Preparing for Holy Week: Don’t Forget Satan on Easter

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The devil is to be taken seriously, but we should also not give him more credit or more power than he has after being defanged by Christ’s resurrection.

On Easter we think about many participants in the story: the Lord Himself, giving up on being a corpse; the poor soldiers, who had never encountered angels before and who probably feared punishment if not execution for deserting their posts; the chief priests and scribes, filled with frustration as things got out of their control; Mary Magdalene, grieving and rejoicing; Peter and John, racing to check out the impossible rumor; Thomas, who had other things to do that evening.

We less often think about one of the most important characters in this drama of death and life, Satan. Every victory has its loser, and Satan lost it all as Jesus came out of the grave, the devil’s dungeon. We may not be able to mount much sympathy for the one who has been defeated, decimated, in this story, nonetheless, there is an important message to be delivered in remembering how Satan stands behind this entire divine venture of doing death to death and bringing His people to life. When his presence impinges on our lives, we need to remember his status as the one whom our Lord has put down for good—for our good. Why the battle continues after its outcome has been determined must remain a mystery, but the mystery does not alter the fact that the final score has been recorded.

At first, the devil’s dungeon can seem like a pretty pleasant place to our sinful tastes. He often provides comforts and luxuries life in the cold, cruel world does not offer. There is an intoxicating aroma filling the air in his dungeon, and it often takes a long time before we notice this odor comes from the word’s first four letters. What sometimes seem like pleasant breezes blowing through his cooler make it get terribly, horrifically cold the longer we stay, in increasing isolation, as he turns us in upon ourselves, at first in embrace, at the end in deathly breast-beating. His slammer is where life gets more and more off kilter the harder he slams. No matter how much we enjoy this foreign land far from our heavenly Father’s mansions, Satan has placed us in a darkness and dankness of which we many times are hardly aware.

But prison it is. Easter celebrates the fact that Jesus burst into the devil’s jailhouse to free us prisoners, in Luther’s words in the explanation to the second article of the Creed in the Large Catechism. He wrote that, “Held captive under the power of the Devil, I was condemned to death and entangled in sin and blindness.” He continued, “There were no resources, no help, no comfort for us until this only and eternal Son of God, in His unfathomable goodness, had mercy on us because of our misery and distress and came from Heaven to help us. Those tyrants and jailers have now been routed, and their place has been taken by Jesus Christ, the Lord of life, righteousness, and every good and blessing. He has snatched us, poor lost creatures, from the jaws of Hell, won us, made us free, and restored us to the Father's favor and grace. As His own possession He has taken us under His protection and shelter, in order that He may rule us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.”

Easter celebrates the fact that Jesus burst into the devil’s jailhouse to free us prisoners.

Luther elaborated on Christ’s victory over all that afflicts his people in lecturing on Galatians two years later. He spoke of a duel where, in Christ, “you see sin, death, the wrath of God, Hell, the Devil, and all evils conquered and put to death” (LW 26: 282).

This is a scene worthy of a movie script. John Wayne, playing the part of Jesus, rides (wearing a white hat and on a white horse) into Sheriff Satan’s town, the town he has taken over, placing all its residents under his thumb and ordering them to do all sorts of things that make their lives out of whack. Jesus dismounts, is confronted by Sheriff Satan, who says, “Draw, sucker,” and then shoots Jesus dead. He leaves the corpse in the dust of Main Street and throws a three-day celebration. The party ends on the morning of the third day when the Sheriff passes by the corpse to gloat again, and the corpse gets up out of the dust and says, “Draw!” Jesus shoots Sheriff Satan through the heart, tramples him into the dust, and frees the town from its oppressor. Jesus’ celebration never ends.

In a sermon on 1 Corinthians 15 preached a few years later, Luther noted Christ, “strangled both the Devil and death and gobbled them up. They had gobbled Him up, but now He sits in eternal life and glory. That should be a comfort to us and make us defiant, for we have been baptized in His name and hear His Word and confess it.” It is a little more difficult to weave a movie script in which Jesus appears as the monster, certainly a friendly one, who chews up the Devil and swallows him down, but that is Luther’s picture. In another sermon on 1 Corinthians 15, Luther depicted the battlefield on which the Devil and death go down to defeat. “The battle cry goes up with the soldiers in the army encouraging each other to fight like warriors, “At ‘em, at em’, at em’ go to it, go to it, go to it!” The trumpets are the horns that are used in battle. When on the battlefield the enemy is attacked, the trumpets are blown, the drums are beaten, and the cry goes up, ‘Get ‘em, get ‘em, get ‘em, get ‘em.’” He depicted Christ as the captain who encourages the troops to attack the enemy by saying, “Forward, forward, forward,” and the soldiers cry, “Strike them dead.” This is precisely what Christ did, the preacher noted, when He rose from the dead and cleared the field of our enemy.

The contemporary Ghanean poet Afua Kuma tells the story in a prayer. She writes, “If Satan troubles us / Jesus Christ / You are the lion of the grasslands / You whose claws are sharp / Will tear out his entrails / And leave them on the ground / For the flies to eat.” The perspective of another culture. No doubt who the loser is here. The one who in the end will no longer be able to prowl about seeking human beings to devour was devoured by Christ’s resurrection.

The one who in the end will no longer be able to prowl about seeking human beings to devour was devoured by Christ’s resurrection.

Remembering Satan on Easter does not ignore the continuing threat of his unpleasantness. He seems alive, but he is definitely not well, and he struggles with all the madness of one in the throes of death. He is to be taken seriously, but we should also not give him more credit or more power than he has after being defanged by Christ’s resurrection. His mortal wounds hurt him as only Hell can hurt, and he is out to get his final vengeance on God and those whom He has liberated. He acts out of pure spite now, for he knows that he has been defeated and will be the everlasting loser. The Alsatian theologian Oscar Cullmann made an apt comparison of Satan’s status after Jesus left death behind to the situation of the German Wehrmacht after the D-Day beachhead had been established in June 1944. The war’s outcome was determined. The Battle of the Bulge would seem like a show of strength, but it only pointed towards and hastened the final defeat. Enduring such battles on the way to Christ’s return is no joy, but amid this conflict, joy accompanies the people who are celebrating resurrection.

Therefore, it is important to remind one another that the Devil remains essentially dead in days after Easter, even if the corpse is still kicking—and sometimes mightily—in his writhing. He no longer has any claim on us, and so he should be told to go home when he pesters us with offers which still may seem enticing. When the battle seems to be going against us, or against God, we need particularly to remember how Satan is the defeated Deceiver, the Liar who is a loser, the Murderer whose final execution has been scheduled for the return of the Lord of Life and whose sentence was passed when our Lord came back from the grave, having broken the chains of death and Hell.

So, in the end, the last word was spoken on Easter morning. That Jesus is risen from the dead means, now and forever, Satan is bound, and it is determined he has no right to try to have a say in our lives.