Why did Jesus pray only that Peter’s faith wouldn’t fail?

Q. According to Luke, at the Last Supper Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.” What does “all of you” mean in this context? That Satan wanted “all of Simon,” or that he wanted to sift all twelve of the apostles? If the answer is that Satan wanted to sift all twelve of the apostles,  then why did Jesus tell only Simon that he had prayed that his faith would not fail? Why didn’t Jesus pray for all twelve of his disciples?

“All of you” means that Satan wants to sift all twelve of the apostles. The pronoun “you” is plural in the Greek, and the NIV, which you are quoting from, is using the expression “all of you” to reflect that. Other translations say “you apostles,” “you disciples,” or “you men.”

When Jesus addresses Simon specifically, the pronoun becomes singular in Greek. I think Jesus recognized the bravado that Peter in particular was likely displaying as the disciples, in response to Jesus’ warning that one of them would betray him, instead argued about which one of them was the greatest. Sure enough, Peter then boasted that he would never abandon Jesus, and Jesus had to tell him that he was actually going to deny him three times.

But Jesus had Peter in mind all along for a leadership role in the community of his followers after his death, and “strengthen your brothers” is a call to step into that role even after the denial. (It’s like “feed my sheep” at the end of the gospel of John.) As for why Jesus didn’t say that he was also praying that the faith of the other disciples wouldn’t fail, perhaps Peter was at the greatest risk because he was the most insistent that his faith would never fail.

“The Denial of St. Peter,” Flemish, early 1600s. Despite his bravado at the Last Supper, Peter denied Jesus that same evening. But later he did “return” and “strengthen his brothers,” as Jesus had prayed he would.

Are the numbers in the book of Daniel intentionally symbolic?

Q. Are the numbers in the book of Daniel intentionally symbolic?

Thank you for your question. I believe that this earlier post will help answer it:

The meaning of Daniel’s seventy weeks

This related post may also be of interest:

Are the numbers 3, 4, 7, 10, etc. intentionally symbolic in the book of Revelation?

Was Jesus the “angel of the Lord” who appeared to the shepherds?

Thomas Cole, “The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds,” 1834

Q. While reading the Christmas story in Luke, I noticed for the first time that “the glory of the Lord” came from “the angel of the Lord.” I had always assumed that this angel was an ordinary one, but God does not share His glory, so perhaps this was a theophany, as at the burning bush, where the “angel of the Lord” appeared. The glory was not from an ordinary angel, but from God.

In some online commentaries it is suggested that the burning-bush angel was an apparition of the pre-incarnate Christ. But it would seem odd or impossible for the angel of the Lord in Luke to be Christ, if he was at that very same time wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.  What are your thoughts about this? I would say that if the angel of the Lord is a theophany, then it could be the Father or the Spirit as an apparition of God in both cases. I also like that in both accounts, the angel of the Lord appears to shepherds…major turning points in God’s relationship with man.

A very similar question is asked in this post about an episode a little later in the Christmas story: “Was Jesus the “angel of the Lord” who warned Joseph?” The questioner in that case also noted that “many contend that the ‘angel of the Lord’ in the OT refers to a pre-incarnation Jesus.” It’s the same kind of situation: Jesus is already on the scene, as a baby, so how can he also be the angel who appears with a divine message?

Much of what I said in response to that question applies to the situation you’re asking about as well:

• The text should probably be translated “an angel of the Lord” rather than “the angel of the Lord.” So it’s not the same figure encountered in the Old Testament. (The earlier blog post gives the specifics as to why the Greek and Hebrew should be translated “an angel” in these accounts in the gospels but “the angel” in the Old Testament.)

• While some interpreters do believe that the “angel of the Lord” in the First Testament is a manifestation of the pre-incarnate Jesus, I think it’s better to consider it more generally a “theophany,” that is, an appearance of God in human form, without being any more specific than that.

It is true that the shepherds say, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” But I think we can easily understand this to mean “which the Lord has made known to us by sending an angel to tell us,” rather than, “which the Lord has made known to us in person” (in the figure of “the angel of the Lord”).

Also, the fact that the “glory of the Lord” shone around the shepherds when the angel appeared doesn’t necessarily mean that the angel had this glory personally because it was the angel was the Lord. Rather, the Lord sent both his angel and his glory to convey the announcement.

I do like the parallel you draw between this angel in Luke appearing to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus and “the angel of the Lord” appearing to a shepherd (Moses) at the burning bush. In both cases humanity was crying out for and expecting a deliverer, and the announcement of deliverance was made to humble, hard-working representatives of humanity. (Although in the case of the burning bush, the announcement was made to a shepherd that he would be the deliverer!)

A Bible reading plan without chapters and verses

Q. I would like to read through the Bible systematically over some period of time, free from chapter and verse interruptions but with approximately similarly sized sections each day, breaking at points that make some sense in context of the text. Are there word counts available for the various sections of Scripture, in order to draw up a reading plan?

Just the kind of reading plan you’re asking about has already been created. As I explain on the “About” page for this blog, I was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. My work with Biblica also included helping them develop a program of Community Bible Experiences (CBEs), in which groups read through the Bible following a reading plan precisely like the one you’re envisioning.

