Jesus performs two miracles that show his identity and what salvation looks like in Luke 8:22-39. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on January 13, 2019.
Recently, we’ve had another mass shooting. This time, seventeen people died. The alleged shooter is a very troubled young man, Nikolaus Cruz. This shooting is an evil act, to say the very least. The consequences are horrific. And in the wake of this shooting, there have been many reactions. Some demand action, often talking about gun control. Some who support the Second Amendment push back, talking about the need to balance safety and freedom, security and constitutional rights. Others said that local law enforcement knew that this young man was dangerous and should have acted in some way. If the authorities had acted responsibly, this young man should never have had access to guns. Not only do we have to deal with the horror of the seventeen lives lost too soon, but we have to deal with the confusing and controversial debates that follow this event.
Now, my point in bringing up this issue isn’t to get into specifics about gun laws. I’m certainly no expert in public policy. But my point is this: This shooting is another reminder that we live a broken, fallen world that contains evil. And when evil is on display, we often cry out for authorities to do something. We long for someone to have the power to stop such a tragic event. We want someone who can fix this broken world.
Today, we’re going to see that Jesus has the authority and power to fix what is broken in this world. We’ve been studying the book of Luke together over the last three months and today we’ll look at Luke 4:31–44.
Before we start to read this passage, I want to say one thing about it up front. Most of us don’t have a problem accepting that there are supernatural elements to the Bible. Obviously, God is supernatural—he is beyond the world of nature, the world that we can see, hear, and touch. But there are other elements of the Christian worldview that are beyond nature, things like the devil and demons and the possibility of miracles. And some people have a hard time believing such things are real. If you’re one of those people, I want to ask you to suspend your disbelief for a while. And then, later, I’ll address some objections that you may have. We suspend our disbelief when we watch superhero movies in order to enter into a different world. We don’t say, “Wait, there’s no planet called Krypton! Radioactive spiders can’t make a person climb walls! There’s no such metal called vibranium!” For now, I want you to enter into a world of spirits and miracles. This may seem like a fantasy, but I believe it’s true, and I’ll try to convince you of that, too.
Before I read today’s passage, let me explain the context briefly. Jesus has recently begun his ministry. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus began his public activity by reading Scripture and teaching in a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. Here, he is in another town in Galilee, Capernaum. Capernaum was one of the larger villages in Galilee. It had anywhere from 600 to 1,500 people and it was known for its fishing industry, since it was on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was teaching in this place on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest and worship. It seems that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, the place where Jewish people gathered to pray, read Scripture, and hear teaching.
While teaching in the synagogue, Jesus encounters a man who was possessed by a demon. That same day, Jesus also heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law as well as other people as well.
So, let’s now read the whole passage together. Here is Luke 4:31–44:
31 And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, 32 and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority. 33 And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, 34 “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” 35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. 36 And they were all amazed and said to one another, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” 37 And reports about him went out into every place in the surrounding region.
38 And he arose and left the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. 39 And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them.
40 Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. 41 And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.
42 And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, 43 but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” 44 And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.
I want to make four basic points about this passage. The first is that Jesus’ word possesses authority and power. If you’ve ever read the Gospels, the four biographies of Jesus in the Bible, you will see that Jesus does some amazing things with words. Obviously, Jesus is an amazing teacher. There is simply no one who taught like him. He speaks with complete authority. He is self-assured, never doubting who he is or what he teaches. Jesus not only explains the true meaning of passages from the Hebrew Bible—our Old Testament—but he adds powerful new teachings, too. It would be impossible to mention all of his astonishing teachings in one sermon, so I would encourage you to read through one of the Gospels. Perhaps start with Matthew and read chapters 5–7, the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” If you want to learn more about Jesus and his teachings, you could go to our website and listen to sermons from two sermon series I have presented here: “Who Is Jesus?” and “Conversations with Jesus.”
We’re not told about the content of Jesus’ teaching. We’re only told that his teaching was astonishing. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus preached the message of the kingdom of God. Here, it’s called “good news” (verse 43). That’s what the word “gospel” means. Jesus often taught the good news that the kingdom of God had arrived. The kingdom of God is God’s rule over God’s people in God’s place. Jesus is the true King, not just of Israel, but of the world. People who respond to his message are his people; they belong to God and his kingdom. And the true place of God is wherever Jesus is. Jesus often told people about their sin, how they had ignored God and done what is wrong. But he also told them how they could respond rightly to God and be forgiven of their sin. I’ll talk more about that later.
What we see here is that Jesus’ words have power to do things. He’s not just a great teacher. But he can also rule over the spiritual realm and heal people with his words. Jesus drives out a demon from a man in the synagogue and then later he casts out several demons. Then he heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a dangerous fever and heals others.
What are we to make of demons? The Bible says two important things regarding the presence of evil in the world. One thing the Bible acknowledges is that behind all evil lies a mysterious figure, Satan, and that he has many demons. We assume that these are angels who became evil. The Bible doesn’t explicitly teach us the origins of Satan and his minions, though there are some hints as to where they come from. The Bible is more concerned about reporting that these beings are real.
