Most of us carry within us images of Satan that arise from Genesis (the Snake), Revelation (The Beast from the Sea), cans of deviled ham (Underwood), and really bad Hollywood movies. The composite picture of Satan that emerges from the Bible is not so sensational but much more frightening.
1 Chronicles 21:1, Satan is a shadowy figure who “stood up against Israel” when he moved David to number Israel even though it was completely unnecessary. David gave in to the temptation to weigh the odds and measure his strength against his adversaries, but in so doing he neglected to consider that, with God on one’s side, one is always in the majority.
In the book of Job, Satan is a member of the heavenly court, one of the “sons of God” whose role is to walk the earth looking for those who fall short of God’s perfection that he might accuse them before God. The role of accuser recurs several times in scripture, but Satan is not the only accuser, there is also conscience (Romans 2) and the Law of Moses. (John 5:45) and by the words spoken by Jesus himself (John 12:48).
In the New Testament, Satan was known to Jesus as the tempter. (Mark 1, Matthew 4, Luke 4) This is not to say that Jesus recognized Satan as the only source of temptation. Our appetites often suffice to lure us into trouble and away from God’s purposes for our lives. Jesus knew this, as did St. Paul (1 Corinthians 10:3), St. James (James 1:13-14), and the writer to the Hebrews (Hebrews 2:18). All seem to regard the devil as a source of temptation, but not the only one.
In John 8:44, Jesus also described Satan as “a liar and the father of lies.” Satan may tell the truth 99% of the time, but we know that believing the small lie that is hidden in a larger body of truth is sufficient to derail us. Satan knew, like Hitler and others of his ilk, that if he spins his lies loud enough and long enough, a great many people will believe him.
In the Book of Revelation Satan is described as “that ancient serpent” (Revelation 12:9, 20:2), a clear reference to the Snake in Genesis.
In 1 Peter 5:8, the apostle described the devil as “going about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” This implies an active malevolence. Martin Luther was so fearful of Satan that he once tossed his inkwell at him when he thought he saw him in the shadows. I have had dreams in which I stood up to lions, no problem. I have had other dreams in which a dark ominous presence frightened me into wakefulness. Thankfully, these dreams have been rare. In one of them, my son’s dog, Willis, now late, came to my rescue and saved me.
In 2 Corinthians 11:14, St. Paul wrote that Satan “disguises himself as an angel of light.” This is by far the most all-embracing and horrific description of Satan. What does it mean? At least this. In this world, the very thing that promises good to us often brings about our stumbling and fall, resulting in evil and destruction coming down on our heads. To fully understand what I am talking about, just remember the 99% to 1% rule about the power of lies and apply it here.
There are at least four things we ought to remember about Satan. (This list does not attempt to be all-inclusive).
1) Satan has been defeated. The Incarnation of the Eternal Son of God was “D-Day,” and the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ was the pen-ultimate battle that broke the back of sin, death, and the devil. Satan has been defeated but like many a great general he is fighting a very effective retrograde action. The late Oscar Cullman, the Swiss scholar, and theologian, once pointed out that, though Jesus said Satan is bound, he is “bound with a long rope.”
2) Satan still wins battles, but he still loses battles, too. He is being defeated every day. When the seventy returned to Jesus saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Jesus said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:17-18) In this instance, Jesus is not talking about a metaphysical event he witnessed as the Eternal Son in a pre-Incarnation state. Jesus the prophet of Nazareth whom we believe to be the Son of God is simply saying that when the gospel is preached and people are liberated from their sins, the devil loses ground. The decisive battle has been fought at Calvary, but until Christ is revealed in glory to take up his power and reign, mopping-up operations will continue. We are a part of the mopping-up operation. Each and every time we triumph over sin, Satan falls. Each and every time someone turns in faith to God, Satan falls. As part of mopping-up, we can press forward to win additional skirmishes, victories, and glory. Can we still fail? Yes, sometimes it takes the collective power of generations to right a wrong, or to correct a people gone wrong. We can also fail personally, as we do when we fall into sin. Thankfully, when we do fall into sin we can fall back on God’s marvelous grace. As the writer of 1st John has written:
8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:8-9
Let me say it once more: The ultimate defeat of Satan is in God’s hands. The New Testament consistently sees God’s victory as the final act of history or the first act of eternity in which God’s Christ is revealed to faith and unbelief alike.
3) Christians must not make too much of the devil. It has been suggested that Christians who spend all their time talking about the devil are just trying to shift some of the blame for sin and failure off our own shoulders. The New Testament teaches that we are responsible for our own actions and reactions. According to H. Richard Niebuhr, God’s goal is to produce in each of us, “a responsible self,” responding in “universal society,” and in “time without end,” to “the One behind the many (God) acting upon us in all actions upon us.” The Christian responds not just “for himself,” or “for her family,” or “for his friends,” but “in universal society.” The Christian responds not just by counting the cost charged to us in terms of expended dollars, effort, hours, and years, but in “time without end.” After all, we know that this life is “…just a slight, momentary affliction, preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)
4) Christians must not make too little of the devil. A man once asked me if he had to believe in a personal devil to be a Christian. I told him that he was better off believing in a personal Savior, but that he ought also to realize that there are forces at work inside of him and outside of him, some visible and some invisible, which are at work to keep him separated from God and God’s purpose for his life. C.S. Lewis the late Oxford don who was also a famous Christian author and apologist said that to believe in the devil is to believe that evil is greater than the sum total of its parts. Emil Brunner the late Neo-Orthodox scholar said that to believe in the devil is to recognize that the possibilities of evil are not exhausted by purely human evil. We must not make too little of the devil. Let us not forget that in ways beyond our ability to comprehend, the devil is still roaring about seeking those whom he can devour. I personally don’t think “Satan” is too bright, but I know he has some bright people in his service. In this regard, let us hope that to be forewarned against Satan, aka the devil, is to be forearmed.