years ago these lines were written (by an unknown author) to
accompany a drawing of "His Satanic Majesty":
"This is he, with
horns and hoof,
The parsons call the devil;
They tell us he lives in a sultry place
Where ghosts and imps all revel.
They say that he wears a great long tail,
And carries a three-pronged fork,
That he sometimes leaves his sultry home,
And through the earth doth walk.
They say he can assume with ease
The garb of an angel bright,
And then, for a change, he takes the form
Of a roaring lion at night:
That he's power to act and do as he likes,
Be in fifty places at once;
And that to fulfil his evil designs,
Can be as wise as a sage, or a dunce."
Today most people no longer think
of the devil like that. But there are still many people who
believe that the devil exists, that he wields immense power for
evil (some say he is a fallen angel) and is constantly trying to
destroy the work of God among men and women. They think it is the
devil that secretly whispers in your ear and tempts you to evil.
Of course there are real
difficulties about accepting such an idea. If the devil was a real
angel to begin with, how ever did he come to revolt against God?
And why does God allow a supernatural being to destroy His work in
the earth? Where is the devil now, anyway? And how can he really
One thing is clear: this is a religious question. So if we
are to settle it, we must refer to the Bible, the great source of
all that we know about God and Jesus Christ. Where else would you
go for a serious answer on a question like this?
Now the Bible certainly does
contain a number of allusions to the devil and Satan. And so to
the Bible we turn. But let us get one thing clear right at the
beginning: we must make every effort to understand what the
Bible writers themselves meant by "devil" and "Satan". It is
very easy for us, as we read Bible verses, to give to the terms
devil and Satan the meaning which we prefer. And if that
meaning is not the same as the Bible writer intended, then we are
changing the true sense!
Many of us have had the experience
of discussing the devil and Satan with others and have found that
the discussion does not seem to get anywhere. And the reason is
obvious: when Bible passages are read, devil and Satan are being
understood by different readers in different senses. The
conclusion is clear: if we are to arrive at the truth about the
devil and Satan, we must find out what the Bible writers meant
when they used those terms. It is no good relying upon our own
understanding or other people's. We must know what the inspired
writers of the Word of God understood about this important
In a short work like this we cannot
examine all the verses in the Bible which refer to the devil and
Satan. But what we really need is a key-a basic understanding of
what these terms mean. Armed with this, we should be able to
unlock quite a lot of Bible passages.
Satan . . .
To find the vital key it is important to begin with the Old
Testament, and not with the New. To modern ears this may sound
strange, but remember that the Old Testament was written first,
many centuries before the New. And since they both really form one
revelation from God, the New Testament writers knew the Old
Testament very well indeed. They quoted from it and they used its
terms; and among the terms they used is Satan. (In fact the term
"devil" occurs rarely in the Old Testament and is used differently
there from the way it is used in the New.)
So we begin with Satan, the Old
Testament term. What does the word "Satan" mean? It is not hard to
find out. Take the case of Balaam who lived in the days when the
children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness. He was a
prophet who had been told by God not to go on a certain hired
mission to curse the Israelites. But he wanted the money offered
him as a reward, so he went. Riding upon an ass, he soon found his
way blocked by an angel: "The angel of the Lord took his stand in
the way as his adversary" (or enemy) (Numbers 22:22, RSV).
The word for "adversary" is Satan (from which we get our
"Satan") and that is just what it means. Notice two things:
Satan here is an ordinary word meaning adversary or enemy, and
not the name of a person. The word occurs again only 10
verses later: the angel said to Balaam, "Behold, I am come forth
to withstand you" (verse 32), literally "to be an adversary to
This is the first time the word
Satan appears in the Hebrew record. Notice that this Satan
is a good angel, "the angel of the Lord", who is doing what
God wants, and not an evil one! If we look up in a Bible
concordance the way the word Satan is used in the Old
Testament, we shall find that it means an adversary and an enemy.
For example: "Why," cried David, "should you (Joab and his
brothers) be adversaries (satans) unto me?" (2 Samuel
19:22). And so in half a dozen other cases, where the allusion is
usually to men.
