I can’t take full credit for the basis of this post, since it came from an insight a friend offered up during a group discussion in our Matthew book study this summer at Fuller. We were discussing Matthew 16:21-23, where Peter, who had just been named the rock upon which Jesus would build his church, suddenly finds himself as the stumbling block, failing to understand Jesus’ declaration of his own death. The friend pointed out that the disciples, being ancient Jews, had no category for understanding resurrection. That was not part of the Jews’ understanding of death. When one died, one was simply dead.
It is sometimes difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples, to try to remember that they, being first century Jews, thought of things differently than we do today. It’s one thing to talk about the fact that the Messiah defied expectations. History tells us that the Jews were expecting their Messiah to come and liberate them from imperial rule, to overthrow their oppressors, once and for all, to put the power back into their hands—olam. This is demonstrated by the [disastrous] revolts led by Judas Maccabaeus (167-160 BCE) and Simon bar Giora (70 CE). This is why Jesus waits to reveal his death explicitly; he needs the disciples to come to their own conclusion that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Had he told the disciples from the beginning that he must die and be raised again, there’s a good chance they simply would not have followed him. Who wants to follow a dead Messiah? What good can a dead Messiah be in a revolution to seize power back from the Gentile oppressors for the nation of Israel?
We tend to rebuke Peter with Jesus at this point, saying, “Didn’t he hear what Jesus said? He’ll be raised again! C’mon, Peter. You’re smarter than that.” Peter’s response is borne out of two things we have difficulty understanding. First, is his expectation for who the Messiah is—and it is not at all what Jesus has just revealed to them. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the exact subversive act of humility that destroys the satanic vision of the Messiah (remember Matthew 4?) that Peter and so many other children of Israel have in mind without ever seeing it as such. Peter is expecting the sword. He’s expecting Jesus to ride into Jerusalem on a warhorse, to lead a horde against the oppressors, to obliterate them of the face of the earth. Peter is looking to win no matter what the cost. This is the way Satan offers Jesus—use your power to bring the world under your feet—which is what elicits Jesus’ response to Peter. In this moment, Jesus is requiring what we call today a Gestalt switch—a change in worldview—with regard to his belief in the Messiah.
But there is something else in Peter’s way, and this is where my friend’s point becomes so vital. Peter did hear, but he was incapable of understanding at that precise moment, not only because of his worldview and lifelong expectations regarding the Messiah but because Peter had no category with which to understand the resurrection Jesus is talking about. It’s not as though resurrection didn’t happen before Jesus—it did. There are three occurrences in the Old Testament: one involving Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24), another Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37), and the third Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:21.) The account of Matthew 16 also appears in Mark 8, both of which occur before Jesus begins brining the dead back to life. The common thread between all of these resurrections is the intervention of someone else—someone great. The moment Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection, the bit about coming back to life is most likely immediately dismissed by not just Peter but the rest of the disciples as well. Which one of them could perform such a task—raising the supposed Messiah from the dead? This is why we can say that Peter had no category, no way to comprehend what Jesus was talking about. All he knew in that moment was that the man he had been following, who he believed was the Messiah is now telling him that he must die. Jesus, however, is demanding through his rebuke that this border of Peter’s be broken.
This leads us to consider a vitally important, potentially terrifying point for us today: What categories do we lack? What borders is Christ calling us to break? Do we ever even recognize that we are lacking categories of understanding?
The answer is no. We don’t. Unfortunately, we tend to think that because we have the Bible and have had it for nearly two thousand years now, we are already given all of the categories we need. I wonder though about something like human sexuality. Is this a category we fully understand? I think that the typical Christian response to something like gay marriage demonstrates that it is not. Many tend to read Romans 1:26-32 as very explicitly talking about homosexuality as we know it today, in general. To be homosexual is to be an abomination, given up to lustful passion. However, one only needs to make a few gay friends to suddenly be confused about how this could be the case. Christians tend to find it surprising (sometimes terrifying) that members of the homosexual community are people, just like them, possibly sharing the same interests, hopes, dreams—even the same faith. Certainly immorality exists in that community. Immorality exists in all communities.
Exegeting Romans 1 is beside the point here though. What we need to understand is that there’s a good chance that particular categories, whether they be general (personhood, human sexuality) or more theologically specific (sacrament, revelation) are not fixed, which is how we tend to think of them in the everyday.
We see what happens to Peter in this process of unfixing. Once Jesus is arrested, he and the rest of the disciples scatter—right after Peter (according to John) draws his sword and cuts of the ear of the slave to the high priest. He’s not there yet. His Messiah is still the satanic messiah who would utterly destroy his enemies at any cost. In his defeat, Peter denies knowing Jesus three times. He thinks that his side has lost. He’s not prepared to deny Jesus when he still believes Jesus is the all-powerful Son of God who is preparing to lead Israel to war in which victory is assured. Once Jesus is arrested and sentenced to crucifixion, Peter is certain they’ve lost, and if he doesn’t forget Jesus and move on, he’ll be next.
He’s missed the most important part of Jesus teaching: to gain all, one must lose all—that the only way of the Messiah is through the cross. That is the way of Israel’s future. That the coming of the Son of Man is not a one-time event—it is eternal. Yet even though Peter was badly mistaken, once he realized his mistake (following the resurrection), he was empowered and became a champion for the church. Why, then, do we fear being wrong about something like human sexuality? It’s because we take that part of the story for granted. We’re already reading Peter as the father of the church from the very beginning. We don’t let the story come to us. Avid readers know that there’s something to be said for allowing a narrative to unfold for you again and again—that even if we are anticipating what happens next, we allow ourselves to get lost in the story. We forget to do that with the gospels.
I’m not calling for an oversimplification here. It would be really easy for me to say: “The answer is we just love each other, just like Jesus loved everyone” or “Hey, be humble!” or “Take up your cross daily.” But those kind of pastoral platitudes have little meaning to us anymore. We have to look beyond these commands to what their implications are and to what they mean in the context of a world that is all around us screaming things that sound very similar or are identical—we become messianic, in solidarity with Christ, when we die to ourselves. We usher in God’s kingdom to the here and now. That’s probably a good starting place. However, all of this points to something very important: love and humility, even the cross, are not categories we fully understand either. The problem then is bigger than an inability to understand something like human sexuality because once we understand those who are other than us, what do we do with that if we don’t understand how to love?
But this is jumping ahead too far. Jesus didn’t ask Peter what he was going to do in the face of the resurrection or how he was going to make his own disciples while Peter was still struggling with the reality that his Messiah had to die. What we need to do first is recognize that we have some horizons which need unfixing. We don’t know what love, humility, or the cross is in totality. And that’s okay. Paradoxically, it’s that recognition that allows us to pick up our cross and do those things better.
by Joel Harrison