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Cotton Mather [1663-1728] was a prominent early American minister with tremendous social and political influence. A Puritan, ministering in Boston's Old North Church, he gained respect as a prolific writer, penning more than 450 books and pamphlets. He fathered fifteen children with three wives, almost all of whom preceded him in death. He is often remembered today for his connection to the infamous Salem witch trials. In a sermon he delivered on August 4, 1692 titled "A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World," Cotton Mather made the following memorable observation: "That there is a Devil is a thing doubted by none but such as are under the influences of the Devil." I think he makes a valid point.
Our God requires that we believe in Him; that we acknowledge His existence. "Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is" [Hebrews 11:6]. Not so with the Evil One. He could care less whether you actually believe in him or not; indeed, he is more than willing for you to take all the blame for your every misdeed. Content to operate from the depths of the darkness that surrounds you, he will gladly yield the divine spotlight to his victims. He's subtle, crafty, devious and deadly. You don't believe in such a being, you claim?! Good, he smugly replies. It just makes his seduction of you all the easier. Believe whatever you like, he will whisper, as long as you blindly follow wherever he leads!
"For some people, belief in a personal Satan is part of mankind's nursery furniture" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 358]; little more than another character from a kid's fable, like the big, bad wolf. "The concept of a personal devil is unacceptable to many minds today. The objection is raised that the existence of a personal devil is incapable of scientific proof. Therefore, it is claimed that the devil is in reality man's invention to account for his own sinfulness" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, p. 285]. This brings to mind the classic response of comedian Flip Wilson whenever he was caught doing something he should not have been doing: "The Devil made me do it." Satan therefore becomes the ever convenient excuse for our own failures; a shameless shifting of blame to man's ultimate, cosmic scapegoat. Belief is expressed when it is convenient for our own defense, otherwise we rarely give a second thought to the reality of this being, or of his influence in the world about us ... or in our own lives, for that matter. He becomes little more than an afterthought -- which is just how he likes it. By far, the most dangerous enemy is not just the one who is unseen, but the one you don't even believe exists! Discounting or underestimating one's enemy will almost always prove deadly.
It is also quite dangerous to overlook the reality that Satan seemingly has the ability to spot our weaknesses, and to fashion specific enticements designed to undermine our resolve and draw us into sinful attitudes and actions. He is the ultimate deceiver, a murderer from the very beginning, yet he has the ability to present himself as a man's best friend. Dr. Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton (who received her education from Stanford and Harvard), in a lecture at the University of Utah, observed, "Satan is no distant enemy -- on the contrary, he is an intimate enemy" [The Origin of Satan in Christian Tradition, May 14, 1997]. This is an insight worthy of serious reflection! Our enemy is ever at our side, whispering in our ear, pulling at our sleeve. As Sir Thomas Browne so rightly lamented, "Lucifer keeps his court in my breast." This is an intimacy we dare not allow.
As one opens the Bible in search of understanding of this being, one will quickly discover that the Old Covenant writings really have little to say with regard to this great adversary of God, His eternal purposes and His people. "Altogether it is one of the most noteworthy features of the theology of the OT that so little reference is made to Satan" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 569]. "The OT (which comprises about four-fifths of our Bible) has little to say about Satan in comparison with the NT, where he is mentioned with much greater frequency" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 340]. "A fully defined doctrine of Satan is not found in the Bible until New Testament times" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 358]. "It is a truly remarkable feature of the theology of the OT that so little mention is made of Satan as the great Adversary of God and His people" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, p. 282]. Our understanding of Satan, therefore, will be greatly limited if left merely to the teaching of the OT scriptures. Nevertheless, there are significant truths to be perceived from these documents.
Perhaps the question foremost on people's minds is: What is the origin of Satan? Who is he, where did he come from, and why is he the way he is? Precious little is conveyed to us in Scripture about this, although there are a few hints here and there. The Satan popularly pictured today, frankly, is the creation of tradition far more than of truth; of fiction more than of fact; though most of the legends surrounding his origin do tend to try and bolster their validity by an appeal to statements drawn from Scripture. Yet, were it not for John Milton [1608-1674] and Dante [1265-1321] our concept of Satan would be vastly different than the one currently held by most believers. The red, horned, hoofed, pitch-fork carrying, long-tailed creature enthroned in hell, stoking the fires under boiling caldrons where the damned of all time are gleefully tortured, is simply the product of a fevered imagination, having no resemblance whatsoever to the Satan of the Bible.
