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by Al Maxey

Issue #794 -- April 2, 2020
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never
call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before
His judgment seat. Oh, be swift my soul to answer
Him, be jubilant my feet! Our God is marching on.

Julia Ward Howe {1819-1910}
"Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Saint-Sifting Strategy of Satan
A Reflective Examination of Luke 22:31

I have always been a big fan of the James Bond books and movies, and I have read and seen them all. For those of you who are also aficionados of Ian Fleming's series, you are familiar with Bond's phrase, "shaken, not stirred," which is "a catchphrase of Ian Fleming's fictional British Secret Service agent, and it describes his preference for the preparation of his martini cocktail" [Wikipedia]. Fleming has 007 employing a "this, not that" literary figure of speech in which one finds a preference expressed via a "yea/nay" contrast. This principle is to some degree expressed, although with a different emphasis in mind, in our Lord's Sermon on the Mount: "Let your communication be: Yea, yea; Nay, nay; whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil" (Matthew 5:37, King James Version). A good example of this "shaken, not stirred" figure of speech can be found in a very well-known contrast written by the apostle Paul: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, English Standard Version). Perhaps we could even add: "We are shaken, but not stirred."

Jesus has warned us that in our journey through life we are going to be "shaken" by events and circumstances that come our way, and which at times will come upon us with the intent to overwhelm us. Yet, we are not to allow these times where our faith is being "shaken" to "stir up" within us feelings of despair, which all too quickly can devolve into defeat. "In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Peter informs his readers: "You have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith ... being tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:6-7). We, the disciples of Jesus, are daily being "shaken." That is a fact; and this shaking of our faith and conviction and commitment is designed to spiritually shatter us. Our Lord, however, seeks to encourage us during these times of faith-shaking so that our spirits will not be so stirred up by these trials and tribulations that we experience a deadly crisis of faith. Yes, times of tribulation are real, Jesus warns; they will come upon you; they will be intense! But we are to remain steadfast and courageous in spirit, not shaken in spirit, for our Savior has already won the victory for us! Thus, in the words of Paul, we can be afflicted in any number of ways, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. How is this possible? The Lord is in the trenches with us during this great battle; He is on the frontlines by our side; He leads the charge into the darkness that surrounds us. Although we will frequently stumble and falter in faith, He is there to lift us up. He has not deserted us, and He never will. "Who/what shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us" (Romans 8:35, 37). In Him we are indeed "shaken, but not stirred."

In the gospel account of Luke we find a stunning narrative that illustrates the above reality very well. The scene is the upper room where Jesus and His apostles have gathered to eat the Passover meal together. During that meal our Lord institutes the memorial we know today as the Lord's Supper (Communion, Eucharist). All of this is found in Luke 22: a lengthy chapter (71 verses) that includes some fascinating dialogue between Jesus and these men. It is what Jesus said about these men, and Simon Peter specifically, that we need to examine a bit more carefully, for Jesus gives them (and by extension us) a glimpse "behind the scenes," showing them some of that great cosmic battle being waged for the souls of mankind. This was an insight that not only Peter needed to hear at that time, but also a spiritual insight you and I need to hear as well. It is easy for us to become overconfident, and thus careless. Jesus said, "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat" (Luke 22:31, New American Standard Bible). The first thing we need to point out here is that the personal pronoun used in this sentence (" sift you...") is plural (while the personal pronoun in the very next verse is singular: more about this later). What this indicates is: although Jesus was speaking specifically to Peter, as the following verse shows, He was nevertheless speaking generally of the other men in the upper room as well. Satan sought to "sift like wheat" each and every one of them! Although the English pronoun "you" is a bit ambiguous (for it can be either singular or plural), that is not the case in Greek. Some translations and versions don't make this distinction in their English text, but there are a good many others that do. Notice the following examples (and these are just a very few of the examples that could be cited):

  1. Amplified Bible - "Satan has demanded permission to sift (all of) you like grain"
  2. Complete Jewish Bible - "The Adversary demanded to have you people for himself, to sift you like wheat"
  3. Contemporary English Version - "Satan has demanded the right to test each one of you, as a farmer does when he separates wheat from the husks"
  4. Easy-to-Read Version - "Satan has asked to test you men like a farmer tests his wheat"
  5. Evangelical Heritage Version - "Satan has asked to have you all, so that he may sift you as wheat"
  6. God's Word Translation - "Satan has demanded to have you apostles for himself. He wants to separate you from Me as a farmer separates wheat from husks"
  7. International Children's Bible - "Satan has asked to test all of you as a farmer tests his wheat"
  8. J. B. Phillip's Translation: The NT in Modern English - "Do you know that Satan has asked to have you all to sift like wheat?"
  9. The Message - "Satan has tried his best to separate all of you from Me, like chaff from wheat" {In the next verse, this translation does an excellent job of emphasizing the change from the plural to the singular personal pronoun: "Simon, I've prayed for you in particular that you not give in or give out. When you have come through the time of testing, turn to your companions and give them a fresh start"}
  10. New American Bible (Revised Edition) - "Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat"
  11. New International Version - "Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat"
  12. New Living Translation - "Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat"
  13. New Revised Standard Version - "Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat"

