“Men don’t believe in the Devil now, as their fathers used to do.
They reject one creed because it’s old, for another because it’s new..
But who dogs the steps of the stumbling saint? Who spreads the net for his feet?
Who sows the weeds in the world’s broad fields where the Saviour sows His wheat?
Some say the Devil has never lived; some say the Devil has gone.
But simple folk would like to know: Who carries his business on?”
(some lines from a poem by Alfred J Hough)
Who is the devil?
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the devil is that the Bible has so little to say about him. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous villain, Professor Moriarty, ‘he does little himself; he only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organised.’ In the Old Testament he is often called the Satan, which means ‘the accuser’ (e.g. I Chronicles 21:1; Job 1 & 2; Zechariah 3:1,2). In the New Testament he is sometimes referred to as ‘the prince of this world’ (e.g. John 12:31; John 14:30). He is the enemy of God and of all God’s people. The Bible does not really satisfy our curiosity about where he came from, although many people believe that he was originally an angel who succumbed to pride and rebelled against God (alluded to in Ezekiel 28:11-19).
Satan’s main aim is to destroy the faith of God’s people. We first meet him in the Garden of Eden, persuading Eve to doubt God’s love and then to disobey God’s command (Genesis 3:1-7). As a result, the harmonious relationship between God and the human race is wrecked.
In the book of Job, he is depicted as the prosecutor in the heavenly court, who patrols the earth in order to collect evidence. However, he is not motivated by zeal for justice, but by a desire to discredit God’s word and destroy His works. Having failed to tempt Job to the sins of prosperity (arrogance and worldliness), he tries to destroy Job’s faith through pain and grief (Job 1 & 2).
In one of Zechariah’s visions (Zechariah 3), he appears again as the accuser, pointing out the unworthiness of Joshua the high priest.
But in all these three instances, God turns out to be more powerful than Satan. Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden, but the devil is cursed and warned that the woman’s offspring (and that is Jesus!) will defeat him (Genesis 3:14,15). Satan is allowed to put Job to the test, but only within strict limits – and in the end, Job’s wellbeing and his relationship with God are restored. In Zechariah’s vision, God Himself intervenes to make Joshua righteous and to silence Satan’s accusations.
Jesus and the devil
Jesus came “to destroy the devil’s work” (I John 3:8). At the very beginning of his ministry, immediately after His baptism, He went into the wilderness to fight a duel with His adversary (Matthew 4:1-11). Having won the first round of temptations, He travelled around preaching and teaching and exorcising demons – unclean spirits that had taken over certain individuals, causing intense psychological (and sometimes physical) disturbance. But the demons fled away when faced with the Holy One of God (e.g. Mark 1:23-26).
However, the real battle was still to come (John 14:30,31). In order to break Satan’s power once and for all, Jesus had to undo Adam’s sin and thus heal the breach between God and Man – and that could only be achieved by dying for our sins (Hebrews 2:14,15). “Now is the time for judgement on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” (John 12:31) “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:15) Satan’s power has been shattered; he is no longer able to accuse God’s people, because they have been completely cleansed from sin by Christ’s death (Revelation 12:10,11).
So the devil has already been defeated (Luke 10:17-19; Romans 16:20). At the end of the age he will be consigned to Hell forever, along with those who have been foolish enough to follow him, and he will never tempt or torment anyone again (Revelation 20:7-10). But in the meantime, he is still very much at large, and determined to make life as difficult as possible for all those who give their allegiance to Jesus (Revelation 12:17).
What does the devil do?
Jesus describes Satan as “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44), whose main activity is to turn people away from the truth. He has deceived unbelievers (II Corinthians 4:6) in order to prevent them from knowing the true God, and he tries to lead Christians astray by infiltrating the Church with false teachers (I Timothy 4:1-3; Jude 3,4).
Satan also seeks to foment discord within the Church, knowing that “every city or household divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25). He will be quick to exploit situations such as unforgiveness (Ephesians 4:26,27) and pride (I Timothy 3:6), and even allowable differences of opinion. For he knows that Christians who spend their time and energy attacking other Christians are being distracted from the real battle.
Often when people are experiencing a series of problems in their lives, they talk of being ‘under attack’ from Satan. (There is an old story of a man who met the devil sobbing outside a church and asked him why he was crying. ‘It’s those Christians,’ said the devil, ‘they blame me for everything!’) We live in a fallen world, where ‘bad stuff’ happens to everyone sooner or later. I doubt that Satan is directly responsible for everything that goes wrong for us; Scripture also allows for such things as ‘random chance’ (Ecclesiastes 9:11,12). But he will certainly make use of these situations to try to shake our confidence in God, undermine our hope, or even destroy our faith.
Dealing with the devil
It is important to remember the devil’s limitations. He cannot force us to do anything; he can only persuade – but he is very persuasive! He disguises himself so that we will not easily recognise him (Matthew 7:15,16; II Corinthians 11:14,15), and he perverts God’s truth in such subtle ways that it can be very difficult for us to detect.
Like a lion (I Peter 5:8), he sometimes advertises his presence in order to terrify us; but he usually prefers to stalk his prey by stealth. He is always on the lookout for an unwary victim, and we cannot afford to relax our guard (Matthew 26:41). But much of Satan’s show of power is bluff. He can be resisted and repulsed – provided that we remain firmly committed to Christ.
So there is no reason why the devil should defeat us. Our first line of defence is simply to be aware of his activities (II Corinthians 2:11). Forewarned is forearmed! Then we need the determination to stand up to him (James 4:7), and the armour of God to give us protection (Ephesians 6:13). So we need to equip ourselves with:
A firm understanding of Christian truth (remember that the devil is a liar!)
A clear conscience (guilt is a great handicap).
A readiness to proclaim the gospel.
Faith in God’s promises, power and love.
The certainty that we have been saved (which protects our minds against doubt).
Knowledge of the Bible (our weapon of counter-attack).
Prayer (our spiritual supply-line).