There is a very popular account in the ancient Jewish apocryphal work Life of Adam and Eve (chapters 12-16) that informs us Satan was originally one of the powerful, leading angels of God who rebelled when called upon to pay tribute to God's creation of man. "When the archangel Michael ordered the devil to worship the image of God in Adam and Eve, the devil answered, 'Why do you press me? I will not worship one who is younger than I am, and inferior; I am older than he; he ought to worship me!' (14:3). Consequently, God expelled the devil and his angels from heaven onto the earth. The devil explained to Adam, 'And immediately we were made to grieve, since we had been deprived of so great glory. And we were pained to see you in such bliss of delights. So with deceit I assailed your wife and made you to be expelled through her from the joys of your bliss, as I have been expelled from my glory' (16:2f)" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 342 ... Dr. Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan in Christian Tradition]. Although these many legends vary greatly, they almost all possess the common theme of rebellion against the Creator -- another tradition, for example, is that Satan was the leader of the "sons of God" who fell in love with human women and mated with them [Genesis 6:1-4], thus incurring the displeasure of God. The vast majority of scholars, however, feel such accounts have no basis in fact. They are, at best, merely amusing.
The most popular theory of Satan's origin, and the one that seems to have the best biblical support, is that he at one time, prior to the fall of man, had been a highly ranked angel (perhaps an archangel) in service to God, but due to pride, and also a desire to elevate himself above God, had led a rebellion against God. Failing in this attempt, he lost favor with God and was demoted (and later driven off). He now spends his time, along with his fellow fallen angels, seeking to subvert the plans of God and turn His creation away from devotion to Him. In Job 1:6 (then again in Job 2:1) we're informed, "Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them." When compared with Gen. 6:2 and Job 38:7, most scholars interpret these "sons of God" to be angels. Satan, then, seems to be one of them, in the view of most interpreters. That the sin of this spirit-being seems to have been pride is deduced from such passages as 1 Tim. 3:6, where Paul says an elder must not be a recent convert, "lest he be lifted up with pride and fall under the same judgment as the devil." Such pride led to open rebellion and conflict with God. "And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon. And the dragon and his angels waged war, and they were not strong enough, and there was no longer a place found for them in heaven" [Rev. 12:7-8].
There are six major Old Testament passages which seem to provide some information about this adversarial creature. The Hebrew noun satan, by the way, simply means "adversary," and was many times used of mere men. David, for example, was called "satan" (adversary) in 1 Sam. 29:4. David said the sons of Zeruiah had become an "adversary" (satan) to him [2 Sam. 19:22]. Even the mysterious angel of the Lord was called "satan" at one point as He confronted Balaam: "The angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as an adversary against him." However, in the six biblical passages alluded to above, the term "satan" (though the term does not occur in each) clearly seems to specify a particular being (some scholars, though, feel this identity is a "stretch" in a few of these passages); the one to whom the term "adversary" would later come to be affixed as a proper name: Satan. Those passages are:
Genesis 3 -- Although not specifically identified as Satan in this chapter, nevertheless other biblical texts make it rather clear that "the serpent" is none other than this great adversary of both God and man. The apostle John wrote, "And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world" [Rev. 12:9]. "And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years" [Rev. 20:2].
1 Chronicles 21:1 -- "Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel." There has long been significant debate over this passage, with some scholars feeling it clearly contradicts the parallel passage in 2 Samuel 24:1. For an analysis of this matter, I would refer the reader to my article Case of the Senseless Census -- Reflections #273.
Book of Job -- "The most extensive Old Testament discussion of Satan is found in Job" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 358]. In this ancient biblical account this beleaguered man essentially becomes a "test case" in the cosmic battle between God and Satan over the loyalty and integrity of man. It also demonstrates that Satan can only act within the limits established by God, as various restrictions were placed upon him as to what he could or couldn't do to Job. Although Satan clearly has significant power in this world, it is also true that his power is significantly less than that of God.
