31 Simon, Simon (Peter), listen! Satan has asked excessively that [all of] you be given up to him [out of the power and keeping of God], that he might sift [all of] you like grain, [Job 1:6-12; Amos 9:9.]
32 But I have prayed especially for you [Peter], that your [own] faith may not fail; and when you yourself have turned again, strengthen and establish your brethren. AMP
This fragment of the conversation at the supper-table is important, as showing us the view taken by Jesus of the crisis through which His disciples were about to pass. In form an address to Peter, it is really a word in season to all, and concerning all. This is evident from the use of the plural pronoun in addressing the disciple directly spoken to. "Satan," says Jesus, "hath desired to have (not thee, but) you:" thee, Simon, and also all thy brethren along with thee. The same thing appears from the injunction laid on Peter to turn his fall to account for the benefit of his brethren. The brethren, of course, are not the other disciples then present alone, but all who should believe as well. The apostles, however, are not to be excluded from the brotherhood who were to be benefited by Peter's experience; on the contrary, they are probably the parties principally and in the first place intended.
Looking, then, at this utterance as expressive of the judgment of Jesus on the character of the ensuing crisis in the history of the future apostles, we find in it three noticeable particulars.
1. First, Jesus regards the crisis as a sifting-time for the disciples. Satan, the accuser of the brethren, skeptical of their fidelity and integrity, as of Job's and of all good men's, was to sift them as wheat, hopeful that they would turn out mere chaff, and become apostates like Judas, or at least that they would make a miserable and scandalous breakdown. In this respect this final crisis was like the one at Capernaum a year before. That also was a sifting-time for Christ's discipleship. Chaff and wheat were then, too, separated, the chaff proving to be out of all proportion to the wheat, for "many went back, and walked no more with Him."
But alongside of this general resemblance between the two crises, — the minor and the major we may call them, — an important difference is to be observed. In the minor crisis, the chosen few were the pure wheat, the fickle multitude being the chaff; in the major, they are both wheat and chaff in one, and the sifting is not between man and man, but between the good and the bad, the precious and the vile, in the same man. The hearts of the eleven faithful ones are to be searched, and all their latent weakness discovered: the old man is to be divided asunder from the new; the vain, self-confident, self-willed, impetuous Simon son of Jonas, from the devoted, chivalrous, heroic, rock-like Peter.
This distinction between the two crises implies that the later was of a more searching character than the earlier; and that it was so indeed, is obvious on a moment's reflection. Consider only how different the situation of the disciples in the two cases! In the minor crisis, the multitude go, but Jesus remains; in the major, Jesus Himself is taken from them, and they are left as sheep without a shepherd. A mighty difference truly, sufficiently explaining the difference in the conduct of the same men on the two occasions. It was no doubt very disappointing and disheartening to see the mass of people who had lately followed their Master with enthusiasm, dispersing like an idle mob after seeing a show. But while the Master remained, they would not break their hearts about the defection of spurious disciples. They loved Jesus for His own sake, not for His popularity or for any other by-end. He was their teacher, and could give them the bread of eternal truth, which, and not the bread that perisheth, was what they were in quest of: He was their Head, their Father, their Elder Brother, their spiritual Husband, and they would cling to Him through all fortunes, with filial, brotherly, wifely fidelity, He being more to them than the whole world outside. If their prospects looked dark even with Him, where could they go to be any better? They had no choice but to remain where they were.