A Bit of the Devil
Without the perverse thoughts that arise from that devilish bit within us, no external temptation would be able to get a hold on us long enough to be a temptation. James says, every man is tempted by his own desires, which then lead on to sin (James 1:14-15). Jesus makes it clear that only a man’s own thoughts can truly defile him (Mark 7:20-23) and those thoughts come from within. Every one of us knows how true that is. That sensuous, willful bit in all of us is what the Bible is talking about, when it tells us about the Flesh (Galatians 5:19), about the World (1 John 2:16), and the ‘old man’ (Colossians 3:9). And as it happens, it’s what the Bible is talking about when it tells us about the Devil.
The Devil You Know?
Most of what one hears about the devil comes from literature outside the Bible, such as ‘Faust’ and ‘Paradise Lost,’ which in turn draw on medieval legends. As a representation of the perversity and destructiveness of human nature, the devil is a wonderful literary device: it’s easy to see why story-tellers over the ages have used this character, and why stories about the devil have always been popular. But a Christian must look to the Bible, not to the works of men.
The Word ‘Devil’ in the Bible
The other word often used in the New Testament is ‘Satan.’ This is actually an Old Testament Hebrew word that has been taken whole (transliterated) into the New Testament. In Hebrew, ‘Satan’ means an opponent or adversary and it is usually translated that way. In the New Testament it is used as a name. In the Old Testament, ‘Satan’ appears as a name in only two places, one in the book of Job and one in Zechariah, neither of which provides much support for the common perception. For example, the latter case.
Satan in Zechariah
Besides the historical setting of the prophecy, there is evidence elsewhere in the Bible that this interpretation is sound. Jude, in verse 9, tells us it was Michael who rebuked Satan, though he is not mentioned in the account in Zechariah. But another vision about the restoration of the Jews and the temple, in Daniel 10, indicates that Michael was working to influence the king of Persia at that time. So the angel that rebuffed the Jews’ accusers would have been Michael, just as Jude says. Together, these writers confirm the conclusion that the vision in Zechariah 3 is about the edict in Ezra 6. Satan in Zechariah’s vision – the Adversary – refers to the peoples surrounding the Jews, who were motivated by an attitude, a state of mind that led them to oppose this great work of God.
Satan in the New Testament
The reader is strongly urged read the New Testament references to Satan with this suggestion in mind. Satan will be shown to be a symbolic name, showing us how people are motivated by the mind of the flesh, or by love of the world, or other thoughts contrary to the will of God. The Bible has portrayed human nature in this way as a literary device, to help us see clearly just how dangerous this enemy is.
The Tempter of Christ
Yet, in the letter to the Hebrews we find that the susceptibility to temptation was vital to Christ’s role as high priest:
What does the verse mean: “in every respect… tempted as we are”? As we have already seen, every man is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire (James 1:14). If Jesus did not know the whisperings of that bit of the devil within all of us, his temptations could not have been anything like ours. And he could never have been the perfect High Priest he has become. This is what happened for forty days in the wilderness.
Take a moment to go to the Bible and read Luke 4:1-13 or Matthew 4:1-11. As you read, ask yourself this simple question: what is really happening? For example, did Jesus actually go along with the devil to the top a high mountain in order to be tempted? Did he actually go along with the devil to a pinnacle of the temple in order to be tempted? It is clear enough that the high mountain, with its view of all the kingdoms of the world, is not real: there is no such mountain. And if Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days he could not really have been atop the temple in Jerusalem. So several details in the text are impossible as a report of fully physical events.
But, if this record is really a symbolic picture of Christ overcoming the temptations of his own flesh, it all works. Our Lord did not hang around with the devil; he did not follow a known super-villain on two long excursions for the purpose of being tempted. Rather, he was taken in thought, by his own thoughts, to consider his course as the beloved Son of God. He would refuse to use his miraculous powers to relieve his own hunger, but would attend to the word of God and rely on the Father to provide. He would refuse to use his powers to compel the people to recognize him as the Son of God, but would tend to the ministry his Father had appointed him. He would refuse to take power before the Father’s good time. In the mind’s eye, it is possible to see all the kingdoms of the world from a high mountain. In the imagination, it is possible to be on the pinnacle of the temple, even when you’re really in the desert.
Also notice the context of the entire event. The temptations occurred immediately after Jesus was baptized with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16-17), immediately after Jesus received limitless power. Isn’t that in itself a convincing testimony of the presence of a human, internal temptation? For example, by analogy, when is a teenager most sorely tempted to break the speed limit on the roads? Isn’t it immediately after they have received a brand new incredibly fast car? Jesus was a human man, albeit one that never forsook his Father’s will, and he received the Holy Spirit of God without limit (John 3:34). How revealing it is of the human condition that the temptations arrived immediately subsequent.
The devil that tempted Christ in the wilderness was the same devil that tempts us to misuse God’s gifts: that evil bit inside us that opposes the Lord’s purpose for us. Jesus was after all tempted in just the same way we are, yet without sin. He overcame the devil, not only in the desert, but at every turn (notice Luke 4:13 -- it came back later!).
The Devil at Work
Paul describes people who have fallen into the devil’s snare as opposing themselves (2 Tim 2:25-26). He writes of internal warfare between the flesh and the spirit (Romans 7:23; Galatians 5:17). James tells how that internal warfare spills out and erupts into warfare between brothers (James 4:1). All these are descriptions of human nature in all its fearfulness, viciousness, and sensuality. To the disciples of Christ, the children of God, this is the enemy: this is the one who accuses them before God. The enemy declares they are not righteous, not worthy of God’s favor; he says every thing he can to stop the work of God in his children, to keep them from finishing the temple they are laboring to build (2 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Corinthians 6:19).
Take a moment to read through the account of Eve’s temptation in Genesis 3:1-6. What is described is pretty straightforward, if a little odd. There was a snake talking to the woman. A very subtle snake, as verse 1 points out, but a snake nonetheless. What does the serpent actually do? He suggests to the woman that God is holding out on her and her husband, that the fruit would be good for them, that God’s law was not true. The woman then convinces herself that this is a good idea, eats, and takes some to her husband.
Where is the devil, then? It is not necessary, and not helpful, to read in a supernatural villain here: the bare facts are enough. The snake, in so few words, brought doubt and suspicion where before there had been acceptance and obedience. He actually suggested to Eve that she break faith with God, and that God had not acted faithfully with her. He led an innocent into sin.
The reader knows full well it does not require any great power, any supernatural wickedness, to do the terrible things the serpent did in just a few cunning words. All it takes is an agile mind (Genesis 3:1) with no understanding of the ways of God. But the effects of that lie are with us to this day. That sinful bit of within us all is quite capable of doing the same thing; not only within ourselves, but also between us, leading others into sins they may never have considered on their own. Surely there is no greater evil than this, to lead an innocent person to break faith with God.
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