endowed with no unique office for that noble undertaking.
- Typical of his impulsive nature, Peter ignored the Savior’s tender warning and boasted: “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” The adjective “ready” (hetoimos – 17 times in the N.T.) signifies that which is “prepared” (cf. Mark 14:15). The apostle affirms that he is prepared for the ordeal to follow. Both Matthew and Mark comment that Peter insisted he would not deny Christ. Matthew used a present tense verb, “he kept saying” (26:35), while Mark employed the imperfect tense with the same effect (14:31). Both also note that the other disciples joined in with a pledge of loyalty — perhaps influenced by Peter’s boisterous claim. Interestingly, the term Christ uses to describe Peter’s denial is a very strong one, suggesting “to deny utterly” (Vine, p. 204).
- Jesus declared: "I tell you, Peter (note the change from “Simon” to “Peter”), the rooster will not crow today before you have denied knowing me three times." The ancients sometimes used roosters for “alarm clocks,” even carrying them on trips! Mark, reflecting the Roman method of dividing the evening hours by “watches,” wrote of the “evening” (6-9 p.m.), “midnight” (9-12 p.m.), “cock crowing” (12-3 a.m. — this time frame generally was marked by two distinct periods of crowing; cf. Mark 14:30), and “morning” (3-6 a.m.) watches (see Mark 13:35). There are references in classical Greek literature (Aristophanes and Juvenal) for distinctive early morning cock crowings (Lane, p. 512). Godet says that Palestinean roosters generally crowed between 12 and 1 a.m., again about 3 a.m., and finally between 5 and 6 a.m. (p. 301). The apostle’s denials likely were concluded, therefore, just before 3 in the morning.
Jesus was prophetically suggesting that soon (within a matter of hours) and with rapidity (within the “cock crowing” watch), Peter would deny him three times. It is incredible that Simon ignored the first rooster-warning!
Important Truths from the Narrative
Let us now consider some of the important lessons to be learned from this New Testament text.
- This text demonstrates the remarkable ability of Jesus as a prophet of God. The Lord foretold Peter’s fall (including the time of it, and the thrice denial), the apostle’s subsequent repentance, and finally the valuable service he would render in strengthening others — as a rock-like force in the following almost-forty-year history of the church. This prophetic precision authenticated the Savior’s frequent claim that he was the Messiah, the Son of God (see Isaiah 41:23).
- The admonition of Christ contains warning — “Watch out!” — a precaution which would be unnecessary if it were impossible for a child of God to lose his salvation. One apostle (Judas) already had drifted and would be lost (John 17:12). Peter himself would write later: “Be sober, be watchful: your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He had learned much from a bitter experience.
- Christ did not view Satan as a mere appendage of ancient superstition. He himself had encountered this opponent (Matthew 4) and he knew well of the diabolical aspirations of that malignant spirit. This context is highly reminiscent of Satan’s scheme to capture Job. However, as with the earlier case, it reveals that the devil does not have unlimited power over human beings. If we resist him, he will flee (James 4:7).
- This passage wonderfully illustrates the balance between God’s respect for human volition, and yet the use of divine intervention. The Lord did not build a wall around Peter, so that he could not be affected by temptation. No, he respected Simon’s freedom of will. On the other hand, he did plead for his apostle before the Father, an act that previewed the intercessory role for which he was preparing as our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 4:14-16; 1 John 2:1). In the providential order of things, the door was opened through which Peter, with repentance, could pass. The Savior’s penetrating gaze (emblepo – the prepositional prefix intensifies the verb; see Vine, p. 483), combined with the apostle’s memory, was the key that unlocked the door to reclamation (Luke 22:61-62).
- The fact that all four Gospel writers depict so graphically Peter’s defection (even to the point of his swearing an oath) is stunning evidence of Bible inspiration. Forgers desiring to enhance Christianity’s reputation at any cost, would hardly have portrayed one of the “pillars” of the early church (Galatians 2:9) in such an embarrassing light (see Matthew 26:69ff; Mark 14:66ff; Luke 22:55ff; John 18:15ff). These descriptives lend themselves to an aura of credibility. This point is further strengthened by the fact that Mark’s account, in the words of Hiebert, is “extraordinarily vivid” (p. 434). This takes on a specific meaning when one notes that there is ample literary tradition — from Asia, Rome, and Alexandria — that Peter was the guiding person behind the composition of Mark’s Gospel record (cf. Eusebius, 6.25).
- The context under consideration demonstrates the danger of over-confidence. Peter arrogantly had bragged that though others might be offended in the Lord, he never would be (Matthew 26:33; Mark 14:29). He had asked why he could not follow the Lord “even now,” and “lay down [his] life” for the Master (John 13:37). But his words were more than his soul was willing to bear at the time. Paul’s later admonition is on target: “Wherefore let him who thinks (present participle — a characteristic train of thought) that he stands (perfect tense – is permanently secure), take heed, lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Again, one should not “think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (Romans 12:3). Peter finally discerned this truth through the magnification of tears (Matthew 26:75).
- This narrative is a marvelous commentary on the Savior’s compassion for us when we, through weakness, err. A fall into sin need not spell ultimate and total disaster for the Christian. One of the reasons the Creator has permitted us the freedom to exercise our power of choice, even to the point of disobeying him, is that we might learn to identify the sins that plague us.
