THE SIFTING OF PETER. BY DR. McCOSH.
Satan hath desired to have 7011, that he may sift 70a as wheat : but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith £ul not : and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. — Luke xxii. 31, 32.
THE night on which our Lord thus warned his beloved, his loving, and yet erring disciple, is one much to be remembered by the disciples of Christ throughout their generations. On it the Lord's supper was instituted; on it Jesus was in agony in the garden of Gethsemane; and on it he was betrayed and led to judgment These circumstances impart an additional emphasis to the words of admonition and tenderness which proceeded from his lips. He is here represented as seated at the table with his disciples. He has the prospect before him of a conflict from which the highest archangel would have shrunk, and to which he himself, travailing in the greatness of his strength, never alluded except in language of awe. *' I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished." But even in view of the tremendous scenes before him, he did not forget the poor fish-
ermen and mechanics whom he had chosen as his
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disciples. He knew that the trials which he could surmount were too great for them, and we find him in this passage warning all his disciples, and more particularly the one who was most apt to fall, because he felt as if he stood most securely. " Simon, Simon, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat : but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren."
THE CHARACTER OF PETER.
While all men are alike in the leading features of their characters, giving evidence that they are of one blood, they yet differ from one another in many not unimportant points. The character of
Peter is a very marked one. The most careless reader of Scripture fully comprehends it, it is so vividly delineated in the sacred narrative, chiefly through his being placed in a variety of trying situations, where his ruling sentiments are called forth into action. His character stands out in bold prominence and relief, like an object situated on a height, and seen between us and a clear sky. We notice at once his natural sincerity and boldness, his vehemence and self-confidence ; his liability to be hurried away by the tide of events and the current of prevailing feeling. We perceive that as a disciple of
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Christ he is under the guardian care and grace of Heaven; but we discover sin lurking within, and bursting forth from time to time as the liquid fire of the volcano breaks out from the mountain whose surface may be covered with the loveliest foliage. His love to Jesus was genuine and sincere, — for with all his failings Peter was no hypocrite;
yet he not infrequently resists the will of his Master, and at times is positively ashamed of him. He is zealously affected in every good thing, but his zeal is often unthinking and impetuous, and proceeds from a self-confident and self-righteous rather than a humble and trustful spirit of dependence on God; and it comes forth when it should be restrained, and fails when it should flow. These characteristics of Peter are brought out prominently by the incidents recorded of him by the evangelists. When Christ put the searching question to his disciples, " Whom say ye that I am? " Peter, ever eager, was ready with his answer, "Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God." How strange to find the same disciple immediately after, when Jesus showed him that he must needs go up to Jerusalem, and there sufler many thing^s, and be put to death, proceeding to rebuke his master : " Far be this from thee, Lord." When the multitude forsook our Lord on one occasion, on his explaining to them the spiritual nature of his kingdom, he turned round to his disciples and said, "Will ye also go away? " Peter's love is only fanned into a flame by this opposing
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Wind, and the answer comes from the depths of his heart) "To whom can we go? thou hast the words of eternal life." When our Lord warned him, "All ye shall be offended because of me this night/' Peter answered, " Lord, I am ready to go with thee both into prison and to death ; " and he did exhibit a mistaken zeal and courage in cutting off the high priest's servant's ear; yet the same apostle quailed before the question of a servant-maid, and with cursing and swearing declared that he knew not the man. The boldest of all the apostles in preaching on the day of Pentecost to the assembled thousands, and the most zealous in publishing the gospel among his countrymen, he was yet tempted on one occasion to dissemble and yield to their narrow Jewish prejudices, and Paul had to withstand him to the face. Such is the individual to whom our Lord in this passage gives the solemn warning which we now proceed to consider.
TEMPTATION OF PETER BY SATAN.
" Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat" We see that we are to regard our temptations as coming from Satan the tempter, the accuser. He who rebelled against God in heaven seeks to thwart his will on earth. With a cherished and deeply^seated hatred to the truth and all godli*
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ness, he is bent on destroying the divine image wherever it appears, and proceeds to pollute what is pure and to stain what is lovely. In the restlessness of pride seeking dominion, of malice ever raging, and revenge never gratified, he goeth about like a wild beast ravening for its prey; as the apostle expresses it, " like a lion seeking whom he may devour." Having succeeded in polluting our race at its fountain, he would prevent it from being ever purified. He had the presumption in the wilderness, on the mountain, and on the pinnacle of the temple, to endeavor to turn aside our Lord from his great mission ; but being defeated by the Master he now as-
sails the disciples. About the very time when Jesus was warning Peter, he took full possession of Judas Iscariot, — " The Devil entered into Judas Iscariot," whom he hurried from one crime to another till he laid violent hands on himself. May he not succeed also with his brother apostle? If he has succeeded in making the one betray his Master, may he not be able to make the other deny and forsake him? May he not work on his eagerness, his impetuosity, his self-confidence, till he makes him bring reproach upon the cause of his Lord? Were he to accomplish this, he feels as if his triumph would be complete. Little did Peter think, little does the believer think, what stratagems are laid against him, devised by fallen angels in the deepest councils of the lowest hell. We may all of us have experienced that in these temptations which assail us and before which we fall
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there is such a seductiveness, such an adaptation and address to our weaknesses, such a combination of circumstances, as to show that there has been a deep plotting and a conspiracy against us.