Zechariah 3:1-5 -- In this well-known account we find Satan accusing Joshua the high priest. This is one of the primary goals of Satan -- to be the ultimate Accuser of the people of God. He is ever willing to point out one's flaws and defects, seeking to display the "imperfection" of God's creation. All God made is only worthy of destruction, or so Satan would have everyone believe. All of which, of course, is designed to manifest the failings of the Creator in all His handiwork.
Isaiah 14:12-15 -- "How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! ... For you have said in your heart: 'I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God ... I will be like the Most High.' Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit" [NKJV]. Although the context clearly is a reference originally to the king of Babylon, nevertheless some scholars see a double meaning here, believing Satan is also in view. It is felt by some that this may well have been the passage Jesus had in mind when He said, "I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning" [Luke 10:18]. If indeed it does have some reference to Satan, then again we see pride as a significant cause of his fall. "The devil fell from his high estate by the sin of pride, and by seeking to usurp the throne of God" [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 454].
Ezekiel 28:11-19 -- "You
had the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in
Eden, the garden of God ... You were the anointed cherub who covers (guards),
and I placed you there. ... You were blameless in your ways from the day you
were created, until unrighteousness was found in you. Therefore, I have cast
you as profane from the mountain of God. ... Your heart was lifted up because
of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom by reason of your splendor. I cast
you to the ground." The passage clearly states this is with reference to
the king of Tyre, however, again, many feel there is a double significance here,
with Satan also being in view. If true, this passage comes the closest in the
Bible to informing us as to the origin of Satan. He was a guarding cherub in
the Garden of Eden who became so "full of himself" that he sought
to place himself far above God. In so doing, he was cast from God's presence,
and has spent his time since taking vengeance upon God's creation and seeking
to thwart His purposes.
Whatever the nature of his origin, this wicked being is known by a host of descriptive terms in the OT and NT writings. In addition to Satan and the Devil, there are: Abaddon and Apollyon -- meaning "the destroyer" [Rev. 9:11], the accuser of our brethren [Rev. 12:10], the adversary [1 Pet. 5:8], Beelzebul [Matt. 12:24], the great dragon [Rev. 12:9], the serpent of old [Rev. 12:9], the evil one [Matt. 13:19], the father of lies [John 8:44], the god of this world [2 Cor. 4:4], liar [John 8:44], murderer [John 8:44], the tempter [Matt. 4:3; 1 Thess. 3:5], the prince of the power of the air [Eph. 2:2], and the list could go on and on. None of these terms is flattering, but they are all most certainly defining. Each gives us a glimpse into the nature and work of this evil being.
One of the notable aspects of the workings of Satan is that he employs various agents to accomplish his evil purposes. "Satan, who is not omnipresent, through the work of his numerous subordinates makes his influence practically world-wide" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, p. 283]. "The NT reveals that Satan is the ruler over a powerful kingdom of evil which he rules with intelligent consistency" [ibid]. "Satan is the head of a well-organized kingdom in which his subjects exercise delegated responsibility under his direction" [ibid]. Although the devil certainly has numerous demon forces at his disposal, it should not be overlooked that perhaps his greatest workers are human in nature ... and may be found among the people of God, disguised as the people of God. "For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So, it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds" [2 Cor. 11:13-15]. "He uses evil men as his instruments or ministers, who fashion themselves as ministers of righteousness" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 1, p. 294]. "He places counterfeit Christians in the churches alongside the genuine people of God" [ISBE, vol. 4, p. 343], as per the parable of the wheat and the tares [Matt. 13:24-30].
