Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Sifting Simon — Part IV

March 28th, 2019, Promulgated by Diane Harris

To draw closer to what “Sifting Simon” really means, we do not look at each event as a fresh, isolated occurrence, but rather as a chain of inter-connected events, with the cumulative emotions and concerns as a starting point for the next phase.  The burden which Peter carried forward includes being told definitively he will deny Christ three times that very day, the guilt of falling asleep rather than praying and watching with the Lord, the shame of being chided for doing so, being awakened to a mob scene, experiencing confusion about the falling back of the Temple Guard, and seeing the leader of the mob, Judas, with whom Peter has just spent three years almost as brothers! The mob scene (and it doesn’t seem unfair to call it such) is not hard to imagine – the thronging crowd, torches, clubs and swords being waved about in the darkness, shouts, pushing, shoving and, suddenly, the betrayer is uncomfortably close to Jesus. Does Judas have a weapon? Should Peter intervene, maybe even positioning himself between the Lord and Judas who seems to want to kiss Jesus!  Where’s the other apostle who is supposed to have a sword and maybe back-up Peter? The ‘aloneness’ of Peter and the confusion of so much occurring is part of his ‘sifting.’

Christ’s words of a few hours earlier may now be just a distant memory. Right after the Lord told Peter (in Luke 22:34) “… the cock will not crow this day until you three times deny that you know Me,” He says to the Apostles in Luke 22:35-38.

  • 35. “… When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘Nothing.’
  • 36. He said to them, ‘But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.
  • 37. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in Me, ‘And He was reckoned with transgressors;’ for what is written about Me has its fulfilment.’
  • 38. And they said, ‘Look, Lord, here are two swords.’ And He said to them, ‘It is enough.’” 

(At the end of this post, click on “Read the rest for additional commentary on these four verses.)

Garden of Gethsemane 

The Gospels all acknowledge the use of a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, but only Luke explains how it got there. The Synoptic authors understandably focus on Judas’ kiss being the sign of betrayal. John has nothing to say about the kiss, a miserable low point in the narrative of mankind. The Synoptics refer to the sword incident without identifying the perpetrator, who is referred to as a bystander (“one who stands by”), or “one of those with Jesus.”

The Gospel of John adds significantly to our knowledge of the “sword incident.” The new information supplied by John is ‘naming names.’ We learn it was Peter who struck the high priest’s servant with the sword and, from John’s account, we also learn that servant’s  name was Malchus.

The Sword was likely a Machaira

What is the “sword” wielded by Peter? There are 25 uses in the New Testament of the word “machaira” which is translated ‘sword’ in English. It is a ‘short sword,” larger than the zealot’s knife which could be hidden in clothing, but smaller than the long sword of battle, which is too long to be practical in a crowd. The machaira is reported to have been extremely sharp, and can be double-edged and/or fitted with a gouging tip. Possessing a machaira in public was apparently legal during the Roman occupation, but likely cutting off the ear of someone else’s slave, with armed guards and witnesses present, was not; it could have provoked reprisal, arrest or worse.


The timeline, when all four Gospel accounts are considered together, appears to be 1) confrontation and the falling back of the Temple Guard (see Part III), 2) Judas’ betrayal of Christ with a kiss, 3) Peter’s being sifted regarding using the sword 4) Christ’s healing Malchus’ ear (while the Lord’s hands are still unbound), and 5) the binding and arrest of Christ. The sword strike may have been the precipitating event for the arrest which seems to have happened quickly thereafter.

Simon was indeed sifted

Peter is carrying a sword, commanded to do so by the Lord, yet not knowing what to do with it, or when to use it, or for whom it is intended to be protection. Peter is in the dark, literally and figuratively.  Nowhere else in the Gospels do we have any evidence of Christ’s calling his Apostles to carry swords; yet, Peter is standing in the melee in the Garden with a sword in hand. Perhaps Peter’s is one of the voices which called out: “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?”  But, if so, he did not wait for an answer. Oh, the impetuosity of the man who stepped out of the boat in a storm to walk on water!

