One of the most interesting, and also frustrating, things of studying the bible and comparing our English translations with the Koine Greek source is realizing that the translators often translate one Greek word as different English words. This can sometimes be a good thing, and other times be a bad thing. I want to examine the use of a particular word in Matthew 16. Jesus uses this same word twice in the passage, in succession, but the translators have translated it as two different words. I think that this course of action has created such a disconnect with what Jesus said from one verse to another than many Christians interpret those verses as distinct contexts. As such our understanding of what Jesus is really talking about has been skewed. Let’s see if we can straighten it out a bit.
One Greek word, not two English words
Matthew 16 is one of the most profound passages in the New Testament. Jesus reveals a lot, and the apostles are impacted greatly by what he said. Further, it is a pivotal scene that ties directly into the crucifixion, and many preachers today use this passage to pressure many people into thinking that they have to be aware that Satan can be influencing them and that they are not doing enough. Although the entire chapter is relevant to the discussion, I will only be focusing on verses 23 and 24:
Matthew 16:21-24 (King James Version)
21 From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.
22 Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.
23 But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.
24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
In verse 23, you find that Jesus uses the word “behind” in his response to Peter rebuking him. Right after that, in verse 24, Jesus uses the word “after” when speaking to all of the apostles, including Peter. As it is read this way in our English bibles, no one would ever really think that these two words are related in any way. It seems almost insignificant to even talk about them. However, if I were reading the original Greek text, I would notice that these two words are not two words at all. In fact, they are only one word. When I read noticed this, a light bulb lit in my mind. The meaning of the passage, and what Jesus was saying had taken on a slightly different meaning at that moment. So, what is this word that is used? It is the Greek word, ὀπίσω, transliterated as opiso. BDAG has a very long entry on the word opiso. It can function as an adverb or preposition. As an adverb, BDAG defines opiso as “marker of a position in the back of something, behind”, and as a preposition, it is defined as “marker of position behind an entity that precedes, after”. It is not uncommon for a Greek word to have multiple applied meanings based on its use in a sentence. This is normally referred to with the term “lexical range” or “semantic range” of the word. At first, one may think that this is not a problem. There are many synonyms in the English language. Surely, context can sometimes change a word. However, I think it can become a problem when the context is clearly the same, and the word is used multiple times in the same contextual passage. When you translate the same word differently in the same context, it can have the undesired effect of altering the meaning or application of the passage itself.
In this particular passage, both occurrences of opiso are used as adverbs. In verse 23, opiso modifies the verb “get”, and in verse 24, it modifies the verse “come”. It is not used as a preposition in verse 24. Further, the context is not separate. If you reference almost any modern study bible, the editors will place sub-headings before set passages of scripture, as a summary aid of what the proceeding passage is going to talk about. Although these can be helpful, they can also be misleading, and can sometimes give the reader the sense that that context has changed. However when we read the words carefully, we will see that verse 24 follows directly after verse 23 in immediate sequence of time. Jesus turned and spoke to Peter then immediately explained to the remaining apostles with Peter present. There was no separation of the situations. It was continuous.
Just before Peter pulled Jesus to the side to rebuke him, Peter confessed that Jesus was “the Christ, the son of the living God”. In return, Jesus blessed Peter, and confirmed that God the Father revealed that truth to him, and told him that he would give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. After that, he explained to the apostles that he would die on the cross, and that was when the confrontation between the two men began. Most Christian leaders (pastors, priests, preachers and teachers) have taught for centuries that Jesus rebuked Peter telling him, “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men”. I find this interesting in that Jesus just blessed Peter, and praised him for the revelation God gave him. I checked the Greek, and I was reminded that there is no punctuation in the original Greek. As a result, I had an idea. Could it be possible that the punctuation added by the translators and editors have skewed our understanding of what Jesus was saying, and this influenced the choice of translating opiso from one verse to the next?
I decided to check as many English bible versions as I could online. I checked all 61 versions on BibleGateway, and 45 versions on Biblehub, and all versions except for the Message Bible, interpret Jesus as calling Peter Satan. I seem to be almost alone in my hypothesis regarding the punctuation. However, the Message bible portrays Jesus as speaking to Peter and Satan separately. Some Christians may view Jesus as rebuking Satan’s influence on Peter. The truth is that, despite the consensus from so many translators, it really isn’t explicitly stating that Jesus refers to Peter as Satan. The punctuation makes it seems so. Many translations also make it seem as if Jesus was telling Peter to get away from him. It is these two interpretations that I am challenging in this post.