I can’t spend too much time this morning on this issue, but I do want to address it because I know some people have a hard time believing it’s true. So, let me make a few quick points. One, the realm of the demonic is real. Many people have attested to the reality of demons or evil spirits. Craig Keener, a biblical scholar, has written a large book on miracles. Toward the end of this book he has a long section on demons and exorcisms and he reports this: “[A] psychiatrist warns against viewing most sorts of emotional problems as demonic but notes that he has seen a few clear cases of possession by a genuine spirit ‘even in my own psychiatric practice.’” This was a psychiatrist writing for the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. (I assume this was an American psychiatrist.) Specifically, this psychiatrist offers three examples of people who were involved in occult practices.
Craig Keener also writes, “Still another psychiatrist notes that 70 percent of his work deals with psychosomatic cases, but in 4 percent of the cases he has treated, he has needed to undertake exorcism. He notes roughly 280 cases that required exorcism, especially resulting from the occult practices of the person or their family (such as Ouija boards, witchcraft, horoscopes, etc.).”
Now, if you paid attention to those quotes, you’ll see that demon possessions are rare. A lot of unusual behavior in people can be traced to physical or psychological problems. But there are some cases that cause people to act in strange and evil ways, and these cases can’t be treated with therapy and medicine. In these cases, people often speak in strange voices or do things that are destructive. I can’t say that the shooter in Parkland, Florida was demon-possessed, but I also can’t rule out that he was influenced by demonic forces. Committing such evil acts is an irrational act that cannot be easily explained by pointing to chemical imbalances or a bad upbringing. There are a lot of people with chemical imbalances and bad childhoods who don’t shoot dozens of innocent people.
So, demon possession may be rare. Also, demonic forces don’t seem to be evenly distributed in space or time. It seems like there are times and places where the forces of evil are more active. A number of reports of demonic activity come from places where the gospel, the message of Jesus, is breaking new ground. It seems that during Jesus’ time, demonic activity was heightened. And that shouldn’t surprise us, because Satan opposed Jesus and tried to thwart his plans. We saw that a few weeks ago.
I don’t know that demon possession is common in America. But that doesn’t mean Satan isn’t at work. Whenever people lie and kill and reject God, they are under Satan’s influence. And it seems we do a great job of doing these things without demon possession. In fact, Satan’s greatest trick seems to be getting people to doubt that he and his preternatural powers are real. Whether we see the reality of spirits and miracles is a matter of what we presuppose to be real. In short, whether we believe nature is all there is or whether we believe there is more to reality than meets the eye, our position rests on faith.
To get back to the point of this passage, Jesus is able to exercise authority over the demonic realm through his word. All he has to do is rebuke demons and tell them to leave and they do.
The other thing that the Bible says about evil is that all bad things like illness and even death entered into the world because of our sin, our rebellion against God. When the first human beings failed to trust, love, and obey God the way that we were made to, the world came under a curse. Part of that curse includes illness and death. We see here that Jesus has the authority and power to heal people who are sick. Jesus heals by his word. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a high fever. This was probably a very serious condition, particularly in an era before modern medicine. Jesus simply rebukes the fever and it’s gone. Later, he heals all kinds of sick people. He lays his hands on them not because he has to, but to show that he cares. Often, sick people wouldn’t be touched. They were considered unclean. But Jesus wasn’t afraid to touch them and heal them.
Now, you may wonder why Jesus doesn’t heal all diseases today. You may wonder, “If Jesus could rebuke that fever, why doesn’t he rebuke fever itself?” You may think, “If Jesus could make a blind person see, why doesn’t he remove blindness from the world?” I’ll address that in a little while. But now, let’s move on to the second main point of this passage.
The second point is that Jesus has authority and power because of who he is. Jesus isn’t just a great teacher or even some kind of faith healer. He is “the Holy One of God” and “the Son of God” (verses 34 and 41, respectively). This passage reveals Jesus’ identity. He isn’t just a man, he is the God-man. He is the divine Son of God, equal in divinity and power to God the Father. As the Son of God, he knows no beginning; he is eternal. Yet over two thousand years ago he entered into this world by being conceived in a virgin’s womb and being born in humble circumstances.
What’s interesting is that it’s the demons who recognize who Jesus really is. The Bible says that even the demons know that God exists, and they shudder at the thought (James 2:19). Being a Christian is a lot more than believing in the existence of God. Satan and his forces believe that much. Being a Christian means loving and trusting God. Yet these demons don’t love Jesus. No, they’re afraid. They ask, “Have you come to destroy us?” Yes. Jesus comes to take back God’s world from the forces of evil.
Yet Jesus also commands the demons to be silent. Why is that? There may be several reasons. One is that he may not want this testimony coming from demons. After all, they are probably not the most reliable sources. But I think the better reason is that it was not time for this to be revealed. Verse 41 says that Jesus “would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.” “Christ” and “Messiah” both mean “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, there are passages that talk of a king who was a descendant of King David, a king who would come and crush his enemies and rule with righteousness and justice. If people heard that Jesus was the Christ, they might have thought he would come to overthrow the Roman Empire, which was the superpower of the day and which ruled over Israel. But Jesus didn’t come to be a military ruler or a political revolutionary. He is the true King who will one day remove all evil from the world, but he didn’t come to build a geo-political nation when he came the first time.
