Matthew 16:20-23


Matt. 16:20-23

He gave orders to his disciples to tell no one that he was God’s Anointed One. From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised on the third day. Peter caught hold of him, and began to urge upon him: “God forbid that this should happen to you! This must never come to you!” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are putting a stumbling-block in my way. Your ideas are not God’s but men’s.”

Although the disciples had grasped the fact that Jesus was God’s Messiah, they still had not grasped what that great fact meant. To them it meant something totally different from what it meant to Jesus. They were still thinking in terms of a conquering Messiah, a warrior king, who would sweep the Romans from Palestine and lead Israel to power. That is why Jesus commanded them to silence. If they had gone out to the people and preached their own ideas, all they would have succeeded in doing would have been to raise a tragic rebellion; they could have produced only another outbreak of violence doomed to disaster. Before they could preach that Jesus was the Messiah, they had to learn what that meant. In point of fact, Peter’s reaction shows just how far the disciples were from realizing just what Jesus meant when he claimed to be the Messiah and the Son of God.

So Jesus began to seek to open their eyes to the fact that for him there was no way but the way of the Cross. He said that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the “elders and chief priests and scribes.” These three groups of men were in fact the three groups of which the Sanhedrin was composed. The elders were the respected men of the people; the chief priests were predominantly Sadducees; and the scribes were Pharisees. In effect, Jesus is saying that he must suffer at the hands of the orthodox religious leaders of the country.

No sooner had Jesus said that than Peter reacted with violence. Peter had been brought up on the idea of a Messiah of power and glory and conquest. To him the idea of a suffering Messiah, the connection of a cross with the work of the Messiah, was incredible. He “caught hold” of Jesus. Almost certainly the meaning is that he flung a protecting arm round Jesus, as if to hold him back from a suicidal course. “This,” said Peter, “must not and cannot happen to you.” And then came the great rebuke which makes us catch our breath–“Get behind me, Satan!” There are certain things which we must grasp in order to understand this tragic and dramatic scene.

We must try to catch the tone of voice in which Jesus spoke. He certainly did not say it with a snarl of anger in his voice and a blaze of indignant passion in his eyes. He said it like a man wounded to the heart, with poignant grief and a kind of shuddering horror. Why should he react like that?

He did so because in that moment there came back to him with cruel force the temptations which he had faced in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. There he had been tempted to take the way of power. “Give them bread, give them material things,” said the tempter, “and they will follow you.” “Give them sensations,” said the tempter, “give them wonders, and they will follow you … .. Compromise with the world,” said the tempter. “Reduce your standards, and they will follow you.” It was precisely the same temptations with which Peter was confronting Jesus an over again.

Nor were these temptations ever wholly absent from the mind of Jesus. Luke sees far into the heart of the Master. At the end of the temptation story, Luke writes: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Lk.4:13). Again and again the tempter launched this attack. No one wants a cross; no one wants to die in agony; even in the Garden that same temptation came to Jesus, the temptation to take another way.

And here Peter is offering it to him now. The sharpness and the poignancy of Jesus’ answer are due to the fact that Peter was urging upon him the very things which the tempter was always whispering to him, the very things against which he had to steel himself. Peter was confronting Jesus with that way of escape from the Cross which to the end beckoned to him.

That is why Peter was Satan. Satan literally means the Adversary. That is why Peter’s ideas were not God’s but men’s. Satan is any force which seeks to deflect us from the way of God; Satan is any influence which seeks to make us turn back from the hard way that God has set before us; Satan is any power which seeks to make human desires take the place of the divine imperative.

What made the temptation more acute was the fact that it came from one who loved him. Peter spoke as he did only because he loved Jesus so much that he could not bear to think of him treading that dreadful path and dying that awful death. The hardest temptation of all is the one which comes from protecting love. There are times when fond love seeks to deflect us from the perils of the path of God; but the real love is not the love which holds the knight at home, but the love which sends him out to obey the commandments of the chivalry which is given, not to make life easy, but to make life great. It is quite possible for love to be so protecting that it seeks to protect those it loves from the adventure of the warfare of the soldier of Christ, and from the strenuousness of the pathway of the pilgrim of God. What really wounded Jesus’ heart and what really made him speak as he did, was that the tempter spoke to him that day through the fond but mistaken love of Peter’s hot heart.


Matt. 16:20-23 (continued)

Before we leave this passage, it is interesting to look at two very early interpretations of the phrase: “Get behind me, Satan!” Origen suggested that, Jesus was saying to Peter: “Peter, your place is behind me, not in front of me. It is your place to follow me in the way I choose, not to try to lead me in the way you would like me to go.” If the phrase can be interpreted in that way, something at least of its sting is removed, for it does not banish Peter from Christ’s presence; rather it recalls him to his proper place, as a follower walking in the footsteps of Jesus. It is true for all of us that we must ever take the way of Christ and never seek to compel him to take our way.

A further development comes when we closely examine this saying of Jesus in the light of his saying to Satan at the end of the temptations as Matthew records it in Matt. 4:10. Although in the English translations the two passages sound different they are almost, but not quite, the same. In Matt. 4:10 the Revised Standard Version translates: “Begone, Satan!” and the Greek is: “Hupage (GSN5217) Satana (GSN4566).” In the Revised Standard Version translation of Matt. 16:23, Jesus says to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan,” and the Greek is: “Hupage (GSN5217) opiso (GSN3694) mou (GSN3450), Satana (GSN4566).”

The point is that Jesus’ command to Satan is simply: “Begone!” while his command to Peter is: “Begone behind me!” that is to say, “Become my follower again.” Satan is banished from the presence of Christ; Peter is recalled to be Christ’s follower. The one thing that Satan could never become is a follower of Christ; in his diabolical pride he could never submit to that; that is why he is Satan. On the other hand, Peter might be mistaken and might fail and might sin, but for him there was always the challenge and the chance to become a follower again. It is as if Jesus said to Peter: “At the moment you have spoken as Satan would. But that is not the real Peter speaking. You can redeem yourself. Come behind me, and be my follower again, and even yet, all will be well.” The basic difference between Peter and Satan is precisely the fact that Satan would never get behind Jesus. So long as a man is prepared to try to follow, even after he has fallen, there is still for him the hope of glory here and hereafter.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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