“Get behind me, Satan!” Peter was appalled that Jesus would willingly go to Jerusalem, knowing he would there be killed. Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, Peter had figured that part out, but the idea that a few local leaders could arrest, torture, and execute the Messiah was just plain wrong, and he wasn’t afraid to say so to Jesus’ face. With some anger in his voice, Jesus turned on Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” (Mark 8)
I once knew a guy who was convinced it was proof that Peter was Satan in disguise, which, for him, meant the pope was too. He couldn’t be talked out of it. Still, it’s a common question in adult bible study groups. What did Jesus mean by “Get behind me, Satan”? Here’s what I think.
Peter had a good point and Jesus knew it. Mark’s gospel says nothing of Jesus’ post baptism wilderness trials as he worked to come to terms with who he was as the divine Son of God. It only says he was in the wilderness forty days where he was tempted by Satan and cared for by angels. Matthew and Luke record that Satan tempted Jesus to exercise his powers as a true god would: Jesus needs bread. Everyone needs bread. Create enough for all. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Why mess around with years of preaching, healing, and training followers to carry on? Do something spectacular in the sight of all so it will be obvious a god has come among them. Cut to the chase. If you’re one with Almighty God then just say so and rule the world. Jesus would have none of it, but let’s be honest, none of the temptations in Matthew and Luke were evil. In fact they were pretty good ideas – efficient, effective, to the point. Temptations are more likely to seem like good ideas than invitations to evil, at least on the surface. It was the same for Jesus as it is for you and me.
All that was at the start of his earthly ministry. About three years later Peter simply brought them up again. Go to Jerusalem to be arrested, beaten and killed? You’ve got to be kidding. Messiahs don’t let things like that happen. We know you are the Son of God, so let’s go to Jerusalem and set things right with a real show of God’s power.
What made Jesus so angry was that Peter made a lot of sense. Why not? It could save him a lot of pain, and the results might be even better than the path that had been laid out for him. No wonder he turned on Peter with a curt, “Get behind me, Satan.” As with the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus withstood this one, but not without giving it some thought. He didn’t commit the sin of Adam and Eve, and that, more than anything else, is what made him sinless in human terms.
The temptations confronting Jesus in the wilderness, and from his friend Peter, raise another question. Who was this Satan character? I’m certain it wasn’t an evil fallen angel, the chief of demons, although that’s the popular story. Throughout the gospel narratives, demons, in whatever form, knew who Jesus was, had no power to resist him, and were terrified of his ability to exterminate them. No, I think Satan, in the wilderness and in Peter’s reproach, was simply Jesus doing battle with his own human fears and desires, and that’s why he was so angry with Peter.
“The devil made me do it,” was Flip Wilson’s punchline that always got a laugh because every one of us had fallen to more than one temptation of our own desire that turned out to be a really bad idea, and blaming the devil was as good an excuse as any. Wilson got a laugh because the setup to the punchline was always an exaggeration of bad judgement that reminded us of us, and we knew the devil had no part to play in it. For Flip Wilson, it was a punchline to a joke. For Jesus, it was a serious matter. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote, “…[H]e hd to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest…because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”(Heb. 2) “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have on who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4) Jesus facing compelling temptations is what gives us confidence that in him we have and advocate, not an accuser. In Jesus we have confidence that Almighty God has experienced what we experience, and loves us all the more for it.
“Get behind me, Satan,” are words of wisdom to be boldly claimed when we’re tempted by what sounds like a good idea that we know in our hearts and minds is not. “The devil made me do it” is a cheap excuse to avoid responsibility for the consequences of our own behavior. The right answer is mea culpa.