I seem to be having a devilish week. First insanitybytes writes a post about the devil called “The voice of the enemy”—I tried to create link to it, but failed . Then, while the oil is being changed in my car, I read a short story written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1926, called “A Nursery Tale,” in which the devil plays a significant part.
One commenter to “The voice of the enemy” reminded IB that the devil is a created being, not omnipresent throughout the universe; the commenter questioned the ability of the devil to put thoughts into the minds of people. From there the conversation went askew, and rather than adding my voice to the din, I chose to visit the topic here.
A long-standing tradition in the Christian Church speaks of three enemies to the Christian: the devil, the world, and the flesh. “The world” does not mean the planet, but it describes all the temptation and opposition to the faith that comes from the people around us. “The flesh” does not refer to the Christian’s physical body, but rather to the evil thoughts and impulses that still exist in the mind or heart of the Christian.
From time to time, small groups of Christians insist that the flesh no longer exists in a saved Christian. Quoting a few verses out of context (particularly some from I John), they claim that a true believer no longer sins and that a sinner is not yet a true believer. They overlook I John 1:8—“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”—and they distort Paul’s description of the paradox of Christian living in Romans 7. No, the devil does not need to be everywhere to accomplish his evil goals; the devil has a willing accomplice inside each of our minds and hearts.
The world is polluted by sin, causing us to be tempted every day. From Elizabeth Taylor to Taylor Swift, men’s minds are led astray—not because these talented women are part of some massive conspiracy to promote evil, but because the entertainment industry uses attractive and skilled performers to give us what we say we want. The flesh is eager to be tempted. The world is eager to offer temptations. The world would rather drag Christians down to its level than see us rise by God’s power to the level of Jesus Christ.
I picture the devil, not as a mastermind steering all the evil in the world, but as a mafia boss or gang leader sitting in a prison cell. He is “a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8), but he is a caged lion, and we can resist him when we stay out of his cage. He is pictured as a dragon bound in chains and sealed in a pit (Revelation 20:1-3), but because the world is polluted by rebellion and evil, the devil’s schemes continue to succeed.
When did the devil fall from power? When was he chained and caged? When seventy-two missionaries reported to Jesus about their work, Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). From this we learn that Satan falls from power and is bound whenever God’s Word is preached and believed. When is the dragon loosed? He is released from bondage whenever people turn away from the Word of God. When they call the Gospel “ancient myths and legends” and deny the cross of Christ and his resurrection, they unchain the devil. This unchaining is not some future event—it has been happening for centuries and continues to happen today.
The devil has several names. He is called Satan, which comes from the Persian name for a prosecuting attorney. Not only does the devil tempt us to sin; he also reminds us of our sins and calls on God to punish us as we deserve. He is called “Beelzebul,” meaning “master of masters,” a title given by Canaanites to their god Baal. The name is often changed to “Beelzebub,” meaning “master of flies,” a reminder that, even though at times he is called the king of this world, he has no real power. He took the form of a serpent to deceive our ancestors and to draw them and all humanity into his rebellion. (Only in the book of Revelation does the Bible explicitly say that the serpent is the devil.) God told Satan that he would “eat dust” and that his head would be crushed by the Christ—this first preaching of the Gospel is the time Satan first began to fall.
Jesus has defeated the devil by dying on a cross and rising again from the dead. The devil continues to be defeated whenever people hear and believe the good news about Jesus. If the devil and the world cause a Christian to suffer, hoping that the Christian will doubt God’s goodness or his power, their attack is defeated when that Christian allows his or her sufferings to be a reminder of the sufferings of Christ.
In his death and resurrection, Jesus has redeemed sinners, and he has redeemed all of creation. The devil took the form of a snake, but a snake became a picture of Jesus (Numbers 21:8-9 and John 3:14-15). The devil is a roaring lion, but Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The devil is a prosecuting attorney, but Jesus is our defense attorney, pleading his case before his Father and reminding his Father that our penalty has been paid in full.
Yes, in this sin-polluted life we still battle the devil, the world, and our flesh. One cannot sort the struggles to know when a temptation or an attack came from the devil, or from the world, or from our own sinful flesh. They work together, and the source of our problems does not matter. All that matters is the victory that is ours through Jesus Christ. J.