In the middle of his being ‘sifted’, confused, scared, and uncertain, Peter made the wrong decision. He lashed out at the slave of the High Priest, possibly an unarmed man, cutting off his ear, damaging the High Priest’s property right in front of the Temple Guard! Peter’s error will follow him through all his remaining ‘sifting’ that night, with the bloody sheath and his conscience entering fearfully into the Courtyard of the High Priest. And there Peter will be even more ‘sifted,’ when the evil one can point to Peter’s own sin of maiming a man. Then, Peter will struggle and compromise to hide his own guilt.

There is also the matter of unclear responsibility. Was he to protect Christ? The other disciples? Or just himself? Too late, Peter hears that his carrying a sword is not to protect Christ, Who is determined to fulfill His Mission. And it seems not to be about Peter’s protecting himself, since He had not been personally attacked. Rather, it may be more about Peter’s leadership role in being like Christ, and ‘not losing’ any of the other Apostles. But it is easy to see how confusion reigned in the Garden. Totally different from any other part of his three years with the Lord, Peter has just shed blood, and incurred a moral responsibility at least for the pain he caused. Of all the confusing factors, one might suspect that the unjust severing of a man’s ear would sift Peter’s conscience most insistently. What we do learn from this sifting is that no matter how dire the situation, sin ALWAYS makes it worse.

John and Matthew both include the information that Christ reproves Peter (again), and orders him to put the sword back in its sheath, but apparently the Lord does not criticize Peter’s having or keeping the sword. What we do learn from Matthew’s Gospel is that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”  The take-away is that weapons may be used for self defense, but one never strikes first, and one never strikes an unarmed person (assuming the slave was unarmed or at least hadn’t drawn a sword on Christ or on a disciple). Clearly Christ was not asking the disciples to protect Him; He was totally devoted to accomplishing His Mission for the Father. And by this we come to understand that there is a big difference between the aggression of using weapons to get what we want, through excessive or preemptive force, and use for self-protection and defense. There seems to be no reason to think that the results were unexpected by Christ, Who had asked that the swords be brought to the Garden. We notice, too, that there is no indication that the Temple Guard, or any other authority attempted to take Peter’s sword away or to arrest him for assault.  Among the possible explanations may be that the arrest in the night, in the dark, and (as we’ll see further) the binding of a person not yet judged to be guilty, were among the illegal activities in which the Temple Guard was participating. It must have been very disorienting to the Apostles to experience the keepers of the Law as not following the Law.

Protecting Peter

Although Peter seems heartlessly sifted, he did have some protection, from the Synoptic writers who did not name him, and from Christ Himself. Since Peter is named in the Gospel of John as the one who wielded the sword and actually cut off the ear of the high priest’s property; i.e. his slave, it would seem to argue that the Gospel of John was written after the death of Peter, when such information could be safely revealed without risk to Peter.  Obviously, this also argues for earlier writing of the Synoptics as well. Naming Peter when he was still alive might have put him at further risk. Similar arguments have been made for why the Raising of Lazarus is only in John’s Gospel; i.e., because Lazarus was under threat of death from the chief priests, and the details of Christ’s raising him from the dead could probably only be revealed after the second death of Lazarus. The evidence of a death threat against Lazarus can be found in John 12:10-11: So the chief priests planned to put Laz’arus also to death,  because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” That there was risk to Lazarus, newly raised from the dead, may also be indicated by the absence of Lazarus, Martha and Mary of Bethany from the Crucifixion scene, perhaps for their own safety?

Healing of Malchus

The other protection which Peter received during his ordeal would be most important, the healing of Malchus’ ear. Christ Himself, in Luke the Physician’s Gospel, mitigates the risk to Peter’s not completing his mission, by healing Malchus’ ear. i.e. repairing the damage done by Peter’s impulsive strike. Bringing charges against Peter is all the more difficult when Malchus has two healthy, attached ears!

Christ’s intervention to quickly heal Malchus’ ear essentially removes any evidence of Peter’s “crime,” although eye witnesses remain and will soon become a problem for Peter. Again, his weaknesses are sifted, and new weaknesses revealed: Impatience, not waiting on the Lord, aggression, unjust use of a weapon, hostility, assault.

The Arrest and Binding

The conclusion to the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane is brief and to the point:

Mark: 14:50    “And they all forsook Him and fled.”

Matt:  26:56b “Then all the disciples forsook Him and fled.”

Luke: 22:54a  “Then they seized Him and led Him away.”

John: 18:12      “So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews seized                                    Jesus and bound Him.”

When John adds to or explains the Synoptic Text, it is usually something which, it seems, he considers

 Mark’s Linen Sheet; Mark 14:51-52                  by James McGrath

important to have been included. In comparing the “fleeing” texts of Mark (who may have written about himself fleeing) and Matthew, it seems clear that such flight may have prevented some Apostles from witnessing the final moments of arrest and the binding. But John reports the scene, and there is something about his words which seems reminiscent of the binding of Isaac; i.e. that the Father has willed the handing over, prefigured so many centuries earlier in Abraham’s willingness to surrender his son.

But there is something else that John is pointing out here, and wants the point to be clear. It was illegal under Jewish Law to bind a person in arrest who had not been convicted. Thus the arrest in the dark of night, and the binding, shows the beginning of the many illegal actions which will be taken against Jesus during His trial.

Imagine Peter! His seemingly invincible Lord is arrested and taken away. What could he have been thinking as he saw such Almighty power bound into submission and carried off into the night? Was a dramatic escape about to happen for Peter to witness, as in the unbinding of Isaac, or could this event really be the end (for Jesus and for Peter)? He might have either stood riveted to the spot in shock and fear, or slipped silently into the remaining crowd for cover, for Scripture records that he put some distance between himself and the arresting contingent before following. (See Mark 14:54; Matthew 26:58, Luke 22:54). Yet, Peter did not flee as the others did; if he did flee, it was momentary, for he returned.  Perhaps in fleeing he remembered his own earlier words to Christ (John 6:68): “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”  But Peter probably also remembered Christ’s warning that Satan desired to sift him like wheat. Did Peter sense the ominous closing in of Satan’s attack? The fear and loneliness of being separated from his Lord? Or the pain of having abandoned his promise hours earlier not to desert Jesus, but to die for Him? How horribly Simon was being sifted.



Comparison of Gospel Texts

For the sake of reference text, the four Gospel accounts are presented here. Scroll past those to find commentary on Luke 22:35-38


Mark 14:43-52:

43. And immediately, while He was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.
44. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I shall kiss is the man; seize Him and lead Him away under guard.”
45. And when he came, he went up to Him at once, and said, “Master!” And he kissed Him.
46. And they laid hands on Him and seized Him.
47. But one of those who stood by drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear.
48. And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture Me?
49. Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize Me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.”
50. And they all forsook Him, and fled.

Mark inserts here (verses 51, 52) a comment: “And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” Marks’ writings are principally thought to be from Peter; but this singular mention of the young man running away naked is believed by some to be Mark himself, as a youthful follower;  hence, he offers his own slim, but real, witness not found in the other three Gospels.


Matthew 26:47-56

47. While He was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests              and the elders of the people.
48. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I shall kiss is the man; seize Him.”
49. And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Hail, Master!” And he kissed Him.
50. Jesus said to him, “Friend, why are you here?”* Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized Him.
51. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest, and cut off his ear.
52. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
53. Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once send Me more than twelve legions of angels?
54. But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
55. At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture Me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize Me.
56. But all this has taken place, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples forsook Him and fled.

*or in some versions: “Do that for which you have come.”

Luke  22:47-54a:

47. While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss Him;
48. but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?”
49. And when those who were about Him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?”
50. And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear.
51. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And He touched his ear and healed him.
52. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against Him, “Have you come out as against     a robber, with swords and clubs?
53. When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”

54a Then they seized Him and led Him away….


John 18:10-12

10. Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus.
11. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given Me?”
12. So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews seized Jesus and bound Him.


Commentary on Luke 22:25-38 Re: bringing swords to the Garden

  • 22:36 leaves open the question of whether or not Christ’s call for swords relates only to this particular evening due to His arrest, or if it is a command, a suggestion or at least permission to henceforth carry a sword. It does seem to relate to a much longer period going forward, since it is too late to sell a cloak for the present evening. (Consider that there are priests who have been drummed out of dioceses for having a weapon for their protection, especially in churches in dangerous neighborhoods. But one might argue that they are only following this instruction of Christ.)
  • 22:36 Christ prioritizes having a sword over having a mantle (cloak). That is a stronger statement than we might at first understand. Consider the instruction of Exodus 22:26-27: “If ever you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; for that is his only covering, it is his mantle for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.”  By making the point of selling a cloak to buy a sword, Christ makes the decision to carry a sword even more important.
  • 22: 37 shows the understanding that the Messianic Prophecy is going to be fulfilled, and Christ will die through the excruciating capital punishment of crucifixion. (N.B. Origin of the English word ”excruciating.” The word excruciating comes from Latin excruciare, from cruciare, to crucify. It means unbearably painful, or extreme agony. The word excruciating originates from crucifixion i.e. “a pain like the pain of crucifixion”). For the sake of the mission and of the Apostles themselves, protection is needed. But, we do not learn of any further carrying of swords. But we do see martyrdom, and how the Christians were persecuted, and part of the rationale would be that they were enemies of the state and/or of the Jewish religion (example: Saul). Christ, indeed, was “reckoned with transgressors.”
  • 22:38 deserves explanation reflective to the sad state of affairs which occurs when an exegist allows his secular opinion to outweigh the sacred text. In my opinion, in the Sacra Pagina Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, by Luke Timothy Johnson (Ed. Daniel J. Harrington, SJ) there is a statement about the meaning of verse 38: “Jesus’ exasperated termination of this discussion  (“enough,” hikinon estin) here is matched by His chagrin when the sword is actually used….”  I do not believe that the word form hikinon, which is rightly translated “enough,” is a statement of exasperation at all, as someone in our contemporary culture might mean by “enough, already!)  No other New Testament use of the word have that sense of sarcasm, which seems driven by the author’s own opinion of the political issue, but all represent a version of “it is sufficient.”  Further, attributing “chagrin” to Jesus as if He didn’t know from all eternity that Peter would use the sword, is demeaning to the Lord, who initiated the carrying of the swords. And I can’t let that go, without saying so.

2 Responses to “Sifting Simon — Part IV”

  1. christian says:

    Diane -Thank you for this thorough, well-searched, thoughtful account of the “Sifting of Peter.” It is excellent!

    I can’t help but think of times when I have been “sifted out.” It is usually times when I have been caught unaware, unprepared, and shocked, and sometimes additionally intimidated by some factor. It is usually in hindsight that I process the situation further and deeply regret not having taken action or not having acted or reacted differently.

    There are occasions where we are able to make reparation with a situation and those we have not considered, or have offended. The original action cannot be altered, but attempting to remedy and heal a situation has its own merits for the offender (even if offending unintentionally) and the one who has been offended. There are times that are gone forever in which we are not able to take action regarding a situation or make reparation with one we have not considered or offended. The only action we are then able to do is to use our contrition as motivation and commitment to take action or take a different course of action in regard to a certain type of situation/person involved.

    What gives me, and should give all of us consolation when we fail, are the words Jesus spoke to Peter In Luke 22:32, directly after telling him in Luke 22:31, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat.” -“But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith will not fail.” (“And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers”…)
    So the times when we have been “sifted like wheat”, we should insert our own name in Jesus’ consolation to Peter, as Jesus had all of us in mind before all Ages. “But I have prayed for you,——-, that your faith will not fail.”

    God wants us to move forward and be perfected in His image, through His grace, as we traverse our course of life. He does not want us to be so overcome with Guilt and Despair, that we are Halted in our life as a Christian. We need to ask God’s Forgiveness and pray for Guidance. We need to ask God for forgiveness when we have intentionally not taken the correct course of action or have taken the wrong course of action, involving situations and persons. Introspection, Prayer, Discernment, Contrition, Strength, Grace, and Humility are gifts of God which allow us to move Forward in making Reparation and using our Stumbling Blocks as Stepping Stones, as the Chief of the Apostles did.

  2. Diane Harris says:

    Thank you, Christian, for sharing so much of your own thoughts and experience with us all. As I said in one of the earlier parts, my reason for working to understand “sift” is to be better equipped to recognize the tactics of the evil one, and pray for help, before being manipulated by it.

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