"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John

Appendix 4: Satan in the Gospel of John

This seems like an unusual topic: Satan is surely not a significant topic in the Fourth Gospel. The name "Satan" only appears once after all. Yet when we look more closelyat the text, we can see that the figure of Satan, under a variety of names, has ties to important themes in the Gospel of John, like Jesus' glorification. In fact, it seems to be true for the New Testament as a whole that the figure of Satan is more important than many contemporary scholars have acknowledged or taken seriously.

This has been demonstated in a two-part article that appeared in 2016 by Thomas Farrar and Guy Williams. They demonstrated, using textual, linguistic, and statistical analysis, that there are 137 references to Satan (under various names) in the New Testament (many more than previously recognised) and that these references can be classified as "[a]lmost certain", "[h]ighly probable" and "[p]robable".1 From their second part in particular it emerges that these references to Satan are topical, that is, that they have relevance, throughout the 27 books of the New Testament. It seems unlikely then that the Fourth Gospel would be an outlier.

But it has not usually been thought that Satan occupied a position of real relevance in the New Testament. For various reasons (some of which are discussed in Farrar and Williams' article), 20th and 21st century New Testament scholars have tended to reduce the importance or soften the literalness of Satan in the text. Farrar and Williams point to a need for correction of this tendency. Extending her observation to the New Testament as a whole, they quote Kovacs 1995 when she affirms that

for the Fourth Evangelist, "the devil" is not a mere figure of speech, or a "faded mythological conception." Satan is an effective power who is active on the stage of human history.2

It is important to keep in mind that Farrar and Williams' purpose is not exegesis, at least not directly. Instead they are using the analytical resources available to them to argue for a "course correction" as applied to the topic of Satan across many aspects of New Testament studies and the early history of Christian thought. In their conclusion they write

The aim of this study was to create a resource and starting-point for future Satan studies, creating a comprehensive list and count that could enable linguistic statistical analysis, and then showing what the analysis basically yields. Our hope is that the summation of references and data set will prove useful, even where our analysis is disputed. Our argument is that taking a view on the whole NT language of Satan is important because it allows us to see the distribution across what are the earliest Christian writings, so that we can talk about general trends in the emerging movement. While it still remains vitally important to see the nuances of Satan concepts in different NT writers, our hope is that this study shows that there is a meaningful development witnessed in these texts: the emergence of a ‘Satanology’ that proved to be a distinctive development in the history of ideas.[emphasis in original]3

However, it certainly seems that their conclusions are relevant to the exegesis of particular New Testament books and passages, if only by suggesting that the topic of Satan must be taken seriously and not "explained away" as purely metaphor or outmoded mythology. How can we use the lists and other data they provide in their study for the Fourth Gospel?

Their summary table (Farrar and Williams 2016a p61) shows that Satan is mentioned seven or eight times in John's Gospel. The name "Satan" ("the Adversary") occurs only once in the Gospel of John, in Jn 13.27. Other passages refer to Satan as the Enemy, or perhaps the Slanderer ("ho diabolos" in Greek) (Jn 8.44 and 13.2), as the ruler of this world (Jn 12.31, 14.30, and 16.11) and as the Evil One (Jn 17.15). Satan may also be referenced in Jn 6.70, where Jesus says that one of the Twelve is a "diabolos", an enemy. I do not think the evidence is as strong as Farrar and Williams do that this is a reference to Satan (they rank it as highly probable4). Unlike the similar Synoptic story (Mk 8.31-3 and parallels) in which Jesus addresses Peter as "Satanas", using the proper name Satan, here Jesus seems to be referencing the Enemy only indirectly. As we shall see when considering later references Judas is a tool of Satan in the Fourth Gospel, but he is not a literal devil, only a sinful man.

Let us look at these seven clear references more closely.

In John 8.44, the reference to Satan comes in a heated dialogue (or perhaps quarrel might be a better word) between Jesus and a group of Jerusalemites over what it means to be a child of God or of Abraham (Jn 8.30-47). This particular group of Jerusalemites seem to include members of the Pharisees and possibly members of the Council, for they are involved in the decision to kill Jesus. The quarrel hinges on the idea that fathers and their children will have common thoughts and actions: Jesus denounced the Jerusalemites for not being like Abraham, whom they have claimed for a father, because they were trying to kill him, which Abraham would not have done. They also did not have God for a Father, because they did not love him (Jesus), which true children of the Father would do, since the Father sent him. Instead they taunted him with rumours of his illicit birth and he, stung beyond endurance, told them that their father was not God nor even Abraham, but Satan. This identification of their father with Satan ties together their involvement with the plot to kill him revealed in Jn 7.1 and their lies about his parentage by condemning Satan as both a murderer and a liar (in fact, the Father of Lies). Since children do deeds like their fathers', they too will be complicit in murder and lying. This is a particularly fraught passage because these Jerusalemites had been drawn by Jesus' preaching at the Festival of Tabernacles, and were putting their trust in him, until he went a step too far for them in Jn 8.31.

