“Peter Gets the ‘Who’ But Not the ‘How’” (Matthew 16:21-28)
Last week’s Gospel was Matthew 16:13-20. Today’s Gospel is the verses that follow, Matthew 16:21-28. Last week we heard Peter say something that brought a hearty commendation from Jesus, who told Peter that he was the rock on which he would build his church. This week Peter says something that brings a harsh rebuke from Jesus, with Jesus basically calling Peter “Satan” and telling him to get behind him. So in just a few verses, Peter goes from commendation to rebuke, from being called a rock to being called Satan. What gives? What’s going on here? Well, what we’ll discover this morning is this: It has to do with what Peter thinks about Jesus as the Messiah. In short: “Peter Gets the ‘Who’ But Not the ‘How.’”
Peter gets the “who.” No, this is not the title of a Dr. Seuss book. Rather, “Peter gets the ‘who’” means that Peter knows who Jesus is. And that’s what we heard last week. Peter and the other disciples had been with Jesus for some time at that point. They had heard his preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” They had heard his teaching, as Jesus expounded the true meaning of God’s Law, as in the Sermon on the Mount. They had seen Jesus’ miracles–healing the sick, casting out demons, calming storms, and so on–powerful demonstrations of his divine authority. And so, after the disciples had observed all that at close range, Jesus asked them the question, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter, as he is wont to do, spoke up for the group and answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That is the “who,” namely, who Jesus is. He is the Christ, that is, the Messiah, the Anointed One, anointed with the Spirit of God, God’s chosen servant. The Christ, the promised end-time king, coming from the line of David, the one who will bring in the kingdom of heaven here on earth, an everlasting kingdom. Jesus is the divine deliverer, sent from heaven, the very Son of God. That all is packed into what Peter is saying when he says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus commends Peter, heartily, for this answer: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus gives Peter an A+ for this answer that he gives. Spot on! You’ve got it, Peter! Exactly correct! Of course, Peter did not come up with this answer on his own. God had revealed this truth about Jesus to him. But Peter’s answer, Peter’s confession of who Jesus is, is absolutely right. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And the apostolic proclamation of this truth is the rock, the sure foundation, on which Jesus will build his church.
So Peter gets the “who.” And this confession of who Jesus is, his identity as the Christ, the Son of God–this really forms the climax of the first half of Matthew’s gospel. Now, from this point on, the story of Jesus starts to move in a distinct direction. Matthew notes this shift with the little phrase, “From that time.” Having established who Jesus is, now the story line of the gospel will move into how Jesus will accomplish his mission as the Messiah. And this is the “how” that Peter does not yet get.
“From that time.” That’s where we pick up today’s Gospel reading: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Whoa! Now this is different. This is not what you might expect for the mighty Messiah of Israel. That he would be rejected by the very religious leaders of Israel, the elders and the chief priests and the scribes? That he would suffer many things from them and . . . and be killed?! How can this be? I thought the Messiah would be welcomed with open arms! I thought he was going to reign in glory and bring in a golden age of blessing and triumph and deliverance from the hands of our enemies? Isn’t that what the greatest of all kings is supposed to do? Not get killed! You see, that’s what Peter is thinking. He gets the “who,” but he doesn’t get the “how.”
And so he tells Jesus this. He, the disciple, begins to rebuke Jesus, the Master, for this crazy talk: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” “No, no!” Peter is saying. This does not compute! How can you be the Messiah, and then have this type of rejection and suffering and death happen to you? I don’t get it!
No, Peter, you don’t. In fact, what you’re saying here is the direct opposite of what Jesus came to do. For to avoid this rendezvous with rejection and death in Jerusalem, and thus fail to redeem mankind–that actually is the objective of the devil. And so Jesus now has to rebuke Peter, with some strong words: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
“Get behind me, Satan!” What a harsh rebuke to tell Peter, the disciple he had just commended so heartily. “Get behind me, Satan!” Why, those are the very words Jesus had used on Satan himself, at the temptation in the wilderness. Satan had not wanted Jesus to carry through with his mission. So he tempted Jesus to take the easy way out, to achieve glory apart from suffering, apart from going to the cross. So Jesus told him, “Get behind me, Satan!” And now Jesus uses those same words to rebuke Peter, for Peter, even without realizing it, is speaking the will of the devil, not the will of God.