Jesus surely also knew that if everyone went around claiming he was the Christ and the Son of God, he would be killed. Of course, Jesus is ultimately killed for claiming to be equal to God. Those who didn’t believe Jesus was telling the truth thought he was committing blasphemy. They were also threatened by him, and they eliminated that threat. Jesus knew he would die, but he knew that his time hadn’t come yet. He first had to teach more. He had to perform more signs and wonders. When the time was right, he would be crucified, treated as an enemy of the state even though he had done nothing wrong. But that time hadn’t come yet.
Still, I think Luke wants us to know that Jesus is God. Because Jesus is God, he has the power to deal with evil in this world. In fact, only God can decisively and finally remove all the evil of this world, and he will do that one day.
The third point of this passage is that salvation leads to service. Deliverance should lead to devotion. Healing should lead to helping. We see this with Simon’s mother. Simon is better known as Peter, generally thought to be the leader of Jesus’ disciples. We’ll learn more about him next week. But for now, we see that Simon’s mother-in-law was sick, that Jesus healed her, and that she then started to serve them.
As a side note, we should see that Peter was married (see also 1 Cor. 9:5). The Catholic Church believes that Peter was the first pope. But they also believe that the pope and all priests shouldn’t marry. Yet Peter was married and later tradition says that he had a daughter. There’s nothing wrong with being married and having children, and Scripture expects that church leaders will be married and have children (1 Tim. 3:2, 4). So, we must conclude that the Catholic Church is wrong.
Back to the point at hand, it would be easy to miss this brief description of Simon’s mother-in-law. The focus is on Jesus’ healing. But once she’s healed, she serves. This is often how things work in the Bible. God saves his people and they serve him. He rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt so that they would serve him (Exod. 3:12; 4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). And God rescues us from our own sin and the condemnation that we deserve not just so we can live lives of comfort and ease. No, he rescues us so that we will worship him and serve him. That is always the pattern. So, when people claim to be Christians and don’t actually worship Jesus and serve in a church, I have to wonder if they’ve been saved in the first place. At the least, they’re not acting like it.
Here’s the fourth point of this passage: Jesus destroys evil without destroying us. Look back at verse 35. After Jesus rebukes the demon, we’re told, “And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm.” The demon looked like he would harm this man. Yet Jesus is able to remove the demon and the man was left unharmed.
Now, here’s the importance of Jesus dying on the cross. He didn’t just die because people thought he was wrong and people thought he was a threat. Ultimately, he died to pay for the sins of everyone who is united to him by faith. If you trust Jesus, your sins were destroyed on the cross. As the apostle Paul puts it, God has canceled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14).
We can think of sin in two ways. Sins are wrong actions. They are actions that violate God’s design for our lives and transgress God’s commands. But sin is also a power, a force of evil that we can’t control. Sin distorts our desires so that we don’t want to love and serve God. Sin corrupts God’s world, a world that was initially good. Because God is a perfect, holy judge, he must punish evil. He must punish it and remove it from his world. If it were not for Jesus, every one of us would be condemned. We would be punished for our own sin by being removed from God’s world, cast out into hell. God would be just to do that. But God is also merciful and loving and kind. So, he provided a way for our sin to be destroyed. He sent his Son to take our punishment for us. That’s what Jesus did on the cross. He died so that we can live. He was bound to the cross so that we might go free. He was possessed by evil so that we might be healed.
As I said, Jesus’ death pays for the sins of his people. Only those who put their faith in Jesus, who trust that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that Jesus did what the Bible said he did, will have their sins forgiven. Only those people will be reconciled to God. Only those people will escape God’s judgment and will live with God forever in a perfect world.
Earlier, I raised the question of why Jesus hasn’t removed all evil in the world. Why does God allow things like mass shootings and cancer? The answer is that God will put an end to those things. We don’t exactly when that will happen, but when Jesus returns from heaven to earth, he will make all things right. But when that happens, God will remove all evil from the world. That includes evil people. Those people who don’t have their sins punished on the cross will pay that punishment themselves. In other words, God will punish all sin. Those who trust Jesus already have had their sin punished. Those who reject Jesus will pay the price themselves. When Jesus comes again, it will be too late to turn away from sin and turn to him in faith.
When Jesus comes again, he will purge the world of all evil. Satan and his minions will be cast out into hell. But so will all who reject Jesus. And God will transform the character of his people so that they will not sin. They will receive perfect, immortal bodies and they will live with God in a perfect world.
So, why doesn’t Jesus remove all evil in the world? The answer is that he can’t do that without removing all people who now reject him. He is giving them more time to turn to him in faith.
It may be hard to understand why God would allow evil to happen in the world that he made, particularly since God is all-powerful, perfectly good, loving, and in control. But we can never say that God doesn’t care. We know he cares because he sent his Son into an evil world. His Son performed miracles, which are signs that demonstrate his power and also what he came to do—to rescue us from the forces of evil. And Jesus subjected himself to evil. He let people mock him and arrest him and torture him and kill him, all to save us from our sins. And we’re given the promise that one day he will return to make all things right.
But before he returns, he has given us the opportunity to respond to him. How do we do that? How should we respond to today’s passage?