The British Methodist theologian and biblical scholar Adam Clarke (1760-1832) wrote, "The plural Greek pronoun sufficiently proves that these words were not addressed to Peter alone. Satan had already got one, Judas; he had nearly got another, Peter; and he wished to have them all" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 489]. A later British theologian, Dr. Charles Ellicott (1819-1905) concurs: "The word for 'you' is plural. The fiery trial by which the wheat was to be separated from the chaff was to embrace the whole company of the disciples as a body" [Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 350]. "It was evidently in a very solemn and earnest strain that Jesus said, 'Satan desired to have you {plural}, that he may sift...' The evil one longed with eagerness, and strove with strength, to pass the apostles of Christ through the sieve of temptation, that he might compass their overthrow. And Peter, at a later hour, tells us that this is his attitude and habit in regard to all Christian disciples" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16 - Luke, pt. 2, p. 220]. The text alluded to is 1 Peter 5:8, in which Peter warns us: "Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." Peter knew from personal experience the power of this predator, as have many since the days of the apostles and early disciples. Satan is not satisfied with a weak, straying sheep here or there; he desires the entire flock, and he works diligently to acquire as many as he can.

Although Jesus was well aware that Satan desired to "sift" all these close companions of His, and although He alerted them to this fact in the use of the plural personal pronoun, nevertheless He singled Peter out as the sole focus of His next statement: "But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail" (Luke 22:32a). The personal pronoun "you" in this passage is singular. Jesus is speaking only to Simon (Peter). Since Satan desired to have them all, as Jesus noted in vs. 31, why did He single out Peter for this special note of encouragement? One view that has long been held by some Roman Catholic theologians is that Peter was singled out for this special intercession because Jesus was signifying his elevation in spiritual status as the first in a succession of "popes" who would hold "the keys to the kingdom," and thus Peter would need this special divine protection from the evil one who would seek not only to overthrow disciples of Christ, but also the universal church as well. As one might imagine, theologians and scholars not of the Roman Catholic faith reject such a view of Messianic favoritism. "Jesus did not invest in Peter any preeminence or sanctity, as is claimed by those who worship the pope at Rome; Peter is regarded as being fallible" [H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke, p. 420].

In point of fact, most biblical scholars believe Peter was singled out by Jesus because the Lord knew that Peter, although the most vocal of the apostles, was also the most vulnerable. Clarke takes our Lord's statement this way: "Satan is endeavoring to destroy you all; but I have prayed for thee, as being in most danger!" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 488]. Peter had a very high opinion of himself, but when it came time to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, Peter's faith faltered. In just a matter of hours, not long after Jesus told Peter He was praying for him, Peter would deny Jesus three times, denying that he even knew Jesus. Jesus knew Peter better than Peter knew himself, and so He let this devoted disciple know that when "the roaring lion" had Peter on the ground in his grasp, that Jesus was in fervent prayer for him (and had been for some time). "Jesus knew well all Peter's infirmities; but He also knew how ardently he could love, how devotedly he could serve, how much he could be" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16 - Luke, pt. 2, p. 221]. Yes, "there is in Peter's nature a good deal of pride and vain-glory to be winnowed out. There is wheat within him, but also chaff" [ibid, p. 231].

From our text (Luke 22:31) we also see the arrogance of Satan, who had the nerve to "demand" that these apostles be delivered to him for "sifting." We can't help but think of a similar scene at the beginning of the account of Job (chapters 1-2), "and most commentators assume that the case of Job is in the view of Jesus and/or the evangelist Luke" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 627]. Satan wanted access to these men (which apparently was not denied), yet while Satan preyed upon them, Jesus prayed for them, just as He intercedes for us today during times of temptation and trial. This was a message Jesus especially wanted to impress upon the apostle Peter that night, for the Lord knew only too well the crisis of faith that was about to descend upon Peter in just a matter of hours. Satan would be "sifting" him: i.e., he sought to violently shake him in his sieve for the purpose of showing there was more chaff than wheat in the character and devotion of this apostle. The Greek word used here (and it is used only here in all the NT writings) is "siniazo," which means "to sift, shake in a sieve; figuratively, by inward agitation to try one's faith to the verge of overthrow" [The New Strong's Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words, p. 1366]. In the Wisdom of Sirach, a work in the Apocrypha also known as Ecclesiasticus, we read, "Shake a sieve, and the rubbish remains; start an argument, and discover a man's faults" [27:4a, The New English Bible]. Satan was coming after the apostles; he was coming after Peter; he is coming after us. His goal in sifting them/us is to find the "rubbish," and there is plenty of that in each of our lives! Yet, while Satan sifts, God's Son lifts -- He lifts us up in prayer, that is, as He intercedes for us before the Father's throne!

