The following article is adapted from a talk Jack Crabtree gave at Reformation Fellowship on Easter morning, April 11, 2004.
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In recent study of the gospel of Luke—and, in particular, the account of Jesus’ temptations—I have attempted to get a better understanding of Satan and his role. This Easter morning, I want to examine how understanding the role of Satan in the story of Jesus can help us grasp certain aspects of the meaning and significance of Easter. There are a variety of different, valid approaches one might take to explaining the meaning and significance of Easter, and my remarks are not intended to capture them all. Rather, I want to propose a view I find both legitimate and helpful: Easter is an ironic con played on Satan.
It is significant to note how relatively seldom Satan is mentioned in the New Testament. And when he is mentioned, it is most frequently to draw an analogy between the nature of human sin and the nature of Satan’s general purposes. What I mean is this: just as the Devil’s overall disposition is to oppose God by opposing all that is connected to Him, so also, any human being who similarly opposes God and the things of God is a “child of the Devil” who dwells in his kingdom—under his sway—and who therefore shares his destiny. In all of the contexts where this sort of sentiment is expressed, it is not the intent of the New Testament authors to identify Satan as the source and cause of human sin and evil; rather, their purpose is to make clear what sort of assessment should be given to the nature and character of human existence. The natural conduct of human beings is to imitate, follow, embody, and embrace the values and interests of Satan, the archenemy of the Creator. Spiritually speaking, we natural-born human beings are like the Devil. Accordingly, we could aptly be described as his “children.” Furthermore, in all the cultures and societies that human beings have created and established around the world throughout human history, we have created cultures and societies that are founded on the lies and falsehoods proclaimed by the Deceiver, Satan, not on the truth and reality proclaimed by God through his prophets. So, mankind has established and continues to advance the Kingdom of Satan in the world, not the Kingdom of God. And we do so naturally, as sinners, not supernaturally, through demonic possession. My point is not to deny that Satan plays a direct and explicit role in the establishment of his kingdom. He may very well do that. But Satan’s direct and explicit role is never in view when the New Testament authors mention him in these sorts of references. What is in view is the role of human beings who are, by the natural predilection of their own corrupt hearts, his children and prophets.
But there are two events in the Gospels where the direct and explicit role of Satan is specifically in view: the first is the event of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness; the second is the event of Jesus’ crucifixion. Interestingly, in the whole history covered by the Gospel accounts, these are the only two events where Satan is described as playing an explicit and direct role. But I think that by understanding Satan’s role in these two events, we can gain a better and more complete understanding of the significance of Jesus’ resurrection.
It is difficult to know with any certainty how much Satan understood of God’s purposes and intentions in history. At a minimum, Satan understood that it was God’s promise to Israel to establish a kingdom with His Son, Jesus, enthroned as king; and that such a kingdom would be a righteous kingdom ruled by a righteous ruler. It seems, therefore, that Satan’s goal in tempting Jesus was to lead Jesus into unrighteousness, corrupting Him and, therefore, precluding Him from ruling as king. If Satan had succeeded, he would have destroyed God’s purposes with respect to world history; for the one whom God had chosen to be king of His kingdom would have been disqualified. (At the very least, Satan would have forced God to implement a contingency plan because His “Plan A” would have been effectively destroyed.)
Jesus failed to yield to Satan’s subtle and insidious suggestions and, accordingly, He preserved His righteousness and preserved His qualifications to be king of God’s kingdom. Satan withdrew in defeat, waiting—Luke tells us—for “the” time. Since there is only one remaining event in the gospel accounts in which Satan plays a direct role, apparently Luke has that specific event in mind. The time that Satan ultimately deemed to be “the” time was the series of events culminating in Jesus’ arrest and execution. Both Luke and John tell us that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was ultimately due to the activity of Satan. Satan, having failed to deceive the Son of God and turn Him into a transgressor, determined to take another tack. Instead of destroying God’s plans by disqualifying His candidate for king, he decided he would simply destroy that candidate instead. Rather than attempt to deceive the one who had already shown that He could not be deceived—Jesus—he approached one whom he could deceive—Judas—and enlisted him to orchestrate Jesus’ death.
This represents a significant shift in my own thinking—and an important challenge to the thinking of many Christians. In the past, I have assumed that Satan’s strategy was to prevent Jesus’ death on the cross. Knowing how central and important a role Jesus’ crucifixion would play, Satan sought to defeat God’s purposes by preventing the crucifixion from ever happening. (If I remember rightly, this is how the Devil is portrayed in Mel Gibson’s recent film, The Passion.) But I now reject such a view. Satan was not trying to prevent the crucifixion. The crucifixion was Satan’s idea. God used Satan to plan, schedule, and bring about the crucifixion of His Son. So far as Satan was concerned, the death of Jesus would destroy the purposes of God. Jesus was appointed to be king; but He couldn’t very well be king if He were dead. So if Satan could bring about Jesus’ death, he would destroy the possibility of Jesus’ serving as king. Would that have been the final and ultimate defeat of the purposes of God? Maybe not, but it certainly would have been a decidedly embarrassing setback for God—which is perhaps the best any enemy of God could ever hope to achieve.
If I am right about this, then Jesus’ resurrection was an incredibly ironic reversal. From Satan’s perspective, the crucifixion had been his victory. As far as Satan was concerned, he had defeated the intended purposes of God. At the very least, therefore, the resurrection was the nullification of that apparent victory. The cross did not destroy the reign promised to Jesus; His hope of eternal rule was not buried in the tomb. When God raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus was raised once again to the destiny for which He had been created: to serve as king of the eternal Kingdom of God.
In the light of this, what is the meaning and significance of the resurrection? What is it that we are celebrating on Easter? Jesus’ crucifixion was the purposed and intentional attempt by the archenemy of God to defeat God’s sovereign purposes in history. The resurrection is the power of God to take the devices and strategies by which His Enemy has sought to destroy His purposes and to use those very strategies to accomplish His purposes. So, one way to understand the meaning of the resurrection is this: the promises and purposes of God will not and cannot suffer defeat. If the archenemy of God, whose entire existence is focused on defeating the purposes of God, cannot do so, then who or what can? This caption could be written beneath the picture of Jesus’ empty tomb: “The promises of God will not be thwarted!”
The resurrection of Jesus is not just a Hallmark moment proclaiming the power of life over death. It is not just a vague hope about good being stronger than evil. It is not just a sappy, non-specific sentiment about tears being turned into joy. The resurrection is an event with a very specific and particular meaning. The resurrection means that everything God has promised mankind with respect to what He intends to make of our existence is going to come to pass. If God has promised us everlasting existence in a new creation where Jesus will rule as king, then that is exactly what we will have one day—nothing more and nothing less. And no enemy of God will ever be able to prevent it.