A talk on Matthew 16:21-28, given by Kate Eaton at Axmouth Church on Sun 3rd September 2023.
As many of you know I have Multiple Sclerosis, MS. It affects me in several ways, one being balance, another footdrop, both of which can cause me to fall over easily, sometimes over nothing at all. Therefore, it is important on my many dog walks to check paths in front of me for anything that might be lurking to trip me up. Sadly, this means I often miss things around me, so intent am I on the path ahead. When I think about it this applies to all aspects of my life. At times, like Peter, I often seem to put my foot in it, so to speak, or go down the wrong path, misinterpret things. I like Peter, he is very down to earth, but very loyal, eager to understand but often finds it hard to do so and ends up doing the wrong thing. Only to regret it later. Terry’s brilliant portrayal of him a few weeks ago really brought him to life for me.
Last week we heard about how Peter became the Rock of Truth, this week continues where we left off and sees Peter go from Hero to Zero, from the Rock of Truth to a Stumbling Stone, a Skandalon in the original translations. Something that was not uncommon on the pathways in those days, especially with open toed footwear, so was easy to relate to. At best the person would experience a sore toe or knee. At worst be rendered helpless in the face of his enemy.
Jesus and the Disciples had retired to Caesarea Phillippi at the foot of Mount Hermon, far north of Palestine. It wasn’t an overly populated area and was in fact mainly pagan. Legend said that it was close to the birthplace of the Greek God Pan. We are not sure why they are there but perhaps it was a remote place where Jesus felt he could explain the true Revelation of the Messiah away from a crowd. At this point the disciples probably still believed that Jesus was the Warrior King of David and certainly couldn’t comprehend him dying.
However, the disciples would have had some knowledge of the Scriptures. Isaiah (53:4-6) introduces the idea of a suffering servant. He was despised and rejected by mankind. Surely, he took up our pain and bore our suffering. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was on him. As do several of the psalms. They probably couldn’t read but they would have had them passed down through spoken word. The idea that Jesus must go to Jerusalem to die, at the hand of the religious leaders, was foreign to them as remember that to them at this point the Sanhedrin were religious leaders, men to be respected certainly not the men who would kill Jesus, for no other reason than they had no authority to do so. To us the words sounds sinister as we have been taught from childhood that they were, if you like, Jesus’ enemies. For the disciples to hear this must have been a surprise to them. The Messiah, that they knew, loved, and was meant to save mankind, was going to die and the religious leaders would organise it. So many questions must have been going through their minds. How can this man save others and not himself and what does he mean by raised again?
Put yourself in Peter’s shoes. The man he admires so much and whom he has identified as the Messiah is standing there telling him that he must die and be raised up again. It’s not like Jesus to sound so resigned to evil, how could he leave all the prophecies unfulfilled. What of his omnipotent power? He had seen many examples of this. Did he really hear him right? Maybe he thought Jesus was just having a bad day. After all he was human, well God in Human form, and we have all had one of those, haven’t we? Peter decides that he will try and encourage Jesus. After all God isn’t going to let his own Son die, is he? And if it’s a matter of standing by him or protecting him, then Peter would let him know that he was there for him. Slightly ironical if you recall what happens in the garden of Gethsemane and afterwards when Peter denies that he was with Jesus not just once but 3 times.
The next opportunity he has he would gently speak to Jesus, put him back on the right track, give him a pep talk. He would take him aside from the rest of the group to do this though, as he was his Master. The rebuke as the Bible calls it being a private one, between friends rather than a public one in front of the other disciples.
The word rebuke is a strange one, to us it probably means more of a telling off. How often were we rebuked by our own parents or indeed rebuked our own children? The Oxford English dictionary says to reprimand, chide, told off, cut down to size. To speak severely to somebody because they have done something wrong.
The Greek word is epitimeo, apologies for the pronunciation! Means more to express a strong disapproval of someone. Also means to speak seriously or to warn in order to prevent an action.