If you’re not a Christian yet, I would recommend that you learn more about Jesus. Again, read through one of the Gospels. We’re studying the Gospel of Luke, but I would recommend also reading Matthew or John. (There’s nothing wrong with Mark, but he doesn’t spend as much time reporting Jesus’ teachings.) If you read either of those Gospels, you will encounter Jesus’ amazing teachings. I think you’ll find that his words are unequalled in terms of authority and power. There is simply no one who speaks like Jesus.
When we see that, we have a choice to make. We can believe what the Gospel writers tell us. That is, we can believe they reported the truth. Or we can believe that some fairly ordinary Jewish men just so happened to create the greatest fictional character ever. We have evidence outside the Bible that shows that Jesus actually lived and died on a cross, and that Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen him alive again. And I don’t think the writers of the Gospels ever could have created such a powerful fictional character. Jesus is real and his words are real—and really powerful.
Once you are exposed to the real Jesus, you have to choose whether you must put your faith in him or not. I would urge you to trust him. There will be no other answer to the world’s problems. Yes, we can restrain evil and make improvements. But evil has a way of escaping our best restraints. Even the best nations with the best laws experience evil. We are foolish and naïve if we think that we have the power to remove pride, greed, lust, hate, and even murder from the world. No amount of law, military might, money, education, medicine, or technology will be able to do that. Only Jesus can, and only Jesus will.
If you claim to be a Christian today, are you serving Jesus? Has Jesus really saved you? One mark of a Christian is service. We can serve people in our everyday lives, and we ought to do that. But we should be serving in a local church. We always have a need for people to serve. If you feel God moving you to serve in this church, please talk to me about it. We’ll talk about your desires, your talents, and your spiritual gifts, and we’ll see if there’s a way those things can line up with needs that we have in the church.
We should also consider how we pray for those who are hurting. We often pray as if the end goal were healing. But it’s not. The end goal of everything is God’s glory. And God is glorified when we love, worship, and serve him. So, when you pray for those who are hurting, yes, pray for healing. But pray that they would be healed so that they would then be able to serve. We should pray that God would comfort the hurting so that they can comfort others who are hurting. We should pray for good health so that we can serve God well and for a long time. I don’t think it’s a sin to ask God for money, but you should pray that God would give you more money so that you can give more to the church, to other gospel ministries, and to the poor.
Finally, we should think about whether Jesus’ words have authority in all of our lives. What would it look like for Jesus to be Lord of your money, our marriages, our work, our time, and our possessions? Are we inviting the word of God to speak into those areas of our lives? For Jesus’ words to carry weight in our lives, we must first know those words. Jesus can’t speak through a closed Bible. And we must not only read or hear God’s words, but we must put them into practice. When we do, we’ll find that Jesus’ words carry authority and power, and it is then that we will experience God’s power in our lives.
- This shooting occurred in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018. ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. ↑
- https://wbcommunity.org/conversations-with-jesus. ↑
- Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011). ↑
- Walter C. Johnson, “Possession,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 34.3 (1982): 149–154. The quotation appears on p. 839 of Keener, quoting p. 152 of Johnson. ↑
- Keener, Miracles, 839. Keener refers to Kenneth R. McAll, “The Ministry of Deliverance,” Expository Times 86.10 (July 1975): 296–298. ↑
- See the sermon, “Tempted,” that I preached on January 28, 2018: https://wbcommunity.org/tempted. ↑
- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.30.1. Eusebius only says that Peter had a child. An editor’s footnote mentions a tradition that states that Peter had a daughter. See Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890): 1:162fn2. ↑
- For evidence that supports the Gospel accounts, see the sermon, “How Can We Know Jesus?” at https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. ↑
Only Jesus has the authority and power to heal this broken world. Luke 4:31-44 shows that Jesus’ word had the authority and power to preach, to heal, and to drive back the forces of evil. This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 25, 2018.
When a mass shooting occurs, like the recent one in Las Vegas, people scramble for answers to the question of why the shooting occurred, and they suggest solutions. It’s common for people to assume that mass shootings occur because the shooters are mentally ill. It’s common for people to go to their prophets and priests, to psychiatrists and psychologists, for explanations of what happened to the mental health of these shooters. It’s common for people to open their Bible, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, better known as the DSM, to find out what labels apply to these shooters. The problem is that most of these shooters did not have serious mental illness. And only about 4% of violence is caused by mental illness. Furthermore, psychiatrists who actually study criminals realize that mental health is not really the root issue. Michael Stone, a forensic psychologist who has studied at least 300 killers, says, “It would be ridiculous to hope that doing something about the mental-health system will stop these mass murders. . . . It’s really folly.”
Why do people insist that mental health is the root cause? Perhaps it’s because we can’t accept the fact that human beings are by nature capable of committing horrific evil. Perhaps it’s also because we don’t want to consider any issues beyond the natural realm. We tend to think of mental health in terms of chemical imbalances, or other physical issues in the brain. That fits a naturalistic worldview perfectly well. That worldview says the only reality is physical, the stuff that we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, the stuff that we can weigh and measure.
But what if evil comes from beyond the natural realm? What if reality includes things like God and immaterial beings? What if reality includes unseen angels, both good and fallen ones? What if there is a devil and his demons, who try to commit evil and disrupt God’s plans?
Recently, we’ve been answering questions that we have received, and today I want to answer one question: “Is the devil real?”
