How Much Authority Does Satan Actually Have?

In the prelude to Jesus’ public preaching ministry, He has been led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil. Tonight we will observe the third and final wilderness temptation. As we work through the text and consider Matthew’s (and Jesus’) use of the Old Testament, we will ask this question: What sort of authority does Satan actually have in the world today?

Matthew 4:8-11

Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’”

Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

Satan’s actual authority

In the MacArthur self-study guide, which we are using as a companion to this study through Matthew’s Gospel, verse 9 is cross-referenced with John 12:31. 14:30, 16:11, and 2 Corinthians 4:4, which all essentially make reference to Satan as the ruler of this world and the god of this age in some way. In this text, Satan is offering Christ the kingdoms of the world as if he has the authority to do so. The text leads us to consider how much authority Satan actually has in this age (after Genesis 3 and before Revelation 21).

2 Corinthians 4:1-5

In his second letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul states that he remains faithful to the word of God alone and that they (the apostles) commend themselves to the conscience of each person. Paul’s goal is simply to teach the true and explicit Gospel, not to force others to believe the way he does. He admits that there are many who will not understand or accept the plain word of God. According to Paul, the “god of this world” is blinding them. The true Gospel is only veiled to those who are perishing (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).

So, we recognize something about ourselves and about Satan. Satan only has authority, being the god of this age, to blind those who are perishing. Those who are receiving life will hear and understand the true Gospel. So, the teacher (as an application of verse 5) is a bondservant to the people. He simply presents God’s word, explains it accurately, and applies it properly and the people of God are not blinded. This is not to say that the people of God will not be mistaken on occasion, but they will not be blinded by Satan. Satan only has authority to blind those who are perishing. Do we genuinely seek to understand what God has said or do we hope that the Bible will simply confirm what we have already been convinced of? This question means much concerning our spiritual life and health. The verses referenced in John testify to the fact that Satan is being judged and is under the direct authority of Jesus Christ.

Job

In the book of Job, we see an account of Satan tormenting one of God’s people in various ways. At every juncture, God had to give Satan authority before Satan could do anything (Job 1:12, 2:6). We even see that God is the one who initiated this conversation with Satan, asking if Satan had considered His servant, Job (Job 1:8, 2:3). It was to God alone to whom Satan had to give a direct accounting of his dealings (Job 1:7, 2:2).

So, Satan has only the authority that is given to him directly by God and he is accountable directly to God for all of his dealings. Even though he has rebelled, he is a slave of the Most High and he is not granted the authority to blind God’s elect concerning the true Gospel. This is a great comfort to us.

Jesus’ use of Scripture

In Jesus’ final reply to Satan during the wilderness temptations, He quoted from the same chapter that He did in the previous temptations:

“You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you, for the Lord your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; otherwise the anger of the Lord your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth. You shall not put the Lord your God to the test…” (Deuteronomy 6:13-16a).

Jesus reaffirmed God’s sovereignty over and in all things while proclaiming the Scripture’s declaration that God alone is to be feared and worshipped and served as God. Jesus would not bow to Satan and only God had any real authority over the kingdoms of the world.

The ministry of the angels

Who are the angels (angels from Heaven or human messengers)? When Satan quoted Psalm 91:11a and 12, he did so understanding entirely the role of the angels. Satan was once an angel of light. While there are no explicit revelations of Satan’s origin in the Old Testament, Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 both compare earthly kings to the one who had fallen from heaven. Revelation 12 explicitly sates that Satan was the serpent referred to in the Garden and that he once had a place in heaven but was cast down to the earth with one-third of the other angels.

1 Enoch is a book in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. The Pseudepigrapha is a collection of works that were written and attributed, by the actual authors, to some other earlier figure. Pseudo is a word meaning false, and grapha is a word that means writing. 1 Enoch consists of the work of several different authors, and the different sections are dated to the Second Century B.C. through the First Century A.D. 1 Enoch was written in the form of a prophecy and in the same genre of writing as the Biblical book of Revelation (apocalyptic literature). This book is not considered as Scripture because it was never included as part of the Hebrew canon, which was closed before the intertestamental period. If it were to meet the criterion for inclusion in the Old Testament, it would have been preserved along with the book of Job, which was written before Genesis. The apocalyptic letter is addressed to Methuselah, who lived just prior to the Great Flood (Genesis 5:25-29) and is attributed to a prophet named Enoch. 1 Enoch is important because it helps us to see the theology of those living between the testaments. New testament writers, including John and Jude, quoted or alluded to this book in their writings.

In 1 Enoch 86-90, a section dated to 165-161 B.C, the author tells the story of Angels falling from heaven and mating with people. This is part of the tribulation that began in Genesis 3 (1 Enoch 1:1-2) and is where we get the current popular interpretation of Genesis 6:1-6. The author of this section of Enoch read Genesis 6 as though it referred to fallen angels who had sexual relationships with people and produced super-human offspring (like the Greek Hercules or the Geatish Beowulf). No doubt, the intertestamental Jews were subject directly to a growing Hellenistic culture in which they would hear about the Greek gods having sexual relations with humans and producing demigod offspring. For our purposes, we won’t consider the legitimacy of that interpretation of Genesis 6 at this time. It is simply the way in which some Jews thought during this intertestamental period. 

By this intertestamental period, the teaching was already prevalent that Satan was an angel cast down from Heaven and the same language that is used in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 to describe Satan’s departure. So, it is likely that the Old Testament understanding is that Satan was cast down to earth from Heaven even though it is not explicit in the text until it was written in the New Testament books of Luke (10:18) and Revelation.

Satan knew what it was to be an angel of light an knew the role that the heavenly angels had, yet misrepresented this role as he quoted from the psalms. Angels were not created to wait on us hand-and-foot. Angels were not created explicitly to guard us or to always defend us. Angels were not created to pray for us or to be prayed to. Angels were not created to provide our every need. Angels are not people who have died.

Hebrews 1 (especially verse 14) describes for us the explicit of the heavenly angels concerning the elect (and especially Christ). The angel’s role is summarized below:

    • Jesus is higher than the Angels because He is one with God.
    • Angels have their authority from God alone.
    • Angels are sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation.
    • Angels were created as servants to God for the sake of God’s elect people.

God has all authority and it is He who guards His true children concerning the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith according to the explicit teaching of His word alone.

Questions:

    • Does Satan really have any power against the church, or is he only able to do that which he has been authorized by God to do for God’s glory and the good of the elect?
    • How are God’s elect people protected regarding sound doctrine?
    • Is there any room for the people of God, those who are not perishing, to be mistaken about anything?
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One comment

  • Great question. I don’t know that Scripture gives an explicit answer. If we apply the truth of God’s sovereignty, particularly as observe in 2 Corinthians, Satan only has the authority to even blind those who are perishing because he has received that authority from God. I think, Biblically, that this truth is going to apply to every single thing that Satan does. In this way, according to the text in Hebrews 1, the angels serve for the sake of all of those who “will” inherit salvation, not only those who already have. Even those who currently are not believers seem to be protected from Satan in such a way that God wills- this applies especially to those who will become believers. Every indication of the text is that God has all authority and God must delegate that authority as He sees fit. Apart from that, no authority can be had whatsoever.

    Thanks again for your question! Very thought provoking.

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