Lent Series: Peter, the Rock and the Stumbling Block

When I was twelve or thirteen, I thought Jesus’ personality was probably like Mister Rogers. If you don’t remember, he had a popular children’s television show in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.

His manner was always gentle and kind. He never raised his voice. He was always sympathetic and compassionate. If you were feeling sad, angry, hurt, or frustrated, he could offer some constructive ways to cope with it. The way things are going in America now, I think we need someone like that, not just for kids but for adults, too.

I’d like to nominate Jesus for that, but I can’t. He is called compassionate in the Gospels, and most of the time he was. But as I first started studying the Bible seriously, it felt like he could be a little mean sometimes. Like when he said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Did he just call Peter the devil? If Peter needed to be reprimanded, Mister Rogers would have found a more tactful way to do it. I remember the first time I read it, at the tender age of twelve or thirteen, how hurt I would be if he said that to me. I didn’t see what happened before and after that. All I could see was Jesus equating his most faithful follower with his worst enemy.

As I’ve grown older, I have gained experience to help make sense of it. And also, I learned to read not only this but everything in the Bible in context. That has taken the sting out of it, and I think I’m beginning to understand where Jesus was coming from.

Who Is He?

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

(Matthew 16:13-15)

This sets the scene. They are at Caesarea Philippi, a city at the base of Mount Hermon in the northernmost part of the traditional kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. Philip the Tetrarch built the city in honor of Caesar (Augustus) and administered it as part of the territory he inherited from Herod the Great. That becomes significant later, but for now let’s just focus on this particular interaction.

Presumably, the crowds following Jesus have been sent away, and he is alone with the twelve disciples. His first question is who do people say he is. Easy enough to answer. They just have to repeat what they have heard. John the Baptist was executed, which means some people thought he had returned. Elijah was supposed to return to prepare the way for the Messiah. Jeremiah or one of the prophets also would have had to return from the dead. It is extraordinary that they would attribute any of these personalities to Jesus. But they had seen him make the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and heal all kinds of diseases, and perform miracles that other miracle workers of his day could not duplicate. Is it really impossible? Still, I wonder if any of the disciples laughed dismissively at these conjectures.

Then he asks the difficult question. “Who do you say that I am?” I imagine there was an uncomfortable silence then. They probably had some ideas about who he was but were afraid to speak up. Maybe they thought their ideas sounded as crazy as one of the prophets being reincarnated. When no one else will speak up, there is one you can count on to break the silence, Simon (Peter).

I Tell You, You are the Rock

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

(Matthew 16:16-19)

Can you imagine how Simon, son of Jonah, felt? Today, we call him Peter, and this is why. What better endorsement could Jesus have given him, saying “On this rock (petra in Greek) I will build my church”? There were no churches at the time, which is why many scholars think this saying of Jesus was added later (compare Mark 8:24-30, which does not mention any response to Peter specifically).

Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

Be that as it may, this has been an important part of church tradition. As the church grew, and the hierarchical structure with it, they used this saying to claim Peter as its first pope. I wonder if any of the others thought the same thing and wished they had spoken up. And that makes the contrast in what Jesus says next all the more startling.

Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

(verse 20)

This is a secret Jesus has been keeping. He knew speculation about him was rampant, and he had to be careful who he revealed his true identity to. To stop the disciples from getting caught up in the speculation, he told them but ordered them to keep it a secret. It would be revealed, but it was not yet time.

You Are a Stumbling Block to Me

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

(Matthew 16:21-23)

So this is what tripped me up some decades ago. The elders, chief priests, and scribes had already been plotting against Jesus. Isn’t it natural for Peter to want to protect Jesus from them? He was willing to die for Jesus, and Jesus called him Satan for that? So much for Mister Rogers.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Jesus then. But now, I see the similarity with when the devil tempted him with all the kingdoms of the world. “Away with you, Satan!” he said to that. I’ve said before I believe the devil was tempting Jesus to be the conqueror his followers wanted. This was Peter repeating that same temptation. That was why he could not accept the truth of Jesus’ mission. That was how he went from being the rock to the stumbling block in just two verses.

One common theme of this Lent series is that Jesus’ first followers believed he was (or might be) the Messiah but did not understand what that meant. It happened once again as Jesus tried to explain what following him means.

Are You Sure You Want to Be My Disciples?

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

(Matthew 16:24-28)

Peter expected Jesus to be the righteous king who would defeat all his enemies, and he would be right at his side for his glory. And he was not alone. The other disciples expected that as well. That was why they kept arguing about which of them was the greatest (Matthew 18:1-5; Luke 22:24-30), and who would sit at his right and left hand in his kingdom (Mark 10:35-38). Even when he called that path the path of Satan, they still did not give up on it.

You have to remember for Jesus, there were two sides to being the Messiah, like a coin. Heads was the conquering king, the Son of Man who would come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and … repay everyone for what has been done. Tails was the suffering servant, as Isaiah prophesied (52:13-53:12, et al), the one who said they must follow him by denying themselves and taking up their cross.

They thought he would defeat Rome, the Imperial Beast, and execute God’s judgment for all the injustice they had inflicted on the Jews. In their minds, God gave Jesus a coin that was heads on both sides, like Two-Face before his transformation. Heads is the only possible result, they thought. Jesus kept telling them this flip would be tails, but they did not get it. At least, not until after his resurrection.

Both sides of a two-tailed coin

That was why, when Peter had the chance to make good on his promise to die for him, he chickened out (Luke 22:54-62). He was willing to die for the glorious king, but not the suffering servant. We pick on Peter for this, but all the others did the same. After the authorities took him, they abandoned him, too. They thought the world was theirs because they were his disciples. Jesus told them instead, What will it profit … if you gain the whole world but lose your soul? [The word “life” in Greek is psyche, which can mean life, soul, or mind. I think in context, soul is the best translation.]

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Eventually, the disciples understood the Messiah came to save lives, not destroy them. They would never become rich or powerful. They would never conquer the world. They would see him take his throne—in heaven—but not on earth. They would all die as martyrs, just as their master did, losing their lives but gaining their souls. They would find eternal life by participating in God’s plan to redeem the world, not conquer it.

Is it weakness to embrace love and peace over force and vengeance? There is someone who probably knows the answer to that better than any of us, one who accepted the devil’s temptation to conquest and empire. Here is what he said.

“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.”

-Napoleon Bonaparte

He may not have been Mister Rogers. But he understood what it meant to take up his cross, to sacrifice for others. He built a kingdom by becoming a servant to everyone, even his enemies. And that kingdom still stands today. The disciples understood that (eventually). Napoleon understood it. And for anyone who says, like Peter, that they would die for him, does that mean you will be a rock or a stumbling block?


Thanks for reading. I hope you will come back for the next post. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7, verse 12.

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Grace and peace to you.

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