Here we have one of the most
frequently quoted cases in all the Bible. The first few verses of
chapter one describe Job as living in the land of Uz, a
God-fearing man who had many possessions. Then, verse 6:
"Now there was a day
when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD,
and Satan also came among them."
the Book of Job
"There you are", some people say, "Satan was in heaven among the
angels! He must be a supernatural being!" But let us remember our
vital rule: we must understand Bible terms in a Bible sense. "Sons
of God", for instance: it is true that once in Job (38:7) this
term is used of the angels; but in the Bible as a whole it is
often used of men and women who really worship God as contrasted
with those who do not. God used it of Israel through the prophet
"Bring my sons
from far and my daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who
is called by my name . . ." (Isaiah 43:6-7)
So in the New Testament the apostle
John, referring to believers in Christ, wrote: "Beloved, we are
God's children now" (1 John 3:2). So the "sons of God" among whom
"Satan" came (in Job chapter 1) need not be angels in heaven; they
could be people on the earth.
But how could they "present
themselves before the Lord" if they were not in heaven? Again the
Bible itself gives us the answer. Moses and Joshua were once told
to "present themselves" in the "tent of meeting", where God would
appoint Joshua as the next leader of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:14-1
5). Many years later Joshua called together all the elders of the
tribes of Israel to Shechem, where "they presented themselves
before God" (Joshua 24:1). Later still, Samuel in his turn told
Israel: "Present yourselves before the LORD . . ." (1 Samuel
In the New Testament it is said
that Mary, the mother of Jesus, shortly after the birth of her
son, came to the temple in Jerusalem "to present him to the Lord .
. . and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law
of the Lord" (Luke 2:22-24). The "sons of God" in Job, then, who
came to "present themselves before the Lord", had come together to
worship God in the appointed place, and, of course, in the
presence of the appointed priest at that time. This is a scene of
worship upon the earth, not in heaven.
But what of "Satan" who came among
them? Here the English translators have not really played fair
with us, for all the Hebrew says is "the adversary". The capital S
in Satan is the translators' own invention, for Hebrew makes no
distinction between capital letters and others. Even in the margin
the Authorized and Revised Version translators have printed "the
Adversary", suggesting by their capital A (for which they have no
evidence) that this is that special Adversary, Satan. All that the
Hebrew justifies us in saying is "the adversary came among them".
But who could this adversary be? If this was a group come together
to worship, he would be one of them; in other words he was a
man; and he was an enemy to Job, because he was jealous of him
and wished him harm. But how then could there follow a
conversation between the Lord and the adversary? Again the Bible
itself supplies the answer, for in Old Testament times men often
received messages from God through the appointed priest at
the time. David, for instance, more than once consulted the priest
when he wanted to know what God's will for him was, and the priest
spoke to him on behalf of God. So this jealous enemy of
Job-perhaps one who posed as his friend-said to God through the
priest, "Job only serves you for what he can get. Just try
bringing some trouble on him and then you will see." And God,
because He had a great purpose with Job and desired to see him
perfected, allowed the adversary to carry out his envious desire
upon Job. But as the book clearly tells us, the power was God's
and not the adversary's (Job 2:4-6).
So there is in this episode no need
for a supernatural satan and no proof of one. All the expressions
are commonly used of men. The Old Testament word Satan
means an adversary; but as the example of Job shows us, there
develops a natural tendency to use it of an evil adversary.
Peter -- a
With this valuable background understanding we now look at an
example of the use of "satan" in the New Testament. Peter had just
made his great declaration of belief in Jesus as "the Christ, the
Son of the living God" and Jesus had pronounced a blessing upon
him as a result. But Jesus then went on to speak of his own fate;
he would have to go to Jerusalem and there the leaders of the Jews
would seize him and he would be killed, but he would rise again
the third day (Matthew 16:21). Peter could neither understand nor
accept this and began to rebuke Jesus: "God forbid, Lord! This
shall never happen to you." In other words, "You must not think of
such a thing." But Jesus said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan: you
are a hindrance to me."
Why was Peter a "satan"? Because he
was being "an adversary" to Jesus; he was trying to persuade the
Lord not to do what he knew had to be done in his obedience
to the will of God. If Peter had had his way, Jesus would have
rejected his Father's will and his great sacrifice for sin upon
the cross would never have taken place. So Jesus had to tell this
"adversary" (satan) to "get behind me". And then he adds a comment
which is most important for our understanding: You are an
adversary and a stumbling block to me, says Jesus in effect to
Peter, for your mind is not on the "things of God, but the
things of men" (verse 23, R.V.).
So this most important New
Testament example teaches us some valuable lessons. First, this "satan"
was a man; second, he rejected the will of God; third, what
marked him out was that he desired to do the will of man
instead-a most important clue, as we shall see later.
