March 10, 2020
Get behind me… where you belong
When Jesus arrives at Caesarea Philippi, he asks his disciples, “who do people say that I am?” We are all familiar with the answer they give, “you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Of course, Peter is speaking for all the disciples when he declares this. With this answer, he identifies Jesus and he names his mission, namely to be the Messiah.
This is where things begin to go awry. Upon their confession of his identity and mission, Jesus informs them for the very first time about the destiny he is embracing. He is going to Jerusalem where you will be arrested, abused and beaten, and killed. He does and his Proclamation to them with the announcement that 3 days later he will rise from the dead.
This of course proves to be too much for Peter. So, he takes Jesus aside and informs the Lord that this will never happen to him. It would seem that Peter didn’t listen to all that Jesus just said. It’s as though once he heard about Jesus being taken into custody by the Jewish religious leaders and being killed he just stopped listening. He did not even respond to the staggering proclamation that Jesus would be raised from the dead.
Peter had no real frame of reference for such a thought. While it was a common belief among Jews at that time to accept the idea of resurrection, this was an event that would occur only after the Messiah had been victorious and set all things right. Then Israel’s God would bring an end to time and enact a general resurrection for all God’s faithful. What Jesus was suggesting just did not compute. For him to be arrested and killed, rather than acknowledged and acclaimed by Jerusalem, would mean a failure of his Messianic mission. This would only indicate, from the disciples point of view, that Jesus was not Messiah.
We can, at least, sympathize, with Peter on this occasion. He is actually expressing his faith (as defined by his expectations at this point), rather than showing unbelief. Based on his own frame of reference, he is only trying to help Jesus, as though Jesus is having a moment of self-doubt or dismay. Peter thinks of himself, to put it in modern parlance, as Jesus’ “wingman.”
Then Jesus rebukes Peter with those famous words: “get behind me Satan, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but like men think, and you are a hindrance to me.” A standard interpretation of what Jesus is saying here goes something like, “get out of my face and my way you devil.” Sheer rebuke and scathing denunciation of Peter and his lack of faith.
Yet, when one looks at the larger context of Matthew 16, a different interpretation offers itself. Jesus’ words “get behind me” are a translation of a Greek word opiso, which is the very same word used later in the passage when he says to all of his disciples, “if anyone would follow after me (opiso) and be my disciple…” With this in mind, then, we can see the probability that Jesus’ comment to Peter is not merely a reproach. Instead, Jesus is saying to him, you are standing in the wrong place, Peter. You are trying to guide me. That’s not your place. When you try to guide me out of your wisdom, you can only be my satan (adversary). You can only be a hindrance and a problem. OPISO (Get behind) me Peter, that is, follow me. Let me lead you and shape your destiny. Don’t try to shape your own by trying to shape mine. Your place is behind me, trusting me to lead, surrendered to my wisdom. Be my disciple and not a satan to me. OPISO (get behind me and follow). So, Jesus’ words are both a harsh corrective and an invitation. Get where you belong…letting me lead.
Jesus was clear that his destiny was going to lead him through the cross. But, the cross was not his destiny. Being raised three days later was his destiny. That was the part that Peter could not hear. The resurrection as the result of obedience to God His Father’s saving purposes was his destiny. He was headed to becoming the “first born from the dead,” as St Paul would later say. Christ was headed to Jerusalem to inaugurate God’s New Creation, not at the end of time, but in the midst of history.
This is the reality that Peter could not grasp, of which he unknowingly was standing in the way. Jesus then invites all of his disciples (then and now) to get behind him and follow. He let’s them and us know following him will require a cross and self-denial. Those, however, are not the destiny. Just as he was journeying through the cross by way of self-denying trust in the goodness of his Father into the certainty of being raised from the dead, so he invites us all to follow him into new life.
But, just like Peter we must let Jesus lead and not try to predetermine what it will mean to follow him.
No matter how hard, how confusing, or how unimaginable, we just need to get behind him where we belong. That will always lead through everything else to the unexpected and indescribable new life in Jesus.