MATTHEW 4:1-11


(First 3 paragraphs removed on 11/26/78)

            This morning I want to open this sermon with an illustration that my seminary theology professor used to give, whenever approached in the class, each year on “The Devil”.


            There is the tale about a rural preacher who was very eloquent, but who was addicted to that locution which uses both noun and pronoun as the subject of a sentence --- “Bill he went to church”, “Mary she cooked the meal.” This preacher once began a sermon in this way:


            “My brothers and sisters, my text this morning is, ‘The devil he goeth about us as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8)’. And I propose to discuss this text under three heads: which is, first, who the devil he was; where the devil he was going; and, what the devil he was roaring about”.


            Is the devil real? Does he belong in our Christian thinking?


            I recall hearing a number of years ago, a woman telling of this experience: “The devil has been hot on my trail all week. He started in on me early Monday morning. I had hung out my clothes and stood there looking at the snow-white sheets when the line broke, and let them all down into the dirt. But I told the devil he couldn’t make me lose my temper that way. No, I just thanked God for victory, and went singing out to that line and gathered up those clothes and washed them out again”. The devil was indeed a very real and evil power in the life of this woman.


            From Moses’ time in the 12th century BC down to about the 4th century BC, we find no trace of any belief in a devil. The future life of the Hebrew centered in the simple but dreadful concept that all men, at death, go into the shadowy, deep pit of Sheol in the bowels of the earth. And there was no devil who presided over the destinies of the inhabitants of Sheol. Good and bad alike, both men and beasts, went to the same place.


            There is no Hebrew word that means “Devil” in anything like our familiar sense. “Devils” appear only four times in the King James Version of the O.T., and then always in the plural. Twice they are “goats” or “hairy ones”, and twice they are “spoilers” or “destroyers”. The Revised Standard Version renders the one word as “satyrs” and the other as “demons”. In each of the four cases the reference is to pagan sacrifices made to these beings; and in each case the Hebrew writer denies their existence implicitly or explicitly.


            The better know “Satan” also is in the Hebrew writings but he too is a late arrival, and he is far from being a major character. “Satan” really is not a proper name, but a common noun meaning “adversary”. In the Hebrew it is always used with the definite article, “the adversary’. This Satan is mentioned in the O.T. only 16 times, and 12 of these times are in the one story which occupies the first two chapters of the Book of Job.


            What probably is his earliest appearance is also his most revealing one. In II Samuel 24:1, a very early account of the Israelite kingdom, we read that “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah’”. The taking of a census was regarded as wrongful, perhaps because it indicated trust in human numbers rather than in divine help. Anyway, it issued in heavy punishment, the death of 70,000 people from a sudden plague. Here the Lord Himself is the temper to evil, and He tempts the king just in order to have an excuse to punish the nation.


            By the time the priestly authers of the two Books of Chronicles appeared and rewrote the ancient stories, perhaps 500 years later, their developed moral sense could not accept such unethical behavior on the part of their God; So the opening words were change in I Chronicles 21:1, “And Satan stood up against Israel and provoked David to number Israel”. David yields, as in the earlier version, takes the census, and the 70,000 die.


            One does not find the word “Satan” or “devil” mentioned in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Amos. These great prophets of the 8th and 7th centuries BC spent their lives battling against the evils of their time. Never, in any of the world’s great literature, have they been surpassed in their brutally frank statements concerning the wrongs which selfish men inflicted on their brothers. But they never credited the devil with the origin of these injustices. In Jeremiah 7:24 we read, “they walked in the counsels and in the imagination of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward” --- men did wrong for this reason only.


            It was not until the Jews have been exposed to the beliefs of the Zoroastrians that we find them believing in devils. From 538 BC, when the Persians under Cyrus captured Babylonia and set free the Jewish exiles, until 330 BC when the Persian Empire was destroyed by Alexander the Great, the Jews were directly under the authority of the Zoroastrians. Zoroaster, the great Persian philosopher, taught that there were two principles, one of good and one of evil; one of light and one of darkness. The dualism greatly influenced the Hebrew mind. It seemed to explain much in life that was otherwise quite inexplicable.


            So, about 300 BC, when the Book of Job was written, we meet “Satan” for the first time. In the early references to him, he is not the thoroughly bad individual that he later became. He is one of the coworkers with God, a kind of divine trier of the souls of men; one who tested God’s children to determine how strong or weak they were.


            He is anti-Job, as he is against all men. But he is definitely subordinate to God and brings suffering upon the patient hero only with God’s permission, and only for a limited time.


            The remaining O.T. references to the Satan are a single line in Psalm 109, a hymn of hate which includes, “Let Satan (the adversary) stand at his right hand”, and the two verses in Zechariah 3:1,2. In this latter case the Satan and the angel of the Lord are contending for dominance over the high priest Joshua; and so again this is not a case of a Devil being matched against God, but of two minor functionaries who take opposite viewpoints.


            The word “Lucifer” does appear once in the 1611 O.T., but not as the character we know as so well from Paradise Lost --- in Isaiah 14:12. The Hebrew text here in Isaiah shows that the reference is to the political downfall of the tyrannical and hated king of Babylon.


            Thus we find the Hebrews taking over a Zoroastrian concept which helps them to explain the mysterious powers of darkness in the lives of men. To the oriental mind, always adept at using symbolic and figurative language, it was a natural and simple device for personalizing the inscrutable powers that bedevil the lives of God’s children.


            The O.T. does not suppose the Devil to be as real as God. It does not really give the Devil any place at all; and it is only a late Christian reading back into the texts that has seen a Devil in Lucifer, or in the Satan, or in the serpent in Eden.


            Now, what about the Christian tradition?


