The Warring Cosmos, Part 2
The lie of Lucifer and the god of this world.
Preoccupation with the devil’s role in the world has been a source of confusion and fear, both among Christians and not-yet believers. So what’s the story here? Who is the devil, exactly?
The truth is, hardly anything is known about him at all, so it is actually simpler to present who he is not.
He’s Not Lucifer
Phosphoros, the “Light-Bringer”, Hêlêl in Hebrew, was later popularized as Lucifer in the Latin Bible that dominated the church for several centuries. What the ancients called the Morning Star — actually the planet Venus as seen before dawn — became the subject of much imagination, including a particularly fanciful mythology wherein a fallen angelic being reigned over an intermediate planetary kingdom between verses 1 and 3 in Genesis’ first chapter.
This issue arose in a later Christian tradition which confused Isaiah 14:12 — where the fallen King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon is addressed as Hêlêl ben Shahar, (Latinized “Lucifer Son of the Morning”) — and Luke 10:18, where Christ ascribes Satan’s fall “like lightning” to the success of his disciples village ministry. This produced the bastardized notion of the fall of “Lucifer” before creation.
In fact, Daniel, before interpreting the writing on the wall for Nebuchadnezzar’s rebellious grandson, lectures Belshazzar on the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy by using very similar language:
As for you, O king, the most high God bestowed on your father Nebuchadnezzar a kingdom, greatness, honor, and majesty… And when his mind became arrogant and his spirit filled with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and his honour removed from him. He was driven from human society, his mind was changed to that of an animal, he lived with the wild donkeys, he was fed grass like oxen, and his body became damp with the dew of the sky, until he came to understand…
The popular myth of “Lucifer” as a cosmic angel is untrue. “Shining star” was a term used for the king of Babylon. In ancient Near Eastern cosmology, stars were seen as the home of angelic powers, and many earthly kings co-opted them to legitimize their rule as representatives of heaven. This also explains Ezekiel’s lament over the King of Tyre, who is rather sardonically described as an “anointed guardian cherub.”
In the New Testament, however, every association with the Morning Star is a good one, and the only person identified with it is Christ (see Jesus as “Star of Morning” in Revelation 22:16).
In this sense, Jesus not only redeems souls, but vocabulary!
He’s Not the God of This World
The phrase “god of this world” is nowhere mentioned in the Bible’s original languages. This bit of news ought to tug a smile from even the most impassive churchgoer, for no matter how the devil wishes to paint it, he remains a would-be usurper on this planet, an alien of foreign origin who on his best day does not belong here.* “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” and so it should be.
Instead, in 2 Corinthians 4:4 we have “god of this age”, which is often tied to Romans 12:1, “be not conformed to this age”. Some English translations opt for “world” here, but that is more than a little misleading, as the underlying term should not be confused with planet earth. Rather, this is the Greek noun aion, meaning age, or eon—not a location, but a period of time.
Yet even this word is subject to misunderstanding.
For example, Galatians 1:4's “deliver us from this present evil age” is often expounded from the pulpit to mean “any generation where bad people do terrible things,” typically followed by a stern reminder of divine displeasure and impending judgment. It seems like nearly every generation in memory has received The Treatment— from the hippie free-love 60’s, to the drugs and rock and roll 70’s, to the punk and violent 80’s, goth 90’s, jihadist millennium, and whatever “new” and “unacceptable” behaviour is going on presently.
But Paul, in choosing to use the word aion, was referring to something quite different, something which spoke profoundly to the people of his own time period.
The Covenantal Age
Paul, Peter, John, and the rest of the New Testament writers were living at a very unique time in history, inside a society struggling between two titanic, history-shaping covenants.
Though in force for nearly 1600 years, the present evil age — the age of Moses and the Law — was waning. It was called “evil” because the bulk of the doom-laden song (dirge?) that Moses had sung over the twelve tribes at the latter end of Deuteronomy and its surrounding prophecies had already come true. In fact, they had been ringing incessantly in the ears of every generation since the rebuilding of the second temple, particularly when prophets turned up.
