Paul makes an amazing statement in his first letter to the Thessalonian church: ‘We wanted to come to you — I, Paul, again and again — but Satan hindered us’ (2:18).
Can Satan hinder the work of God? Let’s note some other Scriptures. Before Paul had good news from Timothy that the believers in Thessalonica were progressing well, he expressed the fear that Satan might have tempted them and his work be in vain (1 Thessalonians 3:5).
In Revelation 2:10, Jesus (through John) tells the Christians at Smyrna that Satan will put some of them in prison. After Paul’s amazing visions he was given a ‘thorn in the flesh’ — presumably some physical affliction, to keep him from becoming conceited. It was said to be a ‘messenger of Satan’ (2 Corinthians 12:7).
If we didn’t read beyond these passages, we might be deeply troubled: to think that Satan can hinder our travel plans; put us in prison; cause Christians to fall away, and bring physical affliction. Life would indeed be hazardous. However, that is not the whole story.
Let us note two important truths: first, Satan is mighty. He can do the things we have mentioned. He is described as our adversary, and like a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). He is not only dangerous but deceptive: he ‘disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14). The devil is not to be trifled with; he is too strong and too tricky for us to handle.
But, second, God is almighty. Satan can do no more than God permits. That is seen very clearly in the book of Job. When God commends his servant Job to Satan, the devil sneeringly makes the point that God has blessed and protected Job, but, if that protection were removed, Job would curse God to his face.
Satan is given permission to take away Job’s possessions, but is forbidden to touch Job’s person. The result is that Job loses everything — crops, livestock, servants and even his ten children (Job 1). When Job is still able to bless God despite his losses, Satan claims that as long as Job himself is unharmed he will still maintain his integrity; but if his body is afflicted he will curse God.
Satan is permitted to afflict Job, but not to take his life (Job 2). At each stage, Satan, although given much freedom to harm Job, is strictly limited by God and, of course, God uses the trials to purify Job.
In the case of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, God used it to keep his servant from becoming conceited after the amazing revelations that the apostle had received. It is also worth noting that, when Paul seeks for the removal of the thorn, he doesn’t pray to Satan but to the Lord, who alone has the ultimate power to remove the thorn or use the situation as he sees fit.
In the passage mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 3:5, where Paul speaks of his fear that his work there might be in vain through Satan’s temptations, some explanation is in order. That was the apostle’s thinking before Timothy returned from Thessalonica, with the good news that the believers were doing well.
Paul realised that there was the possibility that, like the seed sown on stony or thorny ground (Matthew 13:20-22), what seemed promising in the believers initially might prove only temporary. In the case of the Thessalonian converts this was not true, as Timothy later reported.
Paul’s language is not suggesting that Satan can cause true believers to fall away and be lost, but only that a mere profession does not guarantee a true work of grace, as Satan can pluck away the seed sown (Matthew 13:19). There are many Scriptures that show that true believers cannot be lost (e.g. John 10:27-29), but Satan can certainly make havoc of those who profess, and deeply trouble those who are genuine.
So, we repeat, that Satan, though powerful, can do no more than God allows him to do. God actually uses many instruments to bring about his purposes. He can use people, even ungodly people, to carry out his will.
He used the Assyrian army to punish Israel. He called it ‘the rod of my anger’ (Isaiah 10:5). The Assyrians didn’t see it that way — they thought they were just extending their own empire — but, nevertheless, the Lord was using them for his own purposes (see Isaiah 10:7-11). He used Judas and the Jewish leaders to bring about the death of Jesus, thus providing salvation for all God’s people.
We mustn’t get the idea that God forced Judas or the leaders to sin; he simply directed their hatred and wicked designs to fulfil his own purposes. That was also true of the Assyrians when they invaded Israel.
It is important to see that. God does not remove man’s free agency. No one is forced to do evil against his own will. Sinful people follow their own evil desires, and God uses those desires for good and to fulfil his own purposes. The same is true with Satan. The devil needs no prompting to do evil, but the Lord directs that wickedness to carry out his own will.
Sometimes it is hard to know who is bringing things to pass, God or the devil. There is an interesting event recorded twice in the Old Testament. God was angry with Israel and intended to punish them. How did this come about? In 1 Chronicles 21:1, we read that Satan incited David to number Israel, that is to take a census. In the parallel passage, in 2 Samuel 24:1, we read that God incited David to take the census.
So who did the inciting, Satan or God? Doubtless it was God’s plan, but he used Satan to carry out that plan. Taking the census was wrong, although it is not clear why. Perhaps pride was involved.
These things should be a great encouragement to God’s people. We must not forget that Satan is powerful and dangerous, like a roaring lion, but, praise God, he is a chained lion.
John Bunyan illustrates this well in his classic work, Pilgrim’s Progress. As Christian comes down from the Hill Difficulty, after having to go back to retrieve his lost scroll, he arrives at the Palace Beautiful just as it is getting dark.
To his horror, he sees two lions between him and the entrance to the palace. Understandably, he is reluctant to proceed, but the porter, Watchful, calls out to him, ‘Fear not the lions, for they are chained, and are placed there for trial of faith where it is, and for the discovery of those that have none: keep in the midst of the path and no hurt shall come unto thee’.
There is a wealth of truth here. There are roaring lions in our way — at least, there is one! There are sometimes dangers as great as roaring lions, but those lions are chained and, if we keep in the centre of the straight and narrow way, they cannot harm us. Moreover, those dangers that we will doubtless encounter are for the trial and strengthening of our faith, so God is glorified in all these events.
In conclusion then, Satan can hinder the work of God, but only as God allows him to. So we need to walk circumspectly. We must not ignore Satan or trifle with him, but be aware of his power and deception.
But on the other hand we must see that God is almighty and in control of Satan. If we trifle with sin or Satan, and stray from the straight and narrow way, we may indeed be hurt. But even this, God will overrule for our good and his glory.
Roger Fellows ministers in Baptist and Orthodox Presbyterian churches in Ontario, Canada