"Satan's sifting process is designed to threaten Simon Peter's faith, but Jesus prays for Peter's ultimate fidelity" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 505]. Jesus knew that the faith of Peter was going to falter, and that Peter was going to suffer a severe blow to his faith, but He prayed that Peter's faith would not utterly fail. We all stumble and fall all too frequently as we seek to follow in the steps of our Savior; we all, like Paul, see ourselves at times of honest self-evaluation as "wretches" (Romans 7:24). Yes, Satan is good at "sifting" us and then showing us the abundance of "rubbish" in our lives. This can be discouraging, but with Jesus praying for us it need not be defeating! Was the prayer of Jesus answered? This has been debated for centuries. "Jesus' prayer that Simon's faith would not fail has occasioned discussion over whether it was or was not answered" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 1029]. Few would say it was not, for the testimony of the life of this apostle affirms that he was indeed a man of tremendous faith in and love for the Lord. Yet, few would deny that Peter's faith took a near fatal blow that fateful night. We have to wonder where he would be, and how his life would have turned out, had Jesus NOT lifted him up in prayer as Satan brutally shook him in that hellish sieve. Employing the classic "this, not that" literary figure of speech, Adam Clarke observed, "Peter's faith did fail, but not utterly: he did fall, but he did not fall off, apostatize, or forsake his Master and His cause finally, as Judas did" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 489].

Dr. Albert Barnes (1798-1870), a Presbyterian pastor and theologian, wrote, "Jesus, foreseeing the danger of Peter, and knowing that he was about to deny Him, took occasion to forewarn him and put him on his guard, and also to furnish him with a solace when he should be brought to repentance" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. What is truly beautiful about this passage before us in the gospel account of Luke the physician is that Jesus, being fully aware of what Peter was about to do, was also fully devoted to Peter; thus, He not only gave him a word of warning, He also graciously gave him hope for what lay beyond that denial. Peter would repent, and Peter would use his experience to help bring others through similar Satanic shakings and siftings. Jesus said to Peter, "When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:32b). Jesus showed no anger toward Peter, no condemnation, only grace and understanding and acceptance. Peter would be reminded of this several days later, and again given the above challenge, when Jesus spoke with him on the beach around a charcoal fire (John 21:15f). For an in-depth look at this conversation I would refer you to my study: "Breakfast on the Beach: Dramatic Dialogue at a Fish Fry" (Reflections #189).

It is said, and I fully agree, that the best counselor is one who has experienced the same struggles and failings of those he/she seeks to help. Peter would experience a major faith-failure, one he would never forget. And that is good, for when he "returned" to that faith he would be in a position to be even more valuable to the Lord as a spiritual shepherd of His One Flock (John 21:15-17 - "tend/feed My lambs ... shepherd My sheep ... tend/feed My sheep"). With Jesus praying for us when we falter and fall, such failures of faith will never prove fatal. It is with this truth in mind that Paul, that "wretched man," could nevertheless exclaim, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! ... For there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 7:25 - 8:1). It would take Peter a while to recover from his fall, but when he did he would prove to be a blessing to the cause of Christ and to countless Christians over the centuries who would face similar shakings and siftings of Satan. "In one sense 'faith' did 'fail' when Peter denied his Lord; but repentance came after it, and a new power was gained through that weakness to make others strong" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 350]. "The whole experience, far from disqualifying Peter from Christian service, would actually issue in a responsibility for him to strengthen his brothers" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 1029].

There are important lessons for us to learn from this Satanic sifting and shaking of Peter. We too are targets of this "serpent" and "roaring lion;" he seeks our destruction also. We must be ever alert; always on guard. Yet, even then, we will all too often fail in our resolve and falter in our faith. We will stumble and we will fall. How wonderful to know that during such times our Savior is praying for us!! Not only that, but when we "return" He fully embraces us in love and entrusts us with the strengthening of our fellow struggling saints. "All disciples of Christ should remember that in days of trouble and distress their adversary, the devil, will take advantage of the fact and will attempt to devour them. And just as in the case of Simon, the devil succeeded: for a very little while he conquered. But the Lord made Peter the special object of earnest prayer, in order that his faith, which he would lose in the denial, would not be taken away; would not be lost permanently" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: the NT, vol. 1, p. 386]. Brethren, we are in a time of "great shaking and sifting" by Satan; his work is manifest all around us. Among way too many of us our faith is taking a beating. But, Jesus is praying!! The Savior is ever seeking to lift those whom Satan is ever seeking to sift. Let us take heart in this truth. "It is only when self-confidence, as in Peter's case, has been purged out of us by humiliating discoveries of our personal weakness, that we are in a position to undertake the care and strengthening of our brethren. Broken-hearted Simon becomes, after Pentecost, the reliable Rock-man, worthy again of the name: Peter!" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16 - Luke, pt. 2, p. 231].