So, Peter begins his gentle rebuke. Far be it from you Lord, Or may God prevent this from happening to you Lord. Not quite understanding that what he is saying is in fact going against the scriptures and God’s plans. He has if you like fallen over a skandalon, conveniently placed there by Satan himself. In one swift moment the disciple who recently deified Jesus has now, probably admittedly unintentionally defied him. Changing from the rock of truth to a one placed there to try and shift Jesus from God’s plan for him. How easy would it be to not go to Jerusalem, Jesus is after all human. In fact, later on in the garden of Gethsemane he does ask God if it is possible for this cup to be taken to be taken away, yet not my will but yours, he said. What would we have done in his place?
Peter must have been very surprised when Jesus cuts him off with great authority. Get behind me Satan you are a hindrance to me. You are a stumbling block. For you are setting your mind on the things of man not of God. Imagine being Peter and hearing these words, he must have been shocked. Him Satan? How was that possible, he was merely trying to save Jesus from making what he saw as a mistake? Peter simply wants the Messiah to succeed, how could that possibly such a bad thing? The answer is that Peter’s vision is skewed, and he is trying to superimpose his vision of what should happen over God’s. Remember that the power of the cross only became understandable to the disciples after they had seen the risen Lord.
Satan is very subtle, and we need to be on our guard at all times. Perhaps Peter was recalling this moment when he writes his letters to the persecuted Christians of Asia Minor in 1Peter 5: 8-9.
Be sober minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.
Puts me in mind of those cartoons where the person has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other tempting us. I have a little dog, a very sweet looking Cavachon, mix of a Bichon Frise and a Cavalier King Charles, Hazel she is called. Why am I mentioning her? Well, my husband always says that the Bichon is her good side and the Cavalier her mischievous side. Hazel actually thinks she is a larger spaniel and so is quite adventurous, however only to a point. Every now and then she will look around her and you can almost hear the bichon saying hang on better not do that, so pulling her back her in line.
How often have we ourselves been tempted to take the world’s easy road instead of God’s possibly harder one? Tempted to put our faith in the world’s ways and not God’s? Judging ourselves and others by the world’s ideals instead of the standards of the one who has nowhere to lay His head and whose throne was a cross? Perhaps, this is how Jesus, and the scriptures are to us, or maybe even a friend or fellow Christian will point out the error of our ways to us. Heb 3 13 But exhort one another daily least any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. Aid, encourage, help. Maybe pick up that stumbling stone that has been strewn in our path.
Jesus is himself described as a stumbling stone in the Bible. Isaiah 8 v 14 says.
And he will be a holy place for both Israel and Judah, he will be a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem, he will be a trap, a snare. Many will fall and be broken.
Meaning that everyone who tries to succeed and thrive apart from the Lord eventually falls and does not prosper. The background to this verse is a fleeing from Assyrian invasion. If the man is a believer and fleeing the altar will be a place of sanctuary. However, if he is a non-believer, it is merely a pile of rocks which he will fall over. But Isiaah also talks of the coming Messiah here. To many his ways will be strange and they will fall over them. Think of the rich young man whose wealth is his stumbling block to faith. Or the very Sanhedrin who could not accept that Jesus was the Son of God.
So, a stumbling stone, skandalon, is not always a bad thing. Sometimes if we stumble it can cause us to think, to recentre ourselves. I know in my own experience that whilst out walking Hazel I can become lost in a world of my own. Sometimes this may be thinking of the list of things I need to get done that day, or sometimes I can even become caught up in the beauty of a moment or even be lost in my own prayers. A slight stumble can cause me to refocus, rethink, stop me going on the wrong path. Maybe even get me to pray about what God wants me to pray about rather than what I think I should be asking him for.
Sometimes it is shocking to realise that just because we are doing God’s work it does not always mean we are on the right path. Are we doing something because we want to, it suits our comfort zone, or perhaps we feel that the church should go in a particular direction? Many a church has become so caught up in what they think they should be doing to meet people’s needs that they forget to ask God. Therefore, it is imperative that we pray over every decision. And, perhaps more importantly, learn to listen and create space and quiet for God to talk to us, and identify our own stumbling stones.
Kate Eaton, speaking at Axmouth Church on Sun 3rd September 2023[/expander_maker]