Let us remind ourselves what we
have learned so far: a "satan" is an adversary, and nearly always
an evil adversary. In the examples we have looked at, "satan" was:
- an angel of God, doing his will;
- a man posing as a worshipper of
- other men who were
- and now Peter, an apostle of the
Lord, who was opposing the will of God.
With this general understanding of
the meaning of "satan", we should find a lot of Bible passages
This is a Greek term, not a Hebrew one, and so it is found only in
the New Testament. [The word "devils" in "casting out devils" etc.
is a different word, which really means "demons" (cf. R.S.V.).]
Again we must try to discover what the term really means. We can
easily do this, for there are passages where the translators
themselves have shown us. Writing to Timothy the apostle Paul says
that "in the last days there will come times of stress"; in these
times "men will be lovers of self, lovers of money . . .
slanderers," etc. (2 Timothy 3:1-3). The word translated
"slanderers" is the plural of the one usually rendered "devil" and
is related to our English "diabolical".
Again, giving instructions on how
believers are to behave as they meet to worship, he comes to the
"Women in like manner
must be serious, no slanderers, temperate, faithful in all
things" (1 Timothy 3:11).
Again the word is the one usually
translated "devil", though here it is plural. The translators in
these two passages have given us the basic sense of the word.
Notice once more: these "devils" are people.
But the great test passage for
understanding "the devil" in the New Testament is in Hebrews
chapter 2. As we read the early verses of this chapter, it is
clear that the Apostle is writing about Jesus and his followers;
and he calls the followers "children". Now, in verse 14, he comes
to his great statement about "the devil". We set it out here in
full first, and then we shall go over it, phrase by phrase, to
make sure of understanding it:
"Since therefore the
children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of
the same nature; that through death he might destroy him who has
the power of death, that is, the devil . . ."
The first phrase says quite clearly
that the followers of Jesus are "flesh and blood", that is, they
are ordinary men and women. No problem there.
The second says that Jesus shared the same nature, "flesh
and blood". The apostle must have been very anxious indeed that
his readers should clearly understand that the nature of Jesus
really was the same as that of his followers -- human nature --
for he emphasizes the point: "he himself likewise took part
of the same". There was no need for the apostle to write in
this emphatic way unless he had felt that it was particularly
important for his readers to understand this vital truth: that
Jesus was a man, in every respect.
The third sentence contains three
- that Jesus destroyed the devil;
- that he did it "through death",
and that can only mean through his own death, by dying
- that the devil has "the power of
Before we go any further, we must
clear up one cause of misunderstanding. The English reader, seeing
a phrase like "him who has the power of death", is
naturally led to assume that the devil must be a person, or a
being. But this is not necessarily so.
In English we have a very simple
system of arranging gender: all male persons are masculine, and
are referred to as "he"; all female ones are feminine, and
are referred to as "she"; all other things are neuter and
are referred to as "it". And at times we refer to things as if
they were persons: a ship as "she" for example. This is called
Greek, however (in which the New
Testament was written), is different. It has three genders, but
they are used in another way. Males are "he", of course, and
females "she"; but other things may be any one of the three
genders, masculine, feminine, or neuter.
Now the Greek word for devil is
masculine, and so the pronoun standing for it is "he". But this
does not make clear whether the devil is a person or is not. The
Greek is quite neutral. If we wish to prove that the devil is, or
is not, a person, we must get our evidence from somewhere else,
not from this expression.
We look now at our "three declarations" in this verse.
Jesus destroyed the devil. So the
devil is "dead", or at the very least will be destroyed by the
time the work of Jesus is finished. But there are two remarkable
points about this statement in Hebrews 2:14. The apostle
distinctly says that in order to destroy the devil, Jesus
partook of human nature. Now is not this an astonishing thing?
If Jesus' purpose was to destroy a powerful enemy, would he not
have done far better to have had a strong, immortal nature like
the angels? What was he doing sharing the weak nature of flesh and
blood? Obviously there is a mystery here that needs explaining.
But that is not all. The apostle
distinctly says that the way Jesus destroyed the devil was
"through death". Now this can only mean through his own
death. What an extraordinary way to get rid of a powerful enemy,
by dying oneself!
From these two points, that in
order to put an end to the devil Jesus first shared weak human
nature and then had to die himself, it is clear that "the devil"
of the Bible must be something quite different from the idea of
the devil usually held.
