While the core message of the New Testament is clear, sometimes complicated passages can make us scratch our heads—like why Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” in Mark 8:33.
In Navigating Tough Texts, Murray J. Harris (author of the excellent resources Colossians and Philemon (Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament | EGGNT) and Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament) helps inquisitive minds navigate such passages.
In this excerpt adapted from Navigating Tough Texts, Harris offers an explanation of what Jesus meant when he said, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Mark records three predictions made by Jesus of his forthcoming suffering, death, and resurrection: 8:31; 9:30–32; and 10:32–34. The first follows immediately after Peter’s declaration at Caesarea Philippi of Jesus’ messiahship (Mark 8:27–30).
After the second prediction, we read that the disciples “did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it” (Mark 9:32). Apparently they did grasp the general import of the prediction, ignoring the promise of the resurrection, for it prompted their spokesman, Peter, to offer some advice to Jesus. Gently taking Jesus’ arm, Peter took him aside, perhaps out of earshot of the other disciples. The colorful verb proslambanomai (“take aside”) is also used in Acts 18:26 when Priscilla and Aquila quietly took Apollos aside (the NIV has the paraphrase “invited him to their home”) and explained the way of God to him more accurately (see part 1, ch. 54).
Said Peter to Jesus, “Mercy on you, Lord! This will never happen to you” (Matt 16:22). The expression hileōs soi literally means “Mercy on you,” an abbreviation of “May God be merciful to you!” = “May God mercifully spare you from this!” Some English versions render it as “God forbid it!” (GNT) or “Far be it from you!” (ESV) or “Oh no, Lord!” (HCSB, CSB).
Jesus’ response to Peter was even more drastic. “Get away behind me, Satan!” Whereas Peter’s rebuke of Jesus was given privately, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter was delivered in front of all the disciples: “Turning (to confront Peter face-to-face) and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter” (Mark 8:33). It was a message relevant to them all, a message they all needed to hear since Peter had simply been their spokesman (as so often).
The term “Satan” (ho satanas) was originally a common noun meaning “adversary,” but it became a proper name or title for “the accuser/slanderer” (ho diabolos) in the heavenly court, and more generally the archenemy of God and his people (2 Cor 11:14–15; 1 Thess 2:18) who incites humans to sin. In the present case, Satan uses Peter’s natural human instincts—abhorrence at the prospect of a friend dying a cruel and premature death—to tempt Jesus to abandon his God-given task as the Suffering Servant destined to die for his people (Isa 42:1–4; 52:13–53:12) (the Unseen Realm bundle explores more about Satan, angels, and demons).
As Jesus said, Peter was viewing matters from a purely human and popular perspective, not from God’s perspective (Mark 8:33b). Peter the “rock” (petros) had become a “stumbling block” (skandalon) to Jesus (Matt 16:18, 23).
This temptation of Jesus to relinquish his divine vocation revived his wilderness temptation to embrace alternative ways of pleasing God and winning human praise (Matt 4:1–10). At that time he dismissed Satan with similar words, “Away from me, Satan!” (Matt 4:10). It was a temptation that would recur in different ways throughout his public ministry, only to resurface during his final hours: “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matt 27:42).
It is sadly possible for any one of Jesus’ followers to be God’s mouthpiece one moment (Mark 8:29) and Satan’s mouthpiece the next (Mark 8:32–33).
This article about what Jesus meant when said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” is adapted from Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament by Murray J. Harris, available now from Lexham Press.
- What Did Jesus Mean When He Cried Out ‘It Is Finished!’?
- Satan in the Bible: 14 Sobering Facts about the Devil
- What Does ‘Binding and Loosing’ Mean in Matthew 16:19?
- 5 Insights for Interpreting the Deaths of Ananias and Sapphira
- The Unforgivable Sin: Evidence You Have Not Committed It
- The Unseen Realm Bundle (12 vols.) by Dr. Michael S. Heiser
- Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament by Murray J. Harris
- Perspectives on Justification by Faith: Five Views on Its Meaning and Significance (4 hour course)
- Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions by Sam Storms