Peter was not “trashed” because of his dreadful mistake; he was salvaged and, in turn, became a blessing to others, having matriculated through the “university of hard knocks.” The apostle was a “rock” in the making, with rough edges that needed smoothing! It is a tragedy of no small consequence that some, who make serious blunders in their Christian lives, throw up their hands in despair and never recover. That need not be the case, as Simon’s example eloquently illustrates.
- One of the ironical features of this narrative has to do with Peter’s boast — so pretentious at the time, but hauntingly “prophetic.” “Lord, with you,” he said, “I am ready to go both to prison and to death.” He was not “ready” then; but he would be eventually. Let us consider each of these two fates — first the prison, then the death.
After the healing of the lame man (Acts 3:1ff), as Peter and John proclaimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they were thrown in prison overnight in Jerusalem (Acts 4:3), and warned to cease their teaching. Subsequently, the apostles were again imprisoned, but, by morning they were delivered, an angel of the Lord having perpetrated the jail break (Acts 5:17ff). Peter appears to have taken the lead in this militant evangelism (see Acts 5:29). If the Jews could have had their way, the apostles would have been murdered (5:33); instead, they got off with a beating, about which, incidentally, they rejoiced (5:40-41).
During the administration of Herod Agrippa I, James, the son of Zebedee, was killed with the sword, and Peter was next on the ruler’s list. The apostle was put in prison under a heavy guard of sixteen soldiers. Simon had become so comfortable with prison conditions that he could sleep, even when chained between guards. It was only through the prayers of the church, and the intervention of the Almighty, that Simon was delivered (see Acts 12:1ff).
During that interval between his resurrection and his ascension, Jesus, in a conversation that probed the depth of Peter’s dedication, gave the apostle a glimpse of the ominous future in store for him.
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, When you were young, you dressed yourself, and walked wherever you wanted: but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another shall dress you, and carry you where you do not want to go. Now this he said, signifying by what kind of death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he said unto him, Follow me” (John 21:18-19).
The prophecy clearly indicated that Peter would not die a natural death; rather, he would pass into eternity in some forceful way, at the hand of an enemy.
As the years passed, the courageous apostle became increasingly aware of the growing imminence of that terminal day, foreshadowed in Jesus’ declaration by the Sea of Galilee, as recorded in John 21. In his second epistle, Peter wrote:
“And I think it right, as long as I am in this tabernacle [physical body], to stir you up by putting you in remembrance; knowing that the putting off of my tabernacle [my death] is coming swiftly, even as our Lord Jesus Christ signified unto me” (2 Peter 1:13-14).
It well may have been the case that Peter was in prison when these words were penned, awaiting execution (cf. 2 Timothy 4:6).
While the Roman Catholic claim, that Peter served as “the bishop” of the church in Rome, has no basis in fact, there is considerable evidence that Peter went to Rome, and died there as a martyr for Christ. Clement of Rome, in a letter dated c. A.D. 95, says that Peter “suffered martyrdom” and “departed to the place of glory due him” (1 Clement 5). Tertullian (A.D. 200) says that Peter endured a death “like his Lord’s” (Prescription Against Heretics 36). Eusebius (c. A.D. 326), citing earlier sources, says that Peter was crucified in Rome “with his head downward, having requested of himself to suffer in this way” (3.1 – though some dispute this). The tradition regarding Peter’s death during the persecution of Nero was widespread in early times, and the place of his burial apparently was known around A.D. 200 (Eusebius 2.35; see Finegan, pp. 297-304). However, the pronouncement of “Pope” Paul VI (June 26, 1968), that Peter’s bones, supposedly buried beneath St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, had been identified, is without credible proof (see Synder, pp. 2-24).
Peter was a complex person. He was rebuked and praised. He was weak and he was strong; or perhaps it would be better to say, he had weaknesses that were transformed into strengths. His life contains many valuable lessons for the child of God.
Scripture references: Luke 22:31-34; Acts 15:14; Mark 1:29-30; Luke 4:38; Matthew 16:17; Mark 14:37; Luke 10:41; Matthew 23:37; Matthew 27:46; Numbers 22:22; Matthew 3:12; Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:10; Matthew 16:16; Luke 24:34; Acts 14:22; Acts 15:32; Acts 15:41, 18:23; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; Romans 1:11; 1 Thessalonians 5; Mark 14:15; Mark 14:30; Mark 13:35; Isaiah 41:23; John 17:12; 1 Peter 5:8; Matthew 4; James 4:7; 1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 4:14-16; 1 John 2:1; Luke 22:61-62; Galatians 2:9; Matthew 26:69; Mark 14:66; Luke 22:55; John 18:15; Matthew 26:33; Mark 14:29; John 13:37; 1 Corinthians 10:12; Romans 12:3; Matthew 26:75; Acts 3:1; Acts 4:3; Acts 5:17; Acts 5:29; Acts 12:1; John 21:18-19; John 21; 2 Peter 1:13-14; 1 Timothy 4:6
- Conway, Bertrand. 1929. The Question Box. San Francisco, CA: Catholic Truth Society.
- Danker, F.W., et al. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- Eusebius. 1955 Edition. Ecclesiastical History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Finegan, Jack. 1946. Light From The Ancient Past. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Godet, F. 1879. A Commentary of the Gospel of St. Luke. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
- Hiebert, D. Edmond. 1994. The Gospel of Mark. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University.
- Lane, William L. 1974. The Gospel According to Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Salmon, George. 1959 Reprint. The Infallibility of the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Snyder, Graydon R. 1969. Biblical Archaeologist. February.
- Thayer, J. H. 1958. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
- Vine, W. E. 1991. Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Iowa Falls, IA: World.