Today’s Gospel reading, which recounts the famous scene of Christ and his apostles at Caesarea Philippi, puts our intellectual life in a stark contrast: we can either think like God or we can think like man. One way leads to illumination, the other to destruction. And Peter, that great apostles of extremes, demonstrates both ways to us in the span of about 30 seconds.
First, the leader of the apostles displays an insight that is not possible by human means:
[Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. (Matthew 16:16-17)
Note carefully what Jesus said to Peter: the apostle did not come to a realization of the true identity of Christ by means of deep intellectual thinking or reasoning; he came to it by divine inspiration. Reason alone cannot acknowledge the divinity of Christ; it is necessary to have God Himself reveal it to us.
But then Peter quickly falls back into a more base way of thinking:
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly
from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
“God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
He turned and said to Peter,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Matthew 16:21-23)
When faced with the prospect of his Lord suffering, Peter reverts to relying on his own intellectual prowess to determine the way things should go. He rejects such a path and decides on his own how Christ should come into his kingdom. But Jesus immediately rebukes Peter, telling him that he no longer is allowing God to illumine his mind, but instead is following the way of man, which in this fallen world is also the way of Satan.
None of this is to say that man should not use his intellect in life; quite the contrary: man should allow his intellect be illuminated and guided by God’s revelation. As St. Paul wrote,
Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
If we depend solely on our own powers, we are sure to follow the highway to destruction. But if we follow God’s way, we can be transformed and follow the path that leads to eternal life and light.