Monday, August 29, 2011

Get Behind Me, Satan


In church yesterday our Gospel text was Matthew 16:21–28, the passage in which Jesus says to his disciple Peter “Get behind me, Satan.”

The situation is this: Jesus has just told the disciples that he must suffer, die and rise again. Peter rebukes Jesus, “This must never happen to you.” In turn, Jesus rebukes Peter.

As recently as verse 18, Jesus had praised Peter as the “rock” on which he will build the church. Now, because Peter has expressed a vision contrary to God’s, and perhaps because this vision is genuinely tempting, Jesus calls Peter “Satan”--the adversary and tempter.

It’s a strange expression, “Get behind me, Satan.” I know at least three jokes built on the phrase. I guess I have always thought it was an idiom meaning something like “Get away from me,” or “Get out of my sight.”

Working with the text last week, I found something in it that I’d never seen before. In the Greek New Testament, Jesus says,

“Ὕπαγε ὀπίσω μου, Σατανᾶ.”

I will transliterate that “hUpage opiso mou, Satana” and translate it roughly, “Go behind me, Satan.”

It’s that second Greek word “opiso” that I’m concerned with. It means “behind” in a spatial sense. And it occurs again in the very next verse, where Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In Greek it looks like this:

“Εἴ τις θέλει ὀπίσω μου ἐλθεῖν, ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν καὶ ἀράτω τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀκολουθείτω μοι.”

Do you see our little friend opiso in there? (I know, it's hard to miss since I bolded it).  A very literal translation would be “If anyone wishes to come behind me, let him take up his cross and follow me.”

Do you see what is going on here? In verse 23, Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me.” In verse 24, he tells those who wish “to come behind” him that they must take up their crosses. So, when Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan,” he was telling Peter that, as a disciple, he needed to get back in line, following behind Jesus.

Peter is called “Satan” in this passage because he would lead Jesus into a way of human glorification through power. Jesus rejects that way in favor of a way of giving and self-sacrifice and calls his disciples to follow.

The masculine gender in my literal translation of Matthew 16:24 reflects the original Greek in which masculine pronouns (“he,” “him” and “his”) were used generically. I believe that Jesus’ words apply to women as well as men. Scripture quotations other than my own rough translations are from the
New Revised Standard Version. The Greek was copied and pasted from the Society for Biblical Literature Greek New Testament. Most English translations obscure, perhaps of necessity, the repeated use of “opiso.” Scott Hilburn's Argyle Sweater cartoon may be blasphemous, but it makes the fourth "Get behind me, Satan" joke that I know, and it nicely illustrates the subtitle of this post. I found it here.


  1. I love the insight! Thank you!

  2. I don't think Jesus was calling Peter Satan.why would he want Satan behind him

    1. I think that, within the narrative, it is pretty clear: Jesus was talking to Peter. There was no one else there.