In at least two instances, John Calvin refers to the decisive truth of God’s Word as an “iron hammer.” One of those instances is found in his commentary on Matthew 16:21-23. Here, we read about a brief dialogue between Peter and Jesus that is particularly interesting.
Peter having good intentions, rebukes Jesus. And Jesus, having godly insight, calls Peter the Devil. It is a fascinating account reminding us of the importance of setting our minds on God. The iron hammer shatters the wisdom of sinful man.
The conversation comes to us immediately after Peter’s famous confession of Christ. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Jesus, affirming his confession, responds, “Blessed are you, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17).
We can see from this account, that Peter’s theology was sound and his belief was strong. And, having the opportunity to speak the truth, Peter got it right. It is soon after this conversation that the dialogue happens.
The Unsettling Setting
After a period of public discourse, Jesus decides to turn to more private instruction whereby He can prepare His disciples for His plan of salvation.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.Matt. 16:21
His plan was strange. After entering Jerusalem, the home of His ethnic people and hotbed of religious activity, He would openly proclaim who He is and perform miracles that would draw the attention and anger of the Jewish authorities. When they come for Him in the night, He will quietly surrender Himself. The Roman soldiers, acting on the Jews behalf, will drag Him to a hidden court hearing while the public sleeps. There, He will be falsely accused by bogus witnesses reciting fabricated stories. The private court will declare Him guilty and demand His execution by the Roman government. The Romans will then beat, ridicule, stab, rip, starve, and crucify Him. It will be the most heinous form of injustice in the history of man.
The Satanic Hindrance
Peter, usually the first disciple to speak, recognizes how bizarre this plan sounds and is unsettled. “And Peter,” the story goes, “took him aside and began to rebuke him” (Matt. 16:22).
We have to keep in mind that Peter doesn’t hear in hindsight. No one does. He hasn’t read the rest of the story. He hasn’t read about the victorious resurrection and spread of Jesus’ message throughout the world, even to today. Furthermore, He has been a personal student of theology under the tutelage of God. He learned by hearing and experiencing the power of God for the past three years. His concern makes sense.
Matthew’s account suggests that Peter might have interrupted Jesus in order to correct. Maybe Peter checked out after Jesus said that He would be killed by the Jews. “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you,” Peter says to Jesus hoping his correction might lead to a revised plan (Matt. 16:22).
Peter was deeply concerned. His rebuke was sincere, reasonable, sensible, and even rooted in sound theology. His words imply that he was profoundly troubled, emotionally stirred, fueled with courage, and inclined for action. He could not allow such injustice to happen to the Lord.
You can see his theology unfolding in his rebuke. Knowing that the human brain fires off an exhaustive amount of thoughts in split seconds even before the mouth can resound a few words. Maybe this ran through Peter’s mind:
“I know you (Jer. 9:24). I know are God (Is. 9:6–7). I saw you walk on water (Matt. 14:22-33), heal the sick (Mk. 2:11), raise the dead (Jn. 11:38-44), multiply the food (Matt. 14:13-21), outwit your opponents (Matt. 22:36-40), magically dodge your persecutors (Jn. 8:59), capture the hearts of the humble (Lk. 5:15). I saw you prove your power (Ps. 62:11). I witnessed your kingly rule over nature (Mk. 4:35-41). I heard you preach the truth (Jn. 8:12-30). No force can withstand you (Is. 14:27). Nothing is bigger, more mightier than you (Deut. 10:17). This plan is not just impossible (Job 42:2), it is absurd (Ps. 2:4)!”
Had you been in Peter’s sandals that day, would you have thought differently? He had sound theology, strong belief, and good intentions. From the standpoint of any reasonable, educated human, Peter was right.
Until he wasn’t ….
The Iron Hammer
Imagine yourself witnessing this first hand. Jesus unfolded His plan for the days ahead. Peter rebuked Him for the absurdity of the plan. Surely, the temperature changed and the sounds of nature were sucked out of their air. Jesus “turned and said to Peter” (Matt. 16:23) while we all listened in anticipation.
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” (Matt. 16:23). We’ve all been called names before, but nothing as devastating as this. I’m sure Peter was taken back. Jesus, however, was not name-calling. He was truth-speaking. He identified Peter as the mouthpiece of Satan.
The plan was formed by the counsel of God before anything was made. In heaven, God determined that Jesus would be “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). God would gather people in the city “against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-29).
Jesus acknowledged this prior to it happening. “For this purpose, I have come to this hour,” Jesus said (Jn. 12:27). And, “when I am lifted up from the earth [on a cross], I will draw all people to myself” (Jn. 12:32).
Anyone who might try to thwart His plan would align themselves with His enemy, Satan. So, despite Peter’s good intention and reasonable rebuke, his words were nothing more than the words of Satan and a hindrance to God’s plan.
Jesus explains Himself to Peter, “for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23). His sound theology, strong belief, and good intentions meant nothing if his mind was set on things of man. Instead, he was used as the bullhorn of Satan.
Queue John Calvin’s commentary …
“We learn what estimation in the sight of God belongs to what are called good intentions” as Jesus “reproves it so sharply, and bruises it, as it were, with an iron hammer, to teach us that it is only from the Word of God that we ought to be wise.”
I’m not entirely sure why Calvin chose the metaphor of an iron hammer, but it is totally appropriate. God, speaking through the mouth of Jeremiah, asks this rhetorical question, “Is not my word like fire and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29). Maybe this is the allusion. Jesus brought the iron hammer and shattered the sinful wisdom of man.
It’s common for many, with good intentions and theological soundness, to blunder in their thinking precisely because they have set their minds on the things of man. And, while it may feel sensible and right, it is the wisdom of the devil and a hindrance to the gospel.
Only the iron hammer can help.