What the Devil is all about
What is the common understanding of the Devil? Over the years it is has come to mean a being who tempts good people to do bad things, as opposed to tempting bad people to do bad things. That is probably why there are so many ways in which the word Devil crops up in everyday speech: Devil’s advocate, dare Devil, handsome Devil, Devil in disguise, better the Devil you know etc.
So, this pervasive concept of a Devil/supernatural being has made its way into our language and thought. Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the Devil as an ‘anti-angel’ pitted against the archangel Gabriel. ‘He’ is often depicted as red-skinned, horned, forked-tailed and bearing a sharp pitchfork. Yet the Biblical truth is that the Devil is you and me. By looking at the start of everything in Genesis we see where evil came from. (As we shall see, though, it is not where a ‘supernatural Devil/Satan’ comes from.) In the garden, where God put Adam and Eve, were a ‘tree of life’ and a ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. The perfect life that this pair lived there went terribly wrong when a serpent with the ability to speak tempted Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Though she knew what God’s instruction to her and her husband was (i.e. eat freely of all the trees except that one) she went ahead and ate. What’s more she encouraged Adam to consume the same fruit. In other words, Eve believed the deception of the serpent and did not listen to God. So sin entered the world and carried on through all the first pair’s descendants.
What exactly do Devil and Satan mean?
So, what do these terms mean? Firstly, Devil (Greek: diabolos) is only found in the New Testament and means false accuser or slanderer. An example comes in 2 Timothy 3:3 where it describes some people as.
“… unloving, unforgiving, slanderers (diabolos), without self-control, brutal, despisers of good,”
There is no suggestion that the Devil is behind their bad behaviour, simply that that is how they choose to behave. The idea of a false accuser accurately describes what the serpent said in Genesis; it was this deceptive creature that Eve chose to believe.
In Acts there is the record of Elymas, a man who perverted God’s way. The apostle, Paul said of him:
“O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?”
By using the word ‘deceit’ Paul reminds us of the deceitfulness of the Genesis serpent; Elymas was behaving in a serpent-like way to undermine others’ faith (Acts 13:7-10). He was still just another mortal being, however, despite Paul’s description of him as the ‘son of the devil’.
An Angel Satan?
The Old Testament does not talk of the Devil; written in Hebrew, the Old Testament instead describes something called Satan (meaning adversary). We meet it in Numbers 22: 22 where Balaam’s progress is being held up by an angel he cannot see.
“Then God’s anger was aroused because he [Balaam] went, and the Angel of the Lord took His stand in the way as an adversary (Heb. Satan) against him”.
In other words, God’s messenger, His angel, was acting as a Satan (literally an adversary) against Balaam, preventing him from moving forward, not a supernatural being working against God.
Another example comes in the life of David who had temporarily sided with the Philistines (Israel’s enemies) and planned to battle on their side against Israel. The Philistines are uncomfortable with this, saying:
“Make this fellow return, that he may go back to the place which you have appointed for him, and do not let him go down with us to battle, lest in the battle he become our adversary (Heb. Satan).
Again, this cannot mean that the mortal man, David, was really a supernatural creature. It simply means that once in the battle he could easily turn against the side he was supposed to fight for.
Other examples come in
“Now the Lord raised up an adversary (Heb. Satan) against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite…”1 Kings 11:14.
“And God raised up another adversary (Heb. Satan) against him, Rezon the son of Eliadah...” 1 Kings 11:23.
So who is Lucifer?
Lucifer is only mentioned once in the Bible, yet his name has become synonymous with an evil being (or Satan). Yet if we read Isaiah where this name appears it soon becomes clear that ‘Lucifer’ is someone who fell from a position of power. Isaiah 14 is the chapter and vv 3-4 give the context:
“ It shall come to pass in the day the Lord gives you rest from your sorrow, and from your fear and the hard bondage in which you were made to serve, that you will take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say:
“…How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, You who weakened the nations! (v12)
At that time the King of Babylon was the most powerful man on earth. Babylonians believed that on death the person became a star in the heavens: the brightest star was their king. Since ‘Lucifer’ literally means ‘Daystar’ it makes this fact even clearer. The book of Daniel shows how Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, was in fact ‘cut down’ from his prominent position, stripped of his power and for a time lived as an animal (see Daniel 4:28-33).
Two New Testament examples also show how Satan refers to the activities of a human heart, not an external supernatural being:
Was Peter a Satan?
In Matthew 16: 13-20 Jesus commends his disciple Peter for his understanding of Jesus’ purpose. Jesus declares that it is on this confession of faith that the future household of God will be built. Clearly Jesus sees in Peter a sincere, earnest disciple. Yet just a few verses later Jesus says to this same man:
“Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offence to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” (v23).
This does not mean that in the blink of an eye Peter turned from ‘faithful disciple’ to ‘malevolent being’. No, Jesus simply tells Peter that, on this occasion, he is trying to deflect Him from his purpose:
“From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. The Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to you!!” (vv21-22)
Jesus knew He had to endure the awful crucifixion that lay ahead. Peter did not help Jesus, or himself, by denying this truth.
Two erring disciples
The second example comes in Acts 5. Here, two early Christians decided to follow the example of others who sold all they had to give to the early believers. However, in their case, they did not give away their all, just claimed to do so.
“But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
The words of scripture itself here explain what Satan is: the heart. No external being was involved in their decision to withhold part of the price for themselves. They alone were the ones who lied to God; the falsehood came from their own thoughts.
The words of Hebrews 2:14 sum up what the devil is:
“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.”
What has the power of death? It is sin. What began in the Garden of Eden and persisted throughout all subsequent generations was finally put to death when Jesus died on the cross. Jesus vanquished ‘the devil’ in His sinless life and sacrificial death. Those associated with Jesus through baptism are themselves ‘dead to sin’ and look forward to receiving a regenerated and sin free body when He returns to this earth.