He was always on Jesus’ mind and in his teaching – his sayings, stories and experience. He pervades the Gospels much more than in other literature of the time, even more than the rest of the New Testament. But for someone who featured so prominently in Jesus’ life, he is very rarely talked about in church.
Who is he? Jesus had many names for him: the Devil, Satan, the prince of this world, the enemy. Many modern Christians have quietly stopped talking about him, almost as if he didn’t exist at all, but for Jesus he was as real as God.
Jesus taught that the Devil was a central concern. When his disciples asked for a model prayer, he included only three petitions: for food, forgiveness and protection from Satan. We are used to reciting ‘deliver us from evil’, but the Greek clearly implies ‘…from the evil one’ (Matthew 6:13). This is exactly the same Greek word ? peirasmos ? as found in 13:38: ‘The weeds are the people of the evil one’.
After Jesus’ first day of public ministry, he started a 40-day retreat in the wilderness. If the Gospels were the life story of a famous saint, they’d describe this as an extended and rapturous time of prayer in the presence of God, but the central point of Jesus’ experience during this time was a meeting with the Devil. On the last evening of Jesus’ mortal life, he had another time of extended prayer in response to temptation, in Gethsemane. He regarded the Devil as a close threat and he warned Peter: ‘Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation’ (Mark 14:38).
There are more exorcisms recorded in the Gospels than the total number found in all previous Jewish literature. One-sixth of the healings described in the Gospels are exorcisms. However, this was not because Jesus ascribed all mental illness to demons. A list of the kinds of people he healed included the demon-possessed and those who were ‘lunatics’ (Matthew 4:24 ? Greek selenia-zomai, literally ‘moonstruck’). The ancients thought that those who were out of control (such as epileptics and psychotics) were controlled by the moon. But this list appears to distinguish between those with psychiatric conditions and those whose problems came from demons.
BREADTH OF INFLUENCE
The Devil was not just responsible for demon-possession. Jesus described a woman who had been crippled for 18 years as someone ‘whom Satan has kept bound’ (Luke 13:16). Even forces of nature could be influenced by the Devil: when Jesus stilled the storm on Lake Galilee he ‘rebuked’ the waves – language that was normally reserved for addressing demons. Jesus even saw the Devil in the enticing words of Simon Peter (Mark 8:33).
Jesus also recognised that many events were orchestrated neither by God nor the Devil. When he was asked about recent disasters (the collapse of a tower and loss of life during heavy-handed policing by Roman soldiers), he said that those killed hadn’t been targeted by God or Satan; they were just average people, no more sinful than anyone else (Luke 13:2). Jesus didn’t regard congenital blindness as the result of sin, but said that God’s glory could be revealed by healing it (John 9:1-3). Even loss of faith can’t always be blamed on the Devil; in the Parable of the Sower, the seed is sometimes snatched by the Devil, but at other times its loss is due to ‘the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things’ (Mark 4:15-19, ESV).
JESUS CONSIDERED THE EARTH TO BE UNDER THE TEMPORARY GOVERNMENT OF THE DEVIL
THE KINGDOM WILL OVERCOME
Jesus considered the earth to be under the temporary government of the Devil. In John he repeatedly refers to the ‘Prince of this world’ (John 12:31) and in other Gospels he portrayed himself as the initiator of the kingdom of God, which would displace the Devil’s rule (Matthew 12:28; Luke 10:18-20). The Devil wasn’t a theoretical source of evil for Jesus – he was a person whom Jesus was sent to fight and defeat. Jesus did not imply that the Devil was in control of the world; he saw the world at the centre of a battle that the Devil was losing.
Jesus regarded God as the source of all goodness. When teaching us to do good even to our enemies, he said we must do as God does. God generously gives sunshine and refreshing rain to both the good and the wicked, and we should follow this example (Matthew 5:44-45). He believed, like James, that God rewards those who successfully pass through times of testing; but he didn’t regard God as the originator of any tests or temptations. The ‘tests’ in James 1:12 and ‘temptations’ in 1:13 are both from the Greek word peirasmos – the same word Jesus used in the Lord’s Prayer: keep us from temptation and from its source ? the evil one.
Jesus taught that God is to be feared – not because he is the source of bad things, but because he is the judge who will destroy all imperfection in hell (Matthew 10:28). God subverts evil and sends good things; he even turned the ultimate evil of the cross into the ultimate good.
In traditional baptisms we renounce the three sources of evil: the world, the flesh and the Devil. Natural disasters happen because we live in a fallen world; wars and crimes are the result of sinful humanity; and tests or temptations come from the Devil. So why are we so quick to ignore him? Perhaps we are rightly embarrassed at the way some Christians exaggerate his influence, or by their belief that demons are the source of all ills.
The danger is that, in forgetting the Devil, we can end up blaming God for everything – including the Devil’s work. If we shrug off the reality of the Devil, we may forget the origin of evil and neglect to pray for protection. Jesus prayed for his disciples’ protection from Satan (Luke 22:31-32; John 17:15) and told them to pray for this every day. What makes us so special that we choose not to do the same?