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al Maxey, you are a blessing to the world. Thank you for sharing your brilliant insights with us (Oh, and thanks to your wife Shelly for sharing you with us). I share your web site with others as a great source of information, good writing, and encouragement. Like I've told my good friend and brother-in-Christ, Dr. Dallas Burdette (who wrote the Foreword to your book "One Bread, One Body: An Examination of Eucharistic Expectation, Evolution and Extremism"), I hope you are around for a long time.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Brother Al, please send me your CD containing your series of recorded lessons on the topic: "Law to Liberty: Reflecting on our Journey away from Legalism and into Freedom in Christ." Enclosed is my check for this study. Thanks!

From a Reader in Unknown:

Al, you made some very good points in your article "To Fulfill All Righteousness: Solidarity and Substitution Theology: A Reflective Study of Matthew 3:15" (Reflections #793). I have come around to thinking that Jesus was baptized exactly to begin a new mission before God. The Jews also went through cleansings, but it wasn't to be cleansed; that wasn't the goal. The goal was so that they could stand before God in whatever way they needed to be. The priests had to be cleansed before they could do their duties. We shouldn't think of baptism as cleansing us from our sins, but cleansing us so that we can move into a different state: having the ability to stand before, and work for, God. Jesus was entering into one state from another, which is what conversion really is. He was moving into top gear from a lower gear. His baptism was a spiritual move. God bless!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, I just got a chance to read your latest article: "To Fulfill All Righteousness." WOW!! I had never heard this position expressed before, but it surely does make sense! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Have a healthy week ... and wash your hands!

From a Reader in Florida:

Al, thanks for this insight into other theoretical explanations, and for your own far less cluttered meaning of Jesus' words about His baptism. I had always wondered why John the Baptist didn't say, "What do You mean by that, Jesus?!" I wish he had. The church is like the human brain: at a certain age it begins to shrink, but it still is able to produce much needed new cells even as it ages. Your passion for mining the Scriptures just might preserve an underground remnant for Truth. Blessings!

From a Minister in New Zealand:

"To Fulfill All Righteousness" is a good Reflections. One thing that has helped me to appreciate and further understand this action by Jesus and John is to acknowledge the contemporary religious situation of that day with respect to the practice of baptism and its development, emergence and expectations in Jewish society. For example, the Pharisees sent some to John asking, "Why then are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" (John 1:25). A crucial statement by John himself is found in vs. 31, one that is so easily glossed over: "I did not recognize Him, but so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water." Some have said that Jesus being baptized announced Him as Prophet, Priest and King. Again, the expression "the baptism of John" finds significance in the appointment of another apostle (Acts 1:22) and in Peter's discourse to Cornelius (Acts 10:37), in which the baptism of John was viewed as a defining ministry of significance anticipating Jesus' anointing with the Holy Spirit. In Pisidian Antioch, Paul acknowledges a correlation between John and Jesus subsequential to John's practice of baptizing and preparing for the Messiah (Acts 13:23-25). Again, brother, this was a great article! Thank you!

From a Reader in California:

Al, I loved this issue of your Reflections ("To Fulfill All Righteousness"). You always have such great insight.

From a Reader in Louisiana:

I have thoroughly enjoyed both of your web sites (your Personal web site and your Reflections web site), as well as your book From Ruin To Resurrection. I have three verses with which I continue to struggle. In Luke 1:46-47, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, and Hebrews 4:12, multiple words are used: soul, spirit, body. In some cases only two of these together, but in others all three. How does this make sense if there is just the body and the spirit (breath), and the soul just really means the complete combination of the two? Al, thank you for your help, and may God continue to bless you, your family, and your good work.

From a Reader in Canada:

Greetings Brother Al. Psalm 91 should be on our lips often during this virus crisis. It looks forward to exactly what is taking place at this time. If we trust in our God and Father to be our rear guard, our strong tower, and our sure defense, then we will weather this storm. Nothing can touch us or hurt us unless our God and Father allows that to happen. Nothing! If He does allow us to get this virus, or even to die from it, we know that all things work out for good to those who love Him. All things! You and all my brothers and sisters are in my prayers. We should also pray for all the little children and mothers who will be affected by this virus. I can't imagine what is happening with all the people who are fleeing war zones in the Middle East who might be affected by this virus (just one more thing they have to deal with), especially the children and mothers who are suffering. God loves all mankind, and we ought to include those people in our prayers also. May our God and Father bless you and keep you and guide you, so that you may hold fast to His hand and allow Him to lead you along the way that leads to life!

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