More people believe in God and heaven than they believe in the devil. In a 2016 Gallup poll, 79 percent of those surveyed said they definitely believe in God (another 10 percent weren’t sure); 72 percent said they believed in angels (12 percent weren’t sure); 71 percent said they believed in heaven (14 percent weren’t sure); 64 percent said they believed in hell (13 percent weren’t sure); and 61 percent said they believed in the devil (12 percent weren’t sure).
It’s interesting that people who believe in supernatural realities like God and heaven are less likely to believe that the devil exists. I suppose some people think he’s a silly myth. Perhaps one famous line in a movie, The Usual Suspects, is true: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” That’s what C. S. Lewis thought. In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, he writes, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” If we don’t believe in the devil and demons, we can’t acknowledge the full reality of evil. If we are too interested in—or too frightened by—the devil, then we’ll take our focus off God.
The Bible quite clearly says that the devil, or Satan, exists. So, that is the answer to today’s question. The devil is real. And I think, since he is a preternatural being—that means he is beyond the natural world, and we can’t see him—we need to have his existence revealed to us. I think his existence explains the personal nature of evil. We get upset when a hurricane or an earthquake kills people. But truly evil acts are personal. Examples of personal evil acts include genocide, mass murder, rape, child abuse, and also betrayal and infidelity. Obviously, humans do these things. But what causes a person to do these things? What is the root of evil, the source of such evil?
While the Bible doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know about Satan, it tells us enough to know that he is the enemy of God and God’s people, he is someone we should be wary of, and we must resist him. We must be aware that he is the source of lies and murder, that he wants to create division in the world and in the church, that he accuses God’s people, and that he has great power. But we should also know that his power is limited and his doom is sure. In fact, there is a sense that he is already defeated, though he is now doing all he can to thwart God’s plans.
Today, I want to focus on three things. First, I want to explore Satan’s identity. Second, I want to talk about what Satan does. In other words, I want to explore his tactics. And, third, I want to talk about some good news regarding Satan, which is his defeat.
So, who is the devil? We’re going to have to do a bit of ground clearing here, because the popular conception of the devil is quite wrong. He’s far from a figure in red, with a tail, horns, and a pitchfork. In fact, the Bible says he can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14).
Honestly, we don’t know a lot about his origins. The first clear reference to “Satan” in the Bible is in the book of Job, which I preached through earlier this year. In that book, there are two scenes in heaven in which God is with the “sons of God,” which we assume are angels. We’re told that Satan was among then, which suggests that he, too, is angel. Actually, Satan seems to be his title and not his proper name, because in the original Hebrew text, he’s called the Satan. Satan means “adversary,” which gives us an indication of who he is. He is God’s adversary, his enemy.
This is what we read of Satan in Job 1:6–12:
6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
In Job, we see that Satan roams the earth, but he also—at least at this point—had access to heaven. He also accuses Job of serving God only because God has given Job a prosperous life. He claims that if God removes all the good things that Job has, Job will curse God to his face. So, God allows him to do some terribly things to Job, including kill all his children, take away all his possessions, and then, later, harm Job’s health.
We must admit that it’s difficult to understand why God would provoke Satan by bringing up Job’s name, or why he would allow Satan to hurt Job and his family. I don’t have time to explain all of this, but I did earlier this year, and you can find all of those sermons online. But the story of Job shows that the whole event actually strengthens Job’s trust in God and Job’s blessings return. It seems that God wanted to show Satan and Job that someone could worship him even if his life was shattered.
From this, we see that Satan wants to drive a wedge between God and his people. He doesn’t want people to worship God. He doesn’t want people to trust him. We also see that Satan doesn’t fit our preconceived notions of him. Many people think that Satan is a fallen angel who was banished from heaven sometime before the world was created, or at least before human beings were created. That’s how it is envisioned in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. But in the Old Testament, Satan is actually in heaven, with the power to “walk” on the earth.
That reality is pictured in another scene in the Old Testament. This time, it’s a vision that the prophet Zechariah sees. We find this at the beginning of Zechariah 3:
1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. 2 And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” 3 Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. 4 And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” 5 And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by.
Commentators believe this scene takes place in heaven. If it’s in heaven, it shows that Satan still had access to that realm in the Old Testament. Joshua was the priest of Israel after they returned from exile in Babylon. The high priest represented God to the Israelites and the Israelites to God. We don’t know exactly what sins he had committed, but Satan was there accusing him. Perhaps he was accusing the entire priesthood, saying that any Israelite would be unworthy to serve as priest because every Israelite had sinned. And that’s true. We all have sinned. But Satan seems to take delight in pointing out the unworthiness of sinners. Yet even here, we see that Satan’s accusations are met by God’s grace. God rebukes Satan and an angel takes off Joshua’s filthy garments, representing his sin, and clothes him in clean ones, which shows that he has been cleansed of his sins.
Of course, the most famous appearance of Satan in the Old Testament is at the very beginning of the Bible. He appears in the form of a serpent in Genesis 3. (However, we don’t find out that this is Satan until the last book of the Bible, Revelation.) In this famous story, the serpent tempts Eve, the first woman, to doubt God’s goodness. He asks her, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). When Eve says, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Gen. 3:3), the serpent lies to her and says, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4–5). This was not true. God didn’t want them to eat from that tree because he wanted them to trust him, to trust that what he revealed about good and evil is true. The consequences were cosmically tragic; because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were banished from Paradise and from the special presence of God. We’re not presented with the serpent’s reaction to this sad affair, but I bet he was pleased with his work.
