Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
So here’s the question: was Peter’s insight really insight?
What I mean is that while we tend to treat the previous verses as “Peter’s confession,” the place where he perceives and testifies that Jesus is the Messiah, just a verse or two later we have to wonder whether Peter really understood Jesus at all.
Let’s set the scene again.
They have travelled to the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi, a city about twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee and Bethsaida. As they near the city, Jesus asks his disciples what the crowds thing of him, what they are saying of him, who they believe him to be. The answers are flattering: a prophet; even Elijah, the greatest of prophets; John the Baptist, the greatest recent prophet who had been beheaded by Herod. Like I said, not bad company, as these are figures of great authority and power.
But what Jesus really wants to know, apparently, is what the disciples think. Given their time with him, given what they have seen and heard, given the testimony of the crowds, what do his own disciples think? And then it comes – Peter’s flash of insight and moment of boldness: “You are the messiah.” That is, you are the one sent by God to restore God’s people. You are the one, the heir of David, that we have long awaited. You are the One, greater than any prophet, who will redeem Israel.
It’s an incredible moment.
Or is it? Because here’s the thing, the moment Jesus begins to explain what “messiah” means – the one who saves through weakness, not power; the one who redeems by suffering, not conquest; the one who gives his life as a ransom, rather than call others to die in battle for him – Peter rebukes Jesus, actually tells his teacher and master that he is wrong, that he should not say such things.
What motivates Peter? Is it his love for his Lord? Is it devotion to his friend? Or is it more simply that what Jesus is saying just doesn’t line up with what he had imagined, hoped for, and expected?
We can’t know for sure, but given the larger trajectory of Mark’s story, I suspect it’s the latter. Jesus comes doing “deeds of power” as any prophet, miracle-worker, or divine emissary would. But his greatest deed will not be accomplished by power. Or, more accurately, it will be accomplished by the power of vulnerability, the strength demonstrated in a weakness born of sacrificial love.
Ah, Peter, how could you have missed this?
But perhaps the real question is, how could we? Are we, truthfully, any different? Do we not want God to conform to our sense of what a “God” should be – a kind of divine “big brother” who always looks out for us, redeeming and saving us through power, restoring to us the fortunes we believe we deserve? Do we not also desperately want God to do what we want, what we know we need? And is this not the very definition of what it means to be like Satan, desiring to control God?
What will we do when confronted again by a messiah who doesn’t conquer the world – or us! – by might, but rather woos us with love?
Ah, Peter, now I understand how you could have missed this.
Prayer: Dear God, thank you for Peter, for though he misunderstood your purposes he still pointed the way. May we also, faltering as we might, confess your mercy and love that others may perceive you better. In Jesus’ name, Amen.