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"John the Baptist's Death Message."


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          This summer, we are spending our time in the gospels.  I haven’t taken on a lengthy series because we are planning to preach a longer series on our church’s vision in the fall.  This week in my devotional time a text from Luke hit me.  It’s a text speaking to the relationship between Jesus, Satan and the disciples.  Maybe the reason this text jumped out at me this week is because of the news from our short term missions team to the Native Americans in Grand Portage.  As some of you have heard, the Lord has been doing some wonderful things up there in the last week.  At least two people professed faith in Christ and several of the native population, especially the youth, have been powerfully impacted by our group’s ministry.  I trust you will hear those details next week during the Sunday school report back service.  In the midst of that ministry however, have been several clear indications of satanic opposition.  We have seen this in previous years of ministry up there—that area is a very dark area spiritually and Satan has had his way with that population for a very long time.  This year there has been opposition on a few fronts and God has given much grace through our prayers and the prayers of our team up there.  It was just another reminder for me of the reality of Satan’s activity and the church’s need to be aware and equipped in this aspect of living as followers of Christ. 

As many of you know, the Bible does not teach that Satan and God are on the same footing.  God is the infinite and glorious, absolutely sinless, totally sovereign, all powerful Creator and Satan is a finite, fallen, angelic creature who very clearly answers to God and whose every activity falls under His sovereign authority.  Never in eternity has God or his established plans been frustrated by Satan.  God knows everything before it happens because he is in sovereign control over everything.  That means he is never frustrated, vexed or perplexed by anything, much less one of his fallen, finite creatures.  Though Satan has been given significant influence over this world as a result of the fall, the taproot of his influence was cut out in the cross when Jesus defeated him.  Paul says in Colossians chapter two of Jesus, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”  One aspect of this victory for the believer is--our sins have been forgiven and that strips from Satan and his demonic horde the power to legitimately accuse us.  On a personal level, Jesus’ victory is increasingly manifest in the life of believers as we grow in our faith in what Jesus did for us in the cross.  On a global level, Christ’s victory is manifest as more and more peoples across the globe are rescued from Satan’s grip by God’s saving grace and turn away from this satanic world system as they repent of their sins and trust in Christ to forgive them through the cross.   It’s the truth of that victory that doubtless was in Luther’s mind when he wrote, “The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. His rage we can endure, for lo his doom is SURE.  One little word will fell him.” 

However, those truths do NOT in any way mean that Satan is not a fierce, formidable and potentially lethal enemy.  The same Luther who wrote those triumphant words wrote two stanzas earlier, “For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe; His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”  Revelation 12 tells us that Satan is “filled with rage for he knows his time is short.  This rage shows itself in his tenacity.  Many in church history could affirm he is like a pit bull.  When he is allowed to attack a believer, he will not unlock his jaws until either God or the believer forces him to release.  In John 10:10, Jesus says of him that he “seeks to steal, kill and destroy.”  If you are in Christ, he seeks to steal your joy and your peace.  He seeks to kill your body and your physical, mental and emotional health and he is out to destroy your soul, your testimony and this church.  He has brought incomprehensible suffering and anguish to the saints of God over the centuries.  Jesus in John chapter eight says “he is a liar and the father of lies.  He is the most deceptive being in the universe. Jesus tells us that “when he lies he speaks his native tongue.  His accusations against Christ’s church, though robbed of their lethal power for believers, easily pierce those areas where our faith is weak and at times he can bring overwhelming discouragement to our souls.  A sense of utter hopelessness is his short term goal and any sincere saint has spent more than a few hours in that dark, demonic dungeon.  Peter says he is like “a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour” and he has a voracious appetite for those who claim to follow Christ. 

He seeks to devour professed believers and he’s not the least bit particular about how he does it as long as he accomplishes his mission.  He may launch a frontal assault against your areas of weak faith that are so fierce, targeted and intense that you can be reduced to tears in moments.  In those times, it seems like you have to exert every ounce of your spiritual, emotional and even physical energy just to keep from drowning in your own self pity.  Or, he may just nibble at your souls one subtle, seductive lie at a time.  They are often wrapped in the sugar coating of half-truth and even Scripture to make them seem palatable.  He traffics in the seductive and incredibly subtle lies of materialism, post-modernism, relativism, rationalism or any other false world view that causes us to gradually lose sight of Christ and his kingdom and increasingly treasure and trust in the things of this world.  If we aren’t regularly checked by the truth of the word of God, these very subtle lies, whispered by this one who appears as an angel of light, can gradually take over and drain us of all our joy and spiritual vitality as he persistently works to steal, kill and destroy us.  And if you have never experienced that kind of spiritual opposition, it probably means that either you aren’t a threat to him, or he hasn’t had to move past his initial, default strategy with you—that is—lull you into complacency with the lie that he isn’t someone you should be all that concerned about.

