But he 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
If you’re like me, when you first came across this passage you might have thought, “Well, that seems a bit harsh.” Peter was reacting to Jesus telling him how much he must suffer, and Peter simply reacted with concern, “Far be it from you, Lord!” It seems out of place that such a rebuke would be warranted as to call Peter “Satan.” So why did Jesus react in such a way to Peter, and what can we learn about our own thinking?
Jesus Speaks In Allegory, Not Hyperbole
Too often, people say that Jesus speaks in hyperbole. We use this explanation to rationalize verses like, “If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.” (Mark 9:43) But an entry level English student can tell you that this is NOT hyperbole. Hyperbole is when we exaggerate things to make a point like, “I am so hungry I could eat a horse.” It is a statement so absurd, everyone knows it is not meant to be taken literally.
If we say that Jesus speaks in hyperbole, then we have given ourselves permission to diminish his words into whatever small-value we would prefer. So what does Jesus mean then? Is Peter REALLY Satan, and should we REALLY cut our hands off? Well, there is a better alternative, and that is allegory. Allegory is a story, parable, or “mental picture” which is trying to communicate a deeper meaning. This may seem like semantics, but hyperbole says “Jesus didn't really mean that” while allegory says, “Jesus really meant it, and we need to understand it.”
Our Relationship to Satan
Even more than allegory, Jesus is most often speaking in relationships. Our relationship to him, his relationship to us, our relationship to each other, etc. Just think through the parables such as the Prodigal Son, Lazarus and the Rich Man, and the Good Samaritan and you will see that Jesus is always trying to show our relationship to the world around us. It is our first nature to think of everything as separate and distinct, but the truth is that we are all connected.
So was Jesus accusing Peter of being Satan? Was he just saying that Peter was speaking words of Satan? Or was he just pointing out to Peter that his words come from a bad place of mind? The answer is YES! It is a very Western idea to think of Satan as only an independant devil wandering the earth. In reality, the nature of the devil is something we all carry within us.
The Kingdom of Man
I have written before about how we cannot live our lives thinking that Satan is personally attacking us whenever we suffer or struggle. The truth is that our struggles come almost entirely from within. Satan is the Father of Lies, and there is only one lie needed to cause our destruction: That we are separate. The Kingdom of Man is a kingdom of tribes, where we gather with those “like us” against those “not like us.” Nations, parties, clubs, gangs, and cliques are all a part of our “us vs. them” nature.
Peter’s Desire for a Worldly Messiah
Throughout Peter’s time with Jesus, he made multiple references to the concept of a worldly messiah. He thought Jesus would overthrow the Roman Empire and restore Israel to power. He thought he would be a soldier for Jesus’s army, “Peter, put away your sword!” (John 18:11) All this came from the fact that, like us, Peter was infected with “the lie.” It took till until Pentecost before Peter really started to look back and understand the true purpose of the Messiah: to bring salvation to ALL men.
The REAL Way We Fight the Devil
It is so important to understand this relationship, because it is how we remain vigilant against being deceived ourselves. When the apostles and letters of the New Testament warn against being tempted by Satan, they are referring the seeds of greed, scarcity, and enmity which can grow so easily within us. Satan is a name given to the similar patterns of behavior we all work to overcome. Therefore, our fight begins with vigilance and self-examination. If we conquered this evil, the evil within, then no external evil would be of threat to us.
The devil is not the nature that is around us
But the nature that is within us all
- MuteMath from “Burden”