Q: #503. What did Jesus mean when He told Peter, "Satan has asked to sift you as wheat" (Lk 22:31)?
A: When looking at this verse, several things are important.
First, let’s address the word “sift.” The Greek word for “sift” is siniazo, and it means “to shake in a sieve” (Strong’s). The whole process of getting grain from a stalk of wheat was a harsh process. The stalk would be beaten, crushed, and tossed in the air, after which the grain would be exposed. Then, the grain would be shaken vigorously in a sieve to separate impurities from it. Satan in essence “asked” (the Gr. word exaiteomai is better translated as “demanded”) for permission to beat, toss, crush, and shake the faith of Peter.
When I say the faith of Peter, this leads us to the second important thing in this verse, which is that “you” in the Greek is actually “plural!” It wasn’t just “Peter’s faith” that Satan wanted to sift, it was the faith of all the disciples.
The third important thing in this verse to note is that Satan had to “get permission” from God to attack the faith of Peter and the disciples. This same thing also occurs in the book of Job, when Satan had to get permission from God to attack Job (Job 1:6-12)(Job 2:1-6). I believe that this is true for all Christians, that Satan cannot harm Christians unless God allows him to do so. When trials happen in our lives, one of two things is always true: #1. God causes them, #2. God allows them. Either way, God is ultimately always in control.
In addition, we must not stop reading at (Lk 22:31), but we must continue to (Lk 22:32) which says, “but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” In this verse, “you” is no longer plural, but singular. Jesus is speaking to Peter specifically here, and He says that He has prayed for Peter that his “faith may not fail.” Jesus knows Peter will fail Satan’s “sifting” of his faith, and he will reject Him 3 times (Mt 26:69-75)(Mk 14:66-72)(Lk 22:54-62)(Jn 18:15-18,25-27), but He also knows that Peter will come through this trial: “once you have turned again.” We see Jesus restoring Peter in (Jn 21:15-17).
I believe this to be the case each time that God allows Satan to test us. God allows (or causes) trials to our faith to strengthen it. In His omniscience, He knows what we can bear, and what we cannot. Just as Jesus knew Peter would “turn again,” God knew Job would maintain his faith, and pass the testing of his faith. And, Peter’s faith did indeed grow. Check out what he later writes in verses like (1 Pet 1:6-7)(1 Pet 4:12-13)(1 Pet 5:8-11).
While Satan did attack (“sift”) the faith of all of the disciples, it appears that he specifically targeted the faith of Peter. This is likely because Peter was generally considered the leader of the disciples. Satan’s strategy may have been to take out the leader, and just like in war, if successful, those he leads will usually fall too. In addition, Satan may have seen that Peter was ripe for a fall. Peter exhibited signs of pride and self-reliance, which the Bible says comes before a fall (Prov 16:18)(Mt 23:12)(Lk 14:11). If you look at (Lk 22:33), Peter proclaims, “Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death.” And just before this, in the previous verses, Peter is in a debate about “who was the greatest disciple” (Lk 22:24-29). For a few other examples leading up to this, see (Mk 8:31-33)(Jn 13:6-10).
All Christians will go through trials of their faith at some point, but we must remember that God is in control through them all. There are many verses which tell us what to do during these trials. I list these here.