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Bible Q

What does “Satan, .. sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31) mean?

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you,4 that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)

As usual, Satan means adversary and we have to determine who the adversary is. If we take Satan to be an evil supernatural power of some sort, there are problems.

  1. Whom did Satan ask? Presumably someone more powerful than himself. That would have to be God. But why would God countenance a request from Satan?
  2. The request appears to have been granted because Jesus then says he has prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail (v32). So did God grant Satan’s request?
  3. The pronouns are plural indicating that Satan demanded the whole group of apostles, yet Jesus only prays for Peter.

So thinking of Satan as a supernatural evil power leads to difficulties in making sense of the verses.

On the other hand, if we take Satan as a human adversary — specifically the high priest — the passage makes sense. It suggests that the high priest had demanded of the Sanhedrin that all the disciples be rounded up. The Sanhedrin had consented to his request, and it was only a matter of time before the temple guards took action to apprehend Peter and the others. Jesus knew that Peter would be in the most danger, and so he prayed especially for him. This interpretation also explains Jesus words in John 18:8 (“So, if you seek me, let these men go.”).

“Satan” is used in several places to refer to the Jewish rulers (the enemies of Jesus and his followers). Another example is 1 Thessalonians 2:18 —

because we wanted to come to you–I, Paul, again and again–but Satan hindered us.

It was Paul’s Jewish opponents who stopped him returning to Thessalonica as Acts 17:1-14 makes clear.

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