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Bible Basics (5th. ed.)


Study 1: God || Study 2: The Spirit Of God || Study 3: The Promises Of God || Study 4: God And Death || Study 5: The Kingdom Of God || Study 6: God And Evil || Study 7: The Origin Of Jesus || Study 8: The Nature Of Jesus || Study 9: The Work Of Jesus || Study 10: Baptism Into Jesus || Study 11: Life In Christ   6.1 God And Evil || 6.2 The Devil And Satan || 6.3 Demons || Digression 9: The Implications And Origin Of The Belief In A Personal Satan || Digression 10: Witchcraft || Digression 11: What Happened In Eden? || Digression 12: Lucifer || Doctrine In Practice 12: Battle For The Mind

6.2 The Devil and Satan

Sometimes the original words of the Bible text are left untranslated (“Mammon”, in Mt. 6:24, is an Aramaic example of this). ‘Satan’ is an untranslated Hebrew word which means ‘adversary’, while ‘devil’ is a translation of the Greek word ‘diabolos’, meaning a liar, an enemy or false accuser. ‘satan’ has been transferred from the Hebrew untranslated, just like ‘Sabaoth’ (James 5:4), ‘Armageddon’ (Rev. 16:16) and ‘Hallelujah’ (Rev. 19:1-6). If we are to believe that satan and the devil are some being outside of us which is responsible for sin, then whenever we come across these words in the Bible, we have to make them refer to this evil person. The Biblical usage of these words shows that they can be used as ordinary nouns, describing ordinary people. This fact makes it impossible to reason that the words devil and satan as used in the Bible do in themselves refer to a great wicked person or being outside of us.

The Word ‘Satan’ In The Bible

1 Kings 11:14 records that “The Lord raised up an adversary (same Hebrew word elsewhere translated “satan”) against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite”. “And God raised up another adversary (another satan)...Rezon ...he was an adversary (a satan) of Israel” (1 Kings 11:23,25). This does not mean that God stirred up a supernatural person or an angel to be a satan/adversary to Solomon; He stirred up ordinary men. Mt. 16:22,23 provides another example. Peter had been trying to dissuade Jesus from going up to Jerusalem to die on the cross. Jesus turned and said unto Peter: “Get behind me, are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men”. Thus Peter was called a satan. The record is crystal clear that Christ was not talking to an angel or a monster when he spoke those words; he was talking to Peter.

Because the word ‘satan’ just means an adversary, a good person, even God Himself, can be termed a ‘satan’. The word ‘satan’ does not therefore necessarily refer to sin. The sinful connotations which the word ‘satan’ has are partly due to the fact that our own sinful nature is our biggest ‘satan’ or adversary, and also due to the use of the word in the language of the world to refer to something associated with sin. God Himself can be a satan to us by means of bringing trials into our lives, or by standing in the way of a wrong course of action we may be embarking on. But the fact that God can be called a ‘satan’ does not mean that He Himself is sinful.

The books of Samuel and Chronicles are parallel accounts of the same incidents, as the four gospels are records of the same events but using different language. 2 Sam. 24:1 records: “The Lord...moved David against Israel” in order to make him take a census of Israel. The parallel account in 1 Chron. 21:1 says that “Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David” to take the census. In one passage God does the ‘moving’, in the other satan does it. The only conclusion is that God acted as a ‘satan’ or adversary to David. He did the same to Job by bringing trials into his life, so that Job said about God: “With the strength of Your hand You oppose me” (Job 30:21); ‘You are acting as a satan against me’, was what Job was basically saying. Or again, speaking of God: “I must appeal for mercy to my accuser (satan)” (Job 9:15 NRSV).

The Word ‘Devil’ In The Bible

The word ‘devil’ too is an ordinary word rather thsan a proper name. However, unlike ‘satan’, it is always used in a bad sense. Jesus said, “Did I not choose you, the twelve (disciples), and one of you is a devil? He spoke of Judas Iscariot...” (Jn. 6:70) who was an ordinary, mortal man. He was not speaking of a personal being with horns, or a so-called ‘spirit being’. The word ‘devil’ here simply refers to a wicked man. 1 Tim. 3:11 provides another example. The wives of church elders were not to be ‘slanderers’; the original Greek word here is ‘diabolos’, which is the same word translated ‘devil’ elsewhere. Thus Paul warns Titus that the aged women in the ecclesia should not be ‘slanderers’ or ‘devils’ (Tit. 2:3). And likewise he told Timothy (2 Tim. 3:1,3) that “In the last will be...slanderers (devils)”. This does not mean that human beings will turn into superhuman beings, but that they will be increasingly wicked. It ought to be quite clear from all this that the words ‘devil’ and ‘satan’ do not refer to a fallen angel or a sinful being outside of us.

