This Lenten sermon is from 1961. To learn more about the history behind it, click here.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” — Matthew 16:21-23 (RSV)
Dear friends in Christ:
“Get behind me, Satan.” What a stern warning. It cuts like whip and burns like acid. We are shocked by it for least three different reasons. First, because the one who spoke these words is Jesus Christ. “Get behind me, Satan” came from the most tender lips to ever have spoken. Second, the words are shocking because of the one to whom they were spoken. Jesus wasn’t talking to the Sadducees or Pharisees, nor to one of his enemies. He spoke to a friend, a man deeply devoted to Him and ready to follow Him through fire and water, prison and death. Third, the words are shocking because of the moment in which they were spoken. They come just after Peter has made his great confession, “You are the Christ.” Jesus had just finished praising Peter and lifting him up. Now at the next moment, He dashes him from that height into a pit.
Let us consider the surrounding context of today’s passage. Jesus had taken His twelve disciples to a mountain for what today we would call a “retreat.” The word retreat, of course, is not the best, because it has the flavor of defeat about it. When an army retreats it relinquishes the front; the opposite of moving forward. When a church or congregation retreats, it has lost the fighting spirit, it is no longer on the offensive and is on its way to folding up.
Jesus took His disciples to a quiet place for close fellowship and for fuller instruction. We read in Matthew that He asked them two questions. The first was, “Who do people say that I am?” In other words, “What impression do I make upon the public, the common people?” The answer given by the disciples was quite flattering: “Some say you are John the Baptist, some say Elijah; others say you are Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” All these men were of course dead. Dead prophets are always popular; not so much with the living.
Jeremiah, for example, spent half of his time in prison and wrote Lamentations. Elijah had to flee into hiding in the wilderness. There he drank from a creek and God supplied for his needs by sending ravens. After the prophets had passed away, people began to realize what a wonderful service they had rendered. Many prophets were murdered. Later, the children of the murderers built tombs and monuments in honor of the prophets slain by their parents, saying, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.” Prophets usually receive honor when they are dead. When the disciples told Jesus that people regard Him as one of the great prophets, they thought they were the bearers of good tidings. The Lord, however, was not moved by the report.
Jesus asked them a second question, one much more important than the first; “Who do you say that I am?” That is, regardless of the testimony of others, speaking only out of your own experience and conviction, what do I mean to you? This question was supremely important then and it’s supremely important now. Everything that matters in our religion depends on an honest answer to this question. What do I mean to you? Not to your neighbor, not to your parents, not to your godparents, but to you? Answer the question honestly.
Here’s what Peter said, “You are Christ, the Son of the living God.” That was Peter’s way of saying, “I have found in you all that God has promised; His Son, my Savior, the best I can hope for in God.” I am not sure that all of us could give the same answer. For many people Jesus is nothing more than a good man, a hero, a wonderful teacher. If Christ is not more than that, then let the Chinese keep Confucius and the Muslims keep Mohammed. They were also good teachers. Moses was a good teacher, so was David, Solomon, and many others. But Peter confessed that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, the One whom God sent to save the world. And with this confession Jesus was well pleased, saying to Peter, “Blessed are you; for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Which means, “Peter, you’ve had a divine revelation. The light from heaven came into your heart. You have begun to build on solid ground, on a real foundation.” Peter’s confession must have filled the heart of Jesus with joy, and the angels in heaven with praise. At last his disciples were beginning to understand and accept Christ as Savior.
Jesus next wanted to lead Peter and the disciples into deeper water and show them what to expect in days to come. “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” This was an unexpected statement and it exploded like a bomb — at least in the heart of impulsive Peter, who still believed that Christ would bring back the golden age of King David and restore the kingdom of Israel. The country was occupied by Roman soldiers and everyone hoped for a leader that would throw off the yoke of the tyrant. Many looked to Jesus in those days hoping that He would do something about it. Peter was one of them. Now, when Jesus spoke about His future and the road leading to Calvary, Peter was shocked. This was the first time the Lord had spoken of His approaching end and suffering. Of course, He knew about it before, but his disciples had not yet been ready to learn about it.
