July 8, 2007 - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Our Spiritual Adversary
The figure of our spiritual adversary appears throughout the Bible. He appears as a serpent in the opening chapters of Genesis. In Revelation, he appears as a dragon. He causes great destruction, is defeated and then punished. The Bible records a constant opposition from the adversary and his forces.
The Bible is about God, His love for us, and His gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. So the focus of Scripture is away from any complete account of the origin or nature of the adversary. He simply appears in Eden and continues to afflict human beings and oppose the will of God. Our knowledge of him is pieced together from the places where he is mentioned as the opponent of God and His people.
The adversary has various names. “Satan” is a Hebrew word for “adversary” or “enemy.” He is described in many other ways: “the serpent,” “the accuser,” “the evil one,” “the father of lies,” “a murderer,” “a roaring lion,” “the tempter,” “the ruler of this world,” and “the devil,” which means “the slanderer.”
Much of the Bible’s picture of the adversary revolves around the idea of accusation. It is Satan who accuses God’s people. In the book of Job, he seems to have an official place in heaven for this purpose, almost like a prosecuting attorney or an officer of the law. But in the rest of Scripture, Satan has clearly moved from a position allowed by God to complete rebellion against God’s will. His accusations against us are slander and lies.
The idea that Satan is a fallen angel is strong in historical Christianity, yet we must admit it is only speculation based on a few Bible passages which may be open to other interpretations. We just do not know for sure from where our adversary comes. The idea of an angelic fall does have the virtue of affirming that the adversary was God’s creation, but that God did not create him to be evil. It also makes clear that Satan is not equal and opposite to God, but derivative and ultimately subservient to God’s power.
Scripture does give us a picture of the character and spirit of the evil one. He opposes all the good which God wishes to do and would take to himself the place which rightfully belongs to God. In order to draw the human race under his influence, he takes up the role of tempter, actively inviting us to do the evil deeds with which he would like to accuse us before God.
The most important fact about Satan is his defeat at the hands of Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus engages the adversary on his own ground yet refuses the satanic method of pride and power. Suffering defeat on the cross, Christ defeated Satan and welcomed us to join Him in that victory. Though the power of the adversary is still great, in Martin Luther’s words, “his doom is sure.” Thanks be to God who gives us the victory in Jesus Christ.
This is a spiritually dangerous sermon, for me and for you. In our text, Isaiah spoke about a man, the king of Babylon. That’s obvious if you back up to verse 4. But at least since the time of Jesus, this text has also been taken to describe the spirit and character of the devil. It’s a dangerous topic. You and I should be afraid of it.
You and I need to be aware of our spiritual enemies, but C. S. Lewis tells us,
“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. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…”
Karl Barth said much the same thing as Lewis: It is necessary for the church and its scholars to know about the devil and his demons, but what is said must be brief. He wrote,
“The very thing which the demons are waiting for, especially in theology, is that we should find them dreadfully interesting and give them our serious and systematic attention… A quick, sharp glance is not only all that is necessary but all that is legitimate in their case.”
In my own words, we should treat the devil like I treat Wal-Mart. If you have to go there, then get in and get out. In thought or study don’t linger in Satan’s store or you may wind up with lots more in your cart than you bargained for. We should also pray, as I have this week, for God’s protection in even thinking about this subject. “Be afraid, be very afraid,” is good advice for this subject and this sermon.
The historical context of Isaiah 14 is a prophecy of the ruin of the nation of Babylon. Its king, called “morning star” or “Lucifer” in verse 12, will be brought as low and as dead as any other earthly king we’re told in verses 10 and 11, even to be eaten by maggots. But Christians have long interpreted these verses to refer also to the spiritual force behind the evil earthly kingdom, to Satan himself. The same kind of connection is made in Ezekiel 28 between the devil and the earthly king of Tyre. Ultimately it’s all part of the story we will look at next week in Genesis 3. Before and behind our human wickedness lie “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” as Paul says in Ephesians 6:12.
So from one angle these verses are about an evil leader of an evil nation. From another angle they are about the spiritual enemy of God. Verse 13 shows us Lucifer is God’s enemy because he is a rebel. He wants to rise up to the place where God is. He wants his own throne to be above the stars. He wants what he tempted Adam and Eve with in the garden. Verse 14 says “I will make myself like the Most High.” Lucifer wants to be God.
Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore were in an airplane that crashed. They arrive in heaven and find the Lord at the head of the Great Banquet table. God addresses Al first. “Al, what do you believe in?” Al replies, “Well, I believe I won that election, but that it was your will that I did not serve. I have come to understand that now.” God ponders for a moment and says “Thank you for your humility. Please take a seat at the table.” God then addresses Bill. “Bill, what do you believe in?” Bill replies, “I believe in forgiveness. I’ve sinned, but I’ve never held a grudge against my fellow man and I hope no grudges are held against me.” After a few seconds, God says “You are forgiven. Please find yourself a seat at this feast.” God then addresses Hillary. “Hillary, what do you believe in?” Hillary says “I believe you’re in my chair.”
It’s just a joke about Hillary, but it’s the truth about Lucifer, about Satan. Our text says “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’” In other words, “God, you are sitting in my chair.” The devil’s rebellion is not just that he refuses to do God’s will but that he wants to take God’s place.
His rebellion gives the devil his name, “Satan,” which means “enemy” or “adversary.” It’s a spirit of pride that allows him to pretend that he is the rightful ruler of this world. He displayed that pretension when he offered Christ the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would only worship him, worship the devil. In John 12:31, Jesus temporarily allowed Satan this title, calling him “the prince of this world.”
Satan’s rebellion against God makes him our enemy as well. From the beginning, Satan enticed us into joining his revolt. He would have us, as he tempted Jesus, give him the worship and honor that belong to God. But at the least he wants us to share his attitude. He wants you to believe that you can have God’s place. You can be like God. That’s how he tempted Eve and it’s how he tempts everyone.
Our text shows Satan’s success in tempting. It is a description of a man so much like Lucifer in spirit that he became an image of the devil. The king of Babylon was a human being who joined the revolt the devil is leading against God. He’s a warning to us all.
How could it happen? How could one be so foolish or misguided as to imagine taking God’s place? How could a spiritual being, an angel, who sees God much more clearly than we, fall into such a pitiful error? When did it begin? How? Why? We don’t know. Ezekiel 28 pictures a cherub, one of the cherubim, being driven from heaven, but we’re not told when or how it happened.
The Bible, you see, is God’s story. Satan is a character in that story, but it’s not about him. It’s about God and His love. The Bible won’t answer all our questions about Satan, and that’s for our own good. We don’t need to know how Satan fell. We need to be worried about our own falls.
But we do know this. Satan fell in an attempt to rise. Like an overconfident rock climber ascending a route too technical for his skills, the devil slipped as he thought he was on his way up. The devil’s attitude won’t bring him up, but only down. “How you have fallen” says verse 12, “down to the grave, to the depths of the sea,” says verse 15. In our Gospel text in Luke 10:18, Jesus said that even at the hands of weak, green, childlike disciples, “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven.”
Rebellion against God only takes you in one direction. It’s a fall. We don’t know how it happened to Satan, but our biggest concern is to keep it from happening to us.
Our temptation to the devil’s rebellion comes in all kinds of ways. We may cave into a desire to be the best, to be superior, to have and accomplish more than anyone else. It can happen to a student working for grades, to a salesman pitching a product, to a nurse caring for patients, or to a pastor serving a church. Out of what begins as a humble desire to do good work, we find ourselves wanting to climb higher and higher until everyone else has to look up to see us.
The temptation to rebel against God is the desire for our own way. As we read last week, we imagine that true freedom is doing whatever we want. We follow our own hearts and find ourselves rebelling against anyone who asks us to go in a different direction. We refuse to do homework because we don’t see the point. We drive faster than the speed limit whenever we figure it’s safe. We shoot off illegal fireworks, sure that we know better than those who make laws. We’re smart, we’re competent, we’re in control of ourselves. Nobody needs to tell us what to do. Let us do what we want and we will be fine.
So he ignores the concern of friends and family and keeps on smoking. She pretends she doesn’t see that look on her husband’s face and orders another drink. He forgets about his marriage vows and what his children would think and punches up that lurid site on the Internet. She apologizes again for slapping her child and tells her mother she really doesn’t have a problem with anger. We rebel, we rebel against the good advice and direction of those around us, and we rebel against God. And it makes us miserable.
Satan is miserable and he wants company. He knows how wretched his rebellion makes him, how falling feels. He knows and would like to drag us down with him. At the very same time he attempts to set himself up as God, he’s tempting us to do the same. It’s all a big lie. Jesus said in John 8:44 that the devil “is a liar and the father of lies.”