The CBE resources are now available through Zondervan, the commercial publisher of the NIV. On this site you can get a free digital sample kit that includes reading plans. All you would need to do is buy individual copies of the four volumes in which The Books of the Bible is now being published. But you can order copies through that same site.

I’d encourage you to start with one of the volumes—perhaps the “Covenant History,” Genesis through Kings—and see how it goes. I imagine that you’ll ultimately want to get all four volumes and read through the whole Bible following the natural literary forms of the books rather than the later artificial chapter and verse divisions. Happy reading!

How is God the “Savior of all people”?

Q. Paul writes to Timothy, “We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” Universalists use this as a backing for all being saved. What does Paul mean when he refers to God as being the “Savior of all people,” and why does he add “especially of those who believe?”

I think what Paul means is that there isn’t any other Savior for people. His statement here is equivalent to what Peter tells the Sanhedrin when they want him to stop preaching in the name of Jesus: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” So different nations or cultures aren’t saved by different gods; the living God (that is, the only God who truly exists) is the one that all people must look to for salvation.

But this God is the “Savior” in a more specific sense of those who already believe in him and have found salvation. That’s why Paul adds, “especially of those who believe.”


Was Jairus’s daughter really dead or only sleeping?

Q. Luke tells us how Jesus went to the house of Jairus, whose daughter was “dying” (at first) but apparently “dead” when Jesus arrived. Jesus said, “She’s not dead but asleep.” But Luke says that when he took her hand, “Her spirit returned.” Then Jesus told the girl’s parents not to tell anyone what had happened. So was the girl dead or asleep? Why did Jesus tell them she was “not dead”? And why did he tell the girl’s parents not to tell anyone what had happened, when he had just instructed the man who’d been freed from the legion of demons to tell people how much God had done for him?

As for Jairus’s daughter being dead or not, I think the key to what Jesus meant is that a common expression for death in ancient cultures was “falling asleep.” We see this in several places in the New Testament, for example, in 1 Thessalonians, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope,” and in 1 Corinthians, “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” We also see this in the Old Testament; a common way to describe someone dying is to say that they “went to sleep with their ancestors.” While the Old Testament examples are in Hebrew and the New Testament ones are in Greek, the image would also have been used in the Palestinian Jewish culture of Jesus, where Aramaic was spoken, so we can be confident that the Greek-language New Testament writings are preserving Jesus’ expression accurately.

Now “fallen asleep” has the connotation of potentially waking up; “died” is more final. So I think Jesus meant that the wailing and mourning were not appropriate in any event because the girl already had the hope of life after death, and moreover in this case she was just about to be raised from the dead as a proclamation of the kingdom that Jesus came to bring. So the main point really is, “Stop wailing,” or, “Do not grieve as those do who have no hope.”

As for why the man freed from the legion of demons was told to tell all his friends what happened, while this girl’s parents were told not to tell anybody, I think this has something to do with is sometimes referred to as the “Messianic secret.” Jesus couldn’t let his own people know too soon who he was, or that would provoke deadly opposition from their leaders before his purposes on earth had been completed. But there wasn’t that risk among Gentiles; instead, the proclamation among them prepared the way for further ministry to them by Jesus (he later went back across the lake and this time the people wanted to see him for teaching and healing) and for proclamation of the good news to them by the apostles after the resurrection.

Are we literally supposed to be able to move mountains by faith?

Q. Something Jesus said has always been a bit troubling to me. He told his disciples once that they hadn’t been able to cast out a demon “because you have so little faith.” Then he added, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” I have to say I certainly believe I have faith and strive for it, but I’ve never quite been able to make a mountain jump. That said, I have not noticed anyone else making mountains jump either. Are we to assume that no one currently on earth has the kind of faith needed, or was this a parable not to be taken literally?

I believe that Jesus’ comment about moving a mountain is the kind of hyperbole (rhetorical exaggeration to make a point) that we also see him using elsewhere. (This was a favored device of rabbis at the time.) For example: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven”; “When you give to the needy, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”; “If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.”

This device was attention-grabbing, and I think one thing that made it memorable and effective was that listeners were indeed left wondering whether to take it literally, and if not, what it actually meant. I think the main point here is the contrast between small faith and a great mountain.

At this point in Matthew, Jesus has just come down from the Mountain of Transfiguration, so he may well be gesturing towards that mountain, which would be looming above him and his audience. But he made the same point on another occasion, apparently in a different location, by saying, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

So no one should feel that if they can’t imagine themselves literally making a mountain move, they must not have enough faith. Instead, I think we’re meant to apply the image metaphorically and ask, “What is the ‘mountain’ in my life that seems impossible to move? That must be possible for God, because even if I have the tiniest bit of faith, so long as it’s in an infinitely powerful God, this situation can be addressed.”

That last thought relates to the question of why Jesus told the disciples they couldn’t cast out the demon because of their little faith, when only the tiniest bit of faith is required. Did the disciples really not have even a minuscule amount of faith? No, I think we’re supposed to ponder this issue that the statement raises as well and realize that the question isn’t how much faith we have, but how much power God has, who is the object of our faith. We can then put our faith to work and trust God to address any situation where his great power is needed to advance his purposes.