But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a hindrance to Me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It’s a short step from “Rock” to “Stumbling Block,” from “blessed” to “Satan.” Just ask St. Peter. In last week’s reading, Peter spoke for the rest of the disciples by confessing Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus commended this confession, identifying the Father as its source and its truth as the foundation of the Church’s endurance. In other words, Peter got Jesus right. Jesus pronounced Peter blessed and called him Petros, “Rock.” But now, just five verses later Jesus calls him Satan, and says he is a skandalon, a stumbling block to Jesus and His ministry. What changed? To find out, let’s review the narrative.
The time has come for Jesus to reveal His mission to His disciples. The Father has just shown Peter and the others that Jesus is, in fact, the unique Son of God and the Anointed One Jesus has promised to them a future in which He will build His Church and use them to unlock access to the reign of heaven (Matthew 16:17-19). Now it is time to show them what that will require of Him and them.
Jesus speaks frankly to the disciples about His imminent suffering and death. He has surely spoken of these things before, but the disciples have not really understood. They do not understand what Jesus tells them here either, but in due time they will understand. Nevertheless, at this time, it is necessary for Jesus to go on record as being fully aware of the suffering and death He will soon endure, and also to speak of His resurrection on the third day. It must be clear that Jesus knows what He faces and that He willingly endures it all. He is a willing sacrifice for all our sins, not a helpless victim of the schemes of evil men.
Jesus’ ministry evokes many reactions, including the hatred and opposition of influential people in Israel. Arrayed against Him are the likes of Herod Antipas (Matthew 14:1-2), Galilean Pharisees (Matthew 12:2, 14, 26), Jerusalem Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 15:1), and Sadducees as well (Matthew 16:1). Always before, when the opposition has arisen, Jesus has chosen to withdraw to avoid conflict. Now, however, He declares that He must confront His enemies in Jerusalem, the city where the Messiah of Israel, should be rightly received with faith and acclaimed with joy, but where He must die. The powerful men in the holy city will inflict many pains on Him, and He will be killed. Sin and rebellion will have its way. Jesus will die and He gives His life as the ransom payment for many (Matthew 20:28).
This is all too much for Jesus’ disciples to comprehend. Peter takes Jesus aside, and begins to rebuke Him: “Far be it from You, Lord!” Peter says. “This shall never happen to You!” Peter’s intentions are good. But His denial confirms the old saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Peter cannot bear to think of such terrible things happening to his Lord. But he speaks without considering the ramifications. The man who just acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, now presumes to contradict Jesus’ very plain words.
A moment earlier, Jesus commended Peter’s confession of faith. He called him Petros, “Rock,” and pronounced him blessed. Now, Jesus rebukes him sternly, even addressing him as Satan. This is appropriate because Peter is now saying essentially what Satan told Jesus during those forty days of temptation in the wilderness. Forget the obedience and suffering, seize the glory now. This is no ordinary but well-meaning confusion on Peter’s part. His words show that he is taking his stand against the Lord and against His Anointed. There are two ways to think about God’s activity in the world, and Peter has chosen to think and articulate the satanic way, that is to say, “the things of men” (Matthew 16:23).
When Jesus calls the apostle a skandalon, or “stumbling block,” that term refers to a crooked stick in a trap to which bait would be attached. An animal going for the bait would spring the trap and be captured or killed. In the same way, Peter is setting a trap for Jesus. If Jesus steps into that trap, His whole mission of redeeming the world will be aborted. The rebuke Jesus speaks to Peter is in order, and it is important for the other disciples to hear it, too. They have not said what Peter said but have thought what Peter thinks.
In mere moments, Peter goes from “Rock” to “Stumbling Block”, from “blessed” to “Satan.” What changed? The promise of suffering. Peter’s resistance to suffering is so strong, and so natural to his fallen nature, that he is willing to rebuke the very Son of God he just confessed. In addition to contradicting Jesus (which is never a good idea), Peter’s opposition prevents him from considering the resurrection. Jesus is clear. Not only will He suffer and be killed, but He will “on the third day be raised.” But Peter finds no comfort in the promise of the resurrection. He is too disturbed by the suffering.
Isn’t that how it works for us, too? It’s hard to get past the suffering. Most of us have learned that life—even Christian life—involves a certain amount of anguish and affliction. But this knowledge does not make the experience of suffering any easier, and it does not make the desire to avoid suffering any less intense. For this reason, Peter stands again this week as a model Christian. Unfortunately, he is not the type of model to emulate. Peter puts on display our shared determination to avoid suffering at all costs—both for ourselves and those we love. This does not sit well with Jesus.
Jesus reminds His disciples what they must expect as they follow Him. They have long since committed themselves to following Jesus, but they seem to forget what that involves. So He tells them, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).
This verse is the heart and summary of Jesus’ teaching. He speaks these words because His disciples have badly misconstrued the character of God’s work in the world. They still do not know what it will mean for God to reign through His Anointed One and what it will mean for Christ to accomplish the work that He has been sent to do. God’s work will entail the seeming defeat of the Christ. He will not go to Jerusalem in triumph, but rather, He will suffer there and be killed.
