The Sifting of Simon
In Luke 22:31, 32 Jesus says to Simon Peter,
31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; 32 but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Peter objected by stating his second great confession of faith:
33 And he said to Him, “Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!” 34 And He said, “I say to you, Peter, the cock will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me.”
The “cock” was a euphemism for a bugle (gallus, “rooster, cock”) which the Romans used to signal the relief of the guards and the changing of the shift. This was to be fulfilled shortly.
Matt. 26:30 and Mark 14:26 indicate that this conversation occurred after they had left the upper room to go to the Mount of Olives. Yet because the details are different, it appears that what Luke wrote occurred before they left, and then, as both Matthew and Mark say, the conversation continued while they were walking to the Mount, with Peter still strenuously asserting his loyalty.
The Divine Court Ruling
Luke is the only gospel writer who tells us of a divine court case involving Jesus and Satan in regard to Peter’s fate. “Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat.” Demanded where? It obviously occurred in the divine court.
This court case was similar to that found in Job 1:6-12, where Satan challenged God about the faith of Job. Job was then tested, or sifted as wheat, to see if his faith was real or simulated. It appears that in this way Peter was the New Testament equivalent of Job.
In this divine court case, Jesus said that He had advocated for Peter and had won the victory, ensuring that Peter’s faith would not fail in the end. In fact, that victory would strengthen Peter so that he would, in turn, strengthen his brothers. A similar result is seen in the story of Job, for after he learned of the sovereignty of God on a deeper level and emerged victorious, he was able to pray for those friends who had given him wrong advice that came through their misperceptions of the character of God. In Job 42:10 we read,
10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends, and the Lord increased all that Job had twofold.
Job prospered under his previous level of faith, but when he learned the sovereignty of God, his prosperity doubled. Such prosperity, of course, though it is pictured in terms of physical wealth, is really meant to project an increased power of faith itself. That is the real prosperity that anyone ought to have.
So also we see that Peter was to undergo a test of faith. Though he would fail the test at first, he would win in the end. As with Job, the failures humbled Peter, and when he remembered the prophecy later, he was able to take heart, knowing that his failure would work to his advantage and to the advantage of his brothers who might undergo similar trials of faith.
Peter as a Prophetic Type
It is obvious that Peter’s sifting represented something far greater than his personal test of faith during Jesus’ trial, when Peter denied Him. Peter was a representative of the house of Israel during the Pentecostal Age, when Israel’s faith would be tested.
In Amos 9 the sovereignty of God over all nations is depicted in the fact that the He is the great Judge, whose sentences are carried out by apparently natural means. He issues the decree to “smite the capitals so that the thresholds will shake” (Amos 9:1). The nations cannot escape divine judgment when it is decreed, for “though they hide on the summit of Carmel, I will search them out and take them from there.” Neither can they escape by hiding on the ocean floor (Amos 9:3).
In that context, Amos 9:8, 9 says,
8 “Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are on the sinful kingdom [Israel], and I will destroy it from the face of the earth; nevertheless, I will not totally destroy the house of Jacob,” declares the Lord. 9 For behold, I am commanding, and I will shake the house of Israel among all nations as grain is shaken in a sieve, but not a kernel will fall to the ground.
The KJV says, “as corn is sifted in a sieve.” We see, then, that the House of Israel (called also the house of Jacob) would be sifted as grain. (Corn was the old English word for grain in general.) Even these two names (Jacob and Israel) are part of the sifting, because their captivity was designed to sift and separate chaff from wheat, flesh from spirit, Jacobites from true Israelites.
So Amos continues, saying in verse 10, “all the sinners of My people will die by the sword.” The implication is that all Jacobites would die on account of their mortality. Only the righteous—the true Israelites—will prevail in the end and receive life (immortality) as overcomers at the First Resurrection. We will have more to say about this shortly, for this was part of the lesson for Peter when he tried to defend Jesus by a physical sword (Matt. 26:51, 52).
As a prophetic type, Peter was soon to be swept up by the greater story of the sifting of the House of Israel from the House of Jacob.
In my experience, I have found that in such cases men are swept along by forces that are beyond their control, and men play roles as actors on a stage. They are no longer themselves, as it were, but they take on the role of someone else. In this case, Peter, without realizing it, began to play the role of the House of Israel.
Israel had been taken captive by the Assyrians in 745-721 B.C. on account of their sin in worshiping the golden calves at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12:29). After the collapse of the Assyrian empire, many of them began to migrate into Europe, where they were known by many names (other than Israel). These were not Jews, of course, for Judah was a separate nation and had a separate identity and calling to fulfill.
In the centuries that followed, Europe became Christianized. These ex-Israelites of the dispersion began to follow the Christian religion. Most of them, however, remained fleshly, having an indirect relationship with Christ, because the religion had claimed that one could not have direct access to Christ apart from church membership. The church, then, stood between God and men. The result was that most Christians were Jacobites, rather than Israelites, needing a face-to-face encounter with God.
The sifting throughout history was not only a matter of turning from paganism to the Christian religion, but was also a sifting from fleshly religion to spiritual encounter and from an indirect relationship to a direct relationship with God. Since Jacob’s name means “deceiver, usurper,” the Church Age was largely characterized by the Church hierarchy usurping the position of Christ.
In fact, this is what Jacob and Saul had in common, for Saul too usurped the throne—not that he was crowned illegitimately, but that he ruled as if the throne were his. This, of course, is a very large topic and cannot be pursued in any depth here.
Peter’s sifting, then, was a short story with a large meaning. In fact, it goes far beyond the nation of Israel, because it involves all men everywhere. All are being sifted in the same way, for God is sovereign over all nations.
Jesus’ Prayer for Peter
Jesus’ prayer for Peter was not a simple matter of getting down on his knees and praying for Peter in the usual sense. Jesus was Peter’s advocate in a court of law, and the prosecutor was Satan, “the adversary” in that court of law. Satan’s appeal was based upon the divine judgment upon the House of Israel, of which Peter was a prophetic type. Jesus’ defense was based on the New Covenant promises of God, which looked beyond the time of judgment.
The term satan means an adversary and signifies one who causes or stirs up strife and opposition in order to create breaches. On the other hand, Jesus was a healer of breaches, and Dr. Luke was His chief spokesman in that particular arena.
Peter’s denial of Christ shows that Satan won his case partially in the divine court, because Peter was indeed a type of Israel that was already being sifted as wheat in the sieve of nations. But ultimately, Jesus had changed Peter’s name to Simon, which means “hearing with acceptance.” He was destined in the end to hear God’s voice and be obedient.
The work of sifting was to separate wheat from chaff, that is, to separate the spiritual from the fleshly. Sifting separates chaff from wheat so the chaff can be discarded and burned. Satan desired to sift Peter, thinking he would be discarded as chaff. But God’s purpose was to allow Satan to sift Peter in order to remove his “chaff,” so that Peter might be changed from fleshly to spiritual.
The old man, which we received from Adam, is the chaff that must be separated so that the New Creation Man might be the real YOU. In other words, Satan sifts to destroy, but God’s purpose is to destroy the flesh, so that the spiritual man might be saved.
The work that Jesus did in the divine court would shortly be ratified on the cross. Its effectiveness was not only for Peter, or even for his brothers only, but for the whole world. Jesus’ prayer was for Peter who was playing the role of the House of Israel. Israel had denied God (Christ) in years past, but they were to be restored in the end.
The process by which this would take place in history is described by many prophets, and it is clear that these promises extended to all nations. If we view Peter’s ultimate success as representing the overcomers, we can say that the overcomers will succeed in order that they might “strengthen” others. That is the role ascribed to them in the Tabernacles Age, when all nations come to prophetic “Zion” to learn the law and the ways of God (Isaiah 2:2, 3).
Yet during the centuries of sifting, Peter’s own words prophesied of trials to come: “Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!” The overcomers did, indeed go to prison, and many experienced death on account of their faith. Tribulation under the beast nations (from Babylon to the Little Horn) was their time of sifting, particularly under the Little Horn, of which Dan. 7:21, 22 says,
21 I kept looking, and that horn was waging war with the saints and overpowering them 22 until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was passed in favor of the saints of the Highest One, and the time arrived when the saints took possession of the kingdom.
Israel’s time of sifting coincided with that of the Church in the Pentecostal Age. Wheat is a biblical symbol of Pentecost, because this is the grain that was offered to God on Pentecost (Exodus 34:22).
In Matthew 26:30-32 we read,
30 And after singing a hymn [probably Psalms 115-118], they went out to the Mount of Olives. 31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, ‘I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered.’ 32 But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.”
We see, then, that when they went to the Mount of Olives, Jesus broadened the revelation. Not only would Peter deny knowing Jesus, but all of them would fall away. Jesus knew this from Zech. 13:7, which he quoted. That entire chapter was about the crucifixion of Christ and the divine purpose. He does not speak of it as a “sifting,” which is an agricultural theme, but as a “refining,” which is about testing metals.
So in Zech. 13:9 the prophet says,
9 And I will bring the third part through the fire, refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are My people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God’.”
Whether it is portrayed as sifting or refining, the basic meaning is the same. There will be trials, but in the end the New Covenant will prevail, for God will cause the people to “call on My name.” In this way God’s oath will be fulfilled.
In Mark 14:26-31 we see that Peter again proclaimed his willingness to die rather than to deny Him. Verse 31 says,
31 But Peter kept saying insistently, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” And they all were saying the same thing, too.
Hence, Mark tells us that Peter argued with Jesus more than once. Luke says he objected while still in the upper room, but Matthew and Mark show that they did not simply drop the subject and move on to other things. It disturbed Peter at first, but when Jesus brought up Zechariah 13 and included them all in the scattering of the sheep, they all proclaimed their loyalty, insisting they would never deny Him.
It has been my experience that we do not really know how we will react to the threat of death or trial until we face that moment itself. The disciples too did not really know themselves until the next day.
But there is also a deeper lesson in this. When people fulfill prophetic types, something bigger than life takes over, purely by the sovereignty of God. I have observed this many times in the past, especially when we have engaged in spiritual warfare in past years. People take on prophetic roles without realizing it, and they begin to act and speak unknowingly as actors on the stage. People who would normally act or react in one way, suddenly become like different persons—for better or for worse. Hearts are then exposed, and each person learns something about himself that had been hidden from his sight up to that time.
This is what happened with the disciples. The hidden fears of their hearts were exposed, not so that their faith might be destroyed, but rather that they might discover their weakness and be strengthened through that experience. Their heart idols were overthrown by this exposure, and all things worked together for good, for they were indeed strengthened by this temporary failure.