Satan is, without question, a powerful figure in the world about us; a deadly foe. However, what many people fail to appreciate is: he is greatly restricted in what he is able to accomplish. Also, it is simply a fact that he gets much of the credit for our own willful disobedience and rebellion against God. True, he may well provide some of the temptations and stumbling blocks, but the choices are entirely our own. After all, James says we are "carried away by our own lust, and when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death" [James 1:14-15]. Yes, Satan is out there stirring the pot, but I fear much of the misery we experience in life is due to our own voluntary leap into that boiling pot. Satan may provide the pot, but he can't force us into it. "Resist the devil and he will flee from you" [James 4:7]. The only control Satan has over any of us is the control we willingly yield to him. No, we must not be "ignorant of his schemes" [2 Cor. 2:11]; he's a crafty foe. Knowing one's enemy is vital. Yet, we should not fear him, for he is easily defeated by those clothed with the full armor of God [Eph. 6:10-17]. When we let down our guard, however, we "give the devil an opportunity" [Eph. 4:27]. Thus, "be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith" [1 Peter 5:8-9]. Yes, he can be resisted, and the means is by faith. "Take up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one" [Eph. 6:16].
On August 1, a reader in California wrote me the following:
"It appears to me that Satan gets way too much credit for sin being in our world today than he has any right to claim. It seems to me that Satan is mostly a critical questioner who tries to drive a wedge between God and man. Needless to say, this is a horrible thing to do, but hardly the sole cause of sin in our lives. My reading of the Scriptures indicates that there are three things that will keep us all from the Lord: (1) Satan's lies. Satan will try to get us to distrust God, just as he did with Jesus. (2) Our sinful nature. Much of the sin that we commit is based on our own evil desires that reside in our hearts. Satan often gets credit for this, but I think we need to take the blame for a large portion of it. (3) The sinful world we live in. I would suggest that we are influenced by the sinful world which drags us down and makes us live lives that do not conform to Christ's example. I'm certainly not saying that Satan doesn't exist, I just think that he isn't as powerful as he would like for us to believe."
I would tend to agree with this reader. Satan is powerful, but only as powerful over our lives as we allow him to be. Also, we must abandon the Flip Wilson mentality: "The devil made me do it." No, he didn't. He may have tempted you, but the choice to act was yours. Remember: "No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it" [1 Cor. 10:13]. If you sin, you have no one to blame but yourself. Yes, Satan may have provided the temptation, but God at the same time provided the way of escape. You made the choice!
Having said this, however, let us never underestimate the deadly cunning of this enemy. If we let our guard down for even a moment, he can flood our hearts and minds with countless deceptions and doubts. Even the strongest among us can find ourselves suddenly off the straight and narrow, and onto some devilish detour, before we even know what hit us. It's not that he forces us into such circumstances, but that he deceives us into them. That is why we must always be alert. Peter asked Ananias (the husband of Sapphira) why Satan had filled his heart to lie to the Holy Spirit [Acts 5:3]. The answer was: Ananias had been careless; he'd left the door of his heart ajar. Satan didn't hesitate to come right on in. "Do not give the devil an opportunity," Paul urges us [Eph. 4:27], for he will always take it. Satan would not have entered into the heart of Judas [John 13:27] if he had been more alert to the schemes of this evil foe. Paul spoke of some widows who had "turned aside to follow Satan" [1 Tim. 5:15]. Why? Because they had become idle; they had let down their guard. Satan does not have the power to forcibly lift a saint from the protective embrace of the Lord, but he does have almost unbelievable powers of deception, and such have far too often been effectively employed to lure the people of God away from that embrace. Satan cannot force you to leave the Lord, but neither will the Lord force you to remain. We are in possession of free will, thus must exercise it responsibly and wisely. Satan is hoping you will not; God is trusting you will. And therein lies the key to the battle that has been waged for the hearts of men from the very beginning.
Although we have only scratched the surface in this study of Satan -- obviously, entire books could be written on the subject -- let me close with a final word of caution to the family of God: If you think safety from the wiles of the devil is to be found within the church, and that here one can for a time let down one's guard, think again. Satan does not have the power to utterly destroy the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, but he does have the ability to infest it. And he has done so! Look not across the sea for your enemy; your enemy stands alongside of you, disguised as one of you [2 Cor. 11:13-15]. I'm reminded of the words of the great reformer Martin Luther [1483-1546], who stated in his Table Talk, "Where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel." Brethren, there are two great forces battling for our love and loyalty -- choose wisely; your life depends upon it. "Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you" [James 4:7-8].
By Al Maxey via his Reflections #312 Aug 18/2007
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