First, we have to notice that although the scripture says that Peter rebuked Jesus, it did not say that Jesus rebuked Peter. Jesus told Peter, “get thee behind me” and right after, he instructed Peter and the other apostles that “if any man come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”. Many translations interpret that as Jesus driving Peter away, but if we understand that the word “behind” there is the same as the word “after”, then we would realize that Jesus was saying to Peter to get behind him and follow him, and deny his personal feelings/thoughts that go against God’s will. Jesus was basically telling Peter to get behind him for Peter’s own good. He was not driving him away, but rather pulling him closer. Get behind Jesus, and resist Satan. This is the message.
Matthew vs Mark vs Luke
The passage in Matthew 16:21-24 has two parallel passages in Mark and Luke. The account in Mark 8:31-34 is almost identical to the account in Matthew 16. Luke’s account, however, is missing the confrontation between Jesus and Peter. So, it only has the instruction that Jesus gives to all the apostles that if any man comes after (or rather, behind) him to deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow him. One interesting note is that Luke adds the word, “daily” to taking up one’s cross, which is not present in either Matthew or Mark. Regardless, with Luke’s account missing the confrontation between Jesus and Peter, it can make us think that the context may be separate, but I don’t think so. With the witnesses of Matthew and Mark, I am confident in asserting that the context between verse 23 and 24 are the same. The text itself also bears witness to this.
Understanding it straight
Although “behind”and “after” are legitimate translations of the Greek word opiso, I believe that “behind” should be used in both verses 23 and 24 in Matthew 16. Some may be quick to point out that it does not sound like proper or good English, and at first glance, I would definitely agree. However, I think that by translating it as “behind” in both instances, it shows the continuity of thought in what Jesus was trying to convey to the apostles from his encounter with Peter’s rebuttal to Jesus having to die on the cross. It was clearly an unthinkable thing for Peter to grasp. Yet, Jesus did not reject him or get angry with him. Jesus had just blessed Peter after hearing Peter’s declaration of faith that Jesus was the Christ, the son of the living God. He granted him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and gave him authority to bind or loose anything in heaven and earth. I don’t think he was declaring Peter to be an agent of Satan after that. I think Jesus was telling Peter to get behind him, as a means of safety and protection. Peter was to stay in God’s will, and Jesus exposed Satan’s trap or ‘stumbling block’ (translated as “offense” in KJV).
When we hear the words from Jesus to “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me”, many Christians feel an awful sense of guilt and fear. Many Christian leaders have even taught that these are words of absolute self denial, where we don’t have a right to think for ourselves, and that we can own nothing for ourselves. I think that these types of teachings are a gross exaggeration of what our Lord Jesus was trying to convey. The context is that he was explaining to the disciples that he had to suffer by the hand of the political leaders and would have to die, but the apostles, especially Peter, could not accept this. They had their own idea of how the Christ, or Messiah, was to be victorious. Dying on the cross did not fit that. So, they could not accept God’s plan as Jesus explained it to them. However, Jesus knew that this was God’s will for him to accomplish. This is why he said to them that if they follow him, they must take up their cross, deny themselves and follow him. It was the parallel to what Jesus had to do, and eventually did, when he said, “not my will, but thy will be done” (Luke 22:42). We also see parallels to this in the book of Proverbs
Proverbs 3:5-8 (KJV)
5 Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
6 In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
7 Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil.
8 It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones.
Understanding the words of Jesus is important to living a blessed life in Christ. Always remember that Jesus paid the price so we don’t have to. He didn’t pay the the deposit so that we could continue paying the interest and principle until our loan of debt from sin is gone. On the cross, Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), which was actually one word in Greek, tetelestai. By telling us to take up our cross and follow, he was not telling us to suffer and die, but telling us to do God’s will, even if it means you have to go through difficulty. We all need to understand what God’s will is. It is obvious that it is not to literally walk around with crosses on our shoulders. It is to understand that doing what is right is not going to be easy. Let’s trust God.
- Lexicon :: Strong’s G3694 – opisō – Site: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3694&t=KJV
- A Greek – English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Third Edition. BDAG. Page 716. Revised and Edited by Frederick William Danker.
- Matthew 16:23 All Versions – Biblegateway.com – Site: https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Matthew%2016:23
- Matthew 16:23 Parallel – Biblehub.com – Site: https://www.biblehub.com/parallel/matthew/16-23.htm