Jesus never regarded His suffering as a tragedy, but as a necessity. His death was not the result of shrewd planning by some religious leaders and a weak governor. It was part of the plan of the living God. “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer to bring about salvation?” He said to two disciplines after His resurrection on the road to Emmaus. The cross was not a misfortune; it was needed to take away the sins of the world. In later years the Apostles understood this and proclaimed it, and we sing with the hymnist, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory.” Looked at from a distance we realize it was the only way to redeem the world. The One who was innocent suffered for the guilty, and took upon Himself our sins. He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities — by his stripes we are healed.
When Jesus broke this news to the disciples, Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid.” Peter rebuked Christ. Last Sunday I said that Peter occasionally gave advice to the Lord, but here we read that He rebuked him – which seems to be more than advice. Probably Peter said, “Jesus you are mad. What is the use of being Christ if you do not take advantage of your power? Why should you waste what God, your Father in heaven, has given you? It is your duty to finish your work, and in order to finish it, you have to save yourself. You have to live. You must avoid the cross.”
Before we blame Peter we should try to understand why he spoke as he did. He was not speaking selfishly. He was speaking on Christ’s behalf, because he did not see why one so great, so good, so dear as Jesus, should die on a cross. Viewed from the light of history Peter’s protest was wrong, but viewed in the moment Peter’s words were human, born of deep love.
Jesus, however, recognized in Peter’s statement someone else and said, “Get behind me, Satan.” Why did He use the name of Satan? Because it was fitting. He remembered His 40 day battle in the wilderness. The words of Peter were like those the Tempter had used during Christ’s lonely fight in the wilderness. What had the Tempter suggested? That Jesus use His power, the power of His deity, and command that stones be turned into bread. “Win your way by feeding, clothing and housing everybody. Win the kingdoms of the world. How you win is not important, so long as you bypass Calvary.” Thus Peter and Satan spoke the same language. Satan wanted Jesus to turn away from the cross, and He offered Him everything a human heart could want. Had Jesus avoided the cross, the devil would have won the battle and would be the undefeated ruler over the living and the dead. God’s plan of salvation would have been defeated. We would have no hope, no peace, no salvation, no eternal life. Since Satan could not succeed in the wilderness, He tried to accomplish his plan through Peter. With Peter’s tongue He told the Lord to bypass the cross, to save Himself and let the world go into darkness.
Satan’s appeal to avoid the cross is as old as mankind and as new as this morning. Not only was Jesus urged to bypass the cross, we are all urged to do the same. We all want an easy religion, a kind of push button religion, a religion that allows everything; no separation from the world and its lusts, no consecration to God, no sacrifice for His name’s sake, no self-denial, no real change of heart and life; a religion that does not require a new creation. “God forbid,” Peter said. “Lord, take it easy.” That is what the devil still says to us all. Why not answer with Christ, “Get behind me, Satan. Out of my way, you are no help but a hindrance. You play on the wrong team; you fight on the wrong side.”
The answer Jesus gave Peter shows us that one need not be an outrageous sinner to become an enemy of Christ. At that is needed is to avoid the cross, to go our own way and nurse our own desire. Paul once wrote a letter to one of his churches. I assume he has half ashamed to send it, because his tears had fallen on it; “I tell you even weeping that you are the enemies of Christ.” Why? Not because they had become crooks and drunkards and liars and adulterers, but because they had become earthly minded, self-centered instead of Christ centered.
Jesus declared that he would not bypass the cross, despite the rebuke from his devoted friend Peter. He went even a step further and said, “If any man will come after me – or be my disciple – let him deny himself, take up the cross and follow me.” Nobody has to follow. The cross is forced on no one. The only man that was forced to carry the cross was Simon of Cyrene. It was a burden at first, but after loosening his heart to Jesus it was different.
Here we have the word of our Lord; everyone who would follow Him must take up the cross. To bypass it means to give up Christ. Everyone who wins a worthwhile prize must make sacrifices. In order to win the supreme prize, life eternal, a price has to be paid. There is a cross for everyone, and there is a cross for me. The cross stands on our way to heaven. All who shun it and bypass it will knock in vain at the golden gate. “If anyone will be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it.” The way of life and the way of death are set before us. Let us take the right path.
2nd Sunday in Lent, 1961