Divine and Human Thinking

get-behind-me1The Suffering Messiah. “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (v.23) neatly summarizes the nature of the problem. The way the disciples react to the idea of messianic suffering and “defeat” shows that this concept of Messiah is going to be very hard to get across. Here, as elsewhere, the mention of resurrection on the third day gets lost. It is apparently so overshadowed by the suffering and death which precedes it that resurrection seems to pass unnoticed.

The source of the opposition which Jesus will meet in Jerusalem is more specifically spelled out by the mention of the three main groups who made up the Sanhedrin: the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes. Hereafter Matthew (unlike Mark) will usually mention only the chief priests and the elders. The only other time all three groups will be mentioned together is in their triumph over Jesus on the cross in 27:41.

The nature of the Messiah’s “suffering” is as yet undefined; 20:18-19 will spell it out more fully. The fact that it comes from those who made up the Sanhedrin indicates the official and judicial rejection of Jesus comes from those who had formal responsibility for the life of Israel as the people of God, and so presents us with the paradox of the rejection of Israel’s Messiah by the official leadership of Israel.

The outcome is not left in doubt: Jesus will be killed. We have had a hint of this outcome in 9:15 and 12:40, and we have heard of the plans of the Galilean Pharisees (a different group from those listed here) to do away with him in 12:14. But now the impending death of the Messiah, which will be the focus of so much of the latter part of the gospel, comes also as a divine “necessity.” It is this unthinkable prospect which triggers Peter’s instinctive response in v. 22.

Peter’s Response. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Peter’s typically direct and immediate response is not likely his alone. Just as he spoke for the other disciples in proclaiming Jesus to be the “Son of the living God,” the Messiah, now he gives voice to the horror they all share upon hearing at Jesus’ description of the messianic mission. Given his proclamation (v.16), Peter may well feel particularly let down by the idea that his Messiah should prove to be anything less than a success. The strong verb “rebuke” (used elsewhere for Jesus’ stern commands to the wind and waves, 8:26, and to a demon, 17:18) not only conveys the intensity of Peter’s shock and his boldness in expressing it, but also prepares us for the even more severe language with which Jesus will respond in v. 23. Peter’s words indicate that he regards the prospect Jesus has outlined not as a goal to he fulfilled but as a disaster to be averted; other people might suffer at the hands of the authorities, but certainly not the Messiah, The strong negative conveys that it is not just undesirable but unthinkable.

Jesus’ Rebuke. Jesus “turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Jesus’ words to Peter are severe. One wonders if even the description of the “place” adds to the severity. Whereas Peter had quietly taken Jesus “aside,” Jesus now “turned” to issue a public reprimand. The opening words directly recall the dismissal of Satan in 4:10, here strengthened by the addition of the words “behind me,” to emphasize Jesus’ dissociation of himself from Peter’s ideology. But whereas in temptation in the desert (4:10) the tempter (which is what “Satan” means) was the chief demon himself, here it is Jesus’ loyal follower.

The point of the rebuke suggests that behind the human thinking of Peter, Jesus discerns an effort to dissuade him from his ordained course similar to that which Satan himself had made in 4:1–11. Similar to the third temptation in the desert, Peter’s understanding of the Messiah reveals the easier way to power and authority, the gains without the pains. As long as he holds such a view, the “rock” on which the church is to be built proves instead to be a stumbling-block. The image offers another rebuke for as long as Peter stands in front of Jesus he is in his way, stopping him from his mission – all because of Peter’s unthinking acceptance of “human thoughts.” Peter has expressed only what comes naturally to the human mind when presented with the idea of power and authority which the title “Messiah” suggests. But human thoughts are not God’s thoughts (Isa 55:8–9), and if they are not questioned they can stand in the way of God’s purpose and derail it. In much of the rest of this section of the gospel Jesus will be seen persistently trying to undermine the “human thoughts” of the disciples so as to get them to see things from the perspective of the kingdom of heaven


Matthew 16:21 From that time Jesus began to show: The use of deiknyrni (“show”) for verbal communication is unusual, but perhaps emphasizes that this is an important new revelation (as in Acts 10:28; 1 Cot 12:31; Rev 1:1), making plain what previously only been hinted at in 9:15 and 12:40.

Matthew 16:21 must: The rejection and death of the Messiah are presented as “necessary.” The basis of that necessity will begin to emerge in 20:28, where it is grounded in a clear allusion to the prophetic model of God’s servant who suffers for the sins of the people. The OT basis for Jesus’ belief that he must suffer and die is most probably to be found in the theme of the suffering and death of God’s faithful servants: see Pss 22 and 69, Zech 9-14, and above all in the suffering of the servant of Yahweh in Isa 52:13-53:12. This same “necessity” will again appear when Jesus is handed over as the divine action.

Matthew 16:21 must go to Jerusalem: The compound verb apelthein-kai indicates a radical departure to a new and more threatening environment (cf. 16:4). It is more literally, “go away” but in the Greek it does not suggest, as the English translation might, that he would go without the disciples.

Matthew 16:21 be raised: Matthew regularly uses the passive verb “be raised” (egeiromai) to refer to Jesus’ resurrection, rather than the more active anistemi (“rise”). The two verbs seem to be used interchangeably for Jesus’ resurrection in the NT generally, so that any attempt to draw a theological distinction between them is implausible. That Jesus “was raised” by the power of God is not to be set over against his “rising” victorious. But the passive formulation perhaps encourages us to see in this event God’s vindication of his faithful Messiah.

Matthew 16:21 on the third day: a non-literal hearing might be supported by the phrase “the third day,” if the disciples understood it against the background of Hos 6:2, where Israel corporately expresses its hope that “on the third day God will raise us up that we may live before him.” It may, however, be misleading to focus on “the third day” when seeking the OT background for Jesus’ expectation of resurrection, since the focus in NT references to “the third day” is not on an OT text but on the fact recorded in the gospels of Jesus’ actual time of lying in the tomb.

Matthew 16:22 God forbid: hileōs soi Kyrie ou is idiomatic and literally “God be gracious to you.” It contextually translated as “God forbid.”

Matthew 16:23 behind me: Some commentators have taken “behind me” as a directive to take the place of a disciple, behind the teacher, following rather than trying to direct. But the entire context of Jesus’ words make such an understanding a bit of a stretch.

Matthew 16:23 stumbling block: The Greek skandalon pointing to another attribute of a rock in the encounter with humanity.

Matthew 16:24 deny: to deny someone is to disown him (see Matthew 10:33; 26:34–35) and to deny oneself is to disown oneself as the center of one’s existence.

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