How Much Authority Does Satan Have in the World?
What legitimate authority does Satan have over this world? It’s a very important question, and it arrives today from a listener named Aaron in Texas. “Hello, Pastor John! In Matthew 4:9 and in Luke 4:6, what authority is Satan talking about? Is he lying that he has authority to give? Or does he truly have authority over the earth? If so, what is it, and how does this relate to God’s complete sovereignty over all things?”
Who Owns the World?
Here’s what the devil actually said to Jesus at the temptation in the wilderness that creates the question we were just asked: “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 I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8–9).
“God considered it wise, as part of his curse on the world after the fall, to give Satan a huge power in this world.”
And here’s Luke 4:5–7: “And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’”
My first answer is that if Jesus had worshiped Satan, of course Jesus would have abdicated his divine authority. He would have ceased to be God. If he were worshiping the devil, he wouldn’t be God. The devil would be God. Satan would then give him the whole world and still control the world because Jesus would not be God. He’d be Satan’s lackey. All of this, of course, did not and could not happen. Satan, as usual, was a fool to suggest it. He’s an idiot. He’s always saying stupid, half-true things.
All Power by Permission
But notice the words of Luke 4:6. Satan is not the ultimate authority in the world because, in Luke 4:6, he admits this: “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me.” By whom? God. In his sovereignty, God considered it wise, as part of his curse on the world after the fall of Adam and Eve, to give Satan a huge power in this world.
But he doesn’t have ultimate power. We’re not dualists. We don’t think there’s God and Satan duking it out for power in the universe. God is God, not Satan. Satan’s not God. All Satan’s power is by permission. He has no autonomy to do anything God does not permit for infinitely wise purposes.
We see Satan given permission to afflict Job, right? This is the same kind of paradigm. The Lord said to Satan in Job 1:12, “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.’ So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.” All his acts of opposition to God and God’s people are part of God’s plan as he gives Satan permission to exercise tremendous power in this world.
Real but Defeated
Nevertheless, Satan’s sway in this world is terrible and vast. Here’s what we read.
The whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (1 John 5:19)
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. (Ephesians 2:1–2)
The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers. (2 Corinthians 4:4)
Jesus says in his last night,
I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. (John 14:30)
The note that is struck in the New Testament is that in Christ’s death and resurrection, the decisive blow against Satan has been struck. As Satan comes against Jesus in his final hours, Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). In John 16:11, he says, “The ruler of this world is judged.”
Here’s Luke 22:53. Jesus says — I love this phrase; he’s just so sovereign — “This is your hour, and the power of darkness.” Jesus basically says, “You know, you get an hour. You get one hour. I know when it starts. I know what it ends. That’s your hour. It’s all by sovereign permission that you can do your dastardly deed in Judas and in me tomorrow morning.”
Power of the Cross
The most important passage on Satan’s defeat in the cross of Christ is Colossians 2:13–15. It goes like this: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” That’s a sweet sentence. The entire record of your life that you regret — canceled. Here comes the decisive second verse: “This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
“Satan’s one damning weapon against God’s elect is taken out of his hand. There is no unforgiven sin anymore.”
So, in dying for your sins, in nailing your record of debt to the cross, he disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in him. He disarmed them by nailing our record of debt to the cross, because Satan’s power is that he’s a great accuser.
If he has nothing in his court folder as he stands before the bar to accuse us, what’s he going to do? He becomes powerless in this courtroom because our record of debts has been canceled. His one damning weapon against God’s elect is taken out of his hand. There is no unforgiven sin anymore. We’re forgiven. So what’s he going to condemn? Nothing.
God Is Greater
Now in every battle with the devil, we can have total confidence of final victory. This is why Romans 8:38–89 says what it says: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers [satanic power included], nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” He has been decisively defeated.
A friend told me once about the time when he was converted in college, along with several other athletes. He’s a big, hulking, football-player type. He was converted by an old, elderly woman — a little petite woman. She hosted discipleship groups at her house for these football players twice the size of her. She insisted as her discipleship method that every one of them after their conversion say one hundred times a week, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). I thought, “Wow, that’s a wise way to start a Christian life because that’s really true.”