Sin, Satan And The Devil

The words ‘satan’ and ‘devil’ are used figuratively to describe the natural sinful tendencies within us which we spoke of in Study 6.1. These are our main ‘satan’ or adversary. Our lusts are deceitful (Eph. 4:22), and so the devil or ‘deceiver’ is an appropriate way of describing them. They are personified, and as such they can be spoken of as ‘the devil’ - our enemy, a slanderer of the truth. This is what our natural ‘man’ is like - the ‘very devil’. The connection between the devil and our evil desires - sin within us - is made explicit in several passages: “Since the children (ourselves) have flesh and blood, he (Jesus) too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14 NIV). The devil is here described as being responsible for death. But “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Therefore sin and the devil must be parallel. Similarly James 1:14 says that our evil desires tempt us, leading us to sin and therefore to death; but Heb. 2:14 says that the devil brings death. The same verse says that Jesus had our nature in order to destroy the devil. Contrast this with Rom. 8:3: “God ... by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man (that is, in our human nature) ... condemned sin in sinful man ”. This shows that the devil and the sinful tendencies that are naturally within human nature are effectively the same. It is vitally important to understand that Jesus was tempted just like us. Misunderstanding the doctrine of the devil means that we cannot correctly appreciate the nature and work of Jesus. It was only because Jesus had our human nature - the ‘devil’ within him - that we can have the hope of salvation (Heb. 2:14-18; 4:15). By overcoming the desires of his own nature Jesus was able to destroy the devil on the cross (Heb. 2:14). If the devil is a personal being, then he should no longer exist. Heb. 9:26 says that Christ appeared “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself”. Heb. 2:14 matches this with the statement that through his death Christ destroyed the devil in himself. By His death Jesus in prospect destroyed “the body of sin” (Rom. 6:6), i.e. human nature with its potential to sin in our very bodies.

“He who sins is of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8), because sin is the result of giving way to our own natural, evil desires (James 1:14,15), which the Bible calls ‘the devil’. “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8). If we are correct in saying that the devil is our evil desires, then the works of our evil desires, i.e. what they result in, are our sins. This is confirmed by 1 Jn. 3:5: “He (Jesus) was manifested to take away our sins”. This confirms that “our sins” and “the works of the devil” are the same. Acts 5:3 provides another example of this connection between the devil and our sins. Peter says to Ananias: “Why has satan filled your heart?” Then in verse 4 Peter says “Why have you conceived this thing in your heart?” Conceiving something bad within our heart is the same as satan filling our heart. If we ourselves conceive something, e.g. a sinful plan, then it begins inside us. Is. 59:13 defines lying as “conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood”. If a woman conceives a child, it doesn’t exist outside of her; it begins inside her. James 1:14,15 use the same figure in describing how our desires conceive and bring forth sin, which brings forth death. Ps. 109:6 parallels a sinful person with a ‘satan’: “Set a wicked man over him: and let an accuser (satan) stand at his right hand”, i.e. in power over him (cp. Ps. 110:1).

All through the Old Testament there is the same basic message - that the human heart is the source of disobedience to God. The Proverbs especially stress the need to give serious attention to the state of the heart. The human mind is the arena of spiritual conflict. David speaks of how “transgression” speaks deep in the heart of the wicked, inciting them to sin (Ps. 36:1 NRSV). The New Testament develops this idea further by calling the unspiritual element in the “heart of man” our enemy / adversary / opponent. The English pop star Cliff Richard expressed this connection between the devil and the human mind in one of his well known songs: "She's a devil woman, with evil on her mind". I’d describe the ‘devil’ as the ‘echo’ which I observe going on in my mind, and I’m sure you’ve had the same experience. “I believe in God”, we think, and there comes back an echo ‘Yes, but… is He really out there? Maybe this is just living out the expectations of my upbringing…?’. Or, “OK, I should be generous to that cause. OK, I’ll give them some money”. And the echo comes back: ‘Yes but what if they aren’t sincere? Can you really afford it? You need to be careful with your money…’. It’s this ‘echo’ that is the Biblical ‘devil’.


