How did we get from “You’re a rock, Peter; I can build my church on that!” to “Get behind me, Satan!” — in just five verses?
Matthew assumes we’re familiar with the Bible narrative. It starts with God and humans in relationship: God reigning over heaven and earth, humans entrusted with authority on earth. When humans rebel, earth becomes a place of enmity and death. The nations go their own way, so God chooses one person (Abraham) through whom he will restore the blessing of his reign to the nations. God’s nation (Israel) goes their own way too, so God provides one person (Jesus) through whom he will restore his reign over the earth.
The weakness in God’s plan is his determination to partner with humans rather than use his infinite power to force us back under his authority. God consistently relies on humans who recognize his authority: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, judges, kings, and Jesus of Nazareth. So, when Jesus came, the question was: Will people recognize God’s anointed ruler (the Christ)?
Consistent with God’s plan of powerlessness, Jesus did not go around announcing himself as the king appointed by God. He painted cameos of life under God’s reign (parables of the kingdom). He demonstrated God’s restorative power by healing those who were afflicted. Jesus hoped people would recognize him as the king appointed by God (the Christ), for the kingdom was in the king.
Finally, one person got it! Peter declared, “You are God’s anointed ruler; the Son with the authority of the living God!” (16:16)
Jesus was ecstatic! God’s restoration project was on the way with one person (as with Abraham, Isaiah 51:1-2). That’s effectively how Jesus replied: “You’re a blessed person, Simon son of Jonah! You haven’t realized this because of human deductive powers but because my Father, the sovereign in heaven, showed you! You’re a Rock, and on this rock I will build the assembly that gathers around my kingship!” (16:17-18)
The strange path to power
But Peter has not yet understood how God’s kingship over the earth will be restored. Peter imagines a joyful journey to Jerusalem where adoring crowds will recognize and crown their king.
But there are already people in Jerusalem claiming to be God’s appointed leaders: the elders of Israel (Sanhedrin), the temple leaders (chief priests), the Torah interpreters (scribes). Naming Jesus as God’s anointed ruler (the Christ) calls their power into question. They will treat Peter’s statement as a blasphemous claim against divine authority because it undermines their claims to power (26:63-66).
Matthew 16 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. 21 From that time on 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. (NIV)
The whole of history has been rebellion against God’s authority — people grasping power for themselves. That’s true among the nations, where “Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). But the same rebellion is in God’s people, holding them enslaved. Jesus knows their rebellion will kill him. And yet, he will follow this path of powerlessness (the foolishness of the cross), trusting God to raise up his Anointed, with all who recognize their king raised up in him (in Christ’s restoration of God’s reign over the earth).
But Peter wasn’t listening. In Peter’s mind, they’re off to have Jesus crowned, not crucified. He needs to get Jesus back on the path to power:
16 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but [merely] human concerns.” (NIV)
When Jesus accuses Peter of having “human things” on his mind, Peter isn’t thinking about going fishing. The whole of history has been about humans grasping power for themselves, power that should have been in God’s hands. When human concerns are in conflict with the concerns of God, we’re talking about the essence of sin: our desire for power. What Peter has in mind is his position in the king’s government — a cabinet minister, or even prime minister.
That’s why he is rebuked so strongly. Peter wants to divert Jesus from the path of powerlessness (the cross), so he himself can have power. This agenda makes Peter an enemy of Jesus’ kingship. Peter is no longer a rock Jesus can build on; he’s a stumbling block in Jesus’ way.
The word satan in Hebrew meant an enemy, an antagonist. For example, when David hid out among the Philistines, they feared he might be their satan (enemy) if a war with Israel broke out (1 Samuel 29:4). Later the word satan became primarily a proper name, the Satan that kept God’s people oppressed century after century under empire after empire. So, it’s possible that Jesus was addressing Peter as an enemy (a satan), rather than identifying him as the Enemy (the Satan). We could consider translating Jesus’ words to Peter as “Get away from me, enemy!” rather than “Get away from me, Enemy!”
There’s no question that Peter is acting as Jesus’ enemy, and Jesus’ response is remarkably similar to how he responded when Satan offered “all the kingdoms of the world” via the usual path (power that does not come from God). To Satan, Jesus said, “Get away, Enemy!” (4:10). To Peter, “Get out of my way, enemy!” (16:23).
All it takes to become an enemy of Christ is a subtle shift in focus — from declaring his kingship, to seeking power over people for myself. Church history is full of enemies of Christ following in Peter’s footsteps. Every church leader faces this temptation. We want to be popular. We want numbers on Sunday, people listening to us. We want to be influencers. We adjust our message to reflect what people want to hear, helping them to feel better about themselves. We tone down the Jesus’s authority, his demand that we reconcile with each other, his expectation for us to shoulder our crosses and use our riches to create an equitable community under his kingship.
It’s that easy to move from rock to stumbling block, to use the kingdom keys fraudulently to unlock power for ourselves. It’s that easy to replace God’s agenda with the human agenda of seeking power.
You might wonder whether God’s agenda can even work, if his power can be re-established through powerlessness. Can God trust us to trust him when we so easily turn as his enemies? Yet trusting him (faith) is how his kingship is restored.
Open Matthew 16:20-23.