Did Jesus Call Peter “Satan”?

Did Jesus Call Peter “Satan”? September 2, 2015

Well, not for most of us, who think of Satan as the chief angel who opposes God, tempts his people, and deceives the world.

Soon after the Apostle Peter identified Jesus as “the Christ” (Matt. 16.16; Mark 8.29; Luke 9.20), Mark records that Jesus “began to teach them [apostles] that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8.31 NRSV; but “again” is not in the Greek text). Mark then relates, “He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things'” (v. 33).

I don’t think Jesus was calling Peter “Satan,” meaning the chief angel Satan, in Matt. 16.23 and Mark 8.33. That would suggest that Peter was possessed by Satan at that time, as in demon possession. But could Satan merely have been influencing Peter to say that? Maybe, but I doubt it. However, one time when Jesus’ apostles disputed on which of them was the greatest, Jesus rebuked them, adding, “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you ahve turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22.31-32).

The word “Satan,” here in Matt. 16.23 and Mark 8.33, translates satana in the Greek text, which means “accuser” or “opposer.” So, Jesus likely meant no more than that Peter was opposing him in his God-appointed mission of going to the cross. And Jesus’ explanation, that Peter was thinking “not on divine things but on human things,” suggests as much. (See Craig E. Evens, Mark 8:27–16:20 in WBC.) “Get behind me” probably commands Peter to remain in his position of submission as a disciple and thus not leading out front as the master–Jesus.

There is other biblical evidence that this word satana does not have to refer to Satan the Devil. In fact, one time it was applied to the angel of the LORD. In the famous episode about Balaam the false prophet and his talking donkey, “the angel of the LORD took his stand in the road as his adversary,” meaning as an adversary against Balaam (Num 22.22). The words “as … adversary” translate le-satan in the Hebrew text.

This episode about the angel of the LORD being called satan is not an isolated one. The same occurs in 1 Kings 11.14 and v. 23, in which God raised up an adversary against King Solomon and then another adversary after that, with each being the translation of satan in the Hebrew text. (Also see 1 Samuel 29.4; 1 Chronicles 21.1; Psalm 109.6; Zechariah 3.1-2.)

In conclusion, Peter was briefly being an adversary to Jesus, opposing his going to Jerusalem and being killed, and in doing so Jesus said to Peter, “You are a stumbling block to me” (Matt. 16.23). But glory be to Jesus that his Apostle Peter eventually learned his hard lessons from his Master and followed him to his own cross. Legend says Peter requested being crucified upside down, which they did.

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