Who is the Devil?
A Bit of the Devil
Let’s face it: we all know the devil very well. There is a bit in all of us that secretly envies the success of our neighbors. It’s that bit that suspects that every one is out for himself, that no one is to be trusted, that the only way to get ahead is to be a better hustler than the next guy. It’s that bit that looks out for number one that desires luxury instead of contentment, power instead of fellowship, and glory instead of caring. There is bit in all of us that leads us to sin against God and each other.
Without the perverse thoughts that arise from that devilish bit within us, no external temptation would be able to get a hold on us long enough to be a temptation. James says, every man is tempted by his own desires, which then lead on to sin (James 1:14-15). Jesus makes it clear that only a man’s own thoughts can truly defile him (Mark 7:20-23) and those thoughts come from within. Every one of us knows how true that is. That sensuous, willful bit in all of us is what the Bible is talking about, when it tells us about the Flesh (Galatians 5:19), about the World (1 John 2:16), and the ‘old man’ (Colossians 3:9). And as it happens, it’s what the Bible is talking about when it tells us about the Devil.
The Devil You Know?
It may come as a surprise, but the devil in the Bible is not at all what most churches teach. Isn’t there an evil archangel, whose rebellion in heaven failed? Isn’t there the ruler in Hell, a commander of demons, a tormentor of lost souls? In a word: no. None of these popular notions is taught in the Bible, though some of the imagery is drawn from Biblical sources. In fact, in the Bible the devil is never mentioned in connection with Hell; and the only passage that connects him with demons (as Beelzebub) was used to disprove the Pharisaical idea of a devil in control of demons (Matthew 12:27-28).
Most of what one hears about the devil comes from literature outside the Bible, such as ‘Faust’ and ‘Paradise Lost,’ which in turn draw on medieval legends. As a representation of the perversity and destructiveness of human nature, the devil is a wonderful literary device: it’s easy to see why story-tellers over the ages have used this character, and why stories about the devil have always been popular. But a Christian must look to the Bible, not to the works of men.
The Word ‘Devil’ in the Bible
There are two main words that are used in the Bible to talk about the great enemy. The word “devil” is primarily a New Testament word. In the original language of the New Testament, Greek, the word is diabolov, diabolos, from which we get our English word “diabolical.” The word means an accuser or a slanderer; and it is translated that way when it clearly refers to people (2 Timothy 3:3; Titus 2:3).
The other word often used in the New Testament is ‘Satan.’ This is actually an Old Testament Hebrew word that has been taken whole (transliterated) into the New Testament. In Hebrew, ‘Satan’ means an opponent or adversary and it is usually translated that way. In the New Testament it is used as a name. In the Old Testament, ‘Satan’ appears as a name in only two places, one in the book of Job and one in Zechariah, neither of which provides much support for the common perception. For example, the latter case.
Satan in Zechariah
In about 500 B.C., Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Joshua the priest led a large company of Jews from Babylon to restore the temple in Jerusalem. Their story is told in the first six chapters of the book of Ezra. Zechariah prophesied in this time to encourage the people to finish building the temple (Ezra 5:1; Zechariah 1:1). Zechariah’s prophecy is a series of visions filled with symbolic images about the work of God to establish his temple and his holy city Jerusalem. The vision in Zechariah chapter 3 is one of these visions. In it the prophet sees Satan standing at the right hand of Joshua in the presence of the angel of the LORD. Satan is there, the prophet says, to accuse or oppose Joshua. It is important to notice that the position of Satan here is essentially the same as in the book of Job: his only power is to bring accusations against a man whom the LORD would favor. Joshua is wearing soiled robes, symbolic of sin; the angel commands that he be reclothed in rich garments and a clean miter, symbolic of the favor he would now enjoy. This vision corresponds to the judgment recorded in Ezra 6:6-10. The enemies of the Jews had accused them before the king of Persia, to stop their righteous work; and for many years they were unable to make any progress. But the angel of the LORD worked with the king of Persia, and he rebuffed the enemies of God’s people, granting them the king’s favor and help. The temple was rebuilt quickly, and Joshua presided there before the LORD.
Besides the historical setting of the prophecy, there is evidence elsewhere in the Bible that this interpretation is sound. Jude, in verse 9, tells us it was Michael who rebuked Satan, though he is not mentioned in the account in Zechariah. But another vision about the restoration of the Jews and the temple, in Daniel 10, indicates that Michael was working to influence the king of Persia at that time. So the angel that rebuffed the Jews’ accusers would have been Michael, just as Jude says. Together, these writers confirm the conclusion that the vision in Zechariah 3 is about the edict in Ezra 6. Satan in Zechariah’s vision – the Adversary – refers to the peoples surrounding the Jews, who were motivated by an attitude, a state of mind that led them to oppose this great work of God.
Satan in the New Testament
In two places in the Old Testament we have seen the name Satan applied symbolically to people whose actions and thoughts were motivated by that bit of the devil we all have. This same pattern holds in the New Testament. In Matthew 16:23, Jesus addresses Peter as Satan, because his mind is opposed to the things of God. Was Peter really Satan? Yes, in that he was moved by that bit within him that wanted to avoid the hardship that can come with obedience. In Acts 5:3 Peter suggests that Ananias was inspired by Satan to deceive the Holy Spirit, then in verse 9 he indicates that Ananias concocted the plan with his wife Sapphira. Was either Ananias or Sapphira really Satan? In this case, they both were. These two were motivated by that bit we all have in us, that desires to have praise of men, but not to trust in God.
The reader is strongly urged read the New Testament references to Satan with this suggestion in mind. Satan will be shown to be a symbolic name, showing us how people are motivated by the mind of the flesh, or by love of the world, or other thoughts contrary to the will of God. The Bible has portrayed human nature in this way as a literary device, to help us see clearly just how dangerous this enemy is.
The Tempter of Christ
Another place where this can be seen is in the temptation of Christ. In this passage the devil is shown engaging the Lord Jesus in a conversation, and actually leading him about from place to place. And, after all, this is Jesus we’re discussing here! How could he possibly be tempted by the thoughts of the flesh, as we are?
Yet, in the letter to the Hebrews we find that the susceptibility to temptation was vital to Christ’s role as high priest:
“For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, RSV)
What does the verse mean: “in every respect… tempted as we are”? As we have already seen, every man is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire (James 1:14). If Jesus did not know the whisperings of that bit of the devil within all of us, his temptations could not have been anything like ours. And he could never have been the perfect High Priest he has become. This is what happened for forty days in the wilderness.
Take a moment to go to the Bible and read Luke 4:1-13 or Matthew 4:1-11. As you read, ask yourself this simple question: what is really happening? For example, did Jesus actually go along with the devil to the top a high mountain in order to be tempted? Did he actually go along with the devil to a pinnacle of the temple in order to be tempted? It is clear enough that the high mountain, with its view of all the kingdoms of the world, is not real: there is no such mountain. And if Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days he could not really have been atop the temple in Jerusalem. So several details in the text are impossible as a report of fully physical events.
But, if this record is really a symbolic picture of Christ overcoming the temptations of his own flesh, it all works. Our Lord did not hang around with the devil; he did not follow a known super-villain on two long excursions for the purpose of being tempted. Rather, he was taken in thought, by his own thoughts, to consider his course as the beloved Son of God. He would refuse to use his miraculous powers to relieve his own hunger, but would attend to the word of God and rely on the Father to provide. He would refuse to use his powers to compel the people to recognize him as the Son of God, but would tend to the ministry his Father had appointed him. He would refuse to take power before the Father’s good time. In the mind’s eye, it is possible to see all the kingdoms of the world from a high mountain. In the imagination, it is possible to be on the pinnacle of the temple, even when you’re really in the desert.
Also notice the context of the entire event. The temptations occurred immediately after Jesus was baptized with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16-17), immediately after Jesus received limitless power. Isn’t that in itself a convincing testimony of the presence of a human, internal temptation? For example, by analogy, when is a teenager most sorely tempted to break the speed limit on the roads? Isn’t it immediately after they have received a brand new incredibly fast car? Jesus was a human man, albeit one that never forsook his Father’s will, and he received the Holy Spirit of God without limit (John 3:34). How revealing it is of the human condition that the temptations arrived immediately subsequent.
The devil that tempted Christ in the wilderness was the same devil that tempts us to misuse God’s gifts: that evil bit inside us that opposes the Lord’s purpose for us. Jesus was after all tempted in just the same way we are, yet without sin. He overcame the devil, not only in the desert, but at every turn (notice Luke 4:13 — it came back later!).
The Devil at Work
The works of the devil are also described in the New Testament as works of the flesh, and of sin. Its arsenal includes deception (Romans 7:11), fear (Hebrews 2:14-15), and envy (James 3:14). All the things that are at enmity with God in the world (1 John 2:16) arise not from some outside source, but from the heart of each person.
Paul describes people who have fallen into the devil’s snare as opposing themselves (2 Tim 2:25-26). He writes of internal warfare between the flesh and the spirit (Romans 7:23; Galatians 5:17). James tells how that internal warfare spills out and erupts into warfare between brothers (James 4:1). All these are descriptions of human nature in all its fearfulness, viciousness, and sensuality. To the disciples of Christ, the children of God, this is the enemy: this is the one who accuses them before God. The enemy declares they are not righteous, not worthy of God’s favor; he says every thing he can to stop the work of God in his children, to keep them from finishing the temple they are laboring to build (2 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Corinthians 6:19).
One last figure that must be considered in connection with the devil and Satan is the serpent of Genesis 3.
Take a moment to read through the account of Eve’s temptation in Genesis 3:1-6. What is described is pretty straightforward, if a little odd. There was a snake talking to the woman. A very subtle snake, as verse 1 points out, but a snake nonetheless. What does the serpent actually do? He suggests to the woman that God is holding out on her and her husband, that the fruit would be good for them, that God’s law was not true. The woman then convinces herself that this is a good idea, eats, and takes some to her husband.
Where is the devil, then? It is not necessary, and not helpful, to read in a supernatural villain here: the bare facts are enough. The snake, in so few words, brought doubt and suspicion where before there had been acceptance and obedience. He actually suggested to Eve that she break faith with God, and that God had not acted faithfully with her. He led an innocent into sin.
The reader knows full well it does not require any great power, any supernatural wickedness, to do the terrible things the serpent did in just a few cunning words. All it takes is an agile mind (Genesis 3:1) with no understanding of the ways of God. But the effects of that lie are with us to this day. That sinful bit of within us all is quite capable of doing the same thing; not only within ourselves, but also between us, leading others into sins they may never have considered on their own. Surely there is no greater evil than this, to lead an innocent person to break faith with God.
We have considered the Biblical accounts of Satan and the devil in light of human experience. The devil is found in a great number of literary works outside the Bible simply because it is such a powerful literary device, a representation of all that is wicked and deceitful in the human heart. The Bible uses this figure in exactly the same way. Attempts to make the devil more than a literary device (a device showing us the worst in human nature) inevitably founded on the simple test: what actual events are described in this story? In using this figure, the Bible helps us to focus on the fact that this bit of wickedness within us is a real and deadly enemy, capable of destroying our own lives and many others around us. We need to realize that we are the source of our own temptations and failings and we cannot blame someone else for the evil things we do. We cannot run away from this wickedness. Instead we must resist it (James 4:7) and overcome it, if we are to survive.