The Sifting of Satan

Are the severe trials that we face evidence of God’s dissatisfaction with us, or necessary exploratory surgery to free us from things that hinder our walk with Him?


Have you ever thought about what it means to be sifted by Satan? Are you intrigued by a process in which the Lord would allow a believer to be subjected to the hand of the enemy?

The scriptures, all of which were written more than 2000 years ago, contain many references to practices and customs that we have difficulty in appreciating simply because we don’t understand what they were or what they meant. Consider the following verse:

“The Lord said, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan asked to have you, that he might sift you as wheat, 32 but I prayed for you, that your faith wouldn’t fail. You, when once you have turned again, establish your brothers.”  Luke 22:31-32 WEB (Emphasis added)

What exactly was it that Satan wanted to do to Peter by sifting him, and why would Jesus allow him to do it?

My first assumption was that Satan wanted to put Peter through the entire process that was required to transform wheat on the stalk into kernels of wheat, ready for cooking or grinding into flour. But that was wrong. Wheat, at that time, went through three processes: threshing, winnowing, and finally sifting, or sieving.

A threshing flail

Step 1: Threshing was done by placing the sheaves of wheat from the field on a flat, hard threshing floor (of stone or packed earth), and either beating it with a flail or driving oxen over it. The oxen sometimes towed a threshing sled, also known as a tribulum that tore at and lacerated the wheat, enhancing the process. (Tribulum is derived from the same root as Tribulation. Interesting huh?) Threshing separated the wheat kernels from the stalks.

Step 2: A winnowing fork was used in the next step to toss the mix high into the air so that the wind would blow the stalks and chaff to one side while the smooth round wheat kernels dropped almost directly back to the threshing floor. Winnowing produced a mix of wheat kernels, residual chaff, pebbles, and the seeds of tares, and it was this mix that was subjected to sifting, or sieving.

Step 3: Sifting. Now we have arrived at the issue in question: Just exactly how was wheat sifted, and how did that illustrate what Peter was to be subjected to? To understand the term that the Lord used, it’s useful to see what the process entails:

“The woman servant—for it is only women who sift—sets herself on the ground with her feet spread widely apart, taking in her hands a large but shallow sieve called ghurbal, some two and a half feet across.[6] Having placed a small amount of wheat in the ghurbal, or sieve, she commences by giving it some six or seven sharp shakes, so as to bring the chaff and short pieces of crushed straw to the surface, the greater part of which she removes with her hands. After this the main part of the work begins, which is done with much skill. Holding the sieve in a slanting position, she jerks it up and down for a length of time, blowing across the top of it all the while with great force. In a word, she turns herself into a regular winnowing machine! Three results follow. In the first place the dust, earth, small seeds, and small, imperfect grains of wheat, etc., fall away through the meshes of the sieve. Secondly, by means of the vigorous blowing, any crushed straw, chaff, and such-like light refuse is either blown away to the ground, or else collected in the part of the ghurbal which is furthest from her. Thirdly, the good wheat goes together in one heap about the center of the sieve, while the tiny stones or pebbles are brought into a separate little pile on that part of it which is nearest to her chest. The pebbles, chaff, and crushed straw thus cleverly removed from the corn [grain], mainly by the angle at which the sieve is held and the way in which it is jerked up and down, are then taken out of the ghurbal with her hands. Finally, setting the sieve down upon her lap, she carefully picks out with her finger any slight impurities which may yet remain, and the elaborate and searching process of sifting is complete.” James Neil, Peeps Into Palestine (Billings and Sons, Great Britain, c. 1915), pp. 58, 59. Link

Imagine that it’s you there in that ghurbal. Sounds like fun doesn’t it? All your imperfections revealed as you are tossed about, blown upon and picked at. I feel like that lots of days.

Why does our Lord Jesus allow Satan to sift us? Don’t we have enough problems? While we understand that we have sinful natures, dwell in sinful fleshly vessels, and can only be perfected through the death of the flesh and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit within us, why let the enemy strike at us too? The question is not academic, but on the cutting edge of what God is working in His Body at this moment.

The clear goal of Satan in such a process is the destruction of the believer; something which the Lord would never permit. Instead, God uses Satan as an unwitting servant to bring about His own will in our lives.

“The Lord said, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan asked to have you, that he might sift you as wheat, 32 but I prayed for you, that your faith wouldn’t fail. You, when once you have turned again, establish your brothers.”

33 He said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death!” 34 He said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will by no means crow today until you deny that you know me three times.” Luke 22:31-34 WEB

Here is a puzzle. Christ is on the final leg of His approach to the cross of His crucifixion – a crucial focal point in eternity, possibly on view to the entire universe – yet He takes the time and effort to address His concern for one of His disciples; as if He didn’t already have enough on His mind.

