I have a cold today.
Which is fitting. Because we are going to be talking about the devil.
I do wish we could blame the devil for things. He would be such an easy one to pin it on. We nod in that direction.
We say things like
- the devil made me do it,
- the devil is in the details,
- the devil is coming out of my nose.
That last one isn’t a saying, but maybe it should be.
But then we have a feeling that isn’t what we really believe, as Presbyterians. It would be easy to pin this cold on the devil trying to get me to stay in bed and watch Netflix but I think i think the blame actually lies with the start of school germs that are in every home with children right now. So if we can’t blame the devil for things like a cold, what do we believe then about the devil?
The devil and demons aren’t something we talk a lot about in the Presbyterian Church. As postmodern Christians, we tend to shy away from really thinking about the devil and demons and evil. It feels a little like Greek mythology, with God and the devil battling it out. But there is no getting around the mention of them in the gospel teachings.
I was thinking back to my earliest impressions of what the devil might be.
A lot of it came from cartoons.
The devil showed up a lot in the cartoons of the 80s, usually perched on someone’s shoulder. This version of the devil would whisper things into your ear, trying to get you to listen. But there was always a little angel on the other shoulder, pulling you the other way to convince you to do the right thing.
Or there were kids who dressed up like the devil on Halloween, which always involved a red tail and a pitchfork and usually some sort of horns.
Or, there was the George Burns version.
I grew up watching the 1980’s ” O God” movies with George Burns on VHS tape. He may have been my favorite devil of them all. George Burn’s devil had a great sense of humor and drove an amazing car. Why wouldn’t you, if you were the devil? These were my earliest devil impressions. I’m sure you have some of your own too. We all have some image of the devil.
But what do we really believe about the devil?
Today’s teaching is from Matthew 12:22-32, and is one of the many times the devil, or some version of him, showed up:
Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see.
The passage moves quickly over this first part, which means it is the teaching of the rest of the passage that is the primary focus, not the healing in this first verse.
All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.”
The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day. They did not like Jesus at all, and didn’t buy into the idea that he was the Son of God. So when Jesus does something like an exorcism, they are quick to find another possible explanation. But they really take it up a level on this one. Not only are they saying Jesus isn’t God, but that he is in cahoots with Beelzebul, ruler of the demons, the devil himself. Bold move, Pharisees.
He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges.
Before Jesus corrects them, he points out that their logic doesn’t even hold up. Why would Satan, the king of the demons, want to get rid of demons? They are on the same team. That’s simply counterproductive.
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
Then he brings home his point: if he did in fact cast out a demon, and it wouldn’t make any sense at all if Satan would do such a thing, then the obvious answer is that he is who he said he is, the Son of God. To the audiences of that time, case closed. It all made sense. But for us today, we are still wanting to pump the breaks here for a minute. Beelzebul isn’t exactly a name we go tossing around in conversation. I can honestly say I have said the name Voldermort more than I refer to Beelzebub. So let’s take some time to talk about some possibilities in understanding what this means.
The first thing we need to decide is if evil is real. Because if the devil, as the Scriptures present him, is the epitome of evil, then is evil real? Yes. How do we know? We can see it. We have seen things that can only be described as evil happen in the world. And we read historical accounts of atrocities we hope to never see play out again. Evil is real because we see things that can only be described as evil happen.
For us as Christians, evil is very real. At the very center of what we believe as Christian disciples is the cross. As Christians we believe that God came into the world as a human being, and that he ended up crucified on a cross like a criminal. So yes, evil is very real. Before we move onto the devil, one more thing on evil.
There are different kinds of it out there. There are things we call natural evil, like tornadoes or cancer. These are the things that are not the result of our behavior but simply a result of the fragility of human life. These are the evil things that people tend to want to find some blame for in the supernatural because they just don’t make sense. But we are creatures in bodies so people get sick. We live on a rock in space with an atmosphere so we have tornadoes. These things reap havoc on our lives but they aren’t always something we brought about, and they don’t always have a reason. They just are. This is the stuff of natural evil.