Indeed, from the time of the Exodus out of Egypt, the glory of Israel had not been more than a faint and smoldering wick, with only brief flickers of light in the eras of David/Solomon and Ezra/Nehemiah. The rest constituted intractable idolatry of the grossest sort to a pantheon of cruel tribal gods (including child sacrifice), and Israel’s subsequent captivity under a never-ending parade of alien empires. It was a slavish existence as the nation struggled to, at first, remember the Law, and then, after the return from exile, conform to its every letter. No wonder that by the time of Christ, the state of Judaism had become, as Paul intoned, “the ministry of death”.
On the other hand, the authors of what we now call the New Testament recognized that they were living in its “last days”, and that the present covenant “was obsolete and soon to disappear” (Heb. 8:13). As Jesus showed in his undoubtedly tear-filled diatribe against Jerusalem’s rulers in Matthew 23, a covenant on its last legs is not a pretty sight. The author of the book of Hebrews (note the audience) also writes of those who “tasted the heavenly gift, became companions with the Holy Spirit, tasted God’s good word and the powers of the coming age” but then fell away.
This “coming age” was the long-expected covenant aion of the Messiah. The Jewish people believed it was to begin soon after the arrival of the anointed son of David (messiah or Christ), who would institute a glorious reign, reinvigorate the Law and restore Jerusalem and Israel to a properly ascendant destiny.
The pagan empires had had their time. Now it was Israel’s turn for a golden age — and that eternal.
Though essentially accurate, how this expectation actually unfolded for a) proponents of Judaism in Jerusalem, and b) followers of the Way in Jesus of Nazareth, could not have been more different.
For the former, no warrior priest-king arrived to depose the colluding Herodians or organize a unified revolt against the idolatrous Roman prefects. No satisfactory arbiter of wisdom arrived on how to properly interpret and observe Torah. One by one, all the self-proclaimed christs were exposed as frauds, killed or crucified. And instead of a thriving Temple and throne of David, by AD 70 the great and holy city Jerusalem again lay empty, an ash heap, on the strength of one command from Rome. This time, with the genealogies and priesthood records irrevocably obliterated, the Covenant of Moses sighed and gave up the ghost.
But as one Age ended, the next continued its rise.
For followers of the Way, the dreams of the prophets were miraculously coming true. With little fanfare save one palm-lined entrance to Jerusalem, it came in the form of a lowly craftsman— Jesus — who began his reign by eating and drinking with the ’am ha-arez, the tax collectors and sinners of society’s lowest caste, “doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.”
This self-styled son of Man introduced a simple law of love from a heavenly city called New Jerusalem, who’s gates would never be shut — not even to Gentiles. While the Old ended with “not one stone left upon another,” the New Covenant had already begun with a stone rolled away. While the end of the Old ended the earthly hopes of one nation, the New began hope for a truly Abrahamic family in which “all people and all nations” would be blessed (Gen 12:3, 18:18).
In Romans 12, then, Paul is not warning against conformity to the passing evil fads of this world. In context, he is saying that since a living new covenant is here, there is no sense falling under the spell of the dead and dying. The rules and regulations of temple leaders were not going to save anyone from the destruction that is coming. Nor the temple itself, as Jeremiah had already predicted (Jer. 7). Jesus’ sacrifice had ripped its veil wide open, and though it had been sewn back, it was already too late —
It is finished.
Twenty-one centuries later, from our vantage point, we see that “the present evil age” represented a period that has long since passed. We are now rooted in a time that, though once called “the coming age”, is now quite present under the poured out presence (presents!) of the Holy Spirit.
May all our biblical interpretation, then, reflect and revel in this fact — we live in the advancing kingdom of Jesus Christ and for the last two thousand years, have steadily been moving from the first victory to a final one, with many victories in between.
* 1 John 5:19 notwithstanding.
N E X T → The Warring Cosmos, Part 3
The Warring Cosmos, Part 1 ← P R E V I O U S
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