How and why did Satan tempt early Christians?

Last time I looked at the ways early Christians conceptualized Christ’s example as one who was tempted but without sin. I considered whether the first Christians were interested in Christ’s example in a comprehensive sense, or whether their emulation of him fit within a more specific context.

I concluded that Christians were more interested in Jesus’ example as a faithful martyr, and at the same time, were less interested in his example as a wholly righteous person. True, Jesus was a just man, tempted in many of the ways just men are tempted, but it was his obedience to God and faith in God’s promises evidenced under the threat of death that made him exceptional and exemplary in the eyes of his first followers. Jesus did not bend the knee to his pagan oppressors or their Jewish pawns; he did not abandon his message about the kingdom, his belief that God was about to judge the world for its idolatry and wickedness. When brought before those who had authority to torture and kill him, Jesus announced that the rulers of the present evil age would “see the son of man coming on the clouds and seated at the right hand of the Power (cf. Mark 13:26-27, Revelation 1:4-7).”

baalAlong the way to this conclusion we examined the temptations faced by Jesus in the wilderness. We built our interpretation of this passage principally upon the scene’s thoroughgoing invocation of Israel’s wilderness experience. In the wilderness Jesus was enduring the same temptations that once sparked Israel into idolatrous rebellion against God. As the representative of idolatrous pagan power then (cf. Ba’al of Peor), the Devil invited Jesus to, like Israel, forego his painful wilderness journey to the Promised Land by typologically turning back to Egypt, the land of idolatrous comforts (cf. Ex 16:2-3, 17:3, Numbers 11:4-5, 14:2-3, 16:13, Jeremiah 42:13-14). According to the Devil, Jesus could acquire safety, material abundance, and authority if only he abandoned the true God and instead subjected himself to the god of this world, Satan. Jesus had to choose: would he seek honor by climbing Satan’s idolatrous ladder, or would he seek honor by submitting to God even to the point of death?

Deeds of the Devil

To bolster this reading of Jesus’ wilderness temptation it might be helpful to peruse early Christian portrayals of Satan. What did the Devil tempt believers to do? How did he exert pressure on them?

  • Satan and Christ
    • Satan’s work in Christ’s passion through Judas is well-established (Luke 22:3, John 6:70-71, 13:2; 27). Satan both orchestrates Jesus’ fiery trial and tries to dissuade him from announcing his gospel and sonship in Jerusalem (cf. Mark 8:27-33, Matthew 4:1-11). Those Jews who attempt to kill Jesus are said to be sons of the Devil because they, like their father, are murders who revel in opposing the truth of Jesus’ messianic identity (John 8:44-47).
  • Satan in the Synoptic tradition
    • Jesus teaches his followers to pray “do not bring us into the time of trial, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). This “time of trial” most likely refers to the capture and imprisonment of Christians by Jewish and pagan authorities (cf. Matthew 10:16-42, Luke 22:28-34).
    • In the parable of the Sower, Satan urges Christians to abandon the gospel of the coming kingdom with threats of persecution, marginalization, and material need (Mark 4:14-20).
    • In the parable of the Weeds, the Devil sows evildoers among the children of the kingdom so that they might scandalize believers into apostasy (Matthew 13:36-43, cf. 18:7).
    • At the judgement of the nations, the Devil and his angels are sent into fire along with those who neglected persecuted believers in their midst (Matthew 25:34-46, cf. 1 Cor 4:11-12, 2 Cor 12:26-27). Like their persecutors, Satan works to bring hunger, thirst, exposure, marginalization, and imprisonment upon Christians.
  • Satan in Acts
    • The sorcerer Elymas is a “son of the Devil” because he turns the proconsul away from Paul’s gospel (Acts 13:8-10).
    • On the road to Damascus Jesus commands Paul to preach to the Gentiles so that they might turn “from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:17-18). Paul accomplishes this in Acts principally by decrying idolatry and announcing its impending obsolescence (cf. Acts 19:24-26).
  • Satan in the Johannine tradition
    • Jesus asks God to protect his followers from the evil one, the one who rules the world and harnesses its power to murder those who tell the truth (John 12:31, 13:11-19, 17:14-15). Since the disciples have accepted this truth, that is, God’s word, they are no longer “of the world” and are therefore hated by the world.
    • The Johannine elder warns the churches of the evil one who rules the whole world (1 John 5:18-21). John contrasts worship of the true God with worship of the Devil and his idols.
  • Satan in the Pauline tradition
    • Paul asks the Thessalonians to pray that he escape the clutches of evil men who perform the Devil’s work by resisting the messengers of the gospel (2 Thess 3:2-3).
    • The “god of this world” manipulates unbelievers to oppose the spread of the gospel by afflicting its ministers (2 Cor 4:1-12).
    • Peter writes that the Devil prowls around looking for victims to kill through imperial persecution (1 Peter 5:6-11).
  • Satan in Revelation
    • The synagogue of Satan in Smyrna slanders the churches and brings upon them great suffering (Revelation 2:9-11). By betraying the Christians in Smyrna through the Jews, the Devil can now “throw [believers] into prison” with his pagan arm.
    • Christians in Pergamum live beside “Satan’s throne… where Satan lives” (Revelation 2:13-17). The faithful Antipas was executed there by the pagan authorities who enacted Satan’s will. This act of violence against the church emboldened some to turn to the doctrines of Balaam and the Nicolaitans in order to lesson the tensions with the greater pagan world. Believers began eating food sacrificed to idols and committing sexual immorality in the hopes that they, unlike Antipas, would be deemed worthy of imperial toleration.
    • The prophetess in Thyatira who encourages idolatrous meals and sexual immorality teaches “the deep things of Satan” (Revelation 2:19-25). These acts by which Christians compromise their testimony in order to avoid persecution are from Satan.
    • The dragon which is Satan gives his beast, the pagan emperor, authority to “make war” upon God’s saints who refuse to worship the beast (Revelation 13:1-10).

This survey of our texts leaves us with two main conclusions, one negative and one positive.

  1. The Devil of popular lore who tempts believers to commit personal sins is nowhere to be found. The Satan of early Christian belief has little interest in tempting people to steal, cheat, lie, lust, etc. He is not interested in sin for sin’s sake.
  2. Satan is largely invested in hindering those who announce the gospel of Israel’s God and his son. The Devil takes a two-pronged approach here. On the one hand, Satan pressures the churches to abandon their confession through the violent hatred of pagans and Jews. On the other hand, Satan entices believers to adulterate their faith with idols and pagan sexuality, promising them not only respite from persecution, but honor among the pagans.


As master of the pagan order then, Satan was primarily concerned with the preservation of his idolatrous dominion over the nations. In order to prevent his impending dethronement, Satan worked to foster unbelief by both bludgeoning the churches and corrupting them with idols.

So for the early Christians Satan functioned in much the same way he does in the book of Job. Just as Satan once tested Job’s commitment to God through death and destruction, so did Satan test early Christian commitment to the gospel of the kingdom through ruthless persecution and social exile. In the same way Satan once tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he also tempted the churches throughout the pagan empire. He invited them to exchange God’s word for plenty, to exchange God’s salvation for safety, and to exchange God’s awful path of honor for Satan’s glorious idolatrous engine.

13 thoughts on “How and why did Satan tempt early Christians?

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