Various monikers are applied in the biblical record to the supreme villain historically recognized as God’s archenemy. Within a single block of text the wily antagonist is referred to in three different ways (Matt. 4:1, 3, 10), with other labels used elsewhere in scripture. What can we learn by examining these and other descriptive expressions?
Occurring fifty-five times in the English Bible,1 the most common moniker of this notorious character is “Satan.” The term is of Hebrew derivation, usually employed with the mostly-untranslated definite article, meaning “the adversary” or “the enemy.”2 While the Lord’s people have always faced any number of hostile foes (Ex. 23:22; Psa. 27:12; 1 Cor. 16:9; et al.), one stands above all others as “the Enemy.”
In Job 1–2 the Satan moves through the earth attempting to turn the righteous against God (cf. 1 Pet. 5:8). A prominent instrument in his attacks is the enigmatic “man of lawlessness,”3 operating “according to the working of the Satan in all power and signs and wonders of falsehood” (2 Thess. 2:9). Paul was commissioned to help sinners turn “from the power of the Satan to God” (Acts 26:18).
The young church at Thessalonica was told that Paul and his coworkers wanted to revisit them on multiple occasions, but “the Satan hindered us” (1 Thess. 2:18), probably by way of corrupt human agency (Acts 17:5-9). The apostle describes his troublesome “thorn in the flesh” as “a messenger of Satan” (2 Cor. 12:7).4 In 1 Timothy 5:14-15 the Christian widow can be distracted by tō antikeimēnō (“the opposing [one]”), parallel to “the Satan.”
Paul emphasizes the importance of forgiving one another, “lest we should be outwitted by the Satan; for we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Cor. 2:11). One of these malevolent schemes is deceit, “for the Satan transforms himself into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).
The word “devil,” absent from the OT, is translated from the Greek diábolos, meaning “slanderer.” Almost always preceded by the article, it identifies “the Slanderer” (above all others). Mark is the only NT author not to employ the expression, occurring elsewhere thirty-five times.5
The label is comparable to blasphēmía in reference to one who utters abusive or blasphemous language (cf. Jude 8-10). Implicit in its usage is evil intent, prompting malicious and deceptive words and actions (John 8:44; Rev. 12:9). The devil is not one to build up in a positive way but is the ultimate denigrator.
To use hurtful, vindictive, and slanderous speech is to be like the devil. This is an age-old human problem (Psa. 50:20; Prov. 10:18), not only against God’s people (2 Cor. 6:8; Rev. 2:9) but even among God’s people (2 Cor. 12:20; 1 Tim. 6:4). Proceeding from a sinful heart (Matt. 15:19; Mark 7:21-22), such disparaging talk is to be put away from the committed follower of Jesus (Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8).
The power of death and consequent fear were exploited by the devil until snatched from his grasp through Christ’s sacrificial death (Heb. 2:14-15). Unfortunately many have succumbed to “the snare of the devil, having been captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:26; cf. 1 Tim. 3:7). Though not always easy (cf. Jas. 3:2-18), the Lord has provided the spiritual resources necessary to stand against the devil’s destructive ploys (Eph. 6:10-11). By resisting him with a solid faith in submission to God’s mighty power, the cowardly bully is successfully repelled (Jas. 4:7; 1 Pet. 2:1; 5:6-9).
Twice in the NT the infamous being is described as ho peirázōn (Matt. 4:3; 1 Thess. 3:5), meaning “the [one] tempting,” or “the tempting [one].” This is an articular (specifying one in particular) present active participle, conveying persistent, ongoing action. Most English translations render the expression, “the tempter.” In Luke’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, the devil departs from him “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13), implying continued effort. The verbal peirázō (to “tempt” or “entice to sin”) is used in 1 Thess. 3:5 to describe the devil’s principal activity (cf. 1 Cor. 7:5; Gal. 6:1).
While everyone is the tempter’s target, those who constantly capitulate also become his agents (cf. John 8:44; 2 Cor. 11:15). The tempter does not and cannot force anyone to do anything against his or her own will. Rather, “one is tempted, being lured and enticed, by one’s own desire” (Jas. 1:14). Nonetheless, with the Lord’s help temptation can be endured (1:12) and the tempter resisted (4:7), so “do not be deceived” (1:16).
