Words can be rather nuanced things. When you hear the word, Satan, for example, it automatically triggers thoughts of the ancient serpent who rebelled against the Lord and enticed our first parents to follow suit (cf. Rev. 12.9; 20.2).
Because of this, many have read these words of Jesus, by which he rebukes Peter for contradicting his crucifixion prediction, and assumed that Satan himself had possessed Peter’s body and made him resist the Lord. Hence, supposedly, Jesus told the Devil to get behind him.
But that is not likely to be the case. The word, satan, has a more subtle shade of meaning in this context than the one that first appears.
First, both Matthew and Mark indicate that Jesus’ words are directed at Peter — i.e., Peter was the object of the Lord’s rebuke (cf. Mk. 8.33). The apostle was not merely one possessed by another, devoid of self-control. Hence, Peter himself was culpable for his own words.
Second, some think that the Lord addresses Peter as Satan,
“not because Satan possesses him, but because through Peter Satan is attempting to thwart Jesus’ journey to the cross” (Mounce, 612).
Hence, the Devil had merely tempted Peter to resist Christ, without taking over his person.
That is certainly plausible. However, it is difficult to conceive of Satan himself wanting to thwart the Lord’s crucifixion. Indeed, that is the very thing the Devil kept trying to achieve (cf. Jn. 13.2, 27; 14.20; Rev. 12.4)!
More likely, Peter had actually been drawn away by his “own desires” on this occasion, especially due to his ignorance of the Lord’s mission and of the nature of his kingdom (cf. Jms. 1.14).
Third, the word, Satan, is more than just the proper name of the celestial being who opposes God. Originally, the verb form signified: “to lie in wait” — as in an ambush (Orr, ed., 2693; Moulton, et al., 570). In time, the noun came to mean, more broadly, an enemy; an adversary.
With that in mind, it is more likely that Jesus simply uses the term to describe Peter as acting as an opponent of Jesus: “Get behind me, adversary!” Thus, the apostle had acted as “a Satan-like man” (Vine, 547), but was not actually being enticed or controlled by Satan himself. He had become, in his own right,
“a tempter of a diabolical sort, who might thwart the divine plan of salvation” (Bauer, 752).
Peter was acting entirely of his own volition and of his own desires, and was rebuked for his adversarial lack of submission to God.
Finally, it is noteworthy that Jesus uttered these words of rebuke after he had “turned around” from Peter to face the other disciples (Mk. 8.33). With his back facing Peter, the Lord was reinforcing (through visual aid) the need to be a follower of Jesus (“Get behind me”), rather than one who is out in front of him.
Too often, the Lord’s disciples prefer to make Jesus agree with us rather than the converse. We must always guard against the temptation to make Jesus into the kind of person we want him to be, rather than allowing ourselves to be the kind of person he wants us to be.
Hence, to fail to put Jesus in front of us is to succeed at making ourselves his adversary — a “Satan-like” individual (cf. Heb. 12.2). Let us stay mindful of this and live accordingly.
Bauer, Walter, William F. Ardnt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1975. Moulton, J. H. and G. Milligan. Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004. Mounce, William D. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. Orr, James (ed.). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Volume 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986. Vine, W.E. Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985.