Jesus had just praised Simon for his answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon had declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus was so impressed by him and his answer that he changed Simon’s name to Peter, and gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Strangely, however, Jesus strictly “ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.” By observing what took place immediately following this dramatic moment we can understand why Jesus demanded that his disciples tell no one that he was the Messiah.
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day raised again.” Peter and the disciples were glowing with joy when Jesus announced that he was the Messiah, but now he was putting a damper on their excitement by talking about suffering and being killed! The Messiah was to enter Jerusalem as Israel’s conquering hero. He would crush the Romans. Israel would rise again strong and independent. He would inaugurate a golden age! What’s this talk about suffering and death? Again, Peter was the first to speak.
“God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Peter was such a good guy. He was telling Jesus that he, and all of Jesus’ followers, would never allow that to happen to him. He would be safe with them. He would, indeed, enter Jerusalem as a victorious hero. What a reaction he received! “Get behind me, Satan!”
Poor Peter. His heart was in the right place. He loved Jesus. He didn’t want anything to happen to him. He had to try to stop Jesus’ negative thinking. But he wasn’t listening; he was reacting. Jesus was unveiling his God-given destiny. “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Jesus wasn’t angry with Peter. He was heartbroken. This was the second temptation Jesus experienced, the temptation to abandon his mission and to take on the role of the conquering hero. His colleagues were the tempters.
Jesus experienced three powerful temptations in the course of his ministry. The first took place immediately after his baptism in the Jordan River. The Spirit descended upon him and his Father proclaimed him “beloved” from heaven in a voice that everyone present could hear. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” That moment affirming Jesus and his mission lasted only a short time. “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the Devil.” In the desert he confronted the demons within him.
The first demon arose from his physical hunger. “If you are the Son of God turn these stones 2 into loaves of bread.” No, his bodily needs would never override his deeper hunger for “every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
The second demon took the form of adulation from an adoring crowd. The temptation came as he stood on the parapet of the temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” The angels would protect him from any harm, and the people would go wild over this incredible feat. No, he would never heal or perform miracles as an ostentatious show of his abilities. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The third demon was the darkest of all the demons, the temptation of power, absolute power. Standing on a high mountain he saw all the kingdoms of the world. “All these I shall give you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” His response to the demon of power was clear and stern. “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’” His inner demons conquered, “behold, angels came and ministered to him.”
Now, Peter initiated a second round of temptation. Jesus had revealed that he was indeed the Messiah. But no one ever dreamed what it would mean to take on that mission. His mission involved his rejection by the religious leaders and a terrible, violent death. I can picture Peter, hearing Jesus prophesy his own death, running over to him, putting his arms around him like a father trying to comfort his crying child after a nightmare. No, no. This is just a dream. “No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
Jesus needed Peter to get his back. He didn’t need another temptation. He needed to hear, “How can I support you?” His mission wasn’t easy. He wanted friends and colleagues to give him strength. It may seem cruel, but Jesus couldn’t let Peter continue with his delusion. “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.”
The third and most difficult temptation took place after he had eaten his last supper with his disciples. They all followed him to Gethsemane. There he took his special friends, Peter, James and John, away from the others to support him while he prayed. He opened his heart to them. “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He left them, fell to the ground and prayed to his Father suffering his last temptation. “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” It was the moment to meet his destiny. Judas had betrayed him to the religious leaders. Peter had just declared, “‘Even though I should have to die, I will not deny you.’ And all the disciples spoke likewise.” But twice Peter, James and John were asleep when he returned from his prayer. Soon they would all flee. Abandoned, he would enter the crucible.
When Jesus begged Peter to “Get behind me,” he was inviting Peter and the others to share his mission. It wasn’t easy for him, and it wouldn’t be easy them. It won’t be easy for us. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
A final thought. I’ve always interpreted this statement of Jesus’ metaphorically. A cross was any burden that I might carry. It could be illness, my own or a family member’s. It could be problems in my family. It could be a financial crisis. But I never imagined that I would hear reports of Christians being crucified in Syria. I never imagined that I would see a video of Coptic Christians being marched to a beach in Libya and beheaded.
The birthplace of Christianity is crying out the prayer of Jesus, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” The martyrs have taken up the cross. They’ve followed him. Their witness is a gift to us. They’re pleading with us to follow them, to strengthen our faith, our commitment. We must not remain asleep. They’re crying out to us, “Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test.”