The reference in Jn 12.31 is the first of three to Satan as "the ruler of this world" (the other two are Jn 14.30 and Jn 16.11). All three of these are linked with Jesus' saving work, which in John is often described as Jesus' entering into glory. The first reference is part of Jesus' response to the coming of the Greeks (that is, a group of Gentiles) to speak with him (Jn 12.20-36). After realising that his hour had now come and this meant his glorification through suffering and death, Jesus spoke further of that hour and how his Father's name would be be glorified. When a heavenly voice affirmed that glorification, Jesus concluded:

Jesus answered and said, "This voice didn't come on my account but on yours. Now is the judgement of this world -- now the ruler of this world will be driven away! And when I am lifted up from the earth myself, I will draw everyone to myself." (Jn 12.30-2)

Not only does Jesus' glorification have implications for the lives of his disciples, as follows from what he said in vv23-6, when he spoke about the grain of wheat that dies to bear fruit and his servants following him wherever he goes, which of course includes following him to death, here it has truly cosmic implcations. When Jesus has been glorified, then the ruler of this world will be driven away. Just as Mark and the other Synoptics showed Jesus the exorcist driving demons (part of Satan's following) out of the sick and the possessed, so John shows Jesus driving Satan himself from his domination over this fallen world.

In Jn 14.30, the ruler of the world is mentioned by Jesus again: this ruler is coming, and that coming will fundamentally alter the present interaction between Jesus and his disciples because Jesus will no longer have much to say to them. This is because Satan's coming is going to hasten the final "lifting up" of the Son of Man, and hence his glorification. Ironically, the coming of the ruler is the prelude not just to Jesus' glorification but also to the ruler being driven away. What is coming is not a particular person, Satan: it is the judgement of this world prophesied in Jn 12.30-2.

[[I will add the last "ruler of this world" passage here when the commentary has reached Jn 16]]

In Jn 13.2, the evangelist tells us that at the time of the Last Supper "the Enemy5 had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him". What exactly does this mean? The later statement of v27 "And after the morsel (ie, the one Jesus dips in the dish and passes to Judas), the Adversary then entered into that man (ie, Judas)." seems to be making the same point. Judas the betrayer of Jesus was under the influence of Satan when he decided to do it. The evangelist does not seem to be saying that the Devil "made" him do it, rather that although the plan was Satan's at its root, Judas was a willing collaborator in the betrayal.

A point to consider in this regard is whether Judas overheard the Beloved Disciple's question and Jesus's response in vv25 and 26. Did Judas know exactly what was going on, and what it would mean if he took the morsel of food from Jesus' hand? I think it is likely that he did. In that moment he had a choice between accepting or rejecting the sop and all it meant. If free choice has any meaning, he could have declined, refused to take it and eat it. Instead he took it. The evangelist paints a vivid picture for us: as the food entered Judas' body, so Satan entered his heart, his mind. From then on, events unfold quickly. No wonder John emphasised in Jn 13.30 that it was now night.

So although Satan is not a dominant figure in this gospel, we can see that he acts as an important character. When he is named or referred to, it is at crucial moments in John's story. Through Satan's own actions in inspiring Judas to betray Jesus, he brings about the events of Jesus' glorification, which begins with his Passion and death. Because of that glorification, Satan as ruler of this world has been condemned and will be driven out. Satan's very success is his own undoing -- a very clever use of John's characteristic sense of irony.

1 Farrar and Williams 2016a p 61 (a table incorporating the results of their textual research and analysis); there are 12 other expressions, regarded by some as Satan references, which they classify as "[i]probable" (4), "[h]ighly improbable" (5), and "[a]lmost certainly not" (3).

2 Kovacs 1995 p 234, quoted in Farrar and Williams 2016b p 82.

3Farrar and Williams 2016b p 91.

4 Farrar and Williams 2016a p 61

5 or the Slanderer; "diabolos" in Greek

Return to the Outline

Return to the opening menu.