Get thee behind me, Satan! – Matthew 16:23
Pretty harsh words to level at poor Peter, don’cha think, Jesus?
Particularly since these words followed so closely on the heels of when you called him the Rock on which You will build Your church. And especially when all he did was to try to talk You out of being such a gloomypants, predicting your death and so on. I mean, we all know You could have easily prevented Your Crucifixion if you’d wanted to, so Peter had a point. Was it really necessary to use that particular word to describe your most demonstrably enthusiastic follower when he simply didn’t know all that you knew?
Yeah, I guess it was, Jesus. Sorry I asked.
I don’t think I’m the only one who’s struggled with Matthew 16:23 for the reasons stated above. But it’s one of my favourite passages in the whole Bible, because it says so much in so few words, and it’s a message I need to hear over and over.
First, imagine the conflict going on inside Jesus. He’s divine, so He knows what’s going to happen and why. But He was human, so he was afraid of the physical pain and the emotional rejection that was upcoming. And since He was human, the frailty of flesh must have called to Him just as loudly as it calls to us; he was probably tempted to avoid the Crucifixion – maybe He was even tempted to be the kind of Messiah people wanted, instead of the one we need. So when Peter – His friend and a top lieutenant in his posse – took him aside and told him to stop talking nonsense, He had to slam that door shut as quickly and emphatically as possible – maybe for His own sake as much as Peter’s.
Second, we pay a lot of attention to Jesus’ use of the word ‘Satan’ in this passage, but look at the rest of the sentence: Get behind me. Not ‘Get away from me, Satan!’ or ‘Get out of here, Satan!’ (Some translations do phrase it that way, but I had a look at about a dozen, and the vast majority say ‘behind.’)
Peter is still basking in the glow of being told he’s the Rock and he gets a little full of himself. So he decides to tell the Son of God what He should and shouldn’t predict about Himself.
Jesus has to remind Peter just who’s Lord, and who isn’t: Get behind me, not beside. (That’s the part I need to hear over and over.) It’s one of those, ‘If Jesus is your co-pilot, it’s time to switch seats’ moments.
Now for the elephant in the room: Satan.
The Prince of Darkness.
If that’s how we understand the word ‘Satan’ here, we might be a bit off-track.
According to a couple of commentaries I read online, Satan isn’t necessarily The Enemy’s name, it’s more like his title. Satan originally meant ‘adversary,’ not ‘The Living Embodiment of Chaos and Evil.’ Over time, the word has come to refer to ‘the great Satan hisself … red and scaly with a bifurcated tail, and he carries a hay fork,’ as described by Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) in O Brother Where Art Thou.
But initially, it seems, ‘satan’ wasn’t even fully synonymous with ‘enemy’ – more like ‘opponent.’ Maybe not that much nastier than the person you play Scrabble against.
So the word has two meanings, then. Small-s satan is an adversary; big-S Satan is The Adversary, and Jesus is using a small s here. Whew! This paints a much less damning picture of Peter.
But speak of the devil, even investigating this simple etymological question stirred up questions for me about the nature of evil and its main poster boy.
There are some who suggest the devil doesn’t exist, but I’m not one of them. Three out of four Gospels state plainly that Jesus was tempted by the devil during his pre-ministry wilderness fast, so as far as I’m concerned, that’s that.
I believe Satan is real, but I also think he’s a bit superfluous.
He doesn’t need to win people to his side and turn us into outright Satanists, where we sacrifice chickens or mutilate squirrels or drink blood or wear really heavy eye makeup. All we have to do is put our own desires ahead of everyone else’s; to live a Me-centred life. When we take our eyes off of Jesus, he’s won.
Therefore, I don’t think he has to work very hard at it. We’re pretty good at being selfish all by ourselves.
Still, we’d do well to remember that the sinful desires of our own flesh aren’t our only enemy. When you return from a Mountain Top Experience (MTE), for instance, it seems especially hard to keep the faith sometimes. Some Christian leaders say that’s because during your MTE, you moved closer to Jesus and found your way onto Satan’s radar screen. In those instances, you’re under attack by the Great Satan Hisself!
It’s your job in those cases to recognizing the reality, and choose to put on the Armor of God to protect yourself from the great whispering naysayer.
According to some interpretations of Revelation 12, Satan lost almost all of his power after Jesus’ resurrection. He was cast out of heaven – defeated once and for all in his battle with God.
But not in his battle with us.
The one power Satan didn’t lose was the power to persuade – to fan the flames of our doubts and our fears and our selfishness – kinda like Saruman in The Lord of the Rings after Gandalf breaks his staff (hmmm, did Saint John watch LOTR before he wrote Revelation?).
I borrowed a lot of the above couple of paragraphs from Brad Huebert, lead pastor at Dalhousie Community Church in Calgary. For more detail, and a really interesting perspective on Satan, visit http://dccnet.org/resources/sermons, focus on the Sermon Player, scroll way down and listen to his sermon entitled War.
The devil retains the ability to whisper in one of our ears when we’re tempted, ‘Go ahead. It’s not that big a deal. Indulge yourself.’ or ‘Are you gonna let her get away with that?’ and then once the sin is committed, to whisper in the other ear, ‘You unworthy slob. Do you really think Jesus can forgive you for that? You don’t deserve His redemption. Don’t even try to repent.’
But we don’t have to listen to him. Even If we listened to him before I messed up, we don’t have to listen to him afterwards. He only has the power to whisper; we have the power to act – or not to.
Therefore, I try not to give Satan more credit than he’s due. ‘The devil made me do it’ is, of course, a cop-out. He doesn’t make us do anything; about the worst thing he can do is help us talk ourselves into doing something wrong. The choice is ours to listen to him or to Jesus – to be our true selves, the selves God made us to be, the selves we already are in God’s eyes. Or not.
When Mr. Fear, Mr. Doubt or Mr. Selfishness show up, we have the power to see them for what they are, and say to them in a loud and steady voice, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’
And the devil weeps, gnashes his teeth and grunts, ‘OK, you win. For now…’
Peace be with you.