So, from what we can gather from the Old Testament, Satan, the devil, is a rebellious angel who had access to heaven, who doubted God’s goodness, who encouraged humans to rebel against him, and who accused God’s people of sin. Beyond that, we really don’t know a lot more. There’s a lot of mystery here. Why would God create an angel who would rebel against him? Why would he be in heaven (as in the books of Job and Zechariah)? Why would he be in the garden of Eden in the form of a serpent? It really doesn’t solve the mystery if we say God gave him the choice to rebel. That just raises more questions. Why did God, who knows all things, create a being who would rebel against him? Why would God allow Satan to tempt Adam and Eve? We can speculate all we want, but we would just be guessing in the dark. Perhaps what makes Satan more sinister is the fact that he is so mysterious.
We do get more information about Satan as we turn to the New Testament. It seems that when the Son of God became man, that is, when Jesus was born, there was heightened demonic activity on the earth. When God came to earth, Satan really got to work. Perhaps the clearest scene regarding this is found in chapter 12 in the book of Revelation. Let’s read the first six verses:
1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
The book of Revelation is very different because it’s full of strange, fantastic images, which are full of very meaningful symbols. Here, we have the picture of a woman about to give birth. The woman appears to represent Israel, the people of God. (The twelve stars representing the twelve tribes of Israel, and possibly also the twelve apostles after the child is born.) She is about to give birth to a very special male child, who will rule the nations. That is the Messiah, Jesus. Right before Jesus is born, “a great red dragon” takes down a third of the stars of heaven and casts them to the earth. These may very well be angels, who became demons. And the dragon wanted to kill the male child when he was born. We know from Matthew’s Gospel that King Herod wanted to kill Jesus, because he was threatened by the birth of the true King (Matt. 2). The child, however, was not devoured by the dragon. Instead, he was caught up to God. This vision doesn’t tell us why Jesus came, which was to save his people by living the perfect life that they don’t live because of their sin and dying in their place, taking the wrath that they deserve. Instead, this image skips to Jesus’ ascension, which happened after he died on the cross and after he rose from the grave. And when that happened, the woman, who represents God’s people, went into the wilderness, where she was sustained by God. Now let’s read verses 7–12 to see what happens next:
7 Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
Roughly at the time of Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the dragon fought against the archangel Michael, and it was then that the dragon was thrown down from heaven. Verse 9 makes it clear that this dragon is also the serpent of Genesis 3 and Satan, “the deceiver of the whole world.” He and his fallen angels were thrown down when Jesus rose victorious from the grave. He was not thrown down from heaven before the creation of the world. He is called “the accuser of our brothers,” because he accuses God’s people. In fact, the word “devil” comes from the Greek word diabolos, which means “slanderer.” The good news, which we’ll talk about in a moment, is that Satan is conquered “by the blood of the Lamb.” That’s a reference to Jesus’ death. And Satan is also conquered by those who testify to Jesus, who “love not their lives even unto death.” Those who follow Jesus and love him more than life—in other words, Christians—are conquerors of the devil because they are united to the conqueror of the devil, and that is Jesus.
However, though Satan is thrown down and defeated, in one sense, he is still very active. He has come down to the earth and sea—the visible creation—in great wrath, because his time is short. The devil can’t win and he knows it, and he’s quite angry. Again, from what we see of Satan, he hates God and wants to thwart God’s plans, even though no one can actually destroy them. He tries to attack God’s people, even though he can’t ultimately do that. He accuses and slanders and lies. Jesus himself says this about Satan: “He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because 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 8:44). He would rather fight a losing fight than come under God’s authority. John Milton has Satan say, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”
So, that is who Satan is. We have already seen some of his tactics, which is the second thing we’ll talk about. His main tactic is deception. This can come through clear lies, or, more often, half-truths. He told Eve she wouldn’t die when she ate the forbidden fruit. Eve didn’t die immediately, nor did Adam. But they did die in a spiritual sense, which guaranteed that they would have physical deaths in the future. The reason anyone dies is because of the presence of sin in the world. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).
Satan’s deception can be quite subtle. People who teach false doctrine often can seem very godly. The apostle Paul, one of Jesus’ messengers, warned one church (in Corinth) that false teachers would teach “another Jesus.” These teachers were teaching a “different gospel,” a different message about Jesus (2 Cor. 11:4). Paul then says he will work to undermine these false teachers. He says:
13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds (2 Cor. 11:13–15).
Satan doesn’t come in a red suit, with a tail, horns, and a pitchfork. He works through his servants, who may very well wear nice suits and have big smiles. They talk smoothly and sweetly and say things you want to hear.
Satan can use different kinds of false teachings to lure different kind of people. Satan can tempt people with things like sexual immorality (1 Cor. 7:5; 1 Tim. 5:14–15). False teachers often excuse sexual immorality (see 2 Pet. 2). He can also tempt people to believe false doctrines, like that we can’t enjoy the good things God has made (1 Tim. 4:1–5). He will use whatever keeps people from trusting God. After all Scripture says that he is “the god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).
Another tactic that Satan uses is distraction. He wants to keep us from God’s Word. Jesus once told a parable, an instructive story, about a sower sowing seeds that fall on different types of ground. When Jesus explains the parable, he says, “The sower sows the word [of God]. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them” (Mark 4:14–15). In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis creatively imagines one senior devil writing to a junior devil, instructing him on the trade of fighting against “the Enemy,” God. In the first letter, Screwtape tells Wormwood about how he once almost lost a “patient, a sound atheist,” because this man was reading books in the British Museum and he started to think about things that would lead him to faith. The devil was able to distract him through hunger, telling him he would be better off coming back to these ideas after lunch. When the man left the museum and reentered the busy world of “real life,” he quickly forgot about those ideas that would lead him to think about God.
I think Satan would be pleased to have us all so entertained and distracted and busy that we never stop and think about what matters. When we are constantly distracted by television, the news stories that then become passionate debates which are rather quickly forgotten, and the digital world of computers, tablets, and phones, we have no time to think about eternal matters.
Satan also uses division, particularly in the church. He delights in our accusing each other, and slandering each other. Paul warns churches that anger (Eph. 4:26–27) and an unwillingness to forgive (2 Cor. 2:5–11) give the devil an “opportunity” and are part of his “designs.” If you know the story of Job, think about Job’s friends. They falsely accused him of sin, which means they were carrying out Satan’s work. The Jewish religious leaders who didn’t believe Jesus did the same thing to him.
As we’ve already seen, Satan points out our sin. He wants us to feel ashamed and unworthy. He wants us to feel condemned, beyond God’s reach and love. There’s a place in Christianity for feeling guilty. When it is used positively, guilt can be experienced as conviction. If you’ve been doing something wrong, and you become aware of it and know that you must change, that is conviction. When you confess your sin to God and ask for his help to stop doing it, that is repentance. It’s a positive thing. But Satan wants us to wallow in our guilt and feel condemned. He wants us to feel like it’s too late to change, like we’re too bad to forgive.
Satan certainly wants to harm us spiritually. If you are united to Jesus, he cannot tear you away from him. But Satan will do everything he can to render you ineffective, to deceive you, and to make you feel miserable. Jesus told Peter that Satan wanted to “sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Peter, in his first letter, warned his readers:
8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world (1 Pet. 5:8–9).
Satan can also harm us physically. I don’t think this means that all injuries and diseases are the direct result of Satan’s work. After all, part of God’s judgment against sin in the world is that life is hard and that we die (Gen. 3:16–19). Yet there are accounts in Scripture of Satan giving people physical ailments in order to oppress us and tear us away from God (Job 2:7; Luke 13:11, 16; Acts 10:38; possibly 2 Cor. 12:7 if Paul’s “thorn” was a physical ailment).
Another tactic that Satan uses is to get us to believe we can get back to Paradise without pain and suffering. When Jesus told his disciples that he must die (Matt. 16:21), Peter said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Peter knew that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed King and the Son of God (Matt. 16:16). It made no sense that he would have to die. Peter thought that Jesus would triumph through power. But Jesus corrected Peter by saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23). Peter didn’t understand that it was God’s plan for Jesus to die to pay the penalty for the sins of his people.
Anyone who comes to Jesus and trusts that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done have their sins paid for. But that doesn’t mean we will live easy lives. In fact, if we follow Jesus, we will face tribulation (John 16:33; Acts 14:22) and persecution (2 Tim. 3:12). Satan wants to tempt people to reject such a life (1 Thess. 3:1–5). Those who take the easy path in this life, however, will not have eternal life with God. They may enjoy a life of comfort and ease now, but they will miss out on what is best, which is God. I suppose Satan is pleased with all the false preachers who teach that if you really have faith, God will give you an easy life filled with riches and a wonderful family.
Those are Satan’s tactics. Most of them involve lies.
Though Satan is powerful, there is good news. Though Satan is terrifying, he is a dog on God’s leash. He cannot act without God allowing him to act. The good news is that he is already defeated. Even though he is active right now, he is bound by God (Matt. 12:29; Rev. 20:1–3). We have seen that with Jesus’ death and resurrection, Satan has been “cast out” (John 12:31) and “thrown down” (Rev. 12:9). He has been conquered by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ (Rev. 12:11). John tells us that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). The author of Hebrews says that Jesus suffered and died to bring “many sons to Glory” (Heb. 2:10). Then he says this of Jesus:
14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Heb. 2:14–15).
God’s people have no reason to fear death. The fear of death is a form of lifelong slavery. But those who are united to Jesus know that though they die in this life, they will be resurrected to eternal life, which will far outweigh any suffering they experience.
The good news is that Jesus has already triumphed over Satan. Satan tried to stop Jesus. He tempted Jesus, but he couldn’t distract Jesus from his mission (Matt. 4:1–11). He accused Jesus through the Pharisees, the Scribes, and the other Jewish leaders who wanted to stop him. And Satan tried to destroy Jesus by having him killed (Luke 22:3–6; John 13:1–2, 21–30). But Jesus rose on the third day after he died, showing that Satan can’t stop him and even death can’t stop him. It was promised that a son of Eve would crush the serpent (Gen. 3:15), and we find that Jesus has done, is doing (Rom. 16:20), and will finally do this.
The good news is that Satan cannot remove us from the love of God (Luke 22:31–32; John 10:28; Romans 8). Satan cannot break the bonds of the Holy Spirit, who keeps us united to Jesus. He cannot, in the end, touch us (1 John 5:18).
The good news is that Satan will one be destroyed. He and his demons will be removed from God’s world forever (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:7–10).
Now, the question is, how do we battle against Satan? How do we equip ourselves to deal with his attacks?
The first step is to fear God, not Satan. We are never told to fear Satan. The worst he can do is cause confusion and death. But we are told to fear God. Jesus once said,
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:4–5)
Fearing God means having a proper respect for him. It means knowing that he, not Satan, is the true King, the ultimate authority. And if we fear God, we’ll trust his Son. We will trust that if we have a right relationship with Jesus, his righteous life is credited to us, and his death paid for our sins. That means that our sin cannot keep us from the love of God. If you belong to Jesus, you are forgiven. Your guilt is removed. You have been set free from that slavery.
The second step is to stand firm. James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” The reality is we don’t have to attack Satan. We don’t have to defeat him. He is already defeated. We just have to stand firm in our faith. If you feel like you’re being attacked by forces of evil, don’t do anything but stand firm. Keep trusting Jesus. Call out to him for help.
The best way to not be influenced by Satan is to know the truth. Almost all his tactics involve lies and deception. If we know the truth and really believe it, we won’t be swayed by Satan. That doesn’t mean life will be easy. There will be difficulties. We may feel as if we’re being attacked. We may feel guilty and unworthy. People may even slander us and persecute us. But this is somewhat normal. What you need to do in these situations is keep trusting in the truth of the gospel. Yes, we are guilty of sin. But the reason Jesus came was to save guilty sinners. Remember that though you are sinful, Jesus isn’t, and he gives us his perfect righteousness. He also died to pay for your sins. If you trust that—if you trust Jesus and follow him—you have no reason to fear.
So, is the devil real? The answer is yes. We know this from the Bible, which is God’s revelation to us. And our experience in this life is that there are great evils, such as the Holocaust and other genocides, such as mass murders, that are hard to explain otherwise. Why would people do such things? We can’t simply blame poor mental health. And there are certain evils that seem to go beyond our fallen, sinful nature. The only explanation I can give is that Satan is real, and he does his best to kill and destroy (John 10:10). But God is greater than Satan, and he has already won the decisive battle against Satan. One day, the war will be over and all of God’s people will live in Paradise. I hope to see you all there.
If you doubt whether you’ll be there, if you don’t know Jesus, I would love to talk to you about him. Please, don’t get distracted by things like your hunger for lunch, or football, or by whatever is waiting for you on your phone. This is too important. If you know the truth, it will set you free (John 8:31–32). It will set you free from the devil, the evil of this world, and slavery to sin and the fear of death. Knowing Jesus will give you freedom to experience the best, most beautiful reality, which is God.
- Jeffrey W. Swanson, E. Elizabeth McGinty, Seena Fazel, and Vickie M. Mays, “Mental Illness and Reduction of Gun Violence and Suicide: Bringing Epidemiologic Research to Policy,” Annals of Epidemiology May 2015, 25 (5): 366–377, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4211925, , accessed October 14, 2017. ↑
- Michael S. Rosenwald, “Most Mass Shooters Aren’t Mentally Ill. So Why Push Better Treatment as the Answer?” The Washington Post, May 18, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/most-mass-shooters-arent-mentally-ill-so-why-push-better-treatment-as-the-answer/2016/05/17/70034918-1308-11e6-8967-7ac733c56f12_story.html?utm_term=.3eced556e593, accessed October 14, 2017. ↑
- Frank Newport, “Most Americans Still Believe in God,” Gallup News, June 29, 2016, http://news.gallup.com/poll/193271/americans-believe-god.aspx, accessed October 14, 2017. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperOne, 2001), ix. ↑
- The Hebrew word is שָׂטָן. ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- At https://wbcommunity.org/job. ↑
- Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zecharia and Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1972), 120; George Klein, Zechariah, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2008), 133. ↑
- This fact lines up with what Jesus says in John 12:31, on the eve of his sacrifice: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” I believe this is also what Jesus foresaw when he says, in Luke 10:18, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” It also seems to fit what Revelation 20:1–6 says, that Satan is bound and placed in a bottomless pit “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer.” If my reading of that passage is correct, the “thousand years” of this period symbolizes the current era, the one between Jesus’ first and second comings. Satan is bound in the sense that he cannot deceive the elect that come from the nations to Jesus. But, in another sense, he is very much active and free to wreak havoc. ↑
- The Greek word is διάβολος. ↑
- See 1 John 5:1–5 and the sermon that I preached on this passage (on July 16, 2017), titled “Who Is It That Overcomes the World?” https://wbcommunity.org/letters-of-john. ↑
- John Milton, Paradise Lost i.263, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University, 2004), 11. ↑
- Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 2–4. ↑
- Again, see my sermons on Job, particularly those on Job 1–2 and 38–41, at https://wbcommunity.org/job. ↑
- See also Eph. 6:10–20 and 1 Peter 5:8–9. ↑