Why Does Peter Rebuke Jesus? – Matthew 16:21-27

After Peter declares the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus defines the messiah’s mission: he is going to Jerusalem where he will be killed and rise again on the third day (16:21). Why does Peter rebukes Jesus? This is not what Peter expected to hear, so Peter tells Jesus this is not at all what the messiah is going to do.    

Jesus and Peter

This is not the idea of the Messiah known among the Jews of the first century. Although Christians read Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 through the lens of Jesus’s suffering, few Jews (if any) in the first century read those passages as messianic. The one suffering was Israel itself, not God’s Messiah suffering in a priestly role to deal with the real enemy of all people, sin and death.

Jesus predicts he will suffer many things and be killed, raised on the third day, a prediction repeated in 17:22-23 and 20:17-19. Peter’s confession is correct, Jesus is the Messiah. But these three predictions make it clear the Messiah’s mission is to suffer and die, and then be raised to new life.

Peter rebukes Jesus: “this shall never happen!” (16:22). The verb ἐπιτιμάω expressed strong disapproval, criticize, or issue a serious warning (BDAG). The word is used when Jesus silences demons (Matt 17:18) and when he “rebuked the waves” when he calmed the storm (Matt 8:26). The reason for Peter’s serious rebuke of Jesus is the prediction that the Messiah will suffer and die (even if he is raised from the dead) is not consistent with the kind of Messiah the Jews were hoping for. When Peter says, “you are the Messiah,” he this thinking only in terms of restoring a kingdom to Israel, led by a new David (or son of David) who will establish a kingdom of peace and prosperity.

Since this is a private discussion, Peter might be saying something like, “don’t say that kind of thing in front of the other disciples!”

Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him a stumbling block (16:23). Jesus takes Peter’s understanding of the Messiah’s role as a temptation by Satan. The classic “Get thee behind me Satan!” expresses the seriousness of this temptation. To what extent was Jesus tempted to avoid the cross?

The ESV translates this as “you are a hindrance to me,” but the word translated “hindrance” is stronger than that. Both the NRSV and NIV (2011) have “you are a stumbling block to me.” A stumbling block (σκάνδαλον) is anything that might trip you up (literally), so it became a metaphor for something that causes a person to sin. Causing someone to sin is an important concept in Matthew 18, but here it refers to a trap, an enticement to not fulfil the plan the father has laid out for the son: to go to Jerusalem and submit willingly to death on the cross.

Peter’s confession was “revealed by God” but his understanding of the messiah’s mission is “based on the thoughts of men.”

The one who wants to follow the messiah must be willing to lose everything (16:24-27). When Jesus refers to “taking up one’s cross” he means be willing to die for the sake of Jesus. This is not some vague burden you must bear, but literally picking up the cross they Romans are going to execute you on! There is irony in following Jesus. The world might see following Jesus as a loss, but the only way to really find your life is to lose it for the sake of Jesus.

Looking ahead to Matthew 18-20, Jesus will continue to demand an extremely high level of commitment from his followers. They are not joining a revolutionary movement in the tradition of Judas Maccabees, following Jesus will lead to persecution and death.

But, as Jesus says, what can a person give in exchange for their soul?

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