In tempting us Satan takes advantage of two circumstances. He employs the world to seduce us, and he addresses the corruption of the heart. First, he takes advantage of the circumstances in which we are placed, and of the worldly and sinful character of those with whom we mingle. Breathing as we do an infected atmosphere, we are apt to take in malaria which breeds moral disease. We can put ourselves into the position of Peter on that eventful and trying evening. Let us follow him for a little. While seated at the supper his mind is agitated by alternate joy and sorrow, hope and fear. He is happy in the presence of the Saviour, but his heart is filled with sorrow when he is told of his being about to be speedily taken from his disciples. He clings to the idea that Christ is to conquer and accomplish a good end, and yet sees clearly that there is danger at hand threatening a defeat Under such distracted feelings he follows Jesus late at night into the garden of Gethsemane. His body is exhausted, not so much by fatigue as by the crowded feelings in his bosom ; and though the spirit is willing, " yet the flesh is weak ; " and the events which he has to witness — the bloody sweat, the exceeding sorrow even unto death, the agony, and the prayer, ** If it be possible, let this cup pass from
me" — awe and confound him ; and, not knowing what
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to make of them, he casts himself on the ground and is soon sleeping for sorrow. He is roused by the approach of a company of officers, with one of his fellowdisciples guiding them. In the eagerness of his zeal he starts up to defend his Master and wounds one of the servants of the high priest, but is rebuked by his Master for the spirit which he shows. Conceive now the position of this disciple in these bewildering scenes. Is not the cause with which he has identified himself failing, or rather fallen? Judas, who was the treasurer of the little company, has set him an awful example. The pharisees, the rulers, the priests, the heads of the government, the successors of Aaron, those who sit in Moses' seat, are bent on condemning the new teacher as a deceiver; and the people who long stood by him are now prepared to abandon him, perceiving the nature of the kingdom he was about to set up, so different from what they expected. What can a poor fisherman far away from his Galilean home do in the midst of this formidable opposition? He
looks round to the other disciples and he sees them fleeing, and under the impulse of the moment he follows them. After having gone so far as to be out of danger he pauses, and prompted by eager curiosity and a return of love to his Lord he resolves to follow him, but follows at a distance. He ventures into the court of the high priest, he sees his Master guarded by a company of well-trained Roman soldiers, he hears the scoffs and the jeers of the dependents of the men of authority, he hears threatenings and
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slaughter breathed out all around. He is tempted to flee anew from the scene, but anxious ** to know the end/' " he followed afar off" trusting that he is not noticed, when suddenly the question is put to him, " Art thou also one of this man's disciples? "
We can conceive how trying the circumstances. A being perfectly holy might have stood all this ; but Peter was not spotlessly pure. Alas! his faith was weak and inward corruption was strong. There was not only the Devil and the world without, there was
the flesh within. Besides the open enemy, there was a traitor within the camp. The robbers outside had an accomplice in the house. His views of Divine truth were as yet very imperfect, and his faith was weak and wavering, and had to contend with personal fears. With the wheat there was the chafl*, and Satan seized the moment to sift him. We see how all things without and within combined, under the arch conspirator, to tempt this disciple ; and when the question was put so suddenly, '' Art thou one of this man's disciples?" his courage shook, his faith faltered " I know him not; I know not, neither understand, what thou sayest" Being charged a second time, he felt that he could not give in without humiliation, and with an oath he asseverated that he knew not the man* Once more they that stood by identifled him and charged him with being a follower of Jesus. To confess now would be acknowledging a previous falsehood. His pride and passion became exasperated to the highest degree by the very resistance offered to the truth,
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and he went on to add profanity to lying; "and he
began to curse and to swear, saying, I know not this man of whom ye speak."
How humiliating the position in which the disciple is now placed! How humiliating in his own eyes when he began to look at it! "I know not the man." What! know not the man who had called him to the discipleship, the man with whom he had companied for years; not know the great teacher who had instructed and warned and comforted him; not know the great Master who had wrought such miracles, who had healed the sick and raised the dead; not know him whom he had declared to be the Christ, the Son of the living God; not know him whom he had seen transfigured on the mountain ; not know him with whom he had sat at the table the previous evening, and who had warned him of his danger? What a fall from the height on which he had stood a few hours before when he had said, " I will follow thee into prison and to death " ! How humiliating, too, his position in the view of the bystanders, the priests, the officers, the mob! What a view must Peter's conduct have given to all around of the character of Jesus! He who had preached the glad tidings of salvation throughout Galilee and
Judea is now ashamed of the gospel itself and of the author of it. The multitude would judge of the Master by the disciples, — by Judas who had betrayed him for money, by Peter who had become
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!!(/; ashamed of him, — and conclude of all alike that
r: they were hypocrites and deceivers, and capable of
the basest deceit. What a reproach is the disciple S bringing on his Master! How is Christ wounded
r. in the house of his friends ! If the dark spirit of
Satan can experience any momentary feeling of joy :: and triumph in the turmoil of passions which rage
: and chafe forever, more furious than the fire that
is not quenched, or the troubled waves of the lake of brimstone, we can conceive him rejoicing in the thought that Christ's cause was crushed forever.
The shepherd is smitten and the sheep are scattered. The Master is to be crucified, and the disciples are ashamed of him.
But God maketh the wrath of man' and of devils to praise him. Jesus had prayed for Peter, even as he is still interceding for his people in heaven ; and so his faith, though faltering, did not altogether fail him. The sorrows of Jesus arising from the desertion of friends and the malice of foes were even now making atonement for transgression, and from this fall Peter was to be raised by an upholding hand, and to go forth throughout the world publishing that gospel which is eventually to overthrow the dominion of Satan and raise the fallen. This brings us to consider
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