At the Last Supper, Jesus makes some statements that are not only very familiar to us, but are also very helpful in enabling us to understand the workings of our enemy and how we can increasingly walk in victory over him.  During the Last Supper, Jesus issues a sobering and serious warning to Peter.  Luke writes in chapter 21:31 as Jesus says, “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.”  I find two major truths in this text.  The first is: God uses Satan’s attacks on God’s children to conform us to Christ.  We know that Jesus is serious about this attack because he says, “Simon, Simon.”  He repeats the name which was a means of stressing that something important is coming. 

It’s also important for us to know that when Jesus says that Satan has “demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” in the original language the pronoun is plural.  That means that although Simon was the special target of this attack, all the disciples were in the cross hairs of the evil one.  Simon is almost certainly targeted because he was the clear leader and if the leader is brought down, that can bring down some or all of the others.  Satan is strategic in his attacks.  One of the fascinating details of this text is that Jesus says Satan has demanded to have the apostles, Simon in particular.  Given what we said earlier about the relationship between God and Satan, it seems strange that Satan would DEMAND anything from God.  This does NOT reveal any weakness in God.  Fallen, sinful people in this room and all over the world make foolish, arrogant demands of God everyday.  That does nothing to tarnish God’s glory.  On the contrary, it bears testimony to his patience in the face of our arrogance. This satanic demand Jesus speaks of here says far more about the cosmic arrogance of the Adversary.

We know from First Timothy chapter three that Satan’s fall came about because he was filled with conceit [3:6].  This demand illustrates his massive pride.  Even though Satan has stood in the very presence of the glory of God and seen first hand his eternal majesty and omnipotence--in his pride he still makes demands of his Creator.  This illustrates just how much sin deadens the capacity for rational thought--sin turns fallen angels and humans into fools.  No rational creature created by God and under his judgment, having seen his power and splendor would make a demand on him.  Yet, Satan in his arrogance makes a demand on God.  This is not the first time in Scripture Satan responds to God like this.  In the first two chapters of Job, Satan appears with the other angels in the heavenly court before God.  There Satan accuses God of giving special treatment to Job in order to ensure his loyalty.  In chapter two, after Satan has brutally assaulted Job—completely plundering his wealth and murdering his 10 children, he then challenges God to let him attack the one thing God had earlier forbid him to attack, Job’s health. 
            The account of Job tells us that God and Satan have an ongoing relationship of sorts marked by Satan’s arrogance and God’s patience.  His demand to attack Peter is in some ways similar to his interaction with God over Job.  Jesus reports that Satan has demanded to sift Peter in particular like wheat.  We don’t know whether he asks Jesus directly or whether—as is probably the case—Satan approaches God within the heavenly courts as he did with Job and Jesus discovers this through prayer.  When Satan demands to sift Simon like wheat that metaphor is very powerful.  We get some help on what Satan intends by this demand by looking at Amos 9:9 where a very similar Hebrew phrase is used.  God is speaking of his future judgment of Israel and he says, 9For behold, I will command, and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the earth.”
          When we hear the word “sift” in Luke 21—we may think of sifting flour which is done mainly (so I am told) “to separate and aerate the flour particles to make them absorb liquids better.”[1]  It makes for fluffier four for baking.  This sifting that Satan demands to perform on Peter has nothing to do with pastry.  One commentator says this about this word translated “sift”, “The picture is of grain in a sieve, where the head of grain is taken apart…Our English idiom of “picking someone to pieces” or “taking someone apart” has similar emotive force.”[2]  The fact that Satan demands to take Simon apart/rip him to pieces illustrates what we heard in Revelation 12—“he is filled with rage for he knows his time is short.”  Satan may appear as an angel of light at times and he can be calculatingly patient as he picks at your soul one lie at a time.  Neither the outwardly beautiful coating of his lies or his gradual, measured approach to our destruction should be mistaken for indifference on his part.  Listen, if you belong to Christ, Satan is absolutely enraged with you (do you know that?) and he will exert every means at his disposal to steal, kill and destroy you. 
          The other side of the coin related to sifting is—when wheat is sifted, what is of value is separated out from what is waste.  We like that part!  We like to be separated from those soul-destroying habits and addictions.  We like losing our sinful compulsions and obsessions.  We beg for God to separate us from our godless thought patterns and wicked behaviors.  We rejoice when we notice that a rotten attitude we have harbored for years is no longer part of our profile.  We delight when God delivers us from bitterness and unforgiveness and hatred.  We celebrate when we see God’s grace giving us victory over our smart mouth or our slanderous tongue—when we no longer covet that bigger car or house—when we find ourselves increasingly liberated from stinginess in our giving—when our impatience gradually gives way to longsuffering--when complaining is replaced by worship and hatred and lust are displaced by love.  That’s the miracle of sanctification—through the gospel, God is liberating us to live out who he made us to be in Christ!

