“Get behind Me, Satan” is a memorable enough phrase from the Gospels that it actually became the title of a popular album by the alternative band The White Stripes around a decade ago or so. Yet while this phrase is most often associated with Jesus’ reply to a suggestion by Peter that would have prevented Jesus’ crucifixion from taking place, the phrase has a deeper layer of meaning that is worth discussing.
First, though, let us provide the phrase in context, first in Matthew 16:21-23: “From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”” We also see this account discussed in Mark 8:31-33: “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.””
When examining this particular phrase and its meaning and importance, there are several layers to this interaction that must be taken into account. For one, it should be noted that this low moment for Peter follows immediately after he confesses the Christ, which is one of the higher points of his time as a disciple. While Peter was bold (and accurate) in confessing Jesus to be the Messiah/Christ, he did not properly understand what that meant. While it is much better understood at present that Jesus Christ came the first time to sacrifice Himself to pay the price of sin for humanity, to the extent that many people do not realize that He will come again with a sword to conquer the earth and bring it under His rule, this was not as well understood by Jesus’ earliest disciples, who along with the contemporaries looked forward to a Messiah that would overthrow the Romans and bring forth a Messianic age of freedom. And so it was that when Jesus stated what it would mean for Him to be the Christ as the sacrificial lamb of God to blot out the sins of those people who would repent and follow God, Peter somewhat predictably expressed his desire that this would never come to pass, which would have condemned all of humanity to death and destruction for our sins.
In that light, it is no surprise at all that Jesus Christ would say to Peter, “Get behind me Satan,” because to have refused to die for the sins of the world would have negated the whole purpose for Jesus’ first coming to provide a way for sins to be forgiven and to open a path to salvation that could not have been forged by the efforts of mankind to earn passage into God’s kingdom. It is perhaps more surprising that we make the reverse error that Peter did, and find it uncomfortable to deal with Christ as king while celebrating Jesus as the sacrificial lamb. And it is likely that we too, if we expressed our abhorrence of the coercion that Jesus is going to unleash on a rebellious world at his return, would be told the same thing that we were being mindful of the things of man and not the things of God. For there is a time to be a sin-bearing sacrifice and a time to be the lion of Judah, the returning king who will recover His throne and rule over His creation and put all His enemies under His feet. One has to know the proper time for these things.
Let us also note one more thing. The expression “Get behind me, Satan” is present in the Bible in more than just these passages. Indeed, this statement occurs in the temptation of Christ as recorded in Luke 4:8: “And Jesus answered and said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” It is worthwhile to remember this statement, and to note that Jesus said to Peter just what he said to Satan himself when Satan attempted to thwart God’s plans. Luke’s use of this expression in both situations may be a hint that allows us to recognize that Peter’s refusal to accept that Jesus Christ would have to suffer and die to pay the price for the sins of humanity was itself inspired by Satan even if he did not realize it. It should be also noted that Satan need not be a personal name here, but rather a recognition that to oppose the plans of God, however inscrutable they are, is to make one an adversary of God, and therefore worthy of being called Satan. At any rate, this particular passage provides at least a few reasons as to how Satan seeks to oppose the plans of God, and that even after a moment of realization that humanity is still prone to blunder and make errors when it comes to understanding what God is about.