Understanding Satan, Part 1

"We don’t really like talking about Satan and demons...but if we’ll look at even a few of the passages in context, we’ll see that they provide a great deal of clarity [on understanding Satan]."

You probably don’t want to read this post. It’s not that you’re going to get angry or something. It's just that we don’t really like talking about Satan and demons. The topic seems confusing and not a little bit scary. And when we think about spirits flying around tempting, whispering, or even possessing people, we can feel a little embarrassed. It’s the kind of topic that gets talked about in hushed tones in private places. And it’s the kind of topic that leaves many of us feeling insecure or naïve.

But what does the New Testament teach us about Satan, demons and how we relate to them in our Christian walk? It’s a question that has produced very different answers over the years. But if we’ll look at even a few of the passages in context, we’ll see that they provide a great deal of clarity, even if the spiritual realm as a whole will remain largely a mystery to us in this life. This will be the goal of this short series of posts, but I want to start by looking at some of the examples of how Satan has related to humans in the past.

Satan appears on the scene on page 2 of your Bible. Taking the form a serpent, he lies to Adam and Eve, twisting God’s words, and tempting them to their fateful act of rebellion. While the serpent is the form Satan took in the Garden, that is not what we’re told to expect in the New Testament.

Similarly, Satan appears in the Old Testament book of Job as a “bargainer” with God. It is fascinating to have the curtain pulled back and see this relational interplay between Satan and God—but, again, this is not the consistent role we are told to expect of Satan today. (Though if anything similar to this were taking place we could probably expect to be just as out of the loop as Job was).

In the Gospels, we get to witness the unique interaction between the Son of God and demons, as Jesus converses with and commands both individual demons and legions of demons at his will. Through this example we see Jesus’ power and authority over all the actors in the spiritual realm, including each and every demon. But the one thing we don't get a chance to see in the Gospels is the dynamic between Satan or demons and the believer in Christ who has been given the Holy Spirit.

Fascinatingly, in the book of Acts—where believers are filled with the Holy Spirit—the only "casting out" that happens is when Stephen is cast out of Jerusalem (Acts 7:58). There is a description of the ministry of Paul involving spirits leaving those that were afflicted (Acts 19:11-12), but this is used to demonstrate Paul's unique apostolic authority, not as a model for New Testament ministry. The fact is that in the life of the believers in Acts, Satan is depicted like he is throughout the rest of the New Testament: as a liar who influences (Acts 5:3) not a spirit who possesses.

Admittedly, there is much I don’t know (and much I believe we cannot fully understand) about the ways that Satan influences our world and the non-Christians in it. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he is described as the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2) and later in the letter we are reminded that, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

The truth is that Satan is real. And God, as a part of his perfect plan, has allowed him some level of authority in our present world. In this life, we will never fully understand all of the ways that he influences and brings that authority to bear, but there are some specific ways we, as Christians, are called to combat the work of Satan. And we’ll look at just a few of those in the next post.

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