The Christ Peter misunderstood

Peter's confession

Unknown Master. The confession of Peter, from Martin Luther. Kercken Postilla, 1563

No one has any trouble understanding Jesus as a man. It’s the concept that Jesus Christ is God made man that causes problems. Peter, the first person to declare that Jesus is the Christ, had the same trouble.

Jesus first asked the disciples who men said he was. They could have mentioned that the Pharisees and others thought he was a menace to the community and unqualified to teach on Scripture, but apparently they didn’t.

All of the gospels record what the disciples had heard from the adoring crowds that had followed them. Some said John the Baptist, returned from the grave after his beheading. Some said Elijah, the prophet who had not died, but taken bodily to heaven. Some said some other prophet. In other words, everyone thought Jesus was an extraordinary man, but nothing more or other than a man. Jesus was more special than anyone in the general public expected.

Peter’s confession

Peter's confession

Detail from stained glass in the church of St Mary and St Lambert in Stonham Aspal in Suffolk

Then Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was. I’d like to think that a long and thoughtful silence followed the question. In any case, Peter was characteristically the first to speak. According to Mark, he declared that Jesus was the Christ. Matthew and Luke add, “the Son of the living God.”

In Matthew’s account, Jesus told Peter that he hadn’t learned that from people, but from the Holy Spirit. Then he warned everyone not to say anything to anyone about it. Jesus clearly wanted his disciples to know that he was much more than he seemed to the general population. Just as clearly, he didn’t want to change popular belief. Perhaps he also didn’t want his enemies to hear about him being the Messiah.

What sort of Christ (Messiah) did the Jewish nation expect?

  • a great conqueror, like Judas Maccabaeus, who defeated an earlier tyrant
  • someone who would liberate the Jews from Roman rule
  • a mighty king like David and Solomon

Quite inconveniently, the scriptures foretold a different sort of Messiah, who would suffer and be killed. So as soon as Peter identified him as Christ, Jesus set out to explain what that meant. Every important fact about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was described somewhere in the Old Testament. At a very minimum, Jesus’ new teaching would have to cover these points:

  • The Son of Man must suffer.
  • The chief priests and other important religious leaders must reject him.
  • The Messiah must be killed.
  • He must be dead for three days—long enough that everyone would know that his spirit had left his body and there was no hope of any natural resuscitation.
  • After that three days, he would rise from the dead.

At first, we can imagine that the disciples were confused, then disturbed, then upset. Jesus was shredding their entire understanding of who he was, what being Messiah meant, and their place in the kingdom he proclaimed.

Peter’s rebuke

Finally Peter became tremendously offended, took Jesus aside, and chewed him out. This talk of death? Didn’t Jesus understand Peter and the other disciples would defend him? The religious leaders he had been taught to respect all his life were enemies of the very Messiah they hoped for as much as anyone else? That may have seemed an insult to the whole nation. And rise from the dead after three days? No one whom Jesus or any Old Testament miracle worker had ever raised had been dead that long. The whole notion was impossible.

Peter was at least polite enough to take Jesus where the others couldn’t hear in order to talk some sense into him. Jesus wouldn’t even look him in the eye. He turned toward the rest of the disciples, which meant turning his back on Peter, and said, “Get behind me, Satan.”

Did he call Peter Satan? Or did he recognize in Peter’s words the same kind of Satanic temptation he had endured before he started his ministry. Certainly being the kind of Messiah Peter thought he should be would be much more pleasant. It just wasn’t what God had declared would necessarily happen.

Peter had shown that he did not understand the things of God and was insisting that Jesus act on a wholly human viewpoint. One reason Jesus turned away from Peter was that he wanted all the disciples to know that Peter had dared to rebuke him and wanted them to hear his response. He called not only the disciples, but everyone else within earshot.

What does it mean to follow Jesus? Up to now, it had meant tagging along with a popular teacher who told wonderful stories and, unlike other popular teachers, could work miracles. They must have found following Jesus gave them what we might call good vibes. If they thought that Jesus would somehow reestablish the ancient kingdom, they wanted to be in on the rewards.

Even though most of the crowd did not and would not know what Peter had confessed, Jesus wanted them to hear what he had to say to Peter and the rest of the disciples: no one can truly follow Jesus just for the entertainment value or just to feel good or just to get something. When we follow any leader, we get to where that leader is going.

What Jesus as Christ means today

Christ the judge

Christ judge, detail from Last Judgment, 1585, by Jean Cousin Younger

That’s why it was such a serious error for the Episcopal Church to have elected a gay bishop. His lifestyle is among the things about which Paul wrote that people who do them will not inherit the kingdom of God. Whatever that may mean, no one who wants to inherit the kingdom of God can afford to follow a leader who will not inherit it.

Jesus came to usher in the kingdom of God, so all of his followers were following the right person. But the other thing about following a leader is that people get where he is going by the route he is taking.

The road from the world to the kingdom of God goes by way of the cross. No one can follow Jesus to the kingdom without taking up his or her own cross. The road from the world to the kingdom requires renunciation of self. All people are self-centered, which makes denying ourselves particularly difficult and painful. But Jesus did it. Anyone who follows him must do likewise.

Once I deny myself, my life is no longer my own. I have given it up. Only to the extent that I give up my life can I keep it. Self-centeredness will not enter the kingdom. Whatever I hang on to selfishly won’t enter, either. If we want to follow Jesus, it doesn’t mean that we have to be executed as he was, but it does mean that we must live the life he lived, a life not devoted to worldly success, but to obeying the will of God.

A God-centered life will not gain anyone a great reputation in the world. The world will disapprove. It will not gain anyone all the stuff needed to keep up with the proverbial Joneses. Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant when he said that some might be ashamed of him.

But here’s another way that Jesus is not just another prophet or another hero. When the kingdom of God takes over the world, Jesus will be on the throne, judging the world. Jesus made himself of no reputation and would leave the world in ignominy and defeat. If anyone cared more about their reputation than about him, Jesus promised to be ashamed of that person in the coming judgment.

There was much more to this humble ex-carpenter than anyone saw. Even his staunchest supporter dared to rebuke him. And here Jesus insists that he will be exalted above everyone else and sit in judgment.

I don’t just want to agree with what Jesus told Peter and the disciples. I want to live in such a way that I truly believe him and live according to his desires.

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