Satan: God’s Fencing Instructor

The Temptations of Jesus

The story of the ministry of Jesus begins with an unusual event. The first three gospels tell us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The first 40 days of his ministry are spent in a personal encounter with Satan.

During those days the enemy made suggestion after suggestion to Jesus. His words sounded so reasonable. “If you are hungry, why not eat? If you are God’s favored son, why would he not protect you? If your task is to win the nations, maybe I could help.”  All his words, though sounding true and attractive, were diabolical.

It is interesting to note that the temptations were shaped to fit Jesus. They were not temptations to do anything that appeared to be evil. In fact they were hardly perceptible as temptations at all. That may have been what made the suggestions so seductive. But, even truth coming out of an enemy’s mouth will be distorted into a lie. When Jesus suspected the source of the suggestions, the issue was resolved for him. He had no allegiance to this voice. He refused to believe the words of the tempter.

Neither did his encounter with the tempter make him afraid. No fear of the evil one caused Jesus for one moment to change his plans. Jesus answers the devil to his face, by referring to the Word of His Father, which was entirely trustable. Satan fled the scene of battle, and Jesus went on to plunder the realm of evil with impunity.

Believing in the devil?

I must confess that for a life time I have struggled with believing in the devil in any way. The devil that I have seen presented in too many bad sermons, too many so-called Christian novels, and too many gothic horror movies has caused me to back away from wanting to believe in a devil at all. In the middle ages the devil was painted as some terrifying monster, dressed in red cape, with horns and hooves, wielding a pitchfork. Of course none of us believe in that kind of a devil. But we are living in an interesting time of world history. Books that deal with Spiritual warfare are inundating the shelves of our Christian bookstores. Novels with Satan and evil demons front stage are now part of (ab)normal Christian consumption. The book of The Revelation has never been more popular for all the wrong reasons.

One of the results is that we end up, as C. S. Lewis said, that we believe in the devil far too much. And some of us are inclined not to believe in him at all.

But I do not want to throw away the baby with the bath water. If the devil is not like the medieval monster who runs an infernal torture chamber, or like the lurking Count Dracula, what description of the devil is believable?

God’s reluctant servant

Samuel Rutherford the great Scottish preacher of the 1600’s wrote, “The devil is but God’s master fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.”  Now there is a picture of Satan devoid of horns and hooves. Let me explore the issue further.

At the time of the temptation of Jesus, Matthew the writer is very clear. “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness in order to have him tempted by the devil.”   Mark tells us “the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.”  The tempting of Jesus was not an accident, or due to the devil’s ambushment. The tempting of Jesus was part of God’s design for His son.

Even the temptation of Adam and Eve was part of the divine design. It was God who created the possibility of temptation. He placed the tree there. He placed no fence around it. Eve noticed that the fruit was beautiful and looked so tasty. Who wouldn’t be tempted by such a promising possibility?

But to add to the temptation the serpent appears. What’s he doing there?  Is he there because the omnipotent God could not stop him or because he sneaked past God when He wasn’t watching? I don’t think so!

The only other possibility is that he is there by God’s permission. He is God’s reluctant servant. He is allowed existence, but only to fulfill the greater purpose of God. In the passage that follows the temptation of Adam and Eve, the serpent is judged by God. But he is not exterminated; he is allowed continued existence. God can deal with him as he pleases, but so chooses to restrain him (I Cor. 10:13) but also retain him. The adversary may be evil in his own intent, but he is on God’s leash. At the end of history, God will pick up the devil by the nape of the neck and drop him into perdition, but in the meantime God finds him useful.

But why would God want Adam and Eve or Jesus or me to be tempted? It may be that goodness becomes impossible except that which comes in response to evil. If goodness were genetic, that would be innocence, but it would not be virtue. If evil were not a possibility, then moral courage would be an impossibility too. I think Rutherford may be right, “The devil is but God’s master fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.”

The Pink Panther movies come to mind. Do you remember when Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) enters his own apartment only to be violently attacked by this raging oriental martial arts mad man. A terrible fight ensues, until suddenly the telephone rings and the fighting comes to an abrupt stop. We discover that the martial arts fiend is actually Cato his manservant who has been hired by Clouseau to help him hone his fighting skills.

The apostle James, on a more serious note, is of the same mind. He says, “Think it nothing but joy my friends when you are tempted…” and then later can say, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”  The devil is a coward by nature. Just as he withdrew from Jesus, he flees from those who submit to God’s will for their lives.

That is why Martin Luther can shout with relish,

“And though this world with devils filled
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him.
His rage we can endure
For lo his doom is sure
one little word shall fell him.”

Why do I choose this theme for this article?  There is too much fear in the world, and in the church, and in our lives. Prophets of doom are still spinning their scary scenarios. Some would make us paranoid about some malevolent force that lurks in our lives and dogs our days.  Some would insist that the devil has a front pew in every church. They say that to cause us to fear. I would remind them that God occupies every other seat in the house, and that’s enough for me!

They try to tell me that prayer is an attempt to bind Satan who will get the upper hand if I don’t fight him in my praying. I would remind them that Jesus defeated all evil in his own temptation and on the cross and in his resurrection, and for me to live in fear as I pray is to be faithless and unbelieving. I would rather pray in astonishing confidence that nothing can come between my father and myself.

Think it Through…

Read the following passages from the book of Hebrews that reflect upon the temptations of Jesus, and ask the question, “Why would the Father have wanted his son to be tempted?”

Hebrews 2:17-18,  4:15-16. 5:7-9. 7:26

Take Action…

To what degree does fear motivate your response to God, and to what degree does trust in God motivate you.

For the Small Group Leader…

Discuss both the delightful and the dangerous implications of the Rutherford quotation. Where is the fine balance between taking Satan too seriously and not seriously enough?

Published in Light and Life,  September-October, 2001.


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