“Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” John 12:31
Following the readings from the Gospel of Saint John set for this Holy Week, we come to the awkward question of the devil. Jesus is unambiguous about his forthcoming triumph over the powers of darkness, Christians are often less forthright on the subject.
Looking at Scripture, references to the Devil in the Old Testament are not frequent.
Christians would see the Serpent in Genesis Chapter 3 as representative of the devil and in Leviticus Chapter 16 the scapegoat is driven into the wilderness for Azazel, one who would later became depicted as a goat-like demon.
In the Second Book of Samuel Chapter 24 and the First Book of Chronicles Chapter 21 we see the appearance of “Satan”, a word literally meaning the adversary or the accuser. Satan is the one who incites David to hold a census of the fighting men, an action that displays a doubting of God. Satan is the adversary of the Lord in the book of Job, where the Lord allows Satan to test Job.
In Isaiah Chapter 14 Verse 12, there is the first encounter with the idea of the devil as one who has fallen from heaven. In the King James Version the verse reads, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!”
It is a theme found in Ezekiel Chapter 28 Verses 15-16, “You were blameless in your ways from the day that you were created, until iniquity was found in you. In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and the guardian cherub drove you out”.
The vision of the prophet in Zechariah Chapter 3 presents Satan as the accuser of the high priest Joshua, “Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan’ standing at his right hand to accuse him”. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!”
Turning to the New Testament, the Devil becomes a reality, encountered from the outset of Jesus’ ministry in the accounts of the temptations of Jesus in Saint Matthew, Saint Mark and Saint Luke.
There is a keen awareness of the presence of the Devil in the world in the New Testament. Jesus declares the Devil to be one who has fallen from his place with God, in Saint Luke Chapter 10 Verse 18, he says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven”. “Satan” is used as a title for the Devil on more than thirty occasions in the New Testament, the adversary to be overcome. “Get behind me, Satan!”, says Jesus to Peter when Peter tries to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem to face what will happen.
The Devil is referred to by other names and descriptions.
Beelezebul or Beelzebub, depending on which translation is read, captures a sense of the Devil’s fall from grace. Baal-zebul, was a title given to Baal, one of the deities worshipped by the people before the Israelites arrived, and a deity turned to in times when people turned from God, it meant “lord of princes”. “Beelzebul” a name by which Jesus refers to Satan means “lord of the flies” – it is a mark of how far Satan has fallen.
Jesus describes the Devil as “the evil one” in Saint Matthew Chapter 13 Verse 19, and, in some translations of Jesus’ teaching his disciples to pray in Saint Matthew Chapter 6, “deliver us from evil” is translated as “rescue us from the evil one”, evil being not just a vague force, but something that has a personal character.
In today’s Gospel reading, as Jesus approaches the final hours before Calvary, he tells his disciples that the Devil is ruler of this world, but is about to be defeated. “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out”, says Jesus in Saint John Chapter 12 Verse 31. Then, in Saint John Chapter 14 Verse 30, he says, “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me”. Jesus regards the time as the Devil’s moment, in Saint Luke Chapter 22 Verse 53, he says to those who arrest him, “When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!” The power of darkness, the one who had been the morning star, the day star has been reduced to darkness.
The conflict between God and the Devil is not one between competing philosophies, it is one between truth and falsehood, between good and evil. The Devil is without integrity, he is “the Tempter” in Saint Matthew, Saint Mark and Saint Luke, and again in the First Letter to the Thessalonians Chapter 3 Verse 5, where Saint Paul writes, “I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labour had been in vain”. In Saint John Chapter 8 Verse 44, Jesus declares that the Devil, “was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies”.
If Jesus shows such a degree of concern at the power of the Devil, shouldn’t the church be concerned not to be deceived?
Saint Paul is concerned Christians will be taken in by the deceit, he asks in Second Corinthians Chapter 6 Verse 15, “what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Belial?” Saint Paul does not underestimate the influence the Devil might have, writing in the Second Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 4 Verse 4, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers”, and in the Letter to the Ephesians Chapter 2 Verse 2, about “the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient”.
In the First Letter of Saint Peter Chapter 5 Verse 8, we find Saint Peter urging people not to be complacent, ‘Discipline yourselves’, he says, “keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith.”
In the Book of Revelation Chapter 20 Verse 2, Saint John has a vision of an end time where an angel came from heaven and “seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” The Devil is released for a while to bring further evil on the Earth until in Verse 10 he is thrown into the lake of fire.
In the pages of Scripture, the Devil is a present reality. To read the story of Jesus and to ignore that he takes the Devil seriously is to read it with a lack of integrity. The Devil is present and the Devil is defeated.
In the Letter to the Ephesians Chapter 6 Verse 12, readers are warned plainly, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”. The battle is an ongoing one, but it is a battle that is won
Saint John, in his advancing years, writes his First Letter and can look back on the experience of the early church, he warns, in Chapter 1 Verses 3-4 about, “the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world”, but reassures Christians, “Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”
It is the witness of Scripture that the power of darkness is to be taken seriously. Yet there is also a confidence that the darkness will be destroyed. As the moment of the crucifixion on Friday draws nearer, so does the final conflict. In the moment of his death, Jesus drives out the ruler of this world.