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Definition

Satan is a personal, spiritual being who rebelled against God and leads a spiritual kingdom composed of demonic powers who oppose God’s purposes through various “schemes” that are designed to keep men and women out of God’s kingdom and to render Christians immature and ineffective in reaching the world with the gospel of Christ.

Summary

This article summarizes the main teachings regarding Satan and demons in the Old and New Testaments. While the data in the Old Testament is limited, attention is given to Satan’s commitment to accusing and tempting God’s people which lays a basic foundation for the New Testament teachings on Satan and his strategies. The article then turns its attention to the rebellion of Satan and his demonic forces, as well as the defeat of Satan. It closes with a discussion of his schemes to oppose fruitful evangelism and the spiritual growth of Christians.

Satan in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, satan is used in the sense of “adversary” when referring to humans (1Kgs. 11:14, 23, 25). However, the occurrences that are significant for understanding the biblical teachings present Satan as a transcendent, supernatural figure. Most notable among these are Job 1-2, where Yahweh presents Job as “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). Satan then responds by citing the protection and blessing that Job has enjoyed, implying that Job fears God only because of the blessings he receives by doing so (v. 10). Satan then brings on the challenge: “But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face” (v. 11). In the end God grants Satan limited power to test Job’s character, first, by destroying his possessions and his family (1:12-22), and second, by attacking him physically (2:4-13). His purpose, clearly, was to incite Job to curse God (1:11; 2:5), to charge him with wrongdoing (1:22) and to “sin in what he said” (2:10).

Satan is also portrayed as accusing one of God’s people in the book of Zechariah. In chapter three the prophet receives a vision of “…Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him” (Zech. 3:1). However, in the vision Yahweh rebukes Satan, pointing out that he “has chosen Jerusalem” and brought them out of the Babylonian exile (3:2). The changing of Joshua’s clothes (3:4-5) symbolizes both God’s forgiveness of his sins and his reinstatement to his high priestly role. In spite of Satan’s accusations, this prophetic writing makes it clear that it is Yahweh’s sovereign and gracious purpose that will prevail.

In addition to accusing members of God’s people, two other passages in the Old Testament reveal a second strategy that is utilized by Satan. In 1 Chronicles 21:1 “Satan rose against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” His strategy was to cause harm to Israel by tempting David, their king, to take a census in order to determine the number of fighting men, something for which he was rebuked by Joab since it demonstrated both pride in the size of his empire and a lack of faith in Yahweh. According to this passage, it is Satan who incited David to take the census, yet 2 Samuel 24:1 makes it clear that, as in Job, the tempter operates under the sovereign will of Yahweh: “Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.’” In this case, while Satan’s purpose was evil, namely, inciting the leader of God’s people to sin, in the sovereignty of God he is still used to accomplish Yahweh’s greater purposes for both David and the people.

The Old Testament teachings about Satan are quite limited. However, by emphasizing both Satan’s evil purposes and the sovereignty of God, the Old Testament lays the foundation for the New Testament’s teaching on Satan and the demonic powers

Satan and Demons in the New Testament

The New Testament teachings regarding Satan and demons are far more developed than in the Old Testament. Satan (also referred to as Beelzebul), is presented as the ruler of the kingdom of darkness, with demonic powers in submission to him (see Matt. 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22, and Luke 11:15, where he is referred to as “the prince of demons”; cf. also John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11, where he is referred to as “the prince of this world”). These demonic powers are variously referred to in the New Testament as “demons,” “spirits,” “evil spirits,” “unclean spirits,” and “deceitful spirits.” The New Testament also uses the term “principalities and powers” which clearly refers to personal, spiritual beings who seek to accomplish Satan’s purposes in the world.

The Rebellion of Satan and his Followers

It is clear from the overall teaching of Scripture that there is no eternal dualism between God, on the one hand, and Satan and his demonic followers on the other. Rather, Satan and his demonic subordinates were created by God, but chose to rebel prior to the creation of the world, and now stand in opposition to God and his purposes. Paul’s teaching in Colossians chapter 1 is supportive of this understanding of the origin of Satan and the demonic powers. In Colossians 1:16 the apostle indicates that “…in him all things were created,” then specifies what was created in Christ: “things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities.” After that he suggests that God created “all things”—which in the immediate context includes spiritual beings—in a state of goodness. According to Paul they were created “through him and for him.”

Having established from Colossians chapter 1 the goodness of God’s original creation, including all spiritual powers, it is noteworthy that subsequent verses, especially Colossians 1:19-20, suggest that after God created “all things” something went very wrong: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” The fact that “reconciliation” is required, both for humans and for the “things in heaven,” suggests the presence of disharmony and rebellion. While the hosts of heaven were created without sin, a change had taken place so that those powers were now demonic in nature, doing the bidding of “the prince of demons.”

It should be noted that some scholars believe that the fall of Satan and his followers is described in the depiction of the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:11-19 and in the description of the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:12-14. They argue that the descriptions are more than metaphorical, and while the primary reference in each case is to the earthly king in question, the language of the two descriptions go beyond what would be appropriate if they were referring only to earthly kings.

The Defeat and Final Judgment of Satan

The New Testament teaches that Satan and his followers have been and will be defeated through four specific events or ministries. First, they were defeated at the temptation of Jesus (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). When Jesus overcame the temptations by citing the word of God, he maintained his sinlessness and continued to walk in obedience to his heavenly Father. Because of his obedience in the face of temptation he was qualified to offer himself on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of humankind.