However, you may reasonably reply: ‘But it does talk as if the devil is a person!’ That is quite correct; Heb. 2:14 speaks of “him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil”. Even a small amount of Bible reading shows that it often uses personification - speaking of an abstract idea as if it is a person. Thus Prov. 9:1 speaks of a woman called ‘Wisdom’ building a house, Prov. 20:1 compares wine to “a mocker”, and Rom. 6:23 likens sin to a paymaster giving wages of death. This feature is further discussed in Digression 5. Our devil, the ‘diabolos’, often represents our evil desires. Yet you cannot have abstract diabolism; the evil desires that are in a man’s heart cannot exist separately from a man; therefore ‘the devil’ is personified. Sin is often personified as a ruler (e.g. Rom. 5:21; 6:6,17; 7:13-14). It is understandable, therefore, that the ‘devil’ is also personified, seeing that ‘the devil’ also refers to sin. In the same way, Paul speaks of us having two beings, as it were, within our flesh (Rom. 7:15-21): the man of the flesh, ‘the devil’, fights with the man of the spirit. Yet it is evident that there are not two literal, personal beings fighting within us. This sinful part of our nature is personified as “the evil one” (Mt. 6:13 R.V.) - the Biblical devil. The same Greek phrase translated “evil one” here is translated as “wicked person” in 1 Cor. 5:13, showing that when a person gives way to sin, his “evil one” - he himself - becomes an “evil one”, or a ‘devil’. Even in the Old Testament, sin was personified as ‘Belial’ (1 Sam. 2:12 mg.). It really has to be accepted that ‘devil’ and ‘satan’ are used to personify sin, because if we read these words as always meaning a literal being, then we have serious contradictions. Thus “the devil” is a lion (1 Pet. 5:8), a hunter (2 Tim. 2:26) and a snake (Rev. 12:9); it can’t be all these things. Whatever the devil is (and we believe it to essentiually refer to human sin), it is personified in various ways.

Devil’ And ‘Satan’ In A Political Context

These words ‘devil’ and ‘satan’ are also used to describe the wicked, sinful world order in which we live. The social, political and pseudo-religious hierarchies of mankind can be spoken of in terms of ‘the devil’. The devil and satan in the New Testament often refer to the political and social power of the Jewish or Roman systems. Thus we read of the devil throwing believers into prison (Rev. 2:10), referring to the Roman authorities imprisoning believers. In this same context we read of the church in Pergamos being situated where satan’s throne, was - i.e. the place of governorship for a Roman colony in Pergamos, where there was also a group of believers. We cannot say that satan himself, if he exists, personally had a throne in Pergamos.
Individual sin is defined as a transgression against God’s law (1 Jn. 3:4). But sin expressed collectively as a political and social force opposed to God is a force more powerful than individuals; it is this collective power which is sometimes personified as a powerful being called the devil. In this sense Iran and other Islamic powers have called the United States, “the great satan” - i.e. the great adversary to their cause, in political and religious terms. This is how the words ‘devil’ and ‘satan’ are often used in the Bible.
In conclusion, it is probably true to say that in this subject more than any other, it is vital to base our understanding upon a balanced view of the whole Bible, rather than building doctrines on a few verses containing catch-phrases which appear to refer to the common beliefs concerning the devil. Study 6.1 and this section will repay careful, prayerful re-reading. It is submitted that the doctrinal position outlined there is the only way of being able to have a reasonable understanding of all the passages which refer to the devil and satan. Those words can be used as ordinary nouns, or in some places they refer to the sin which is found within our own human nature. Some of the most widely misunderstood passages which are quoted in support of the popular ideas are considered in the Digressions which accompany this study.
Those who have problems in accepting our conclusions need to ask themselves: (1) Is sin personified? Clearly it is. (2) Is it true that ‘satan’ can be used just as an noun? Yes, it is. What real problem, therefore, can there be in accepting that sin is personified as our enemy/satan? The world is often personified in John’s letters and Gospel (see R.V.); what better title for this personification than ‘satan’ or ‘the devil’?

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