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What Did Jesus Mean When He Said to Peter ‘Get Behind Me Satan’?

Peter meant well, but he had no idea what he was saying. As well-intentioned as he was, he was obstructing the will of God — the very mission of the Messiah — and so Jesus spoke this famous rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).

What Did Jesus Mean When He Said to Peter ‘Get Behind Me Satan’?

Was Peter possessed by Satan? Could it be that the foremost apostle had become that deeply influenced by the Adversary that Jesus had to rebuke him? Most of us are accustomed to thinking of a specific person or spirit being when we read the word “Satan.”

What Does 'Get behind Me Satan' Mean?

Immediately upon hearing the word we have visions of a fallen angel, once named Lucifer, who rebelled against God, taking a third of the angels of heaven with him, and was eventually cast down to the earth.

He is the same being we think of in the Garden of Eden, who, under the guise of a serpent, deceived Eve into rebelling against the command of God not to partake of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Still, others might get flashbacks of the movie The Exorcist, complete with all the spitting of pea soup and spinning head. What many fail to recognize is the use of the title “ha satan” in Scripture does not necessarily refer to a specific spirit being, such as Lucifer. For example, the Book of Job refers to a being often translated as “Satan,” and always with this capitalization (Job 1 and 2).

Such a translation is misleading. In the Hebrew text, the prefix “ha” in “ha satan,” would make no sense if referring to a specific person, since it literally means “the.” For example, I would not call my co-worker Shelly “the Shelly.” That would earn me a few odd looks, to say the least. I would simply call her Shelly.

However, when Scripture uses the title “ha satan,” translators, mostly influenced by their particular theology, will translate it as a specific name, rendering it “Satan.” This ignores the fact that almost everywhere else it is used it does not refer to a specific person, it is not a name, but it is a title or designation used for anyone who seeks to obstruct the will of God, including humans.

David replied, “What does this have to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? What right do you have to interfere? Should anyone be put to death in Israel today? Don’t I know that today I am king over Israel?” So the king said to Shimei, “You shall not die.” And the king promised him on oath. 

Mephibosheth, Saul’s grandson, also went down to meet the king. He had not taken care of his feet or trimmed his mustache or washed his clothes from the day the king left until the day he returned safely (2 Samuel 19:22-24).

But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side, and there is no adversary or disaster …Then the Lord raised up against Solomon an adversary, Hadad the Edomite, from the royal line of Edom (1 Kings 5:4; 11:14).

It simply means “the adversary.” However, because we tend to translate Scripture through the lens of our theology, rather than allowing Scripture to form our theology, we develop well-meaning, but misguided ways of interpreting what we read in the Bible.

The church has developed a faulty understanding of the title “the adversary,” assigning it to one specific spirit being, and that simply is not correct. So, how does this impact Jesus’ rebuke of Peter?

What Is the Context of Matthew 16:23 and 'Get behind Me Satan'?

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Matthew 16:23).

In Matthew chapter 16, Jesus is telling His disciples what is in store for Him when He goes to Jerusalem. He is going to suffer at the hands of the religious leaders, the Sanhedrin, and eventually be put to death. The apostles are astonished at the very idea! They had traveled with Jesus throughout Israel.

They had witnessed miracles; people raised from the dead, lepers healed, the blind given sight again. How on earth could their teacher, whom they knew to be the Messiah, go to Jerusalem, the very heart of Judaism, and be put to death for such wonderful things? “No!” Peter must have reasoned within himself. “I refuse to allow that to happen to my master!”

So, Peter went to Jesus and told him he would never allow such things to happen. Peter meant well, but he had no idea what he was saying. As well-intentioned as he was, he was obstructing the will of God — the very mission of the Messiah — and so Jesus spoke this famous rebuke. “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).

Taking into consideration what we have already discussed with regard to the use of the title “ha satan,” does it really make sense that Peter was possessed, or that he was under the influence of a demon? Not at all. Peter’s emotions had gotten the best of him. He wanted to defend His master against His enemies.

Under normal circumstances, in dealing with a merely human friend, this might be considered honorable. But Jesus was no ordinary man. He is the God-Man, the divine incarnation of the Logos in the flesh. His mission required Him to suffer and die. If he did not do so, everything would remain exactly as it is.

Man would still be separated from God and salvation would be out of reach. Everything depended on Jesus fulfilling His mission, which included His own death. And Peter sought to obstruct that. Notice what Jesus says immediately after rebuking Peter. He tells him that Peter is thinking on the wrong level.

He’s concerned with just the human issue of protecting His master. Peter has lost sight of divine things. He is not reflecting the concerns of God in his desire to thwart those who would put His master to death, but in his zeal, he is threatening to obstruct divine will.

So, it makes perfect sense that Jesus refers to Peter as “ha satan” in this case, since Peter certainly would have been the adversary if he followed through with his desires. Jesus’ rebuke here is a wake-up call to Peter to get his priorities right, to clear up his thinking. You can I can often be the adversary of the will of God as well.

What Does This Mean?

How many times have you acted against the Word of God? How many times have you lied, cheated, hated someone, gossiped, or lusted after another person or their property? None of us can say we are entirely free of having done such things in our lives.

Every single sin, every secret transgression against the will of God places us in the very uncomfortable position of the adversary of God. That is not a good place to be. Like Peter, we need a wake-up call.

We need to be reminded that our focus has been on the mundane, the purely material or human, when it should have been on divine things, and our behavior being in accord with those divine mandates.

For further reading:

What Power Does Satan Have?

8 Facts about Satan You Need to Know

Why Do We Blame Satan for Our Sins?

If Jesus Could Not Sin What Was the Point of Satan Tempting Him?

Why Was Lucifer, Satan, Cast Out of Heaven and Banished to Hell?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/shih-wei


J. Davila-Ashcraft is an Anglican priest, Theologian, and Apologist, and holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from God’s Bible College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a recognized authority on the topic of exorcism, and in that capacity has contributed to and/or appeared on programming for The National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, and CNN. He is the host of Expedition Truth, a one-hour apologetics radio talk show.