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Why did Jesus address Peter with such severity?
When, in the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi, Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus laid a strict charge on him and his fellow disciples not to mention it to a soul. Why? Probably because the title "Messiah" (the anointed king) was bound up in the minds of most people, and to some extent even yet in the disciples' minds, with ideas of political rule and military conquest, which were very far from Jesus' own understanding of his mission in the world. If the people of Galilee learned that his disciples considered him to be the Messiah, their own convictions about him, which he had done his best to dispel at the time of the feeding of the multitude, would be reinforced, and this might have disastrous results.
As for the disciples, they had to learn that, far from victory over the Romans and a royal throne awaiting him, Jesus faced suffering and violent death. If they believed that he was the Messiah, they must know what kind of Messiah he was; if they were still minded to follow him, they must realize clearly what kind of leader they were following, and what lay at the end of the road he was pursuing. The revelation shocked them; this was not what they expected. Their common sense of shock was voiced (as usual) by Peter, who in his concern took Jesus by the arm in a friendly gesture and began to expostulate with him: "Mercy on you, Master! Don't speak like that. This is never going to happen to you!" It was to this expostulation that Jesus made his severe reply.
The words of his reply recall those with which he repelled the tempter in the wilderness, and indeed they have much the same sense here as they had there. It should be understood that "Satan" is not primarily a proper name. It is a Hebrew common noun meaning "adversary." When it appears in the Old Testament preceded by the definite article, it means "the adversary." In the story of Job, for example, where Satan (better, "the satan") is said to have presented himself at a session of the heavenly court (Job 1:6), the expression means "the adversary" or, as we might say, "counsel for the prosecution." This is the regular function of this unpleasant character in the Old Testament. Every court must have a prosecutor, but this prosecutor enjoys his work so much that, when there are not sufficient candidates for prosecution, he goes out of his way to tempt people to go wrong so that he may have the pleasure of prosecuting them (see 1 Chron 21:1). His role as tempter is thus secondary to his role as prosecutor. The Greek word corresponding to Satan is diabolos, meaning "accuser" (it is the word from which our "devil" is derived). In Revelation 12:10, where the devil is thrown down from heaven (not at the beginning of time, as in Milton's Paradise Lost, but in consequence of the redemptive work of Christ), the holy ones in heaven rejoice because, they say, "the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down."
In his character as tempter Satan encountered Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus had just been baptized by John the Baptist and had received the assurance from God that he was his Son, his beloved One in whom he found pleasure. The language addressed to him by the voice of God (Mk 1:11) bears a fairly close resemblance to the words of Isaiah 42:1 in which God introduces the one whom he calls his servant: "Behold my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delights." If Jesus learned from the heavenly voice that he was to fulfill his life mission in terms of the portrayal of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 42:1 and other passages of the same book (especially Is 52:13--53:12 [RSV], which similarly begins with "Behold my servant"), then it was clear to him that the common expectation of a conquering Messiah was not going to be realized through him. Humility, obedience, suffering and death marked the way of the Father's will for him. The temptations to which he was exposed in the wilderness were calculated by the adversary to weaken his trustful obedience to God, and included the temptation to fulfill his destiny along the line of common expectation and not in accordance with what he knew to be his Father's will. We recall in particular the temptation to accept world dominion on the adversary's terms. "It will all be yours," said he to Jesus, "if you will fall down and worship me." Many an ambitious man before then had yielded to that temptation, and many have yielded to it since. But Jesus repudiated the adversary's offer, and it was in his repudiation of this temptation, according to Matthew 4:10, that he said, "Begone, Satan!" (RSV) or, as many manuscripts have it, "Get behind me, Satan!"
And now, from the lips of Peter, Jesus heard what he recognized to be the same temptation again. Peter, in effect, was trying to dissuade him from obeying his Father's will. Peter had no idea that this was what he was doing; he was moved only by affectionate concern for his Master's well-being and did not like to hear him utter such ominous words: "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected" (Mk 8:31). But he was, for the moment, playing the part of an adversary, however inadvertently, for as Jesus told him, "You are not on the side of God, but of men" (Mk 8:33 RSV).
In reproducing these words, Matthew inserts a clause not found in Mark: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me, for you are not on the side of God, but of men" (Mt 16:23 RSV). It is noteworthy that Matthew adds this reference to Peter's being a stumbling block, since it is he alone who, in the preceding paragraph, reports Jesus' words about the rock. There are two kinds of rock here: there is a kind of rock which provides a stable foundation, and there is the kind of rock which lies in the way and trips people up. Indeed, one and the same rock can sometimes fulfill both functions. There is an oracle in Isaiah 8:13-15 where God himself is a rock which offers safe sanctuary to those who seek refuge on it in times of flood, but which will become "a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall" to those who are swept against it by the swirling waters. Peter had it in him to be either a foundation stone or a stumbling block. Thanks to the intercession which his Master made for him in a critical hour, he strengthened his brethren (Lk 22:32) and became a rock of stability and a focus of unity.