Satan’s Permission to Sift You like Wheat
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Did Jesus ever speak more startling words to His disciples? Though Peter is named, since he was their leader, Jesus is referring to all of the Twelve (“you” is plural). All of them would be attacked by the devil but, as their leader, Peter would be most obviously singled out by the Evil One. Just as Satan would succeed—temporarily—in scattering the disciples by striking down the Chief Shepherd, so he would succeed, but only temporarily, in striking down Peter, their visible leader.
Satan Did More than Say “Please.” The New American Standard translation says that Satan “demanded” permission from God to target the apostles (as does the ESV). Satan said more than “Please” to God, i.e., he asked with a strong degree of insistence. And Satan demanded this permission from the sovereign Lord for himself (middle voice), that is, for his own selfish, destructive agenda. We do not know if accusation was included in his request, as it was in the case of Job, but that is probably the case since the devil is also the Accuser of the brethren, day and night (Revelation 12:10). In spite of this, however, we must remember that he did indeed have to get permission from God to torment and attack Peter. Satan is not sovereign; he does not have the freedom to act in any manner he chooses, but rather all his treacherous work is governed by the counsel of God’s will (Ephesians 1:11).
Human Weakness was the Devil’s Advantage. When Jesus addressed Peter, he used his former, original name Simon, not his new, promise-filled-with-power name, Peter. Surely, this hearkened Peter’s mind back to his pre-Christ life. The significance of this and its repetition is noted by Norval Geldenhuys in the New International Commentary on the New Testament: “By addressing Peter as ‘Simon, Simon’ (with the repetition), the Saviour calls upon him to realize the seriousness of the matter which He is going to discuss. And by calling him ‘Simon’ instead of ‘Peter,’ Jesus reminds him of his human weakness—he is, as regards his own powers, not ‘Peter,’ but ‘the rock,’ but a mere helpless human being.” Satan’s means to laying Peter aside temporarily was not some grotesque, appalling sin that would even be shameful to the Gentiles (though all sin is surely grotesque, appalling, and shameful to a degree); it was through Peter’s human frailty that Satan would tackle him to the ground. It was Peter’s fear of man and cowardice that Satan would take advantage of for the sake of his own demonic plan.
Ruin was the Devil’s Goal. The image Jesus chose, that of sifting like wheat, is painfully graphic. “The picture is of grain in a sieve, where the head of grain is taken apart (cf. Amos 9:9). Our English idiom of ‘picking someone to pieces’ or ‘taking someone apart’ has similar emotive force. Satan would like to bring Peter to ruin and leave him in pieces, exposing his lack of faithfulness. This leader of the Twelve is a prime target, and Jesus knows it” (Darrell Bock). Satan did not intend to merely play around with Peter for a while, to have some fun with him and then leave him alone. The devil’s single desire was to destroy Peter once and for all. And he would have succeeded had it not also been true that Jesus the Son of God had already been praying for Peter before his particular temptations came upon him.
Jesus had a More Powerful Role in this Fight. Jesus told Peter, “but I have prayed for you [singular], that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32). “While Satan thus acts as the cunning adversary, Jesus acts as the intercessor, the advocate of His disciples and especially of that particular one whom He had previously pointed out as the leader amongst them” (Geldenhuys). Though Satan takes full advantage of Peter’s human weaknesses and succeeds in temporarily derailing him, the Evil One fails to fully destroy the apostle because Jesus intercedes for him. What a comfort this is! Every true believer in Christ has the assurance that Jesus continues to be our intercessory prayer warrior.
Nonetheless, Temporary Failure would Result. Regardless of the Son of God’s prayers for him, Peter would indeed fail. His human faithlessness would be revealed and would drive him back to his compassionate, restorative Savior. Darrell Bock says that Jesus’ intercession “does not mean that Peter will never fail, but that whatever failure he has will be temporary….Peter will not fall away completely, since Jesus goes on to note that, when Peter turns back from his failure, he is to strengthen the brothers. Peter’s failure will be a failure of nerve, not a heart denial of Jesus. The remark is a note of reconciliation before the fact and pictures how God offers total forgiveness. He knows our failure and still extends his hand graciously to the believer who trusts him.”
Restoration to Greater Usefulness was Jesus’ Goal. Jesus’ goal was the polar opposite of Satan’s. Satan unlocked and unleashed his arsenal for Peter’s destruction, but we must never forget that all his attacks were kept in check by the sovereign God who possesses all wisdom and has purposes that cannot be seen by us. Peter’s faith would fail for a time, but not be completely destroyed. Jesus told him that later, after he had been restored to the Savior, Peter would be equipped to “strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Satan’s diabolical work would indeed be used for God’s higher, holier purposes. Satan cares not much about professing believers who do not radically follow Christ and; therefore, are no threat to the devil’s kingdom agenda.
The Over-Confidence of Pride Prepared Peter for Failure. After Jesus informed Peter of this upcoming trial from Satan, the apostle responded in his typical impetuous manner filled with the pride of over-confidence: “Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). “Others may fail you, Jesus, but take heart I am not weak like them!” Though Peter boldly vowed his loyalty to Christ, even to prison or death, R. Kent Hughes comments, “this foremost disciple would succumb to cowardly denial and infamous failure.” Though Satan was the supernatural power behind Peter’s failure, it was Peter’s own prideful heart that was the earthly means to his fall. Peter would forever remember Jesus’ warning, but he also would never forget the deep sense of personal failure that he felt when he realized what he had done and “wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62).
Let this Be a Warning to Us. Followers of Christ must never be so naïve as to think that Satan pays most attention to those who have already surrendered to his demonic powers. No, the opposite is true. It is those who follow Christ and have a reputation for being godly Christians who have targets on their backs. Satan cares not much at all about professing believers who do not seriously follow Christ and; therefore, are no threat to the devil’s kingdom. We must not knowingly allow him to take advantage of our weakness, or remain ignorant of his schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11). However, we must also never minimize our personal responsibility. For whenever we allow our pride to control us we throw open the door to making the devil’s work so much easier. We fall when we least expect it. “In the story of Peter’s fatal self-confidence and pitiable fall every believer has a permanent and powerful warning never to rely arrogantly on his own strength. A healthy confidence is indeed necessary to every Christian, but this must be in the sense of reliance on God—i.e. faith, not in our own resources, but in the power given to us by Him” (Geldenhuys).
“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).