© 2021 Evan D. Garner
When it comes to calling someone a bad name, it doesn’t get much worse than Satan. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says to Peter, rebuking him in front of the other disciples. Actually, when it comes to calling someone Satan, there’s no parallel for it in Jewish or Christian literature until this moment in Mark’s gospel account. Jesus does something new here—something powerful and unequivocally critical. But why now? Why was Jesus so angry with Peter that he would use this previously unused term to castigate his most loyal follower?
Maybe a better question is what led Jesus to understand this encounter as the moment when the personified forces of evil crossed over from the realm of pure spirit in order to take shape in the physical world. In the Old Testament, Satan is only mentioned in three places, and all of them are found in relatively late-written texts that focus on dramatized spiritual encounters. In the Book of Job, Satan comes to challenge God’s assertion that the title character’s mythical faithfulness is strong enough to withstand extreme hardship. Similarly, the prophet Zechariah envisions a heavenly court-room-like scene in which Satan comes to accuse Joshua the high priest of being unworthy of God’s favor. The other example comes from 1 Chronicles, when Satan is said to have tempted David into relying on the might of his army instead of trusting in God. But nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures is Satan depicted in bodily form—as one whose physical presence is manifest in this world.
By the time Jesus confronts Peter in this gospel episode, Satan has become more prominent in Jewish thought and theology, but, still, nowhere in the New Testament, not even in the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, is Satan identified as having taken on flesh—nowhere, that is, except in this moment, when Jesus looks at his disciple and says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Everywhere else in the Bible, Satan is a spiritual force confined to a spiritual realm. Yes, his power and influence are manifest on the earth, but no one else in scripture suggests that the great opponent of God could be found walking among us in human form.
There are moments when Jesus’ opponents accuse him of being on the side of the devil. And, in last week’s gospel reading, we were told that, while Jesus was out in the wilderness, he was tempted by Satan. But, in all of scripture, only Peter is described as if he were Satan incarnate—and by Jesus himself, no less! Why in this moment—why in this heated exchange—do we see for the first time someone described as if he were the personification of evil itself? Because, without even realizing it, Peter’s objection was not merely a rejection of Jesus’ teaching but a rejection of the power of God in this world.
Although mostly foreign to our way of thinking, Jewish theology in and around Jesus’ time understood that there were multiple planes of existence, in which the cosmic forces of good and evil were constantly doing battle. While the children of God struggled with their opponents here on the earth, up in heaven, beyond our sight, angelic forces were locked in battle with demonic powers. Whoever prevailed in the spiritual realm would also be victorious on the earth. It was as if our outcome here in this world were actually the result of another struggle taking place in heaven. If you read the last few chapters of the Book of Daniel, you get a glimpse at this kind of spiritual warfare and how it then becomes manifest on the earth. But, in this exchange between Jesus and Peter, those heavenly forces were not only influencing human history but becoming fully realized in it.
When “Jesus began to teach his disciples 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,” he wasn’t merely predicting his own death. He was revealing to them the nature of God’s victory that had come to the earth in himself. For the first seven and a half chapters of Mark’s gospel account, Jesus’ true identity as the Christ—the anointed leader of God’s people—had remained hidden. All of Jesus’ miracles were signs of his true power breaking through into this world, but no one except the demons that Jesus cast out recognized them for what they were.
Then, in the middle of chapter 8, Peter, for the first time, acknowledged who Jesus really was—the Christ, the one in whom that great heavenly battle would finally be won here on the earth. And, in response to Peter’s great confession, Jesus did two things: he ordered the disciples to keep the truth a secret, and he explained to them that winning that battle would mean suffering and being killed before being raised again on the third day.
But Peter couldn’t handle it. By correctly identifying Jesus as the Christ, Peter had identified the one through whom God’s great spiritual triumph over evil would be brought to the earth. But, instead of foretelling his victory over the earthly embodiments of the forces of evil, Jesus had predicted his own earthly defeat. And Peter wasn’t willing to accept it. Taking Jesus aside so as not to challenge his master’s authority in front of the other disciples, Peter began to rebuke Jesus. By doing so, Peter began to reject Jesus’ depiction of the power of God manifest on the earth. So Jesus named it for what it was—Satan himself, in the form of a committed but confused disciple, trying to defeat God here on the earth.
I believe in the existence of Satan. By that, I don’t just mean the absence of good or the privation theory of evil. I mean the actual, positive, and at times physical embodiment of all that is opposed to the will of God. I think that popular culture, by depicting Satan in highly stylized ways, has only advanced the cause of the one whose presence among us is much harder to single out than a pitch-fork wielding demon with horns and a malevolent stare. Who is Satan? Where is Satan to be found? All around us, and especially in those who, like Peter, confuse the ways of the world for the ways of God.
When he rejected his master’s prediction, Peter didn’t think he was siding with Satan. He wanted to protect his teacher and preserve the opportunity for Jesus to triumph over evil once and for all. But what Peter couldn’t understand is that the instinct for self-preservation and the drive to obtain his heart’s desire were fundamentally vulnerable to the influence of evil—to manipulation by Satan himself. If God’s power is principally manifest in the one who suffers and dies for the sake of the world, how can any of us strive for that which is of God until we ourselves have died with Christ? How can we fight for that which is the rejection of earthly power until we, too, have experienced that power’s defeat within us?
Until we understand the cross as the path to our own fulfillment, we will always be vulnerable to Satan’s influence. So often the way of Jesus has been perverted by those who use his holy name, who wield the Bible, and who weaponize the cross in order to further their own agenda. Of course, they cannot tell that they are standing on the side of Satan, for Satan does not openly recruit disciples to his cause. Instead, well-meaning disciples begin to believe that what they want must be what God wants—that the advancement of their interests in Jesus’ name is, in fact, the advancement of Jesus’ name. But none of us can set our minds completely on the things of God until that part of us that belongs only to this world has been crucified with Christ.
If we want to be followers of Jesus, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him not to our own glory—no matter how saturated it may be in Christian symbolism—but to God’s glory, which is only revealed in humble sacrifice. As old-fashioned as it may sound, if we want to live with Christ, we must first die with Christ. Only in that death will we find abundant life. Only in that death does God’s power triumph over the evil in our world. For what will it profit us to gain the whole world but forfeit our lives?