That time Jesus called Simon Peter “Satan.”

by K.W. Leslie, 18 November

Mark 8.31-33, Matthew 16.21-23, Luke 9.21-22.

Most people are aware Simon Peter was Jesus’s best student. That’s why he’s always first in the lists of the Twelve—even ahead of Jesus’s cousins!—and why there’s all the stories about him in the gospels and Acts. Thing is, because there are so many stories about him, we regularly get to see how he screwed up.

And certain Christians wind up with the wrong idea about him—that he was nothing but a screwup till the Holy Spirit empowered him. Nope; sometimes he got it right. When Jesus asked what the students thought he was, Peter correctly answered, “You’re Messiah,” and Jesus blessed him for it. Blessed him so good, Peter’s fans still venerate him. Maybe a little too much, but that’s a whole other article.

Today’s story is about one of the times Peter screwed up, and it comes right after the story where Peter identified Jesus as Messiah and got blessed. But bear in mind the stories come after one another. The time these two stories occurred might’ve been weeks apart. ’Cause once it was clear Jesus’s students recognized him as Messiah, Jesus had to set them straight about what Messiah had to undergo. Contrary to popular expectation, contrary to everything Pharisees claimed about how the End Times timeline went, Messiah wasn’t about to violently overthrow the Roman Empire and take over the world. He was going to be rejected by the Judeans, and die.

Mark 8.31 KWL
Jesus began to teach his students it was necessary for the Son of Man to greatly suffer;
to be rejected by the elders, head priests, and scholars; to be killed; and to be resurrected after three days.
Matthew 16.21 KWL
From then on, Jesus began to teach his students it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem,
to greatly suffer under the elders, head priests, and scribes; to be killed; and to be raised on the third day.
Luke 9.21-22 KWL
21 Jesus rebuked them, ordering them to never say this,
22 saying it was necessary for the Son of Man to greatly suffer,
to be rejected by the elders, head priests, and scholars;
to be killed; and to be raised on the third day.

And be resurrected on the third day. Or “after three days” in Mark, which probably got tweaked by the other gospels’ authors since literalists might nitpick. But considering how Jesus’s students reacted on the first Easter, they seem to have forgotten all about that part. Hey, sometimes kids just don’t pay attention.

Now, if you grow up only hearing one interpretation of the End Times, and someone you respect suddenly introduces you to another interpretation (or in Jesus’s case, the fact it’s actually not the End yet, and won’t be for millennia) your first response, your basic instinctive self-defense mechanism, is to not believe it. Because you’ve never heard that before. Because you prefer your old ideas: Y’might not even like them, but you’re used to them; you’re comfortable in them. And frankly the idea of Messiah overthrowing the Romans, is way more satisfying than Messiah being killed by the Romans. Who doesn’t wanna see Jesus kick some ass? Heck, certain Christians are still hoping to see him do that at his second coming. Deep down, they don’t really like the idea of a kind, gentle, humble, loving Lord; they want his wrath to look exactly like their wrath.

So some of the students didn’t like this new teaching of Jesus’s. Peter in particular.

Who’s the master and who’s the pupil here?

Pharisee rabbis taught using the Socratic method: You introduce a popular idea, question whether that’s really so, take it apart with logic, and see whether it holds up to serious scrutiny. Most American teachers do not teach this way; certainly our preachers don’t. We lecture. Hence Americans tend to assume that’s how Jesus taught: He lectured, and the kids took notes, and basked in the glory of his wisdom. Not that he made radical statements like—

Matthew 5.33-37 KWL
33 “Again, you heard this said to the ancients: You will not perjure. Lv 19.12
You’ll make restitution to the Lord for your oaths. Dt 23.23
34 And I tell you: Don’t swear at all.
Not ‘By heaven!’—it’s God’s throne. Ps 11.4
Not ‘By the land!’—it’s the footstool of his feet. Is 66.1
Not ‘By Jerusalem!’—it’s the city of the great King. Ps 48.2
36 Nor should you swear by your head; you aren’t able to make one hair white or black.
37 Make your word, ‘Yes yes; no no.’ Going beyond this is from evil motive.”

—and then the students would ask him a thousand questions to test whether this is really God’s motive behind the Law’s commands to be truthful.

That’s how Jesus’s lessons were supposed to go, but Simon Peter broke protocol: He took his master aside and told him to stop teaching this.

I don’t know what Peter’s motives are. Neither do you. Yet some Christians assume it’s because Peter thought Jesus was wrong about the future, or misinterpreted the prophets, or otherwise didn’t understand God’s will. Or because Peter did recognize Jesus knew best, Jn 6.68 but all this “the Son of Man’s gonna suffer” talk was discouraging, so stop bumming them out!

Either way, telling the Master to stop teaching was clearly the wrong tack to take, and Jesus needed to put Peter in his place. And make the rest of the students aware that what Peter was doing with him is not acceptable. He’s the Lord; they’re the followers. He doesn’t answer to them. His kingdom is not a democracy.

Mark 8.32-33 KWL
32 Jesus would speak this message boldly,
and Simon Peter, taking Jesus aside, began to rebuke him.
33 Jesus turned round to see his students, rebuked Peter, and said, “Get back in line, you Satan:
You don’t think as God does, but as people do.”
Matthew 16.22-23 KWL
22 Simon Peter, taking Jesus aside, began to rebuke him,
saying, “Mercy on you, sir: This will never happen to you!”
23 Turning back, Jesus told Peter, “Get back in line, you Satan; you offend me.
You don’t think as God does, but as people do.”

Occasionally you’ll hear some preacher claim Simon Peter, at that moment, much like Judas Iscariot later, was actually possessed by Satan—and what Jesus was doing was some sort of exorcism, forcing the devil out of his student. This dark Christian teaching is really popular with fleshly Christians who are way too obsessed with, and frightened of, demonism. They need to quit following conspiracy theories and start following Jesus. But they’re a whole other article too.

Sometimes Jesus needs to gently correct us, but every once in a while he needs to shake us hard, because softness ain’t working. Peter was so sure he was in the right, he had the nerve to correct his Master, and while that might be fine and appropriate with anybody else, Jesus is already fully correct. We have no business rebuking him. Nobody does.

Plus Jesus noticed the other students were witnessing this. Peter wasn’t being as private about this correction as he imagined. So his response needed to be something that’d make them recognize this wasn’t okay.

Jesus is really fond of metaphor, analogies, and parables. Telling Peter, “Stop; go back and stand with the other pupils; you’ve been suckered into thinking like vengeful humans, and that’s just a devilish trick to keep you pursuing the wrong kingdom” isn’t gonna have the same impact as “Get back in line, you Satan.”

Satan’s original job was to find fault. Its name (really its title, but over time it’s become its name) means “accuser, slanderer, blasphemer.” Arguably Peter’s rebuke went too far in certain ways, and crossed over into slander and blasphemy: “Doesn’t it say in the psalms, ‘You might never hit your foot against a rock’? Ps 91.12 So God would never make you, of all people, go through such a thing.” Fastest way to bring Satan to Jesus’s mind, would be to repeat its failed temptation. But claiming “God would never” when God totally does, is probably one of the most common misrepresentations we Christians are guilty of. And yep, misrepresentations are the very definition of slander and blasphemy.

So Jesus wasn’t having that. He knew best; Peter did not. He knew how events would unfold; Peter had no idea. And Peter needed to trust him, not try to correct him. As do we all.

Relax; Peter learned better. Don’t be too hard on the kid.

Christ Almighty!