Matthew 16: 21 - 23
Everything about this story seems strange. First Peter rebukes Jesus, and then Jesus rebukes Peter. This is some of the harshest language Jesus ever used. Though he used more colourful language when he lambasted the Pharisees (Matthew 23), he never called them “Satan.” Even though the Bible says that Satan entered Judas, Jesus never called him “Satan.” Peter remains the only person Jesus ever called “Satan.”
The timing makes this whole story even more peculiar. Peter has just uttered a magnificent statement of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Jesus responded with high praise of his own: You are blessed, You didn’t learn this from man but from God, Upon this rock I will build my church, I give you the keys of the kingdom.
From that high point Jesus begins to unveil the future to them: He must go to Jerusalem. He must suffer many things at the hands of the Jewish leaders. He must be killed. He must be raised on the third day.
Our problem stems mostly from the fact that all of this is old news to us. If you have been a Christian for any period of time, you know the story of Good Friday and Easter. Even if you aren’t a Christian, you probably know the general outline. So no matter how we read this story, it’s not “new news” to us. We’ve heard it all before. There lies the problem. The disciples were hearing this for the very first time. The thought of their Master being killed in Jerusalem simply staggered them. They had no categories for it. No way to think about it.
He told them the bad news and they couldn’t handle it. Evidently they didn’t even hear the part about rising from the dead. They had no category for that either.
None of it made sense. So Peter did what we generally do when we think someone we love is talking crazy. He pulled Jesus aside so he could set him straight. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Twice he told Jesus “never.”
It’s as if he thinks Jesus has momentarily lost his mind. I think he means, “Lord, don’t worry about it. There are 12 of us. We’ll keep you safe. They’ll have to go through us to get to you.” But you can’t get around it. He “rebuked” the Son of God. This is not a good move for an aspiring disciple of Christ. So we pause to ask our first question.
1. Why Did He Do It?
What was Peter thinking when he pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him.
A. He loved Jesus and wanted to spare him the pain of crucifixion. Surely this must be counted as a noble if misguided emotion.
B. He didn’t understand God’s plan. Peter’s view of Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the living God” did not include the shame and horror of public crucifixion. In his mind he had no category for the “Suffering Servant” or the “Crucified Son of God.” He simply could not grasp how someone as good and holy and pure and righteous as Jesus, the promised Messiah of Israel, would suffer and die like a common criminal.
C. He thought he knew God’s will better than Jesus. He stands in direct opposition to God’s plan to bring salvation to the world. We must not water this down. The text says that he “rebuked” Jesus. That doesn’t make any sense. You don’t go around rebuking the Son of God.
D. He wanted a kingdom without a cross. Who could blame him? We can hardly understand what crucifixion meant to the Jews in the first century. It was the ultimate instrument of public torture. Today we wear bright, shiny crosses to remember Jesus’ death. No Jew would have understood such a thing. To them the cross meant brutal, public, bloody, painful, agonising, shameful death.
No wonder Peter rebuked him. Then Jesus rebuked Peter but with one difference. Jesus rebuked him publicly. Mark makes it clear that Jesus looked at all the disciples when he said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” First he calls him the “rock.” Seconds later he calls him Satan. That leads to our second question.
2. Why Did Jesus Call Him Satan?
Why did Jesus use such strong language?
A. Peter was guilty of false intimacy and ignorant presumption. After the wonderful things that Jesus said to Peter, I imagine it must have gone to his head. After all, if he is the “rock” and has the “keys to the kingdom” surely he has the right to take Jesus aside and do a bit of “iron sharpens iron,” one man helping another, that sort of thing. But he was totally out of line in what he did.
B. Jesus knew that Satan stood behind Peter’s well-meaning but misguided words. Satan’s plan for Jesus always avoided the cross. In the wilderness he had taken Jesus to a high mountain, offering him all the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus would bow down and worship him (Satan). It was a seductive temptation. “Jesus, why go through the pain and shame of the cross? Worship me and I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world.” Even though Peter was not conscious of being used by Satan, he was truly doing his work by attempting to keep Jesus from going to the cross.
C. Jesus knew he must go to the cross in order to provide salvation for the world. That’s why Jesus used the word “must.” He “must” go to Jerusalem where he “must” suffer and “must” die and “must” rise from the dead. Nothing would happen by chance. Even the fierce hatred of the Jewish leaders fulfilled God’s eternal plan. “Message" - catches the sense of Jesus’ answer this way: “But Jesus didn’t swerve. ‘Peter, get out of my way. Satan, get lost. You have no idea how God works.’” That’s a good way to put it because Peter at that point had no idea how God works.
To Peter the cross was evidence of failure.
To Jesus the cross was the purpose for which he came to earth.
To Peter the cross meant that Jesus had been defeated.
To Jesus the cross was the means by which Satan was defeated.