This speaks volumes about the nature of the world as well as the plan of God in Christ to reclaim the world and reign over it in grace. The world is filled with violent men. All, by nature, are such, and all such would seek to snatch away the kingdom of God and destroy it. To be sure, God is King, and in Jesus, His reign has broken into the creation. The mighty deeds and authoritative Word of Jesus have demonstrated that full well. In the unexpected way of God, however, this same Jesus must yield to those who oppose Him and suffer the unjust fate of vicarious suffering and death. Only in so doing, by God’s design, can God’s people, all people, and all creation be saved from sin and its henchman, death.
After dying, Christ will rise to eternal life, and this sequence can neither be changed nor interrupted. Those who belong to Jesus will follow in this world the same sequence and path—first the cross, then glory. Death first, then resurrection.
The first and primary obstacle to such following, however, comes not from the world around, but from within. The enemy lies within the heart of every disciple. So Jesus’ call begins: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). Even as the “things of men” are allied against God’s plan in Jesus, within each person who would be a disciple is the “world” in microcosm, which must be rejected. This reality is so prevalent and deeply rooted in the corrupt human nature that Jesus says a person must “deny himself.” This is the opposite of what Peter has just done. Instead of saying no to himself, Peter has just said no to Jesus.
There probably is no limit to the specific applications of what it means to deny oneself as Jesus commands. There are so many sinful desires in our hearts! The context of Matthew 16, however, emphasizes two related tendencies that are alive and well in every fallen human creature, who, by God’s gracious invitation, wants to be Jesus’ disciple.
The first tendency is to think—and insist—that God’s way of dealing with the world and its evil should conform to our way, that is, a way of power and success. We reason: If evil really is evil, should not God, the omnipotent Creator of all things, simply come forth in might and overcome it? Moreover, shouldn’t Jesus’ disciples be allowed to be participants in such work, separating wheat from chaff and uprooting the sons of the evil one (Matthew 13:28)?
God’s mysterious answer is, simply, no. The Christ Himself will not deal with the world in that way—at least not yet. To deny ourselves means that we will not assume or believe that God’s way of working in the world will conform to our expectations or definitions of success or efficiency or glory.
The second tendency, related to the first, is for a disciple to insist that God work in humanly powerful ways, so that the disciple desires to exercise power over others, especially over fellow disciples, so that he can accomplish what he believes should be done. Living in each disciple is that dark conviction that can destroy unity and do untold damage to the cause and name of Christ: “Put me in charge, and I’ll set things right.” This conviction can take the forms of ambition, a disguise considered good, even in the Church. It readily sprouts forth as criticism, competition, and one-upmanship. More introverted sinners might choose to worship Lord Self wit quiet, prideful comparison in which one doesn’t actually do anything, but merely demeans a brother or sister. Ambition, comparison, and criticism are all ways of embracing and exalting oneself, rather than denying oneself.
The way of Jesus, however, is the way of humble obedience and submission to the will of Another. When first confronted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11), Jesus set aside His own power (Matthew 4:3-4) as well as the presumption that His Father’s powerful provision would rescue Him from reckless independence (Matthew 4:5-7). Instead, Jesus chose the way of service and obedience and suffering for the sake of Israel and the world. Now He calls every Christian to look at the darkness within, at the desire for power over others, and to deny that desire whenever and wherever it shows itself. Let us deny ourselves and take up our cross.
This is not some terrible task; this is the life of the Christian. By the Law of God, we know what our old sinful nature is like, with all of its selfish tendencies. By the grace of God, we deny ourselves—we deny our sinful selves the authority and respect the Old Adam desires. We declare to the Lord that we naturally follow our own will, not His, and we pray that He would forgive us for the sake of His crucified Son.
We say this, though often in different words. Words like, “I, a poor miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You.” We sing, “Lord have mercy upon us,” and “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us,” praying that He—who died for our sins—would forgive us.
He does! You hear the truth proclaimed in words like these: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins.” The pastor announces that Jesus forgives you! Furthermore, he traces a cross toward you as he says them, to convey this awesome truth: You are forgiven because Christ has died your death on the cross, and He has shared His death with you in Holy Baptism. His cross is your cross! This is the cross that you bear! St. Paul makes that clear in Galatians 2: “ I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (v. 20). He also says in Romans 6, “We were buried therefore with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Jesus had placed His cross and His victory over sin upon you, and that is the cross you bear.
And that is why Luther advises us to draw that cross upon ourselves each morning and evening, as we rise and go to sleep with prayer, that we might constantly remember that we bear His cross—that we have died with Him to sin. And because He pours out His grace and gives us faith, we daily confess our selfish sinfulness, put it to death once again, and live as His forgiven people.
So, like St. Peter, we cling to the Word of our Lord—the Word of Christ, the Son of the living God who suffered many things, died, and rose again. Oh, rejoice to deny yourselves and confess your sins, for you do so knowing that the Lord has died to set you free from your selfish, sinful nature that seeks to kill you forever. And you rejoice, all the more, knowing that the Lord has died your death and made His cross your cross; and that He gives His cross and life to you in His Word and His Sacraments. You will battle your sinful self each day, but the Lord is present with His grace; and you are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.