            First of all, Christianity has never assigned such creative power to a Devil as the Persians have to their god of evil, and thus Christianity has never given to him anything like a position of equality with God. The NT writings reflect rather a combination of the Hebrew idea of the Satan, the adversary or tempter, with the generally prevailing belief in numerous supernatural evil beings who are best described as “demons”. These demons seem most commonly to be the ancient gods of paganism, by late Jewish and early Christian thought degraded to lower levels of power and regarded as being wholly evil in character.


            The word “Devil” itself comes from the Greek “diabolos” which like the Hebrew “Satan” means “accuser” or “slanderer”. Both terms are used to describe the tempter of Jesus in the wilderness and both are employed in the same way by Paul. The nearest NT approach to the Persian view is in the Book of Revelation where the Devil is called “that old serpent” where he is twice honored in the King James Version by being spelled with a capital letter. But even her he is chiefly a tempter rather than a creator. And the last we hear of him is that “the Devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone”. And certainly a Devil who is cast into the lake of fire and brimstone is not at all any ruler of all Hell whom we know in late Christian mythology and in Dante’s Divine Comedy.


            Getting back for a moment to Jesus’ experience in the wilderness --- He had gone there to think through the deep meaning of His baptismal experience as it is related to His ministry. How should He use His divine power? Should He ever use it for Himself? When hungry, should He make stones turn into bread? Should He do something spectacular like jumping off the synagogue roof in order to attract a quick and easy following?


            These ideas suggested themselves to Him in the desert. In relating His experiences it was perfectly natural for Him to use current ideology and to phrase His narrative in symbolic language involving the presence of the tempter, Satan. But we are not to think for a moment that a literal devil presented himself to Jesus in order to hold with Him the conversations recorded in Matthew 4. The temptations of Jesus concern the selfish use of His divine power. They were such as would naturally have occurred to any man who, made in the image of God, would be tempted to utilize his freedom of choice to arrive more speedily at a certain destination. All three temptations were concerned with the burning question of whether it would be right to take shortcuts to His goal in order to save time in bringing men and women in the Kingdom of God. These suggestions arose in Jesus’ use of terminology involving the devil was a natural accompaniment of His habitual use of figurative language.


            This interpretation becomes clear in the incident recorded in Matthew 16:21-23. Jesus had explained to His disciples the necessity of going to Jerusalem, of suffering many things at the hands of the elders and priests and scribes, and be killed and raised again. Big-hearted Peter could not understand it, and said, “Be it far from me, Lord, this shall not be to you”. Quick as a flash the Master turned on him and said, “Get behind me, Satan; you are an offense to me; for you desire not the things of God but those of man”. Peter’s rebuke was but the natural outcry of a generous heart with which no devil had any part. But to Jesus it was an evil suggestion which He properly symbolized by the use of the word “Satan”.


            Thus we find there is scarcely any more Devil in the N.T. than in the O.T., in authentic Christian teaching than in Jewish. The Scriptures do NOT teach that the Devil is as real as God, and thus he does not belong in Christian theology.


            Many years ago I read a small book in which the Devil had another name, and it was in Latin, “ipse”, meaning “self”. Dr. Charles E. Jefferson was once asked, “Do you believe in the existence of a personal Devil?” His reply came, “From long experience and observation, I have concluded that the Devil is distinctly personal”.


            Yes, the Devil is personal --- he is ipse, self. Eve blamed it all on the serpent, but it was her own curiosity and greed. Then Adam blamed it on Eve. Men and women have been blaming each other ever since, and blaming the Devil, too. It is time we learned to put the blame where it belongs --- on “nos ipsos”, on ourselves.


            Not one of us needs a devil to account for evil. In fact, blaming one’s own free choices of evil on the “devil” has all too often been an escape mechanism. I’m reminded of the story of the man who was arrested for assault and battery, and the judge asked him, “Did the devil cause you to knock the man down?” The reply, “Yes sir, the old devil put the idea into my head; but I must confess that when I jumped on his head, with my boots, that was my own idea.” There are many who do not give themselves even that much credit for generating an evil thought; it’s so much easier to blame the devil for everything.


            What is the devil? It is national arrogance and social snobbery. It is public corruption and private chiseling. It is treason to one’s country, and disregard for human need. It is cruelty and cowardice, perjury and pettiness, stupid reaction and selfish rebellion. WHO is the Devil? His is Jim McNeilly and he is each one of us, whenever and inasmuch as we yield control of ourselves to any one of the forces of wrong.


            Someone will ask within himself, But isn’t God somehow to blame for allowing such evils to be in the world and in us? He is, if blame attaches to His gift of human free will. In my recent readings I came across this statement, “Only the possibility of failure gives any meaning to success, only the chance to do wrong provides any merit in doing right”. We might have been perfect human beings from the start; and if so, we would have been robots, zombies. God wanted us rather to be achieving, growing, free personalities. He could effect this only by allowing us the opportunity to achieve nothing, to grow not at all, to sacrifice our freedom to the bonds of fear and laziness and self-indulgence.


            God is no more our tempter than an external devil is. Our own desires and self-seeking --- these are the personal devils that tempt us to evil. They are not as real as God, for we can conquer them and so destroy them, if we but will commit ourselves to God’s will and His grace. Thus evil is relative, and good is absolute. It is our freedom of choosing that evil is related, and the evil in us is just as real as we choose to let it be.


            That evil existing in us doesn’t in any way deny God’s power --- but it reflects God’s deliberate surrender to us of the power to attain the good in our own right, and so to be persons rather than machines.


            Who or what is the Devil? He is the evil we allow to control us. He will cease to be when by the grace of God we commit ourselves wholly to the good. So long as mankind endures, our adversary will be seeking whom he may devour; but we can determine that he shall not devour us.