To Peter the cross meant that evil had won the day.
To Jesus the cross was the path to final victory over sin.
To Peter the cross meant that Jesus was gone forever.
To Jesus the cross led to the empty tomb.
To Peter the cross was a badge of shame.
To Jesus the cross brought salvation to the world.
To Peter the cross meant they had no message to preach.
To Jesus the cross became the message they would preach to the nations.
To Peter the cross made no sense.
To Jesus the cross displayed the wisdom of God.
So greatly did Peter and Jesus differ at this point that Jesus could say “Get behind me, Satan!" When he said, “You have become a stumbling block to me,” he used a word for an animal trap.
3. What Should We Learn From This?
A. Good men sometimes do the devil’s work. Peter was most certainly a good man. His foolish words here cannot cancel his brave statement of faith a few seconds earlier. What a man Peter was! Though Peter was undeniably right in what he said earlier, he was just as wrong here. So let us learn something about the danger of spiritual presumption.
B. Our victories and defeats often come back to back. It is not hard to see why it should be this way. Victories naturally tend to build our confidence. When Peter heard the wonderful things said to him, did it go to his head? I think it probably did. And just as quickly as he rose, so quickly did he fall. It was his rising that led to his falling. So it will be for all of us. We will be like Elijah winning some great victory on Mount Carmel only to run in fear from Jezebel the next day. There is always a Jezebel! Satan has lots of Jezebels, lots of traps to put in our path. Because he is smart, Satan knows that the best time to trap us often comes after some great victory. While we celebrate, our defences are down, our emotions take over, our guard lowers, and we do things and say things that we later regret.
When we set out to serve the Lord, we can always think of a thousand reasons why we shouldn’t. Why we should play it safe or take it easy or not be too extreme. If we don’t think of those excuses, our friends will likely think of them for us. Unwittingly our friends may become tools of Satan. Or we may be the same for them.
It is so easy to go down, to take the road of least resistance.
It is so hard to go up, to take the road that leads to the cross.
Not many people will cheer us when we take that road.
To return to the story, how striking that the “rock” should become a “stumbling block” so quickly. As it was for Peter, so it will be for all of us. Our strengths and our weaknesses lie side by side. Often they seem to be interconnected. Sometimes they seem to be welded together. So quickly we rise. So quickly we fall.
In some ways this was a greater sin than Peter’s denial. Though it is his denial that we remember and not this occasion, this is the only time Jesus called Peter “Satan.” At the denial Peter hurt himself and he hurt the cause of Christ generally. But here Peter directly (though unwittingly) attacked God’s plan of salvation. Satan did everything he could to keep Christ from the cross. He does everything he can to keep us from taking up the cross.
At this point we should ask some questions:
Am I ashamed of the cross of Christ?
Am I avoiding the cross myself?
Am I blocking someone else from taking their cross?
Do I demand that God’s plan make sense before I follow it?
If we think that our understanding equals God’s will, we are bound to fall into many serious errors. If we think that the way of the cross is not for us, then we ought to ask ourselves if we have ever really trusted in Christ at all. Sometimes our problem boils down to the fact that we want something God doesn’t offer: A padded cross. A shiny cross. A comfortable cross. A cross we can wear under our clothes. A cross without any blood or pain.
But that cross exists only in our mind. There is no way of salvation apart from the bloody cross of Jesus for it was on that cross that the wrath of God was satisfied, the price for sin was paid, and our guilt was removed. Peter’s attempt to “rescue” Jesus would have doomed his own soul. Jesus had to die in order for Peter to be forgiven.
The law of the cross is the law of the kingdom. Those who would enter heaven must go by way of the cross of Christ. Apart from him there is no hope, there is no heaven, there is no forgiveness, and there is no salvation. So it will ever be for the followers of Christ.
He Never Made This Mistake Again
Peter was a good and great man, and I say that in full recognition of all his faults. We see the grace of God at work because though he falls again and again, he learns from his mistakes. Like most of us, he makes many mistakes, but he generally doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Later on he will stand on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, boldly preaching the gospel to some of the very people who crucified our Lord. There he will proclaim that Jesus was delivered up by “God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” and then by the hands of wicked men was put to death. 3000 people will be saved on that day. Peter came to see that the cross was absolutely necessary in God’s plan. So though he makes many other mistakes, he never makes this mistake again.
Peter’s story reminds us that it is not one incident alone that makes a life. Though you fall again and again, it is the getting up that marks the true child of God.
Aren’t you glad that Peter kept on getting up? I am! Aren’t you glad that Jesus kept on helping him up? I am!
Peter was something of a mess, but then so are most of us. He was a shaky rock, a fragile stone, an imperfect disciple whom Christ formed into a rock that in the end could not be shaken. So that’s our hope too. Though we may do the devil’s work from time to time (and suffer for it), the mighty Christ comes to set us right again. Amen.