Second, Jesus defeated Satan and his followers when he proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom and led men and women to follow him and to live their lives in submission to God’s reign as they obeyed his teachings. In addition, in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus said, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28 / Luke 11:20). The eschatological victory over Satan that was expected in much of Jewish thought was taking place in Jesus’ ministry, though in a limited form, as he set people free from the power of demonic forces. Each exorcism that Jesus performed was in reality a blow to the kingdom of darkness.

Third, Satan and his followers were defeated decisively at the cross and the empty tomb. According to Colossians 2:13b-14, God “…forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the certificate of debt that stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” This salvific action had consequences for Satan and his followers: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (v. 15). Jesus’ resurrection also played a significant role in Satan’s defeat, as indicated in 1 Peter 3:21b-22, which refers to baptism resulting from saving faith in Christ: “It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.”

Fourth, God’s people possess a living hope and expectation that God’s reign will come in all its fullness at a future time, and that Satan’s dark kingdom will be defeated totally and completely. As Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). For this reason Christians wait patiently and confidently for the fulfillment of the vision that John reported in Rev. 20:10, “And the devil…was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

“Schemes” of Satan and his Demonic Forces

In spite of the fact that Satan and his followers have been decisively defeated, for the time being he continues to oppose God’s will and his purposes in the world. His primary concern is to keep men and women from responding to the proclamation of the gospel by putting their faith in Christ. He opposes fruitful evangelism because he is even now “at work in those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:2), namely non-Christians. He is very aware of the fact that if they put their faith in Christ, they will immediately be rescued “…from the dominion of darkness” and transferred “…into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Col. 1:13; cf. Acts 26:18). In short, when someone truly believes the message of the gospel, Satan loses a subject and that person then becomes a devoted child of his Enemy, namely Christ. He and his demonic followers will do anything within his power to prevent that. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 4:4 the apostle Paul writes, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” This is likely what Jesus is referring to in the Parable of the Sower when he said, “Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them” (Mark 4:15; cf. Matt. 13:19; Luke 8:12).

Given the fact that Satan and the evil spirits under his authority prioritize opposition to fruitful evangelistic efforts on the part of the Church, there is no question that Christians must regard the proclamation of the gospel as a critical point of spiritual conflict. However, Satan’s opposition does not end there. He is also committed to opposing the spiritual growth and ministries of people who have already put their faith in Christ. In 2 Corinthians 2:11 Paul emphasizes that Satan desires to “outwit” us so we must not be “unaware of his schemes.” Rather, we must be prepared so we can stand our ground against them (Eph. 6:11, 13). The use of the plural “schemes” definitely implies that Satan employs a variety of strategies to “outwit” or to gain an advantage over believers. A number of these schemes are mentioned in the Scriptures, but it is unlikely that these references are meant to be exhaustive when it comes to the devil’s schemes.

Among the schemes that are mentioned in Scriptures, one of the most important is deception. In fact, Satan is referred to in Revelation 12:9 as “the deceiver” or “the one who leads astray” (ho planōn). As Jesus said in John 8:44, Satan does not hold to the truth, “…for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” John even writes in Revelation 12:9, “The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.” The lies he uses may involve doctrinal error (“teachings of demons”; see 1Tim. 4:1), or they may be more personal in nature, as when he undermines a believer’s identity in Christ or suggests that engaging in specific patterns of sin will not ensnare a believer or have other negative consequences for his or her life and ministry.

Often paired with deception is a second scheme, namely temptation, which is not surprising since Satan is referred to as “the tempter” (ho peirazōn) in Matthew 4:3 and 1 Thessalonians 3:5. In addition to the Old Testament data mentioned previously in this discussion, several references to temptation in the New Testament are also instructive. Satan begins by using this strategy with Jesus himself (Matt. 4:1-11 / Mark 1:12-13 / Luke 4:1-13), yet does so unsuccessfully as Jesus counters the temptations point by point with the word of God. When it comes to Christians, however, Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 10:13 is indispensable: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” Of course, the nature of the “way out” can vary according to the situation one is facing, so believers should remain prayerful and vigilant as they seek to avoid evil and to walk in the way of obedience. In addition, it is critical to bear in mind that every Christian can go to Jesus for help in the midst of temptation. As the author of Hebrews writes, he can sympathize with our weaknesses because he himself has experienced temptation, “yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).

Further Reading

  • Clinton Arnold, 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare
    • An excellent study by a New Testament scholar. Focuses primarily on the work of Satan and his demonic followers to oppose God’s work in and through his Church.
  • Graham A. Cole, Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan and Demons
    • A solid study of the biblical teachings regarding Angels, Satan and Demons as well as some practical issues.
  • Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall
    • Good study from a mildly charismatic perspective on Satan, his opposition to the Church, and Satan’s defeat. Stronger than some other books on the practical application of the Bible’s teaching on Satan and Demons.
  • Tremper Longman and Daniel Reid, God is a Warrior
    • Lays a good biblical and theological foundation, especially for the Old Testament teachings on Satan and Demons and their relationship to spiritual warfare.
  • Peter T. O’Brien, “Principalities and Powers: Opponents of the Church,” in Biblical Interpretation and the Church: The Problem of Contextualization, ed. D.A. Carson, pp. 110-150.
    • This essay provides the reader with a strong biblical basis for interpreting “Principalities and Powers” in the New Testament as personal, spiritual beings rather than only societal structures.
  • Sydney H. T. Page, Powers of Evil: A Biblical Study of Satan and Demons
    • Out of print – may purchase used copies from Amazon.com. Overall an excellent study of Satan and Demons in the Bible.
  • There are also a number of helpful articles on the Gospel Coalition website that can be accessed by going to their website, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/, and searching for “Satan”, “Demons” or “Spiritual Warfare.”

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.

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