Conflict and Triumph

Peter and Paul stand out in the New Testament as representative men. Probably we see more of our frailty and failure in Peter, but even in Paul the valiant, we discern desires and difficulties that are not strange to us. The Lord’s ways with them are recorded for our learning, and in these ways the fact shines out as clear as the sun that He was more than enough for all their necessities and distresses. Herein we have sure hope and great encouragement. And here I will give the words that led me to write this short paper, they came forth from the Lord’s own mouth. To Peter He said, “I have prayed for thee,” and to Paul He said. “My grace is sufficient for thee.” It is not really necessary to make many remarks on these wonderful sayings—they speak for themselves and are enough to sustain the soul of any child of God even in the greatest trials of faith, for what the Lord was to Peter and Paul He is for all His own: for you and for me.

It is interesting that both these men passed through a threefold test, Peter three times denied his Lord, and Paul three times prayed that the thorn that tore his flesh might be removed. The three times would indicate the intensity of their trials as it also tested and proved the efficacy of the Lord’s intercession and grace. Then Satan had a hand in both these great testings. To Peter the Lord said, “Satan has desired to have you that he may sift you as wheat”; and Paul said the thorn in his flesh was “the messenger of Satan to buffet him.” Again both these servants of the Lord had to pass through their testings in respect to spiritual pride. Peter was puffed up because of his undoubted devotion to the Lord, which he considered greater than that of his brethren; he had to be purged of that pride. Paul’s thorn was given to him because he was liable to be puffed up because of his great knowledge of the things of God: he had to be preserved from that; and finally the result of the testings was to be the same with both men, they were to be delivered from all self-confidence and self-reliance to find all their strength in the Lord and to rely wholly upon Him.

Peter and all the disciples were to be “sifted as wheat,” but every trial to which any child of God is subjected is sifting—tribulation means that, and “in the world ye shall have tribulation” is a sure word. The tribulium, from which the word is derived, was the threshing instrument that separated the wheat from the chaff. Bereavement, sickness, personal suffering, loss of possessions, all adverse circumstances and strong temptation, all these are for the sifting of the wheat from the chaff, and Satan is not far away when the sifting begins. In Peter’s case he did the sifting, he seized the flail and was determined to smash his faith, but he was too late for that: our omniscient Lord was ahead of him: His intercession went before Peter to the threshing floor, and though he failed, grievously failed, his faith did not fail, and on the day of Pentecost the devil must have discovered how Peter’s faith which he had hoped to destroy had been sustained and strengthened and purified in and by the sifting, and how completely he, the tempter, had been foiled in the conflict; his foul designs had recoiled on his own head. The intercession of the Advocate had prevailed against the malice of the Adversary and Accuser.

We look out on the family of God in the world and we see it in sore tribulation. These are sifting times. Some are more sorely pressed than others, but that would be a selfish and unchristian heart that was not pained and did not grieve for the widespread sufferings of the day. There are lands in which our brethren in the great family are suffering in prisons and concentration camps for their faith; in others it is a crime to possess a Bible, and Christian fellowship is only possible in secret. In these more favoured lands multitudes are enduring anxiety which has grown into agony, they are in suspense day and night; and many are suffering from sickness, pain and injuries and nerve strain; some have lost their possessions, and many are bereaved, the sorest test of all. And Satan is busy; he has had long experience in handling the flail and knows well how to increase the pressure upon the suffering soul. His plan of campaign is to suggest doubts and questions as to God’s goodness and the reliability of His Word, because of the very sorrows in which he is the prime mover.

There is nothing new in this, it has been his way from the beginning, but by these means he hopes to rob suffering saints of their confidence in God consequently of their peace of heart, and to mix bitterness and rebellion in their cup of sorrow. But in distress what comfort there is in these words, “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.” What confidence, what courage they impart to the soul.

Your tribulation, dear reader, may have come upon you suddenly and unexpectedly, and may have taken you by surprise; it did not surprise your Lord, who ever liveth to make intercession for you. He knew all about it beforehand and He prayed for you before it happened. May you take His words home to yourself? Yes, you may, just as though you were the only suffering saint in the world and as though the words had been addressed to you as they were to Peter: they are for you as truly as they were for him. The intercession of your Lord will sustain you through your trial, and because of it you may sound forth the Christian’s triumphant challenge. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness or sword?” Nay, in all these things you may be more than a conqueror through Him who loves you. You need not fail as Peter failed, for He is able to keep you from falling. Your faith will not fail for He has taken charge of it, and He must triumph in and through you.

Not one of us will ever be forced into such a fierce fight as that which Satan waged with Peter. It opened in the high priest’s kitchen, but that was but the first onslaught in the great conflict; it continued in those dark and terrible hours that followed. Peter had slept on the Mount of the Lord’s glory, and in the garden of His sorrow, and afterwards he slept in prison while awaiting execution; he might well be called the sleepy disciple; but does anyone suppose he slept from the time of his denial until he saw his Lord again? Sleep! Nay, Satan would see to it that he did not sleep, even if his own base conduct had permitted it. His conscience would give him no rest, and Satan would give him no rest, and the sifting time went on until the Lord delivered him from it by His appearance to him on the resurrection morning.

