‘Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong’ (1 Corinthians 16:13). ‘I saw Diabolus in his possession and Mansoul also under his oppression’ (John Bunyan, The Holy War).
I cannot recall ever hearing a sermon on the person and works of Satan. He certainly gets a mention in dealing with the Fall and the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, but seldom a detailed study. Perhaps there is a reason for this.
Last year on holiday we listened to a discourse on ‘the man of sin’ and signs of his lawlessness at work in the world today (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12), but the merely passing reference to the gospel made it a rather depressing address. Perhaps the unwritten rule is for every look at the evil one, we should take ten looks at the Saviour – otherwise we will certainly sink into despondency.
Indeed, the Bible mentions Satan some 39 times, but the titles ‘Lord’, ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ get about 544 references. I have therefore tried to season this bitter topic with the sweetness of Christ.
Know your enemy
About 2,500 years ago the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in his book The art of war, ‘Know your enemy and know yourself, and in one hundred battles you will never be defeated’.
This wisdom really only applies to human opponents. Our spiritual enemy Satan possesses supernatural power. Nevertheless, Sun Tzu’s aphorism has some application to our subject, for if we aware of Satan’s devices and of our own weaknesses, we shall be better equipped to face his onslaughts.
Satan is far stronger than any mere man. A brief glimpse of his awesome fury would utterly dishearten anyone. It was a voice from heaven that announced, ‘Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short’ (Revelation 12:12).
As an encouragement, however, and to balance the awesome aggression of the evil one, Paul assures us that no demon or any other power can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:37-39). And Jesus himself says that no one can pluck us from the Father’s hand (John 10:29). With these promises in mind, we may go on to ask who Satan really is.
Who is Satan?
In the Old Testament, ‘Satan’ (meaning ‘adversary’) is mentioned ten times, but is also named as Lucifer or the Morning Star or Son of the Dawn (Isaiah 14:12). The title ‘the devil’ occurs only in the New Testament, where his character is delineated by his various other names: dragon, serpent, Satan (Revelation 12:3,9); Abaddon meaning ‘destruction’ or Apollyon, meaning ‘destroyer’ (Revelation 9:11); prince of ‘this world’ and ‘prince of the power of the air’ (John 12:31; Ephesians 2:2); the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4), the ‘accuser of our brethren’ (Revelation 12:10); Beelzebub or ‘lord of the flies’ (Matthew 12:24-28); ‘adversary … like a roaring lion’ (1 Peter 5:8); and liar (John 8:44).
God has not revealed everything we might like to know about Satan, but he has told us sufficient for our spiritual safety and well-being.
The world portrays Satan as an ugly red man with horns and a pointed tail, wielding a pitchfork with which he tosses the damned into hell. This makes the devil out to be an impossible joke and, dismissing the concept as preposterous, we are put off our guard. The red dragon in Revelation 12 is a far more formidable creature than the conventional artistic representation.
The great lie in all this is the implication that the devil really has the power to cast people into hell. He doesn’t. We can rest assured that it is Christ who holds ‘the keys of Hades and of death’ (Revelation 1:18). He alone separates the sheep from the goats and sends the latter ‘into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ (Matthew 25:41).
Jesus said we should ‘be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell’. But he was referring not to Satan but to God. The devil, therefore, is no joke. But even less so is God.
A defeated enemy
We can take heart when we realise that Satan is a defeated enemy. Christ achieved this victory and spoiled principalities and powers by his death and resurrection (Colossians 2:15). At the outset, then, we must encourage ourselves with the truth that we are on the victory side and the battle is already won.
The devil will never be annihilated, but he will be consigned to the place prepared for him – ‘the lake of burning sulphur’ where he will be punished for ever (Revelation 20:10). He will be accompanied there by the beast and the false prophet – an evil trinity that epitomises Satan’s attempt to imitate God and supplant Christ. In heaven, however, the saints will be completely free from any evil influence.
Nevertheless, although Satan is defeated, he is still very active – though his actions are circumscribed and limited by God’s purposes. There is still a spiritual war to be fought, and we are warned that our adversary, though fatally wounded, is ‘like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour’ (1 Peter 5:8).
Furthermore, Paul exhorts us to put on the whole armour of God that we might resist the fiery darts of the evil one – we must stand, watch and pray (Ephesians 6:10-18). We can overcome the evil one by ‘the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony’ (Revelation 12:11). For example, the devil’s myth of evolution has permeated every area of modern education. The impact of this lie on our society – the increase of various evils based on its dismissal of divine creation – is ably analysed by Henry Morris in The long war against God(Baker Book House, 1990). Here is one battlefield where we must stand firm on the testimony of Scripture.
Paul forgave the offender at Corinth, ‘lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices’ (2 Corinthians 2:11). Can we say with the same confidence that we understand the devices and anticipate the moves of our adversary?
To do so we must keep watch, looking out for sudden temptations so that we are not caught unawares. Church leaders also must ‘watch out for our souls as those that must give account’ (Hebrews 13:17). We must not wait for Satan to strike, but rather be on our guard to anticipate and frustrate his machinations – we must ‘resist him, steadfast in the faith’ (1 Peter 5:9).
To this end, there is great advantage in knowing ourselves. We all have different weaknesses and propensities – the Achilles’ heel which causes our downfall. We are vulnerable if Satan attacks first and finds our defences down.
We must therefore avoid the very beginnings of unrighteous anger and envious or impure thoughts. Under some temptations we must stand and fight using Scripture, but from others we must flee. The biblical response to sexual compromise is flight, not fight (see Matthew Henry on 1 Corinthians 6:18 and this month’s Guest Column).
Finally, we must not shun the battle or give in, but ‘be strong in the Lord and the power of his might’ (Ephesians 6:10). Each believer must be prepared, on a lifelong basis, to ‘endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ’ and not become entangled or ensnared by the affairs of this life (2 Timothy 2:3-4).
Jonathan Edwards writes, ‘God has appointed this whole life to be all as a race or a battle. The state of rest, wherein we shall be so out of danger as to have no need of watching and fighting, is reserved for another world’ (Murray, I. H., Jonathan Edwards, Banner of Truth, 1987, p.236).