There can only be one God. Even if it were possible to take God’s place — and it’s not — there’s still only room for one. It’s the story of any crazy movie villain who wants to rule the world. His promises to his henchmen are all lies. If he’s in charge, then they will be slaves. The tempter is a liar. He offers us what he cannot give us. His invitation to take charge of your own destiny is a fraud. He only wants you to try and take charge of yourself so that he can take charge of you. There is only be one God and that’s who he wants to be.
We are constantly fooled by the devil’s lies. He wraps his sin in a dozen different packages and calls it all kinds of things like “courage” or “self-fulfillment” or “taking care of yourself.” All the while he’s trying to get you where he is: in to the pit of misery that’s being your own god. The farther you lift yourself up, the more you try to make out of yourself, the higher the place you aim for, the farther down you go. Just like it happened to the king of Babylon. Just like it happened to Satan.
The amazing thing, however, is that you and I can be like God. We can be like Him in a way that won’t bring misery, but will bring joy. We can be like Him in a way that won’t cause us to fall, but to rise. Jesus pointed to it in Luke 10:20, when those 72 disciples came back so proud and happy in their power over the demons. He told them, “do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
To be like God we need to go the direction He goes. God is always coming down. He came down to make our world. He came down to walk with Adam and Eve in the garden. He came down to set Israel free from Egypt. Most of all, God came down to us in His Son Jesus Christ. To be like God, Paul writes in Philippians 2, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!”
In complete contrast to Satan, Jesus Christ lets Himself come down. Instead of lifting Himself up to become God, He set aside His place as God and became nothing, became a human being. Instead of seeking to command, He sought to obey, even when obedience meant dying on a cross. His whole direction was downward and away from glory. And that was His real glory.
The result, Paul says, is that, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The way to the highest place was taking the lowest place.
Satan has never understood God’s way or what it truly means to be like God. And that is his doom. Every effort to climb into heaven only takes you deeper into hell. At the same time, the Lord Jesus descending to earth as a baby is raised up to be the King of heaven and earth and hell. Jesus defeats Satan by allowing him to defeat himself.
Satan is defeated by a strategy he cannot possibly understand. He can’t see how you win by giving up what you want. But Jesus won out over Satan by giving up everything, even His life. God defeated His adversary by dying. That is the Gospel. Jesus rises up to heaven only after He’s gone down to the grave.
There’s only one really good, really true story to be told, and it’s always much the same whatever good book or whatever good film you see, whether it’s Obi Wan Kanobi in “Star Wars” or Neo in “The Matrix,” whether it’s Elinor in “Sense and Sensibility” or Babette in “Babette’s Feast.” Give up all you have and receive everything. Lose and you win. That’s God’s answer to Satan, an answer he never comprehends. It’s often hard for us to comprehend.
The Gospel answer to the devil is hard to believe. We give up everything, we lose. And we don’t see the victory. It’s not like the movies, it’s not like Easter. We just lose. We just die. Jesus may be a winner, but where’s our victory? Right now it looks like Satan is winning. It feels like he’s winning. I often don’t feel like anything but a loser.
That’s the big question: If Satan has lost, why is he still around? Why are we still tempted and tested by his lies? Why do we so often look and feel like losers if we’re on the winning side?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who resisted Satan in the form of the Nazis. He participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was arrested in 1943. and eventually sent to one of the worst prison camps, Buchenwald, in February of 1945.
D-Day occurred the summer before, June 6, 1944. The Allies invaded Normandy and were moving east through Europe. By the first of April in 1945, the prisoners at Buchenwald heard the Allied guns. But on April 3 Bonhoeffer was moved farther south and east to Flossenbürg. On April 9 he was hung. It was not until April 23 that the Allies arrived—my father-in-law was with those troops—to liberate Flossenbürg. The Nazis finally surrendered completely on May 7, the papers signed on May 8, V-Day. The war was essentially over, the Nazis had lost, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer died waiting for that victory.
We are like Bonhoeffer. We live between D-Day and V-Day. Jesus Christ gave his life and won. Jesus won by surrendering. But Satan has not surrendered yet. We hear the sounds of victory in the distance but it hasn’t quite arrived here. So some of us are defeated, some of us suffer, some of us, like Bonhoeffer, die. Yet Jesus has come down, Jesus has won, and we will join that victory as we lower ourselves and become like Him.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not liberated by the Allied army. He was liberated by Jesus. He gave up everything and won it all. He went down to be raised up again. That’s real victory. It is our victory also. Our adversary is great, but our Lord is humble. The devil is strong, but Jesus is willing to be weak. Satan accuses us, but the Spirit of Christ is in us. Here is our victory: Christ in us, the hope of glory.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj