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Jesus blesses Peter in Matthew 16:18 saying, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it!” Yet, five verses later in Matthew 16:23, Jesus rebukes this very rock: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!”
After blessing Peter, scripture tells us that Jesus began to “explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21). As Christians, many of us are impartial to this news. “Of course he needs to do this,” we think. “How else can the world be redeemed?”
To the disciples, however, this news was catastrophic.
During this time, Jesus was conducting his ministry in northern Israel. He was healing the sick, calming storms, raising people from the dead and speaking about the Kingdom of God. Many believed him to be a prophet. The disciples believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Peter even believed that he was “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16)!
The prophets had given the Jewish people a certain set of expectations for their Messiah. The Messiah was expected to release the Israelites of their burdens and break the rod of their oppressor (who, at this time, was Rome) (Isaiah 9:4).
Therefore, when Jesus told the disciples that they would be travelling to Jerusalem, the disciples must have been ecstatic.
“Jesus is going to deliver our country from the hands of Rome,” they must have thought.
But Jesus did not talk about overthrowing governments or winning hearts. He told the disciples that he would “suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21).
How could this possibly be? The prophets said that the Messiah would come to free Israel—not to suffer and die. As for being raised from the dead, this didn’t make any sense to the disciples.
The disciples thought that they were following the Messiah into the glory of God’s kingdom… only to find that their Messiah was leading them into death and suffering.
This couldn’t be right.
At these words, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.
“Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22).
The Bible does not specify exactly why Peter says these words, but it does give us Jesus’ response: “Get behind me, Satan!”
If we are honest with ourselves, we might admit that we can understand Peter a lot more than we do Jesus. Peter has just confessed Jesus to be “the Son of the Living God” and he, along with the other disciples, has vied for a position in Christ’s coming kingdom. He has seen Jesus preform all sorts of miracles and has left everything behind to follow Christ.
If Jesus dies, so do Peter’s own hopes and dreams.
Knowing this, we might think that Christ’s response was unwarranted or harsh. After all, Peter’s protest might be misguided—or even sinful—but it certainly does not seem Satanic!
When we become confused by the scripture, we do not need to turn to lexicons or seminaries; the text, itself, often provides the answer. Often, what confuses us isn’t the difference in language or culture; it’s the difference in focus.
Every time we open the scriptures, the first thing we should look for is God’s actions. Once we find God’s actions, everything else falls into place. In this passage, for example, God’s major action is not explaining, rebuking, or commanding—it is coming.
In verse 27, Jesus says that “the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” God’s action, then, is to come at a later date (a date which, it is later revealed that, even Jesus does not know).
How do we know that the title “Son of Man” is referring to Christ? Two ways. First, the scripture itself reveals this truth to us (in Matthew 16:13-16, for example). If we had not read these scriptures, however, we could also come to the same conclusion. How? Through the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed acts as a quick summary of the entire Bible. This means that we can turn to the Nicene Creed whenever our own knowledge of the scriptures falls short. In this case, the Nicene Creed tells us that “Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”—a clear parallel to Jesus’ claim about the “Son of Man.” Therefore, Jesus must be speaking about himself.
One important thing to note is that God’s command to us is always given in response to his own action. In this passage, for example, Jesus does not tell his disciples to “take up their cross” without first taking up his own. This passage begins with Jesus’ explanation that he will have to suffer and die. His command to suffer does not take place within a vacuum, nor is it a task that he’s given us to do to prove our worth. Instead, we take up our cross because he has done so before us.
But what does all this have to do with Peter?
“You do not have in mind the concerns of God,” Jesus scolds Peter, “but merely human concerns” (Matthew 16:23). Although he may not realize it, Peter is tempting Christ away from God. Instead of fulfilling the words of the prophets by having Christ suffer and perish at the hands of the world, Peter would have Christ be successful, powerful, and safe—the three sirens of this world. In fact, Peter’s words echo those of Satan in the wilderness: All power and all authority has been given to you, therefore, command obedience from all the kingdoms of this world as I give them to you. Just as Jesus refused Satan in Matthew 4:10, he is refusing Peter in Matthew 16:23.
Many of us become Christians because we realize that Christ has been given all power and all authority on heaven and on earth and, like sycophants, we want to please him in order to obtain our own goals. Try as we like to dress-up our worldly desires as godly desires, these desires are still largely our own. We might pray earnestly for a spouse claiming that this person will help us to fulfill the godly calling of marriage—rather than asking God if marriage is actually in his plan for us or not. We might pray earnestly for wealth to share among God’s people—rather than asking God how to invest the little that we already have. If we are honest with ourselves, we have all done this at one time—and continue to do it to this day.
God, however, can see right through our facades. Furthermore, he knows something about us that we don’t: As human beings, our desires are completely disordered. The very things we think we desire—love, money, food, sleep—will never make us happy. Once acquiring these things, we may be happy for a while. However, we will always fall back into desire. Whether it’s a more understanding spouse, a larger bank account, dessert, or five more minutes of shut-eye, our desires are limitless. It is only our happiness that seems to be limited.
Even though God must lower himself and be made human to pay the hefty price for every dumb thing, every wrong thing, every sinful thing that we have ever done, he will always do what is right and best for us. Nothing can distract him from this mission or change his mind—not even Peter.
Problems in this world are far greater than politics or our own desires. We are little less than a speck in a constantly expanding universe—and a sin-drenched and subjective speck at that. Our fallen nature, and our creatureliness, prohibits us from understanding the world as it actually is. We could never understand how broken the world is or what is truly needed to fix us—only God knows this.
And God, as the Christ, tells us that for the whole of creation—not only ourselves—to be set right, we must join him in bearing the one cross—his cross. If we do not question our own doctors about prescriptions to our colds, why do we question our Lord and creator about the prescription to our brokenness? Why do we look at our Lord and say, “You don’t understand. That’s not how the world works.”
He was the only one around before the world fell into sin.
Jesus does not say, “I’ll die so that you do not have to.” He says, “Whoever would seek to save his life will lose it, whoever loses it for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
What is wrong with us goes to the core of our very being. We need a new heart, and this heart can only be given through baptism. Only God knows whether we will only die to our desires, or whether we will physically lay down our lives in echo of his death.
However, we all know that God will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead—this is the reality which God cannot—and will not—be distracted or bribed away from. If we rebuke God and tell him what is right for us, like Peter did, then we will pay the price, eternal torment in hell, upon his return.
Now is the time of mercy; it is the time when we must choose whether or not we will follow Jesus in his suffering. However, this time will not last forever. As the Nicene Creed says, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” The one who loses his life for Christ’s sake will be approved. The one who has sought only to preserve his life will be condemned.
Following him will cost us everything—respect, wealth, health, life—but as Christ says, anyone who gives up something will receive a hundred-fold return through his church—both now and on through eternity.