His Lord had been crucified, a mode of death reserved for the worst of criminals, and what words can describe what that meant to Peter? He had had great hopes in Him, he had thought that he was following Him to a throne and lo, instead a cross had been given Him, and He had accepted it without remonstrance or resistance. He had been numbered with the transgressors, despised and rejected by men, and Peter had played his ignoble part in all that his Lord had suffered. He should have died for his Lord and had boasted that he would, but instead he had denied Him. Would not Satan mock him as his conscience accused him? Would he not present the death of shame that Jesus had suffered as His utter and final defeat, and Peter’s faith in Him as a vain thing? His fiery darts would fly thick and fast, all aimed at Peter’s faith: the flail would fall stroke upon stroke on his innermost soul; as the hours passed on leaden feet, every weapon in Satan’s armoury would be brought forth and used with satanic skill to destroy the faith of Peter, but it was all in vain. The Lord had prayed for him and His prayer prevailed. The chaff was scattered, but not a grain of wheat was lost. The scars of the great conflict remained on Peter all his days, he could not forget it nor the grace of his Lord, and his desire was to preserve his brethren from the suffering that he had suffered as a result of his self-confidence and unwatchfulness. So he wrote to them “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom be may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith” (1 Peter 5:8). Thus was Satan defeated and Peter came out of the conflict with faith strengthened to strengthen his brethren. Whatever trial of faith any of us may be called to pass through cannot be comparable to Peter’s, yet the Lord carried him through it and He will not fail us.

Paul’s case was different and the buffetings that Satan’s messenger gave him were from another quarter, they did not arise out of any failure of his; the attack came upon him when he was faithfully serving the Lord and receiving signal marks of His favour. The thorn that caused him such anguish of body and spirit was something entirely personal. For a wise reason we are not told what it was, but it meant a fierce trial for Paul in which Satan sorely pressed him for a victory. As far as our knowledge goes he did not pray for relief from anything else. In the previous chapter he tells of some of his sufferings, and we marvel that any man could have endured them, but he did not pray to be relieved of any of them, he accepted them all with joy as part of the price he had to pay for the high honour of bearing witness before men of the blessedness of his glorious Lord and Saviour, he expected nothing else but suffering. But the thorn in the flesh was different: it was something that changed his strength to weakness and robbed him of all pride in himself, and when men looked at him, the most valiant of all the servants of the Lord, they saw a man beset with “infirmities, necessities and distresses.”

How Satan hated this man, and as he gained permission to harass Job, so now he was allowed with satanic malice to drive this stake into Paul’s body and soul, and then his mockery and tempting began. It would have been a waste of time and effort to have told Paul that his faith in Jesus was vain, for he lived on the post-resurrection side of the cross, and had heard the voice of his Lord and had seen Him there, but he may have suggested that since the Lord had all power He had not much consideration for His faithful servant, seeing He allowed him to suffer what seemed to be a needless and distressing affliction; but that temptation would also fail utterly to shake Paul’s confidence in the Lord, he knew Him too well to doubt Him. It is very probable that he told Paul that he would never again serve the Lord with the freedom that he had enjoyed, that he would be an object of contempt in the eyes of men when he stood up to address them, and, crippled as he was, he might as well give up all thought of continuing his witness for the One who had loved him and given Himself for him: his day was done.

Whatever the thorn was and however Satan buffeted him in it, it cast him on the Lord and made him pray. Peter did not pray for himself, but Paul did—he prayed in an agony: he besought the Lord, not once but thrice, that He would set Him free from this terrible burden, this incubus, that threatened to crush both spirit and life out of him. And what was the result of his praying? He was heard but his request was not granted. What did he say about it? Hear him, “And He said unto me”—weigh every word—his Lord drew near to him and spoke to him and soothed and quieted his spirit by intimate, peace-giving words; and what were they? “My grace is sufficient for thee; for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Could anything be more affecting than that? Then and there Paul learnt what he had never before learnt in all the revelations he had received, no, not even those he had heard when called up to the third heaven. He learnt the Lord’s solicitude for him, the tenderness of His heart, His deep and never-ceasing care for His suffering servant; he discovered that the grace of the Lord was as boundless as His glory and as inexhaustible as His wealth of power. “My grace … for thee.” There was henceforward to be as Paul had never known it in all his Christian experience a continual flow of active love from the heart of his Lord into his very being, and he was to be upheld in this greatest of all trials, not by his indomitable spirit, but by the arm of the Lord. The thing that Satan intended should drive him to desperation and totally unfit him for the service of the Lord was turned into his greatest blessing, and instead of being defeated he triumphed in the grace and strength of the Lord when he cried, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

“I have prayed for thee.” “My grace is sufficient for thee.” These words abide for us in their fullest meaning. The first casts a hedge about our faith and will preserve it inviolate in every time of testing, even when the testing is the result of our own folly and failure, as Peter’s was. The second is the pledge that the Lord’s personal grace and strength will uphold us and carry us through the testing and turn the burdens into blessings, the trials into triumphs and the sorrows into songs, as in Paul’s case. We have committed the eternal welfare of our souls unto Him and He will honour the trust and we may with the greatest confidence trust Him at all times, assured that He will carry us through to the glory of God and present us faultless there with exceeding joy.

J. T. Mawson