A few weeks back I found myself in a discussion about politics. Somehow the infamous passage, “Get behind me Satan” was used to make a point. I don’t know if this other person’s use of the text was entirely in context, but it got me thinking about this passage. It’s a rather controversial Jesus quote that usually elicits discomfort.
In Matthew 16 Jesus is alone with His disciples and He asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” To which they list out a few prophets by name, or a new prophet. Jesus follows that question up with another question, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks up and has a moment of glory when he answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mtt. 16:16) Jesus tells Peter he’s right and renames him from Simon to Peter and says he will become the rock that Jesus’ church will be built upon. Jesus speaks a blessing over Peter and asks the disciples not to tell anyone who He really is. (Mtt. 16:13-20)
Then Jesus tells the disciples about how they’re going to Jerusalem and Jesus is going to be arrested, crucified and raised on the third day. Peter takes Jesus aside (seeing as he’s the rock and all) and rebukes Jesus, saying He can’t do this. To which Jesus responds, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mtt. 16:21-23)
The first time I encountered this bible story was in Israel. I was on a mission trip that included some touring of biblical sites. One of those sites was an ancient pagan religious place called Pan’s Gate. It was a hollow on the side of a cliff that over looked what used to be Caesarea Philippi. We gathered around the hollow and someone lead a bible study of the story I just described because some scholars believe this discussion took place at that ancient site. I was 14 at the time and I thought Jesus’ response to Peter’s rebuke rather extreme. Then again, the cross was rather extreme so maybe it was a response equal to the gravity of the situation.
Most of the commentaries I’ve read agree that Jesus wasn’t calling Peter Satan, but rebuking Satan for using Peter against Him. Jesus was calling Satan out to stop the work he was trying to do through Peter. I agree with this interpretation. My recent pondering on the subject made me see it in a new way though.
What about Peter? I don’t believe he was possessed at the moment of speaking a rebuke to Jesus. Which means there must have been some misunderstanding that created a foothold for Satan to use in that moment. For example, most Jews believed the Christ, or Messiah, was going to be a political savior that freed Israel from political oppression, such as the occupation of Rome. Perhaps Peter held that belief himself. So when he heard Jesus’ plan for how He was going carry out the Christ act, that didn’t jive with Peter’s expectations.
I don’t know exactly how Satan manipulated Peter. I don’t know if the misunderstanding of the Old Testament prophesies is the foothold Satan used. But I do know somewhere along the way Peter’s thinking and expectations disconnected from what was really happening in the life and work of Jesus. This happens to us as followers of Jesus too. The enemy uses our disconnects with Jesus to create lies that play out in our thought life. Or to create a stronghold. Or to wreak some other havoc in our hearts and minds.
These misunderstandings and manipulations can have such a power over us, and sometimes we don’t necessarily recognize it. I think that is why it is so important to be in Godly community with other believers who can point out our disconnects from a place of love. This is why it is important to humble ourselves before God and ask Him to reveal where we need to realign and reconnect with Him. We can’t always see for ourselves where we need help and healing, or where we need to grow. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t.
Apart from stopping the enemy from interrupting His Messianic mission, I think it was gracious of Jesus to call Satan out at that moment. By naming and rebuking the enemy it broke his power off of Peter. The misunderstanding and manipulation were brought into the light and they lost their sway in Peter’s mind. Peter was free from being pulled into the work of the enemy, free to indeed become the rock Jesus built His church on.
Jesus wasn’t attacking Peter personally, He was pulling Peter into alignment with Him and therefore into His freedom. I find myself assessing my alignment with Jesus and wondering if He isn’t holding out His hand and inviting me out of disconnected misunderstanding and into His freedom as well.