We love the separation of the bad from the good, the godless from the godly.  If we are serious about our walk with God, we have spent untold hours praying and weeping over those sins—we hate them and yearn to be more like Christ in those areas.  For the genuine believer, progress does occur—fruit is produced--because the gospel really is the power of God for salvation.  The change seems to move at the speed of molasses sometimes, but it does occur.  (Of course, with the increasing levels of victory also comes a new awareness of sin we never even noticed before—so there is never a time in this life when the battle doesn’t rage.)  But there is this gradual but glorious separation that occurs between what looks like Christ and what is sinful and we rightly celebrate that.

What this text implies is that one of the ways—not the only way—but one of the ways that separation happens is through the attack of Satan.  We must never forget that-- at the end of the day--Satan is God’s sifter—he’s just another tool God uses to make saints out of sinners.  As many have said, the devil is God’s devil.  And as we know from the account of Joseph in Genesis—what Satan and his emissaries intend for evil, God intends for good.  It’s intensely brutal at times but we must never forget that every ounce of that brutality—as in the case of Job—is pre-approved by God who is good and who loves us.  We know that’s true because at the end of Satan’s assault on Job, we read in some of the final verses of the book in 42:11, “11 Then came to him [Job] all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him…”   Satan was God’s tool to sharpen and hone Job and cause him to know God much, much better than he did before and he is the same tool in our lives.  The difference between Job and us is--we have the account of Job to help us know what is going on and we live on this side of the cross with the strength we have through the gospel.

We must never forget that God is more than willing to allow us to suffer to make us more like Jesus for at least two reasons.  First, he is far more concerned with our character than our comfort.  That comes as a bucket of icy water dumped down our back in this culture that specializes in producing comfort mongers, but it’s undeniably true.  Another reason for his willingness to let us suffer is related to that and that is--because he is far more concerned with his own glory than our comfort.  If a person is truly in Christ, they have been spiritually re-wired.  What used to be an overwhelming desire for self-glory has been replaced with a growing desire for the glory of God.  And Christ is glorified in our suffering as we cry out to him for release and relief. He’s even glorified in our whining and moaning and complaining to him because all of those expressions demonstrate that we see HIM as our only answer.  However indelicately we express it sometimes, our heart’s cry is, “Jesus, you have to help me with this.”  So, he is glorified in our suffering and he is glorified in our increasing levels of Christ-likeness produced when by God’s grace we are separated from our sin through Satan’s attack.

