Do not give the devil a place (Ephesians 4:27).
Three questions, but first a clarification. One translation says not to give the devil a “foothold.” That’s a very odd image, as if the devil is climbing up a rock face. The word is topos, a generic word for place.
- Who is the devil?
- What kind of place does the devil want?
- How do we avoid giving the devil a place?
Who is the devil?
If the devil is constantly tempting me to indulge in things I shouldn’t, he must be very busy. The average lifespan is 2.3 billion seconds (73 years), and there are 7.8 billion people in the world. That gives the devil about one third of a second to spend on me in my lifetime.
Yes, the devil has reinforcements, but you get the point. The problem with so much of our thinking is that it’s all about me. Our opponent is not a random personal tempter, but a military strategist with a targeted agenda.
The word devil (diabolos) means a slanderer, an enemy acting with malicious intent. The Septuagint (LXX) used diabolos to translate the Hebrew word śā·ṭān (adversary, enemy). Any opponent could be called a śā·ṭān (1 Samuel 29:4; 2 Samuel 19:22; 1 Kings 5:4; 11:14, 23, 25).
Israel faced many enemies. Assyria took most of the land. Babylon took the rest. Under Persian rule, Esther says, “I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated” (Esther 7:4). She names the diabolos plotting their destruction: it’s Haman (Esther 7:6; 8:1 LXX).
With this procession of enemies, the Jews begin to realize that their enemy was something more persistent than the empire of the day. There was a śā·ṭān, a power behind the powers, a force driving the national forces to overpower and enslave them.
Why? God’s plan was to restore the blessing of his reign to the nations through Israel. If God was using people, that’s where his plan was vulnerable. By destroying Israel, the śā·ṭān could keep all the nations of the world (including God’s beloved Israel) under its control.
But the śā·ṭān does not control the fate of the world. God is sovereign, and God’s justice rules. So, the best strategy this Enemy had was to argue that Israel deserved to lose their place, to accuse Israel of being unfit for purpose, to prosecute the case that God’s justice demanded their demise.
That’s why the śā·ṭān is the called the diabolos — the slanderer, accusing God’s people of being incapable of representing God. At the time of the exile, Israel’s disobedience had seen them lose their nation and come under foreign control. With the temple destroyed, they were unable to maintain their relationship with God. In Zechariah’s vision, the high priest was unable to fulfil his role of mediating for God’s people. Instead of the fine linen robes appointed by God, he wore the filthy garb of an exile, “with Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.” The accuser aimed to keep Israel oppressed (Zechariah 3:1).
So here’s the deal. The nations had gone their own way. God promised to restore his reign to the nations through Abraham’s descendants. The enemy of God’s people manipulated the kings of the nations to attack, enslave and destroy Israel. The accuser argued that Israel was unfit to be God’s saving agent for the nations.
But the śā·ṭān failed. God’s anointed ruler (Christ) released Israel and the nations into his kingship. That’s the good news.
Here’s how Ephesians 1–3 expresses this gospel:
- God achieved what he always planned to do (1:3-14). In his incomparably great power, God gave the throne to his anointed, raising Christ out of death to far above all rule and authority, power and dominion (1:15-23).
- The nations had been enslaved by the ruler of the kingdom of the air, and they’d enslaved God’s nation too. God broke this death-power with resurrection (not war), extending his benevolence to everybody (2:1-10). The enmity of the enemy failed. This gospel of peace established a new humanity under God in Christ (2:11-22).
- God’s reign has arrived on earth in the assembly that gathers around God’s anointed. Their very existence shows God’s kingship to the [earthly] rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms (3:1-12). This magnificent solution means every family in heaven and on earth belong to the Lord’s holy people in the life-giving power and immeasurable love of God’s anointed ruler (3:13-21).
(This is, of course, the same “gospel of the kingdom” that was the heart of Jesus’ theology.)
What kind of place does the devil want?
What of the śā·ṭān now? He’s using recognizably the same old tricks against God’s people (2 Corinthians 2:11).
The problem with God’s plan is not that God isn’t powerful enough. It’s how God uses his sovereign power: he doesn’t force us into his dominion (the way evil rulers do). God’s anointed has all power in heaven and on earth. He calls us to announce this good news, so people can reorient to his kingship (repent) and trust him to lead humanity (faith).
But how can they believe if they don’t hear? The vulnerability in God’s plan is that God has entrusted the good news to us.
Just as with Israel in Old Testament times, Satan’s goal is to restrict the message-bearers so the message doesn’t get through. Satan wants a place among the people of God, so he can destroy the credibility of the good news that reunites humanity under the kingship of God’s anointed. Satan’s strategy is to divide the family, to keep brothers and sisters at war with each other, to demonstrate that the gospel does not unite people in the reign of God’s anointed.
The devil doesn’t want a foothold: he wants a wedge — a space to drive apart the members of God’s family, to prevent us reconciling in Christ. His strategy is to prevent people seeing the good news that King Jesus reconciles humanity in himself, by accusing God’s people of being unable to reconcile with each other.
How do we avoid giving the devil a place?
We’re going to get angry with each other. That’s a given. How do we process our anger without sinning? There are two dangers.
One is to paper over the cracks, to pretend everything is fine when it’s not. Pretence cannot bring us together. Confrontation can. We must speak truth to each other. Truth can unite us.
Or truth can divide. The devil is the master accuser, using truth to disempower, manipulate, and destroy. To process my anger in this accusatory way is to put the accuser’s boot on your neck.
As I write this, I don’t want to be the voice of the accuser, crushing you if you’re struggling. I want to be the voice that calls us to solidarity with each other in Christ.
Ephesians 4 25 So, lose the lie and speak truth, each of you with your neighbour. We belong together, as part of each other. 26 Be angry but don’t sin. Let your anger sink with the sunset, 27 so you don’t provide the devil a place.
Offer your hospitality to the human, not the enemy.
What others are saying
John Chrysostom , “Homily XIV, Ephesians 4:25-27” in NPNF 1.13, 118:
To be at war with one another is “to give place to the devil.”