In so called reformed circles, it is sometimes common to hear of spiritual warfare that downplays any opposition to the devil or his minions. Typically, this type of spiritual warfare focuses on the enemy within, namely sin, and poo-poo’s any battle with the evil one, because it is generally assumed that he has bigger and better things to do than cause your car not to start or give you a cold. I say this last statement a bit tongue-in-cheek because there is another approach to spiritual warfare, that typical of the charismatics, that blames everything on the devil, from a flat tire to spilling your coffee on the way to work.
So what is the biblical approach to this? Does the devil come against us either personally or by way of a second-tier demon, as in say The Screwtape Letters? Or is there little to no evil activity by way of the evil one that is directed our way?
The first passage we will look at is a familiar one, though the proper translation is not as familiar, at least not familiar to most of us who memorized the KJV.
9 Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. Matthew 6:9-13 ESV
The ESV, cited above, is in line with the King James Version on the translation of this passage, particularly verse 13 and the phrase, “deliver us from evil.” Interpreted in this way, it would seem that our prayer should be for deliverance from general evil, which may come in many shapes, sizes, and forms.
However, this is not the best translation.
The NKJV gets this phrase right when it translates, “But deliver us from the evil one.” How can we conclude that this is more accurate? The Greek word for evil here is the word ponerou and it is an adjective. Translating this word would leave us with the English equivalent for evil, however, as we can see in the ESV translation, it is functioning as a noun (technically a direct object). How can an adjective function as a noun in the sentence? Because it is functioning as a substantival adjective, meaning it acts as a noun in the original Greek grammar. So wouldn’t this simply mean that the ESV translation is correct and our prayers should be to keep us from evil (note that the ESV recognizes the possibility of “evil one” in its footnote)?
Not necessarily, because not only is this word functioning as a noun, but it has a modifying article tou which when put together in its context would be more accurately translated, “the evil one” (tou ponerou).
This isn’t simply an academic exercise throwing around Greek words and phrases to impress or confuse, but has profound application in our prayer life and the direction toward which we should approach spiritual warfare. It gives us a crystal clear statement that the devil, whether by secondary means or not, is in opposition to believers and that God is willing and able to protect us from the evil one (Luke 22:31-32).
Though outside of Matthew’s usage, similarly, this exact phrase is translated as I’ve just described in 1 Thess. 3:3
“But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.” ESV
Here the ESV has chosen to translate the phrase “the evil one” while again offering a footnote for an alternative, this time for “evil”. In this context, the Apostle Paul is concluding his second epistle to the Church at Thessalonica, by contrasting the faithless with the faithful Lord and stating His willingness and ability to guard them from the evil one, seemingly a related restatement of the passage from our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount cited above.
Additionally, John 17:15, in the midst of Christ’s High Priestly prayer we read
“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” ESV
Again the translation choice of the ESV is towards a specific “evil one” and not a general concept of evil. Context again shows a petition made that God would keep His saints from the evil one, and He will.
Summarizing this brief survey we may conclude several points:
- Satan is active in opposition towards believers.
- God is sovereign over Satan.
- Believers are to pray for God’s protection from the evil one.
- Christ intercedes on behalf of the saints for protection against the evil one.
- God is ready, able, and willing to protect them from the evil one. And He does.
Of particular interest is that in these passages we do not see any command or instructions on engaging in personal combat with Satan, as some charismatics would have us to believe. Likewise, we see nothing of the diminishing attention that Satan gets in some reformed circles. Perhaps in a future post, we’ll look at several passages that give us more insight into the operations of the devil in the lives of the believer and how we are exhorted to resist him, which is rooted and grounded in our Lord’s resistance of Satan 3 times in Matthew 4 and His subsequent death and resurrection (1 John 3:8).
See also: Ephesians 6:11, James 4:7, 1 John 2:13, Luke 22:31
For more on this translation discussion see Daniel Wallace Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, pg. 233.