A famous line of football commentary says, ‘It’s a game of two halves’, referring to a reversal of fortune for one team. Matthew 16 reads like a game of two halves for Peter. In the first half (vv. 13-20) he made a Spirit-inspired statement that received high commendation from the Saviour, but in the second half he got a severe scolding.
Jesus had just fed 4,000 people, and then was goaded by the spiritual leaders of the day to show them a sign (Matthew 15:29-39; 16:1-12). Jesus was righteously angry and warned his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Sadducees and Pharisees (16:6).
Then he asked his disciples: ‘Who do people say that the son of man is?’ (v.13). It seems he expected to hear a mixed bag of hearsay. ‘Some say John the Baptist; others, one of the prophets’, the disciples tell him. ‘Perhaps Jeremiah or Elijah’ (v.14).
‘But who do you say that I am?’ Jesus asked. He has been with them for so long, but still they did not seem to grasp the fulness of his person.
But Peter’s eyes and heart were suddenly opened to proclaim, ‘You are the Christ, the son of the living God’ (16:16).
Jesus was gladdened. ‘Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah!’ (v.17). He told Peter that it was God’s Holy Spirit that gave him the answer (v.17). The apostle had had a direct, divine revelation, straight from the heavenly Father; and this was a blessing indeed.
Now, Jesus gives the reason behind the nickname he gave Peter at the start of his earthly ministry (John 1). He says, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (v.18).
The word used is the Aramaic Cephas, meaning a ‘stone’. This translates into Greek as Petros, meaning a ‘rock’, from which we get the English name ‘Peter’.
Don Carson says Peter is called a rock of a foundational type, indicating that Jesus intends Peter to have a leading role in the church after his ascension. It is clear that it is Jesus Christ, not (as later Catholic theories state) Peter himself who will build the church.
This nickname helps us understand why Jesus called Peter to ‘strengthen your brethren’ (Luke 22:32) and ‘feed my sheep’ (John 21:16-18).
Jesus says the church shall not be shaken by the ‘gates of hell’, because Peter, the disciples and church will be kept by the Lord. But that’s not all. Peter’s own words will carry a divine blessing. Jesus tells him that in future what he binds on earth will be bound in heaven, and what he looses on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:19).
Bishop J. C. Ryle and Matthew Henry correctly stress this does not mean Peter (and the church of Rome) have the power to forgive sins or let people into heaven. But it means Peter, who once said, ‘Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man’, is given the wonderful job of explaining how sins can be forgiven and people enter the kingdom of heaven through Jesus Christ.
After this, Jesus decides it’s time to tell the disciples that his real mission is to die on a cross to save sinners from hell, and then rise again, defeating the power of sin, death and the grave (v.21; Mark 8:31).
But Simon Peter ‘takes him aside and began to rebuke him. “Far be it from you, Lord”.’ Having earlier declared that Jesus is ‘the son of the living God’, you might think Peter would hesitate to rebuke Jesus in any way, shape or form.
It’s likely the disciples thought Jesus was meant to take up the mantle of messianic king of popular imagination and defeat the Romans. Indeed, even after the resurrection, they ask Jesus, ‘Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?’ (Acts 1:6).
To Peter, Jesus was the great hope for Israel’s restoration. So to hear Jesus talk about the shameful death of crucifixion must have been deeply disturbing. We can imagine his words: ‘Nonsense Jesus, don’t talk like that. You’re not going to die! You’re amazing. You’re tired out and have been working so hard. ‘Loads of people love you. You’re going to be the king! You’re the saviour of Israel! You just need rest…’
But Peter was foolish to argue with God. He was also full of spiritual pride, which left him open to the influence of Satan.
It is this influence Jesus recognises working through Peter, so he cries out, ‘Get behind me, Satan’. ‘Satan’ is a Hellenisation of the Hebrew word STN, which means ‘tempter’ or ‘seducer’.
The sentence does not necessarily mean Jesus was calling Peter himself ‘Satan’. It can be interpreted as Jesus speaking directly to Satan who was using Peter as a conduit for temptation. Peter’s pride had left him open to Satan’s influence working through him.
We are frail humans and need to be told we are valued. But when it comes to matters of faith, we must be careful about the wrong kind of encouragements from well-meaning friends, both Christian and non-Christian.
We must be on our guard against such lines as, ‘God wants you to be happy if he loves you’ and, ‘You do so much for God. I don’t think he would mind if you just said no this once’. These can easily become temptations, since pride in our own religious activity or spiritual life can drip into our subconscious and gradually lead us away from God.
Jesus was not looking forward to the death he was about to face. So this temptation from his disciple Peter to ‘find another way’ was strong. No wonder then he responds fiercely, recognising the tempter for what he is. ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’
It is a sharp reminder to Peter to leave behind the things of the world and focus on the things of God. It is also an order to ‘get out of Christ’s way’ and stop being a stumbling block (skandalon).
From being the rock on which Christ will build his church, Peter becomes a rock of stumbling that needs to be removed from the Saviour’s path. What a change!
The only righteousness we have is in Jesus Christ. If we let spiritual experiences or ‘good works’ go to our heads instead of our hearts, we run the risk of falling into pride, temptation and error.
Peter was reminded to set his mind on the things of God, not of man. We must learn that lesson too and rebuke the tempter.