“Therefore the one supposing to stand, look that he does not fall. No temptation has seized you but what is commonly human; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond your power, but will provide with the temptation also the escape to be able to endure” (1 Cor. 10:12-13).
RULER OF THIS WORLD / GOD OF THIS AGE
To call him the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4a; cf. Eph. 2:2) is simply to acknowledge his powerful influence in the present physical realm (Gal. 1:4; cf. 1 Cor. 1:20; 2:6, 8; 2 Tim. 4:10; 1 John 5:19). His power, however, is relative and certainly not absolute. In fact, it is more apparent than real. God alone is “the king of the ages” (1 Tim. 1:17).
OTHER DESCRIPTIVE LABELS
He is also called “the evil one” (Matt. 19:13; 2 Thess. 3:3; 1 John 5:19) and “the ruler of the demons” (Matt. 9:34). His craftiness and menacing exploits are highlighted in the metaphorical descriptions, “the dragon, the ancient serpent” (Rev. 20:2; cf. Gen. 3:1-14). Seven times in the NT the name “Beelzebub” or “Beelzebul” is applied (Matt. 10:25; 12:24, 27; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15-19), historically attributed to a Philistine god, the lord of the flies. Only once in the NT we find “Belial” or “Beliar” (2 Cor. 6:15),6 the origin of which is uncertain but contextually stands opposed to “Christ” and recognized as one of the devil’s names.
Many have assumed the name “Lucifer” applies to the devil, based on Isa. 14:12 ff. (N/KJV). However, the context concerns the fall of the Babylonian king (v. 4), using highly symbolic imagery. The Hebrew helel simply means “shining one” or “morning star,” with its Latin counterpart luciferus, “bringer of light.” This is not a proper name of the devil but descriptive of Babylon’s arrogant monarch.
The various descriptive terms applied to the ultimate antagonist remind us he is real, make us aware of his power and influence, and warn us not to take him lightly. At the same time, we must never lose sight of the fact that God is more powerful and has provided the tools we need to successfully conquer the devil in our lives.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Fourteen times in the OT: 1 Chr. 21:1; Job 1:6, 7, 8, 9, 12; 2:1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7; Zech. 3:1, 2. In the NT forty-one times: Matthew (2x), Mark (5x), Luke’s Gospel (6x), John’s Gospel (1x), Acts (2x), Revelation (7x), and in Paul (10x): Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor. 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Thess. 2:18; 2 Thess. 2:9; 1 Tim. 1:20; 5:15 (note also Acts 26:18).
2 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
3 This is not necessarily a lone historical figure but is representative of all who attempt to lead into apostasy those who can collectively be described as “the man of God” (2 Tim. 3:16). See K. L. Moore, “The Man of Lawlessness” (Part 1),” Moore Perspective (12 July 2017), <Link>, and accompanying links.
4 See K. L. Moore, “Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh,” Moore Perspective (14 Sept. 2016), <Link>.
5 Matthew (6x), Luke’s Gospel (6x), John’s Gospel (3x), Acts (2x), Paul (8x), Hebrews (1x), James (1x), Peter (1x), 1st John (2x), Jude (1x), Revelation (4x). Having contributed more documents to the NT than any other inspired writer, Paul uses this term the most (Eph. 4:27; 6:11; 1 Tim. 3:6, 7, 11; 2 Tim. 2:26; 3:3; Tit. 2:3).
6 Various spellings occur in extant manuscripts, including Beliar, Belial, Belian, and Beliab.
*Adapted from a lesson presented at Middleton church of Christ 11th March 2020.
Related Posts: Satan's Fall?
Related articles: Matthew J. Phillips, Development of the Ancient Israelite Belief in Satan as a Schema for Dating OT Passages, M.A. Thesis (Charles Town, WV: American Public University System, 2015), <Link>.
Image credit: https://reason.com/podcast/hail-satan-a-new-documentary-shows-devil-worshipers-are-unlikely-defenders-of-the-first-amendment/