If Satan isn’t the bogeyman under the bed, or the psychopathic doll bent on destruction, or any other malevolent force fresh out of a Stephen King novel, then just who is he?
Imagine you are in a crowded mall and a police officer calls you on your cell phone. “We’ve just gotten word that someone’s taken out a contract on your life,” he tells you. “There is a hit man in the food court watching you right now.” Suddenly you are totally focused on the identity of that hit man. Is he tall? Short? Bald? White? Black? Asian? Bearded? Fat? Thin? Is he on the other side of the court, or is he standing right next to me? Has he spotted me yet? Will he try to kill me here in the mall? Or will he lure me into a more secluded place?
When a person means to do you harm, understanding that person’s identity, appearance, whereabouts, modus operandi, intentions, and skills are things you must know.
The apostle Paul wanted the Christians at Corinth to be on guard so that they “would not be outwitted by Satan;
for [they] are not ignorant of his designs” (2 cor. 2:11). He also warned the Ephesians that no matter how many opposed their stance for Christ, their real enemies were not people but the sinister forces lurking behind them; they were not wrestling “against flesh and blood, but against . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (eph. 6:12). And Peter urged those under his care to be on the lookout for Satan, who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 peter 5:8).
Putting these three passages together, we can draw a preliminary sketch of our ancient enemy. Though Hollywood has taken the idea well beyond Scripture’s description, Satan is a powerful being who is scheming to outwit us, and he would like nothing better than to pounce on us and eat us for breakfast! In light of this we should do our best to know just who this enemy is.
A Helpful Clue From The Book Of Job
It may seem counterintuitive not to start at Genesis in our quest to understand the identity of Satan. However, the Serpent’s abrupt presence in the garden of Eden can be better understood once we learn a little more about Satan’s modus operandi. To do that, we return to the book of Job, where we are given an unusual opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation between the God of the universe and the greatest villain in the universe.
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 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.”
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?”
Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 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. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (job 1:6–11)
This conversation centers on the legitimacy of Job’s trust in God. Does Job love God for being God or simply for the good stuff God gives? Satan is convinced that Job only “loves” God because God is Job’s own personal genie in the sky. If Satan can only have his way with Job for a few minutes, then Job’s righteous veneer will vanish.
Here is where we begin to see the clear light of Scripture dispel the myths that have been cast around the person of Satan. The popular culture version of Satan wants to physically hurt us; usually he wants to kill us. But the biblical Satan has a much more ambitious goal than doing us bodily harm. That’s child’s play for him. Satan is pouring all of his energy into one grand outcome: the cursing of God. That’s his end game. He makes this clear in Job 1:11:
“But stretch out your hand and touch all that [Job] has, and he will curse you to your face.”
Satan’s main ambition can be clearly seen in the book of Job. The book starts with Job consistently praying that his children do not “curse God in their hearts.” Then Satan enters the story with a goal to see Job himself curse God to His face. This background makes the words of Job’s wife in chapter 2 particularly ominous: “Curse God and die.” Job’s wife has unknowingly become a mouthpiece for Satan himself.
If Satan can lure us into a place where we curse God, then he has won.
Since most Christians would never think of actually shaking their fists in God’s face and defying Him in such a dramatic manner, it is natural to ask what “cursing God” means. “Cursing God” appears to be one of many phrases that describe what Satan cherishes.
The apostle Paul summarizes Satan’s aim as “[keeping us] from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 cor. 4:4). In its context, this verse is describing Satan’s work among unbelievers, but it is certainly a safe application to say that he does not want Christians to think glorious thoughts of Christ.
Satan is working with all of his might to block our view of God’s awesome beauty and glory, His righteousness and justice. When he comes in roaring like a lion, it is to drown out our praise and adoration of God.
Adding Insult To Injury
It would be bad enough if Satan accomplished his vile mission of getting us to rob God of glory. But the Devil does not stop with inflicting that spiritual harm. His supreme delight appears to be in rubbing our faces in the very mess he has helped to create! In fact, the word devil means “the accuser.” When the Bible shines God’s searchlight on Satan, we do not find him hiding in a closet or under the bed, excitedly waiting to terrify clueless suburbanites who don’t have the common sense to leave the house. No, we find him in a much more respectable place—the courtroom.
A perfectly groomed man in a three-piece suit with a black leather briefcase takes his place before the judge’s bench and calmly points at the defendant (yes, that’s you and me). In his hand is a legal pad with line after line of our infractions against God neatly spelled out. And he skillfully makes his case. After all, he has been studying human behavior for millennia, and he has no trouble furnishing ample evidence of our guilt before God. If you think this scenario sounds too contrived, take a look at the vision the prophet Zechariah had of the high priest Joshua standing before the Lord.
“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” (zech. 3:1).
Satan’s ambitious goal was to discredit Joshua from standing in God’s presence. It is interesting to note what drew the Devil’s accusations in the first place: “Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments” (zech. 3:3). In ancient Israel, the high priest had the unique job of standing before God as the people’s representative. If his “clothes” were dirty, then, by default, so were the people’s clothes; and thus, everyone was doomed. The robes of the high priest were to be spotless, representing the kind of hearts his people were to have. But like all mankind, Joshua is “filthy”—a true sinner. And who is right next to him? Satan—all dressed up for his closing argument.
This is Satan doing what he does best. In fact, when the book of Revelation celebrates his eventual downfall, our enemy is depicted in his role as a prosecuting attorney: “the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (rev. 12:10).
Satan’s day and night passion is to accuse the very people he has tempted to sin in the first place! Pouring salt in the wound he has ripped open, pressing down on the gash he has inflicted, the Devil delights in adding insult to injury. And oh, how those accusations sting!
In the movie The Green Mile, gentle giant John Coffey, who many think is intended to be a Christlike figure, describes the continual pain of living in a fallen world. “There’s lotsa people here that hate me, lots. I can feel it. It’s like bees stingin’ me.” This is a picture of what it feels like to be under Satan’s continual accusations. He is a vile enemy, but we cannot deny the skill and passion he brings to his work.
Who Are We Up Against?
One of the movies that my brother and I watched late at night when we were kids was Terminator, in which a futuristic robot is bent on accomplishing his mission to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of a yet-to-be-born child who will one day lead the resistance against the evil robots. But a young hero named Kyle Reese travels back in time to tell Sarah that she is in danger from this killing machine. “Listen, and understand,” he says. “That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever!”
Satan is out there. He can’t be bargained with. He can’t be reasoned with. He is pitiless and always laser-focused on his twofold mission: 1) To lure us into a place where we turn against God, and then 2) To accuse us of our guilt for the very rebellion he’s helped engineer. For the Christian, no enemy could be more serious.
But how can any of us frail humans stand up against such an adversary? In the sobering words of writer R. Kent Hughes: “Satan has had multiple millennia to study and master the human disciplines, and when it comes to human subversion, he is the ultimate manipulator.”
No mere human is a match for such an opponent. That realization can lead us to despair—or, it can lead us to the place it led Martin Luther when he penned his most famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress”:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing,
Were not the right man on our side,
The man of God’s own choosing.