Why Does Jesus call Peter, "Satan"
by Fr. Daniel Strandlund | September 8, 2017Hi, friends, the Gospel from this past Sunday was peculiar (Matthew 16:21-28), and as promised, I’d like to address it here since I didn’t in my sermon.
Jesus and Peter’s interactions in Matthew 16 cover a lot of ground. Two weeks ago, Peter identified Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” and Jesus responded by calling Peter the “rock” on which he “will build my Church” (16:16-18). Then this past Sunday, Jesus described how he must go to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the chief priests, scribes, and elders, “and on the third day be raised” (16:21). When Peter objected, saying that this could never happen to his Lord, Jesus turns away and calls out, “Get behind me, Satan” (16:23).
In case you missed it, in a matter of five verses Peter has gone from being the rock upon which Jesus builds the Church to “Satan.”
Matthew’s characterization of Peter in chapter 16 paints an honest picture of human capability: as followers of Jesus, we are at times a foundation on which God builds his community on earth, and at others, we are utterly ignorant of, and even opposed to, God’s purposes.
But why use “Satan?” As is so often the case, Matthew’s deliberate attempt to situate his Gospel as an authentically Jewish account of the coming Messiah colors his meaning here. “Satan” here more nearly means “the Accuser” rather than the bat-winged miscreant of the netherworld so colorfully imagined by everyone from John Milton to The Simpsons.
In the Hebrew tradition, Satan is not God’s adversary, but the adversary of humanity. Satan is the Adversary who accuses, interrogates, and incites human beings in the Heavenly Court. The book of Job, for example, begins with Satan saying to God, “Sure, Job is faithful to you now because he’s got flocks and herds and healthy children. But let me turn the screws on him a bit so we can see what he really thinks!” (See Job 1:6-12) The Psalmist laments how his enemies surround him, saying that they cry out against him with things like, “Appoint a wicked man against him; let an accuser [‘satan’] stand on his right” (109:6). In a vision, the prophet Zechariah sees the high priest Joshua standing in soiled clothes before the Angel of God, presumably because Satan has accused him falsely of something; this earns Satan a rebuke from the Lord (Zechariah 3:1-3).
I think this is helpful in understanding the nuance of Jesus’ and Peter’s interaction in Matthew 16. If, for example, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” in a way reminiscent of the Satan of the book of Job, then Jesus is saying that Peter is making it difficult for him to remain true to who he is. Just as Satan accused Job before God and sought to make Job’s fidelity incredibly hard, so too is Peter making Jesus’ walk towards his suffering in Jerusalem more difficult.
But how can that be? The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is powerful, Lordly, authoritative. People fall at his feet (15:25, 17:6, 20:20, etc.). In short, I think in our Gospel from this past week we catch a rare glimpse of Jesus’ naked humanity. Jesus reacts so strongly to Peter because he loves Peter, and because a few short verses ago he thought Peter was finally starting to understand what it’s all about. Perhaps Peter’s closeness to the truth in calling Jesus “Messiah” in verse 16 is precisely why Jesus starts telling his disciples how it’s really going to be, with all the suffering he must undergo, in verse 21. You tell the hardest things to people you trust, after all.
Then Peter has to go and reject Jesus’ honesty. “You can’t be serious, Jesus?!” Imagine telling someone about a painful, difficult thing on your horizon, and then having that person effectively say, “I wish you hadn’t said that. You can’t be serious, right?” It’s a slap in the face. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” because Peter, just like the Accuser in Job, makes Jesus’ walk toward Jerusalem more difficult. The rock is now a stumbling block. Jesus is a little more alone with his future than he thought he was.
Jesus’ words to Peter are strong, but in calling Peter “Satan,” he isn’t calling Peter the root of all evil. He is saying, painfully, that his friend, who only a few verses ago had testified in the affirmative about Jesus’ identity, has now changed sides in the court room and become his accuser. We can almost feel Jesus saying, “Even you, Peter?” In this light, it might be easier if Jesus had simply meant, “You devil!” when he called Peter “Satan.” Instead, Jesus points not to the supernatural, but to something all too human.
It’s a hard passage to read. But remember, not even stumbling blocks get left behind on the road to Jerusalem. Our soul’s rubble is raw material for the kingdom in the hands of God.