A second truth in this text is:  God’s grace is sufficient not only to bring us through Satan’s attack, but also to make us more effective for ministry through it.  In verse 32, after Jesus issues this warning to Simon, he says to him, “but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.  And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”  There are at least two important lessons in this verse about the sufficiency of God’s grace.  The first is—when we are attacked, Jesus is on duty.  I am ashamed to admit that when I was a child, I watched professional wrestling.  I was young and unsaved and I must admit to being tantalized by all the blood lust—however phony it was.  One of the things that you see in professional wrestling in a tag-team match is when one member of the “evil team” distracts the referee long enough for the other member of his team in the ring to do something really nasty to his “innocent” opponent.  After what seems like an eternity-- as the good guy is beaten to a pulp with a folding chair or something, the referee awakens from his oblivion, only to notice that the “good” wrestler has been horribly bloodied in some way while he wasn’t looking. That never happens with our Lord.  When Satan is attacking us—Jesus is never distracted.  As in the case of Peter and Job, he knows precisely what is going to happen before it happens and he has already prayed that the trial will not cause us to be destroyed.  When Jesus says that he has prayed that Simon’s faith may not fail, he is obviously not promising that Simon will not sin.  Simon DID sin and two verses later Jesus predicted precisely how Simon would sin and he even set a rooster alarm clock to tell him when he would be finished sinning.  Simon’s sin is in every way foreknown by Jesus.

And when Peter does utter his third and final denial of Jesus, only Luke gives us this poignant detail in 21:61.  After the denial, Luke records,  “and the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Luke doesn’t tell us what kind of look this was, but he thinks it important enough to tell us that Jesus looked at Peter immediately after his sin.  I think one reason is to remind Peter and us of the intensely personal nature of his sin of disowning him.  Luke says of Peter after he caught this look from Jesus, “He went out and wept bitterly.”  This is literally a soul-piercing bitterness.  We don’t hear about the specifics of this time of Satanic sifting of Peter—the details are obviously not important.  But we know that in the midst of those bitter tears, Satan was not able to compel Peter to give up.  His failure of faith was not terminal.  He was there at the resurrection waiting with all the rest of the clueless apostles.  Jesus reinstates him in John’s gospel and in the first 11 chapters of Acts he is the leader of the apostles. WHY?—because Jesus prayed for him—that’s clearly what made the difference between temporary and permanent defeat.  As our High Priest Jesus prays for us too.  Hebrews chapter seven says Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for his people.  He prays for us whenever we need it—he’s never asleep or distracted.  He does not do what we so often do—forget to pray or pray the wrong thing or pray after the battle is already over.  He prays the right thing at the right time and his Father always hears him and answers him.

Notice that Jesus’ prayer did NOT keep Peter from bitter tears and much anguish of soul.  Jesus could have prayed for Peter to be spared that suffering.  He didn’t.  He prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail and by failure Jesus means ultimate failure.  A second lesson we learn here is: by God’s grace, believers will not fail permanently as a result of Satan’s attack.  We will fail in the midst of a serious attack.  Expect it—muscle fibers must be stressed and even torn in order to grow and be strengthened.  But we mustn’t in the midst of the failure, listen to Satan who seeks to add condemnation to our failure.  In those moments, we must even in our weakness believe the gospel and cry out for others to pray for us so that we will not lose hope.  For the genuine believer in Christ, there is no ultimate failure.    Jude tells us that Jesus is able to “keep you from falling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy…” [Jude 1:24]  What about those who do ultimately fail—who end up being total shipwrecks and who never return to Christ?  First John 2:19 is very helpful here.  John says of those who have left the church as false teachers, “19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”  The implication on the flipside is --you can tell if someone is a real believer because—they will not leave permanently.  They may go astray for awhile, but in the end, genuine believers will not fail permanently.  This is why Jesus says in places like Mark 13:13, “13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”  You will undergo attack and persecution for his name, but you will be saved as you endure to the end.  Again, to “endure” doesn’t mean that you go through the attacks without sin.  It means that you do not give up and walk away for good.  

Peter came back and he strengthened his brothers as their reinstated leader.  He also gives Spirit-inspired truth in his epistles rooted in his understanding of God’s grace manifest in the midst of his own failings.  In First Peter 5:10 he writes, 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”  There is suffering in this world and much of it is at the hands of Satan, but God is a God of all grace—he called you and he will restore you to himself as he did Peter.  He will confirm your place in him.  He will strengthen you in your weakness and he will establish you—make you even stronger in his grace.  If you are a believer this morning and the enemy is coming in like a flood—keep trusting—Christ will not let you drown.  Call for prayer from others and God will deliver you from the evil one as soon as he knows that this onslaught has done its God-honoring, sin-separating work in you. May God give us the grace to see spiritual opposition from God’s perspective and trust in Christ.

[1] http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1635/whats-the-purpose-of-sifting-flour

[2] Bock, Luke, Vol. 2. BCNT, p.1742


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