Originally published in the Midwestern Magazine, Issue 38
Is Satan capable of inception? Does he whisper temptations in our ear? Is Satan’s authority, power, and relationship to unbelievers the same or different from Christians?
These are all valid and, frankly, somewhat haunting questions. I am not left emotionally unmoved by the many destroyed marriages and ministries around me that Satan has devoured. I trust your experience is comparable. It is vital that you and I rightly discern and evaluate Satan. He is not to be trifled with nor buffooned, but in Christ, his back was utterly broken on Calvary’s hill.
Our entry point for discerning the person and activity of Satan will be Colossians 2:15. We will discover much there, but upon developing three guiding exegetical questions, we will unearth as many unanswered questions as we answer. Grasping a wholistic picture of Satan requires a full canonical scope. These questions force an excursion into the terrain of biblical theology. After building out a stable biblical-theological framework, we will be in position to establish a few conclusive truths—also known as dogmatics.
MOTION 1: EXEGETE THE TEXT
Colossians 2:14-15 (CSB)
14 He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him.
Due to space limitations, our exegetical motion does not attempt exhaustion. Rather, it is controlled by a mere three questions, which I believe naturally arise from the text:
First, what does it mean that, at the cross, Jesus “disarmed” Satan and his rebel angels? The answer is found in verse 14: Satan had no record of debt with which to accuse. Jesus snatched Satan’s means of accusation right off his forked tongue. This is the primary way he was disarmed. The repentant sinner’s record, then, is erased. It seems Satan’s strategy was to accuse and damn by means of a guilty record, but through the substitutionary and atoning blood sacrifice of Jesus, there is now no record with which to charge. That much we can discern from Colossians.
Second, how did Jesus put Satan and his rebels “to open shame” (ESV)? The language used describes a parade. Jesus ‘made a spectacle’ of Satan by defeating him on the cross and at the tomb. Satan was rendered powerless, and then becomes something of a cosmic joke. He was showcased in the theater of God before his own rebel entourage and before the angels of heaven.
Third, how does God “triumph over them in [Jesus]”? Notice the “them” implies plurality. Satan is not acting in isolation but seems to have an organized, mobilized, rebel army, perhaps even a hierarchy. But more centrally, the thrust of Colossians 2:14-15 is that when Jesus looked to be at His weakest, He was actually putting on invincibility. Three days after his death, Jesus kicked the hinges off the door of the enclosed tomb outside Jerusalem. On Friday, Satan surely heckled, hissed, and laughed while hovering over the blood-bespattered carcass of our Lord. He never saw it coming. On Sunday, Jesus arose with an indestructible life. In that moment, Jesus evidenced His Father’s verdict of satisfaction. He procured a deliverance for His people so rich, so stunning that even the angels could not heretofore comprehend its immensity. It was a plot twist so beautiful that it satisfied millennia worth of anticipation (1 Pt 1:12).
So, where did Satan come from? When did he rebel? When did his entourage rebel? Why did he rebel? Our brief interrogatory analysis into Colossians 2:14-15 unearths nearly as many questions as it yields answers. We now turn to the realm of biblical theology to resolve leftover questions from our exegesis.
MOTION 2: PROVIDE A BIBLICAL-THEOLOGICAL FRAMEWORK
At Calvary, Jesus died and Satan received an imagined victory. But that was neither the beginning nor the end of the story as we saw in Colossians 2:14-15. Satan thought he had bested the Son of God and was, thus, at the pinnacle of his pride. Satan’s pride seems to be his most notable attribute and is the common theme held throughout Scripture. At Golgotha, it seemed the curtains were closing on our humble little story from Bethlehem. In actuality, as rendered in Colossians, it is Satan who was at his weakest point. While Jesus’s broken body hung lifeless, surely all of Satan’s army were jubilant, uproarious, and inebriated on their imagined power, but they could not have been more defeated in that moment.
When we read Scripture in narrative fashion, a puzzle piece picture of the chief figure (Mt 12:24) of these “rulers and authorities” in Col 2:15 begins to take shape (Rv 20:2). Satan is a contingent, sentient, and derivative being just as any other created animate creature (Gn 1-2, Col 1:16-17). What distinguishes Satan is that he is the most intelligent and calculating creature in all creation and, at some point in time, he took on an oppositional status against the LORD and His people (Gn 3:1; 1 Jn 3:11-12, “evil one”). It is discernible that his opposition took place prior to the fall of man in Genesis 3. However, neither a precise description of that event nor the precise point in time of his personal rebellion (and motivation) is ever made explicit. Rather, we are, as it were, dropped into an already mature and maturing plotline.
An honor-bound and conscientious narrative reading of Scripture must take the New Testament seriously. Revelation 20:2 explicates that indeed the serpent of Eden (Gn 3) is the same being referred to in many New Testament texts. Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4 shed light on the origin of the rebellion of Satan’s messengers (Gn 6:1-4), but do not reveal a motive or point in time for Satan’s personal rebellion. In Matthew 4:1-11, Satan seems to believe he is powerful enough to bring down the Son of God from the altitude of divinity by temptation. Herein lies Satan’s Achilles’s heel: hubris. Satan contends with the Son of God, is overpowered, and is ultimately defeated at the cross (Col 2:15). It’s a classic bait-and-switch. Because of his pride, Satan never sees it coming. He lacks omniscience. Pride is his most highlighted characteristic. Satan is so smart, he’s stupid. While the storyline of Scripture is silent on the precise time of Satan’s personal rebellion and from where his motivation stems, it is quite clear on his nature—he was blinded by pride.