Then there is the evil that comes from our treatment of one another. The kind of evil that shows our rebellion against God and our disregard for other people. This is the evil of holocausts and school shootings and unjust systems. This is the evil that means we need the cross for our redemption, the evil of our sin.
So evil, both natural and human, is real. What about this devil guy?
That depends on how you interpret passages like the one we just read.
We are about to take a choose your own adventure path, so get ready. I’m going to give you two choices. Here’s the first one: Maybe the devil is a literal being. And if that is true, I do hope he looks like George Burns. This is the first possible interpretation. BUT, and this is really important . . .
God and the devil are not equals.
Which means that we don’t believe IN the devil the way we believe IN God. Literal or not, the devil isn’t another god, or equal to God, or a dark side of God. This isn’t a batman and the joker situation. We believe IN God and work AGAINST evil, or the devil.
Don’t give the devil too much of your time. Don’t spend your time wondering if the devil is trying to tempt you or looking for devil at work. The Bible doesn’t pay him a lot of attention so we don’t either. When the devil shows up in Scripture, it’s to point to God’s victory over him. The devil is at most a footnote in the big story of God’s amazing work. If you get focused on thinking about what the devil is up to, or how the devil might tempt you or what the devil is really like, you are giving him way too much attention. Your attention belongs to God, and God alone.
One way we do this is when You hear people talk about spiritual warfare which is when a Christian feels like they are fighting against the devil, usually when they are doing something for God. But sometimes I think the devil is getting a lot of credit for things he wasn’t involved in. If your garbage disposal backs up right before your bible study meeting this is not a get behind me Satan situation. This is a don’t put an entire pot of pasta in the sink situation. Or when you leave 10 minutes before church and you get stuck in traffic, that’s not the devil slowing you down. That’s the other cars and you hitting the snooze button. So don’t give the devil too much credit or too much attention.
There’s a second camp of interpretation on passages about the devil, and that’s one where the devil isn’t an embodied being so much as what we use to describe evil. The devil in this interpretation isn’t a guy with a pitch fork but the power at work when things like greed or lust or fear or prejudice or hatred get a hold of us.
We challenged those who believe the devil is a literal being to not give him too much credit, but the challenge for those of you who fall into this second group is to not take it too lightly either. If the devil is things like lust or greed or deception in our lives make sure you aren’t discounting the reality of evil.
You are going to be tempted to take it too lightly, or to underestimate and rationalize things in your life. You might be tempted to see plenty of evil out there in other people but not in yourself. But even if the devil isn’t hanging out on your shoulder, don’t underestimate how real these temptations are. It’s real in the world and in your heart.
Don’t get complacent.
Don’t get complacent, because the devil is too tricky to be taken lightly. Temptation to do evil very rarely looks like evil. Instead the devil and temptation usually comes dressed up like something you really really want. We can justify anything we really want. When it shows up you don’t see the devil enticing you to cheat on your spouse. No, it comes dressed up in your emotional needs this person could meet, or the fight you had with your spouse last night that left you feeling vulnerable. But that’s the devil in disguise. It doesn’t show up as the sin of thinking that someone else is worth less than you are. No, it comes dressed as your fear that someone different from you could threaten what you have. Devil in disguise. So don’t take the devil and temptation too lightly either.
Talking about the devil creates a really big hole. We look at the world and evil seems rampant. We look at our own lives and see our brokenness. We really are in a battle of good versus evil, sin versus righteousness. When we look at the world and it seems like we are in a battle, we are. The battle is real.
But the war has been won.
We are in the thick of it now as we go up against evil in the world but when Jesus went to the cross he took the evil and sin of the entire world with him, dying and rising in the final victory over the devil and evil. This means we don’t fight this battle alone. The same Jesus who went head to head against the devil and won is the one who stands by your side now.
Jesus called the devil the prince of this world.
But Jesus . . . he is the King.
About the Author
Megan Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find her on Twitter @pastormegan