When you come across a Bible
passage difficult to understand, it always helps to find another
one saying much the same thing, though in different terms. The two
passages will throw light on one another. Now there is such a
passage to help us in this case. The same apostle, in the same
letter, in Hebrews chapter 9, is writing about the work of Christ.
He refers to his first coming (which led to his death on the
cross) like this:
"But (Jesus) . . .
has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by
the sacrifice of himself" (verse 26).
We notice at once that one of the
things said here is the same as in Hebrews 2:14. "By the sacrifice
of himself" clearly means the same as "through his own
death". So probably the other terms mean the same thing. Let us
set them out side by side:
|through (his own death)
||by the sacrifice of himself
|he might destroy
||= put away
From this valuable parallel comment
we learn that "destroying the devil" is the same as
"putting away sin". The devil, then, must be a way of
referring to that human. rebellion against God which the Bible
We now have a valuable way of testing this understanding, for
Hebrews 2:14 declares that the devil "has the power of death". Now
what in the Bible is said to have this power? The Apostle Paul
gives us the answer in two very helpful passages in the Letter to
5:21 -- "As
sin reigned in death . . . so through
Jesus grace will reign unto eternal life."
Here sin is regarded as a king who
is ruling over his subjects; and the effect of his power over them
is death. Again in
6:23 -- "For
the wages of sin is death . . . but the
free gift of God is eternal life."
Here sin is a master who pays his
servants wages; he rewards them for service to himself -- with
Both these passages are examples of
personification: that is, something is spoken of as if it were a
person when in fact it is not. In both of them sin is personified;
and in both clearly it is sin that "has the power of death".
And so the Bible is telling us that
the real devil is sin.
the Real Enemy of God?
We break off our consideration for a moment to ask a very
important question: What does the Bible say is the great enemy of
God? Is it some fallen angel? Is it some mysterious spirit being
trying to undo God's work in the earth? Not at all. From the first
page of the Bible to the last there is one stubborn enemy of the
purpose of God-the human heart and mind, the will of men and
women everywhere to satisfy their own desires.
We have had a hint of this already
in Christ's rebuke to Peter: "Get thee behind me, Satan, for thou
mindest not the things of God, but the things of men"
(Matthew 16:23, R.V.). He had said much the same to the Jews who
were rejecting him:
"You are of your
father the devil, and the lusts (or desires) of your father
you will do" (John 8:44, A.V.).
We have only to ask: What are
"lusts" associated with throughout the Bible? The answer is clear:
it is always with human nature.
The natural tendencies of our
nature are set out very strongly by the Apostle Paul in his Letter
to the Romans. He is contrasting the life of service to God (the
spirit) with the life spent satisfying natural desires (the
flesh), and declares:
"To set the mind on
the flesh is death; but to set the mind on the spirit is life and
So there are two ways we can choose
to live: trying to do the will of God, or doing our own will.
About the second Paul now has this shattering comment:
"The mind that is set
on the flesh is hostile to God."
So here is the great enemy of God:
human desire. And what a determined enemy it is! For Paul goes on:
"For it (the mind of
the flesh) does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot"
He had said the same thing in
writing to the Galatians:
"Walk in the spirit"
(that is, live in God's way) "and do not gratify the desires of
the flesh" (notice that "the flesh" demands to be satisfied). He
"For the desires of
the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit
are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other", and
the result is "to prevent you from doing what you would"
Temptations Within Us
There is no doubt then where we must look for the great enemy of
God: it is in our own hearts and minds. So James tells us where we
must look for the source of our temptations to do wrong. Are we
led astray by some supernatural spirit whispering in our ear? Not
at all; for, he says,
"Each person is
tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire".
So our own "desire" is the origin
of our temptations; and James tells us what is the result:
"Then the desire,
when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is
full-grown brings forth death" (1:14-15).
The long history of mankind in the
Bible shows how true this teaching is. The first pair of human
beings preferred their own desire to obedience to God, and sinned.
The human race fell away into "corruption and violence" and God
had to judge it at the Flood. Israel, rescued by God from slavery
in the land of Egypt and given a special opportunity to be God's
people, turned away and preferred to worship idols and to behave
in immoral ways like the godless peoples around them. Jesus, the
Son of God, demonstrated His Father's truth and grace among men;
they rejected and crucified him. And in the centuries following,
men have abandoned God's teaching and perverted His ways. Yes, the
great enemy of God is men and women rejecting His authority and
fulfilling their own natural desires.
and Satan are used
So then the devil and Satan are personifications of sin; that is,
they are words used to represent sin.
The personification is sometimes in
a single individual. We have seen how Peter was "Satan". To the
disciples Jesus said, "Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of
you is a devil?" (John 6:70). And that one was Judas who
betrayed him. In this class comes the serpent in Eden, who
suggested to Eve that what God had told her was not true. So "the
serpent" becomes a symbol in the Bible for the power of sin.
Sometimes a body of people, a
government for example, could be referred to as the devil or
Satan. There are two interesting examples of this in Revelation
chapter 2. In his letter to the believers at Smyrna the Apostle
John passes on the words of Jesus like this:
"Do not fear what you
are about to suffer. Behold the devil is about to throw some of
you into prison, that you may be tested . . . Be faithful unto
death" (verse 10).
This was written in the first
century A.D., when the believers in Christ were suffering
persecution, because of their faith, at the hands of the Roman
pagan government. That was "the devil" which would put some of
them in prison: fitly called "the devil" because it was an enemy
to the servants of God.
Or verse 13, in the Letter to
"I know where you
dwell, where Satan's throne is."
So Satan reigned in Pergamum This
one did certainly; no doubt it was the headquarters of the Roman
government for that part of the province of Asia.
Peter refers to the same time of
persecution in these words:
"Be sober, be
watchful: your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring
lion, seeking someone to devour.
That he is indeed referring to the
Christians being persecuted is clear from what he says next:
"Resist him, firm in
your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering
is required of your brotherhood throughout the world" (1 Peter
The Roman pagan government was the
Sometimes the "devil" or "satan" stands for the principle or power
of sin, however it may be manifested. In this sense we can
understand the Gospel record of the Temptation of Jesus. We have
seen already how Jesus shared in full our human nature (Hebrews
2:12). As a result he felt all our temptations, for the Scripture
tells us, "In every respect he has been tempted as we
are, yet without sinning". In his temptation in the wilderness
"the devil" is the personification of that human urge to gratify
his own desires; he utterly conquered it and remained sinless.
When the disciples returned to
Jesus, delighted because they had been able to cure diseases, he
said to them: "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven" (Luke
10:18); that is, he foresaw the time to come when not just disease
but all the power of sin and evil, summed up in the term "Satan",
will be thrown down from its ruling position in the world; it will
be "dethroned" and replaced by the power of God, when Christ
returns to establish God's Kingdom in the earth.
This, then, is the simple key which
unlocks the problem passages about the devil and Satan: look for
the source of it in the power of sin shown in the desires, the
weaknesses and the actions of men; and the majority of passages
will become plain.
Does it really matter whether we understand this? Yes, it does,
for two reasons at least.
First, if the Bible is really
teaching us that the devil and Satan stand in general for human
sin in all its activities, then that is what God wants us to know.
It is a truth revealed in His Word, the Bible, and we ought to
want to understand it; we ought not to be content to be misled
by false ideas common in the world.
Second, the reason why God has
expressed this truth in His Word is that it makes a great
difference to us. Consider a moment: if we have the idea that our
weaknesses and failures in the sight of God are due to the subtle
influence of some supernatural evil spirit outside of ourselves,
are we not going to be tempted to make excuses for ourselves?
Shall we not be inclined to say, "Well, it wasn't my fault -- the
devil tempted me . . ."
Putting the blame for our
sin on to somebody else is something the Bible never allows
us to do. It is absolutely essential that we should understand our
natural state in the sight of God. As the Apostle Paul put it so
powerfully: "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"
(Romans 3:23). To understand the Bible teaching about the devil
and Satan is a great help in accepting this truth.
But then think of the benefit! If we really do understand that we
all have a powerful impulse within us to ignore God's will and to
follow our own desires and seek our own satisfactions, then we are
well on the way to realizing how great is our need to be delivered
from this pressure towards sin, so that we may receive forgiveness
of sins from God and have a hope of eternal life in the Kingdom
that God will establish through His Son. The more we realize our
own desperate need of deliverance from the natural state in which
we live, the more we shall appreciate how precious is the Gospel
which Christ preached. How can we value an offer of life if we do
not know we are dying-for ever? To a man who knows he is drowning,
a rescuing hand is life indeed. And this is our case: God is
offering us life in place of eternal death.
Have we to fear a devil, then?
Most surely we have -- but not the
devil of popular belief. Our devil is inside ourselves, in
our own hearts and minds. But once we understand that and accept
it, we shall be able to rejoice in the great offer of life which
God makes to us in His Word through the sacrifice of His Son.