MOTION 3: ESTABLISH CONCLUSIONS –TEN TRUTHS ABOUT A LIAR
After working through the proper exegetical and biblical-theological motions, we now have a sturdier foundation upon which to establish a few implications that help us to discern the person and activity of Satan:
1Satan is not omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, nor eternal.
There was a time when Satan was not. In contrast, there was never a ‘time’ when the Son of God was not, i.e. the Son is eternal. Satan is created and contingent just as humans are (Col 1:16-17). In Job 1:6, the Lord asked Satan, “Where have you come from?” to which he responded, “From roaming through the earth.” He is physically positioned in the universe. He is not omnipresent and, thus, is unlikely to be personally tempting individual Christians. In Matthew 4 and Job 1-2, he fails to know the future and his potency is shown to be limited by God.
2Satan exercises his otherworldly dominion by way of a hierarchical, geographical, and militaristic strategy.
In Matthew 4, Satan legitimately offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world. These kingdoms seem to have a geographical and governmental nature. This offer is textually grounded in Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 82. But through the cross, Jesus took back the authority forfeited in Adam (Col 2:14-15). Therefore, in Matthew 28:18, Jesus states that all authority has been given to Him. In John 12:31 we’re told Satan is the “ruler of this world,” which rings of realm and region. Then, there is that peculiar reference to the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” in Daniel 10:13, 20. This dark prince opposes the angel Gabriel and the angelic prince Michael. It’s hierarchical. Experientially, this rings true. The nature of spiritual warfare varies depending on the continent and culture (North America, Asia, Africa, etc.). Satan leads a hierarchy of demons (Mt 12:24), a divergent and highly capable army, which implies he is leading an otherworldly ‘outfit’ that personally tempts persons (Col 2:15, 1 Pt 5:8-9) depending on the sinful sensibilities of a given culture.
3Satan can manipulate matter, weather systems, and bacterial life.
We see in Job 1 that Satan is able to manipulate matter and weather patterns and, in Job 2:8, he infects Job with a skin disease. His purpose is to afflict Job, and for our machinations, we note he is capable of feats not afforded to humans.
4Satan can influence and sway legal proceedings and governmental structures.
In Revelation 2:10, Jesus states that Satan is in the process of influencing Smyrna’s legal proceedings by throwing a collection of Christians into prison. Likewise, in Job 1:17, he manipulates the Chaldeans, encouraging them to steal Job’s livestock. Though we are not told how he exerts his influence, we surmise he is the agent of these activities.
5Satan aggressively seeks to trap individual Christians.
1 Timothy 3:7 says he seeks to trap elders. He is spoken of as a federal head type of figure. His minions study individuals and then seek to tempt and twist them in accordance with particularized patterns of sin. They cater and concoct a seemingly irresistible elixir of poison just for you. Television, social media, fast food, biology, age, and gender are all thrown into the recipe.
6Satan is more skilled at deception than any other created being.
John 8:44 says his nature is to lie. If his mouth is moving, he is lying. He is the original liar and, therefore, the father of lies. Every lie was and is birthed in him. However, deception is all he has in his arsenal against Christians. As Colossians 2:15 teaches, this side of Calvary, Satan can accuse, but he knows—and his rebel realm know—that he has been reduced to utter fragility at the cross.
7Satan is able to kill Christians.
He is able to kill you physically (Job 1-2), but not eternally (Rom 8). In Job 2, when Satan goes a second time to the LORD in the divine courtroom, he asks permission to kill Job, but God denies his request. I take that to mean Satan could have killed him, but God would not allow it. Everything Satan does comes crashing down on his own head, eventually crushing his skull (Gn 3:15) unto the glory of the Son of God and for the Christian’s good.
8Satan is the Lord’s lackey for the Christian’s holiness.
In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul says his thorn is “a messenger of Satan,” and yet the Lord kindly uses the thorn (against Paul’s will!) to produce sanctification and spiritual power in Paul’s ministry. How kind of the Lord to give Paul his thorn! Satan plays the pawn in God’s economy, and the thorn stays against Paul’s will. Thus, Satan is ever-regulated by Romans 8 and, therefore, is providentially powerless to wound Christians in any resurrected or eternal sense. Neither Satan nor death, neither “angels nor rulers … nor powers … will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rm 8:38).
9Satan will be thrown into hell in the end.
Satan can and surely has read Matthew 25:41, which states he will ultimately be thrown into hell. That is what I mean by “Satan is so smart, he’s stupid.” This is his end, yet he rages against all “born of God” (1 Jn 3:9). He lies. He accuses the brethren (Rv 12:10). But he cannot succeed in bringing a guilty sentence upon the Christian anymore (Col 2:14).
10Satan is resistible.
James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” He will flee from you, Christian. Resist him. If Christians resist temptation, hold firm the promise of resurrection, and do not give in, do not accept the enemy’s lies, and do not give into his accusations—Satan will eventually depart. He is limited. He is finite. He will eventually move on to easier prey.
My aim in this essay was to use the person of Satan as a test case. Rarely do scholars pull down the walls of their respective domains to set exegesis, biblical theology, and dogmatics in motion in a singular treatment. In the final analysis, we are not told precisely how or why Satan does certain things, but when we analyze the pertinent texts and take into account all of the data, we see what he does and what he is capable of. The Christian, then, is broken over the plight of the unregenerate, properly sobered, and bolstered that Jesus so decisively routed Satan at Calvary.