Ministry Resources

Resisting the Devil

Author: Dr. Craig Keener

The Dead Sea Scrolls present every human action as caused by either the Spirit of Truth or the spirit of error (which the scrolls identify at times with Satan). But were they right?

Biblically, God is omnipresent and sovereign, but Satan is not. Extreme demonology was not, however, limited to the sectarian group that likely authored the Dead Sea Scrolls.

As fear of demons grew, by the third century even sober rabbis warned that if one extends one’s right hand, one extends it into a thousand demons, and if one extends one’s left hand, one extends it into ten thousand demons. (Left-handedness was apparently deemed a disadvantage in the third century.)

By contrast, Paul does not think in terms of Satan or demons’ omnipresence. He was certainly ready to describe temptation (1 Cor 7:5; 2 Cor 2:11), deception (2 Cor 11:14) and persecution (2 Cor 12:7; 1 Thess 2:18) against believers as the activity of the devil. But he also envisioned the devil’s indirect influence through the values of the world. That is, he did not assume that a demon had to be present for someone to imbibe values from the surrounding world, values that are ultimately demonic in origin. (Cf. 1 John 5:19.)

Paul speaks of how believers lived before becoming followers of Jesus: they followed the ways of (literally) “the age of this world” (Eph 2:2). Judeans generally distinguished the present evil age, under the dominion of evil empires and the angels of nations that influenced them, from the glorious age to come, when God would rule directly and unchallenged. Paul’s “age of this world” (“the ways of this world,” NIV; “the course of this world,” ASV, NASB, NRSV; ESV; “this world’s present path,” NET) refers to the present age, characterized by the present world system.

Paul seems to identify the ways of the present world with those of the ruler who has authority in the air (Eph 2:2; “the prince of the power of the air,” NASB, ESV; “the ruler of the power of the air,” NRSV; “the ruler of the kingdom of the air,” NIV, NET). “Air” was the title that Paul’s contemporaries gave to the lowest of the heavens. This was where the “birds of the air” lived, but also where spirits were believed to be active. The Bible elsewhere calls this ruler over the realm of evil spirits “Beelzebul” (Mark 3:22), i.e., Satan.

Paul declares here that this spirit is active and working among those who disobey God (Eph 2:2).

Paul also says that those of us who became followers of Jesus were earlier disobedient, following fleshly passions as if there was nothing higher to live for (2:3). Passions by themselves are not evil but if they control us rather than being used for their God-given purpose, they function as evil. Thus, for example, sexual passion is useful in marriage; without reproductive impulses, humans would have died out. But God expects us to use reason and the power of his Spirit to control and channel these impulses in the right ways. Everyone has physical passions, but not everyone controls them or even realizes the extent to which this is possible.

The devil, then, knows where humans are vulnerable and exploits them, and often does so indirectly through secondary media that affect how we think and feel and act, from road advertisements to commercials to soap operas to parents’ modeling to friends and so forth. The “age characterized by this present world” reflects how the devil works through promoting demonic values without implying that there are demons hiding inside the world’s television sets, computers or road signs.

Where have we unthinkingly absorbed the values of the surrounding culture? If we spend more time listening to the fallen world’s values through television or the internet than immersing ourselves in God’s ways in Scripture, we probably act on some of those values without realizing it. (Of course, some things communicate fallen values much more than others. A documentary can be helpful; pornography always is evil, directing human passion in an illicit direction. Some ideas may be mixtures. Even news can be selected and framed in such a way as to persuade, so we should critically evaluate what we receive, whether a news outlet is “liberal” or “conservative.” But we should also be willing to be self-critical in light of correct information through such sources.) Elsewhere Paul speaks of the spiritual warfare involved in confronting false ideologies, worldviews, and ways of thinking with God’s truth (2 Cor 10:4-5).

But let’s not miss the main point of Eph 2:1-3. Paul does not expect us to deliver ourselves. Rather, we should recognize our deliverance in Jesus Christ. As Christ has been exalted above all heavenly powers (Eph 1:20-21), so have we, enthroned in him (2:6). Thus we are no longer dead in sin, bound by the devil (2:1-3), but we have been been made alive in Christ and exalted with him (2:4-6). We should no longer act like those whose way of thinking is corrupted for sin (4:17-19, 22), but rather be renewed in our thinking (4:23), robing ourselves with Christ, in whose image we have been re-created (4:24). (The language of 4:24 evokes that of humanity created in God’s image in Gen 1:26-27; now we are re-created to be what we were ideally meant to be.)

In light of this deliverance, we can no longer protest, “The devil made me do it.” Paul declares that we should not cede ground to the devil (Eph 4:27). What does Paul mean by ceding ground to the devil? In context, part of the way that we resist the devil is by speaking truth (4:25), limiting anger (4:26), sharing with rather than cheating others (4:28), speaking in ways beneficial to others (4:29), abandoning harshness, hostility, slander and mistreatment of others (4:31). We should be kind and compassionate, and we should forgive one another as God forgave us in Christ (4:32). It is by loving that we avoid giving ground to the devil.

The Bible talks about delivering those who are oppressed by the devil, offering examples of Jesus casting out demons, and his followers continuing to cast out demons in his name. But Paul addresses Christians in Ephesians, Christians who through faith in Jesus have already been delivered from the devil’s sphere. He treats a different kind of “spiritual warfare” here.

In our own daily lives as followers of Jesus, we also resist the devil by how we treat one another—through virtues such as truth, righteousness, faith, and our salvation (Eph 6:14-17). We advance into the devil’s territory and take ground back by the good news of peace, God’s message (6:15, 17).

Spiritual warfare is not just spooky or spectacular. From day to day, it involves our relationships. Elsewhere Scripture teaches that the world’s values include bitter envy and self-seeking, which are demonic values (James 3:14-15). By contrast, heaven’s values, unmixed with these, include gentleness and peace-seeking (3:17-18). Satan sometimes disguises his values with religious clothing (2 Cor 2:10-11; 11:13-14), so we cannot take for granted that simply because something is religious, it is good. People often give religious justifications for spiteful behavior and slander, but in so doing they reflect demonic values. Instead, let us follow the way of Christ, who humbled himself to serve others, and in whom God has brought forgiveness to all who trust him (Eph 4:32—5:2).

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