As the story continues and the Lord’s ultimate victory over sin and death are manifested by His resurrection and ascension back to the Father, we see that this concern for Peter was an expression of the Lord’s concern for His flock; all those whom Peter and the disciples under his leadership would eventually bring to salvation.

Peter was a key ministry. Always bigger than life, whether he was right or wrong, it was Peter who jumped into action. Seeing the Lord walking through a dreadful storm toward their boat on the Sea of Galilee, Peter hollered at Jesus, asking Him to invite him to step out of the boat into the storm and come to Him. In one moment, Peter was walking on water; in the next, he was being reproved gently for having so little faith when he sank into the water. But Peter hadn’t just sat passively in the boat, waiting to see what the Lord was up to.

It was Peter who sprang into action at Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane, hacking off the ear of the Chief Priest’s servant with a sword. This guy wasn’t perfect, yet, but he was no shrinking violet.

In Caesarea Philippi, Peter confessed his faith that Jesus was the Son of God and the Lord responded: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Matt 16:17 WEB

Literally in the next paragraph, when Peter rebuked the Lord for any intention of submitting to death of the cross, the Lord responded: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.”  Matt 16:23 WEB Just when we get puffed up in our flesh, the Lord brings us back to the truth.

I believe it was Peter’s willingness to act, whether right or wrong, that led the Lord to choose him as a leader. As I wrote in a previous article, God apparently values being in motion more than being right. A servant in motion can be diverted into the right course. Even God cannot steer a parked car though, and those who refrain from doing anything so that they won’t do anything wrong are bigger challenges for the Holy Spirit than those believers in motion, headed down the wrong path.

Did you ever wonder what the disciples talked about among themselves when the Lord was off praying somewhere or talking to women at wells? Doubtless, it was about the prophecies of Daniel’s 70 weeks, and just where they were in that prophetic timetable that revealed when the Kingdom of Heaven would be established. Unlike the Church, Israel has a prophetic calendar that culminates in their redemption; the 70 weeks of Daniel.

The disciples likely spent a lot of time reviewing the prophecies about Messiah, and God’s promises to redeem Israel. They could see the signs. They had done all the math. They knew that Jesus was the Messiah and that this was the time for the Kingdom to be established. It was a cast-iron certainty.

The disciples knew that they were at the end of Daniel’s 69th week and that the very next thing on the calendar was the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven…except, the Lord threw them a curve that knocked them for a loop.

“Jesus went out from the temple, and was going on his way. His disciples came to him to show him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all of these things, don’t you? Most certainly I tell you, there will not be left here one stone on another, that will not be thrown down.”

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? What is the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?”  Matt 24:1-3 WEB

Let me add some emphasis to that question that is not revealed in scripture. The disciples likely were asking Jesus, ‘Well, if not now, when will these things be?!’ They could see no way for the Lord to set up His Kingdom without the temple, and He had just revealed to them that the whole place was going to be completely leveled. What they were feeling was dismay, disappointment and frustration at the news that this ‘high-watch’ date clearly was not working out the way they had planned; kind of like the Trump Peace Plan.

The disciples were witnesses to the plan of salvation as it played out through a critical period; the life, ministry, death and resurrection of the Redeemer. It was a path that Jesus faithfully walked to save us all. Early in His ministry, the Lord said this:

“The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up.”

23 He said to all, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 24 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake, the same will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits his own self? 26 For whoever will be ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed, when he comes in his glory, and the glory of the Father, and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:22-25 WEB (Emphasis added)

Here it is. Here is the answer to the question I posed about why Jesus allows Satan to sift us. The Lord laid it all out very neatly in this passage: That He must die, and that His followers must also lay down their lives, spiritually, if not physically, if they want to follow Him. The fleshly part of us must die, and often, like our Lord, that death occurs at the hand of our enemy.

There is a direct link between this passage and Jesus’ message to Peter about Satan sifting him and how that Peter would deny or be ashamed of the Lord. It was the sifting of Satan that isolated fleshly elements in Peter’s nature that had to die, and opened the door to change for Peter’s heart.

Within the fleshly heart of Peter was a reluctance to share the shame of Jesus as He went to the cross. Peter didn’t even know it was there, and certainly did not want it to be there. It was only through the sifting process that it was revealed and destroyed. Peter never denied the Lord again.

The sifting of Satan helps to bring about the death of the flesh; the abandonment of vain pursuits and misplaced priorities. It leaves us with nothing to defend but the Gospel of Christ. As impurities are sifted out and the corruptible is stripped away, the new creation reboots, loading the incorruptible software that produces new levels of joy, faithfulness and effectiveness in the Lord’s service.

For some reason, God often uses the enemy to deliver judgment to His people rather than executing it Himself. Israel was repeatedly carried into captivity by the enemies of God. The Jews of World War II were mass-murdered by the Nazis, not the Salvation Army. The faith of believers in the Church is tested and strengthened as they contend against Satan’s minions:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Eph 6:10-12 WEB

In battling Satan, we learn how to put on the armor of God and become wise to the wiles of the devil. It provides us with constant opportunities to exercise and build up our faith. As the new creation grows strong, the fleshly nature withers away.

The apostle Peter was sifted by Satan in preparation to lead his brothers in the spreading of the Gospel of Salvation. These encounters with the enemy are a common strategy used by God in preparing us for the work of service, and I believe we are being sifted right now.

The Indictment

Many godly people have been preoccupied with the Rapture in recent years. Our focus has been on one hopeful sign after another as we led others to join us on the Rapture rollercoaster, sharing the excitement and the disappointment as we advanced from one ‘high-watch’ date to the next.

Though some have burned out, they are not lost. They will be back when we return to preaching the Gospel, or they will join us at the Rapture. We have been doing it wrong, at least in part, but we have been in motion, and now Jesus is moving sovereignly to bring us into His perfect will.

The Pardon

It is a hard thing to be chosen to write an indictment of your brethren, and discover your own name among the role of offenders. Enduring the correction of the Lord is never a joyful thing.

“All chastening seems for the present to be not joyous but grievous; yet afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been exercised thereby.” Heb 12:11 WEB

Look at it like this: We have all been given tickets for a trip to Disneyland * (*insert your dream destination here. I suggest Heaven), but have not been told when we are leaving. In fact, the date has been deliberately hidden from us by God, for our own good. His clever ‘at an hour when ye think not’ clause immediately shoots down any prediction we come up with.

Brand new perfect bodies and an eternity at Disneyland with our Lord is our blessed hope; the topic we bring up to encourage each other when the battle rages. We have also been told to invite as many people as we can to come with us because the Lord died for them too and wants us all there. He is unwilling that anyone should be left behind.

Should our primary focus be on the latest speculation about our departure time, or someone’s dream about going to Disneyland, or should we focus all of our energy and every opportunity to bring others with us? If God has given us a platform from which to invite people, should we use it for His purposes, or preach to the choir? Should our prayers focus on hastening the arrival of our departure date or sending workers for the harvest?

I believe this message from Jesus to the church at Ephesus is a message to us now:

“You have perseverance and have endured for my name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you left your first love.Rev 2:3-4 (Emphasis added)

Jesus is our first love. He is love, and that is what drew us to Him. That is what will draw others to Him as well; the joy and peace of knowing Jesus. The blessed hope of the Rapture is an important part of this love story. It is one of the love letters we can share to show others just how wonderful our Lord is. But Jesus and His incomprehensible, unconditional love for us is the main story. When His love and joy pour forth from our hearts, it splashes onto the unsaved, providing an irresistible attraction to those who are thirsty.

It is time that we, as servants of God, like Jesus’ disciples at the time of His crucifixion, turn our primary focus away from the blessed hope of the Rapture, to the saving of souls. Each day is a new day. Without condemnation, we walk forward with the Lord. He leads us beside still waters. He restores our souls. He anoints our heads with oil (the Holy Spirit) He prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies. He has readied us for service in bringing in the harvest.

Satan loves nothing more than to accuse us for the failings of our flesh, or even better, get us to accuse one another. He delights in his attempts to condemn the new creation by magnifying the works of our flesh. His dream for us is a sort of circular firing squad in which we destroy each other. How then should we proceed from here?

“ For God didn’t appoint us to wrath, but to the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. 11 Therefore exhort one another, and build each other up, even as you also do. 12 But we beg you, brothers, to know those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you, 13 and to respect and honor them in love for their work’s sake.

Be at peace among yourselves. 14 We exhort you, brothers, admonish the disorderly, encourage the faint-hearted, support the weak, be patient toward all. 15 See that no one returns evil for evil to anyone, but always follow after that which is good, for one another, and for all.” 1 Thes 5:9-15 WEB (Emphasis added)

Jesus, in His infinite love, has dealt with us with such patience and kindness, but He has also been faithful to discipline us when needed, to bring us to maturity for the work of service.

“But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest indeed is plentiful, but the laborers are few. 38 Pray therefore that the Lord of the harvest will send out laborers into his harvest.” Matt 9:36 WEB (Emphasis added)

The Lord’s burden for the unsaved eclipses every other concern. How can we not share the burden of our Lord’s heart? And yet, how can we share it? We can share it by serving Him, and submitting to His will.

“…but speaking truth in love, we may grow up in all things into him, who is the head, Christ; 16 from whom all the body, being fitted and knit together through that which every joint supplies, according to the working in measure of each individual part, makes the body increase to the building up of itself in love.” Eph 4:15-16 WEB (Emphasis added)


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Photo Credits

  • Adapted from #91237724/Jankovoy-adobe
  • #53613961/slasnyi-adobe
  • #14667638/Hunta-adobe
  • #96495497/Kybele-adobe
  • Adapted from #219621474/HENADZY-adobe
  • Don’t Mess With Israel by Greg Lauer