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” You see, Jesus will not be dissuaded from carrying out his mission, even if–even as–that mission takes him the way of the cross. Jesus came to do the will of his Father, who sent him. And that will is to redeem mankind from their sins–from our sins. And the only way to do that is for Jesus himself to bear the weight of our sin and guilt and shame. That’s the “how” that Peter didn’t get.
And let’s be honest here. We would not have gotten it, either. It doesn’t make sense to the natural man. We expect glory. We want glory and God’s approval. We don’t think things are bad enough between us and God–certainly not on our part–that it should require God’s own Son to die in our place. But that’s the reality of the situation. Things are that bad. We have no goodness in ourselves that will stand the test of God’s judgment. No, we have sinned, sinned against our Creator. We have not listened to his voice. Instead, we have gone off on our own, each one of us wanting to be our own god, making our own decisions about what’s right and wrong. That’s rebellion. That’s sin, the original sin, which lurks inside each one of us. And God’s judgment on sin is death–eternal death, separation from God for eternity.
What’s the answer? What’s the remedy–if there is to be a remedy? The answer will have to come from God. We could not do it. We could not pile up enough good works to atone for our sin and thus avert our eternal death and damnation. But God can. God does. And that’s where Jesus comes in, both the “who” and the “how.” For it will take the Christ sent from heaven, it will take the Son of the living God, to do what you and I cannot do. Only Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, can accomplish our redemption and our deliverance. That’s the “who.” And the “how” is that he will do this precisely by his suffering and death. For by dying in our place, on the cross, Jesus pays the price for our transgression. His holy blood does indeed atone for the sins of mankind. God’s justice is satisfied. God’s great mercy is displayed, in its highest form. God so loved the world–he so loved you and me–that he gave his one and only Son, so that we would not perish eternally, but instead have everlasting life.
And that, then, that is the “what.” This is what Jesus Christ’s death on your behalf has won for you: Life. Life forever. Life even now. Forgiveness for all your sins. They are all wiped away, a clean slate. A new life of faith and love, grounded in the gospel, growing in the gospel. Access to God your Father, who loves you dearly and hears all your prayers. He is with you, even in the midst of your troubles. He will deliver you out of them all. He will give you the strength to endure the turmoil and suffering we encounter in this life. The misery we experience–some of which we bring on ourselves, some of which others inflict upon us, some just happens because we live in a fallen world–God’s mercy is greater than our misery. There is a hope that we have to hold on to. God’s mercy will triumph in the end. And that end will be life without end, resurrection from the dead, eternal life in a restored creation, when our Lord Jesus Christ comes again.
That’s the “what,” and it happens because of the “who” and the “how.” Who Jesus is, and how he accomplishes our salvation–this gives us the “what”: what we have, in Christ, and what we will have forever, because of him.
Now at the time of our text, Peter didn’t get all of this. He got the “who” but he didn’t get the “how.” He knew Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. But he didn’t know how Jesus would carry out his messianic mission, that it would involve rejection, suffering, and death. Peter had in mind the things of man, not the things of God. But later, after Christ’s resurrection–then Peter would indeed “get it.” Christ the risen Lord would open Peter’s mind to understand the Scriptures. And Peter then would go on to be a bold proclaimer of Jesus Christ, of the “who” and the “how” and the “what.”
And so I ask you: Do you get it? I think you do. For God has given you the gift of faith, to believe in Jesus Christ and to trust in him as your Savior. To know who Jesus is, to know how he achieved your salvation, and to know what he has won for you as a result. My friends, do you get it? Yes, you do get it. You get it all, as a gift, through Jesus Christ our Lord.