The Identity of the Serpent in Genesis 3 (Part Three: Satan in the New Testament)

This is part three of a three-part series. Read part one “Interpretation of Genesis 3”

Read part two “Satan in the Old Testament.”

Satan in the New Testament

The theological understanding of the person and work of Satan is expanded during the intertestamental period. This development is reflected in the numerous pseudographs and apocryphas written during the four centuries between the Old and New Testaments.[1] These writings were in circulation during the ministry of Jesus. It is helpful to understand that the teachings of Jesus, and the subsequent revelations given to the authors of the New Testament, were not recorded in a vacuum. Instead, what can be discovered in these intertestamental writings is that both the person and activities of Satan are not considered minor doctrines in Jewish theology in the period leading up to the public ministry of Jesus. Page observes, “Whereas the demonic is peripheral rather than central to Old Testament theology, it has a major role in the New Testament and is integrally related to the gospel.”[2]

A brief summary of significant New Testament passages (Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13; 22:3; John 6:70; 8:44; 13:2, 27; 2 Cor 11:3, 14-15; Rev 12:9, 20:2) will provide enough evidence to support the theory that the serpent in Genesis 3 should be interpreted as either a creature under the direct control of Satan or Satan himself.

The Temptation of Jesus

In Matthew 4, the conflict between Jesus and Satan (the devil) takes place in the seclusion of the Judean wilderness. The war between the seed of the woman and the serpent has reached a significant point in salvation history (Gen 3:15). Page notes that the temptation “is just the first battle in an ongoing campaign.”[3] The promised seed has arrived and he will prevail where the first man failed (Rom 5:17; Gal 3:16; 4:4).

The temptation of Jesus is the first reference to Satan in the New Testament.[4] The other synoptic Gospels, like Matthew, organizes their Gospel accounts to include this conflict with Satan right after Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13).[5] This likely signifies that both events are linked together in the unfolding conflict culminating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. At the baptism of Jesus, the Father declares that Jesus is his beloved Son (Matt 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). The Father’s declaration concerning Jesus’ true identity is the focus of Satan’s challenge to Jesus in the wilderness. Twice Satan challenges Jesus by saying, “If you are the Son of God” (Matt 4:3, 6).

Matthew’s Gospel gives a fuller account of the temptation of Jesus. However, before examining its details, it is worth noting that Mark’s account provides imagery that serves as a theological foundation for the event.[6] Mark describes the situation as Jesus being surrounded by the wild beasts and being ministered to by angels (1:13). Both illustrations, which symbolize peace on earth, are designed to construct an Edenic image in the reader’s mind. Page writes that Mark’s account represents Jesus as enduring the temptation of Satan and regaining what Adam lost.[7] Each of these aspects is meant to convey that in the same way that paradise was lost—through a test of obedience to the Father—paradise will be regained. Jesus’s victory over Satan was announced in the garden (Gen 3:15), begins in the Judean wilderness (Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), and is completed in the death and resurrection (Col 2:15).

Matthew provides several intriguing parallels between Satan and the tempter of Genesis 3, which set the stage for another parallel. That is, where Adam and Israel failed to overcome Satan’s temptations, Jesus would succeed.[8] Satan, like the serpent, seeks to exploit a possible weakness in his opponent, namely Jesus’ hunger (4:1-2). Seeing an opportunity to strike, Satan subtly suggests that if Jesus is really the Son of God, then he should utilize his omnipotence to change the stones into bread (4:3).[9] John MacArthur observes that this first attack on Jesus by Satan is reminiscent of his temptation of Eve to doubt God’s Word.[10] He notes that Satan’s question was posed in such a way as to cast doubt upon the Father’s pronouncement that Jesus is His beloved Son (3:17).[11] Satan’s goal was to tempt Jesus to question and subsequently test God. Like Satan, the serpent had the same objective in Eden. The similarities are such that one can rightly conclude that Matthew intends to place Jesus in the place of both Adam and Israel, both being tempted to not trust God. Yet, he demonstrates that Jesus is victorious over the tempter, stating, “Then the devil left him” (4:11a).

In a final similarity between the temptation of Jesus and the account in Genesis 3, both narratives record the tempters misquoting and misrepresenting God’s word. The serpent used this tactic to defeat Adam and Eve; however, Satan’s same attempt with Jesus failed.[12] In the garden, the serpent was determined to convince Adam and Eve that God wasn’t forthright in His dealings with them and that he had withheld the best from them (Gen 3:1-5). Similarly, Satan seeks to deceive Jesus by offering him a shortcut to glory, gaining the kingdoms of the world by submitting to Satan (Matt 4:8-9). In this challenge, Satan, like the serpent, twists the words of God in an attempt to cause doubt concerning God’s character. Whereas Adam and Eve fell prey to the serpent’s twisting of God’s Word, Jesus turns the table and rebuts Satan by correctly quoting God’s Word.

Matthew’s description of Jesus’s victory in the wilderness provides further evidence that Satan in the Temptation of Jesus and the serpent of Genesis 3 are likely the same creature. Adam had failed to drive out the serpent and as a result, all of humanity was plunged into sin. Jesus, however, obeyed God the Father and did what Adam should have done, commanded Satan to depart (Matt 4:10).

Satan and Judas Iscariot

The New Testament depicts Satan not only as the tempter of humanity but also as complicit in Judas’ betrayal of the Son of God. In the temptation narrative, Luke writes that the devil left Jesus until an opportune time (4:13).[13] The events surrounding the Last Supper became that opportune time. Seizing the moment, Satan took full advantage of Judas and exploited him in his attack on the Son of God.

According to Page, “Judas is associated with the devil in three places in John (6:70; 13:2, 27) and once in Luke (22:3), all of which relate to the betrayal of Jesus.”[14] John explicitly refers to Judas as the devil (6:70), claims that the devil had placed had placed the plan to betray Jesus in Judas’ heart (13:2), and then declares the devil actually entered into Judas (13:27).[15]  The extent to which Judas was possessed or controlled by Satan is rather vague; however, what is clear is that Satan is behind the betrayal and attack upon Jesus.

The likelihood that either John or Luke’s goal was to present Judas as a demoniac is minimal at best. It is more likely, however, that their comments are to remind the reader of who was really behind the opposition to Jesus’ ministry that ultimately led to his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The extent of Satan’s control over Judas is not in question. What is clear is Satan’s ability to use another creature, in this case, a disciple of Jesus, to carry out his devious plans. If Satan was able to use a man, then it is plausible that he could have used a serpent. This act of Satan chips away at the theory that he was not present in the Garden of Eden and that the serpent in Genesis 3 was merely an animal who attacked independently.

Satan the Father of Murderers and Liars

Jesus’s description of Satan as a liar and murder from the beginning connects the activities of Satan in the New Testament with the serpent of Genesis 3 (John 8:44). Jesus’ authority in scriptural interpretation must be considered absolute, especially for the interpreters who claim to believe in both the divinity of Jesus and the inerrancy of Scripture. This conviction is the basis for interpreting Jesus’ direct and indirect quotations and allusions to Old Testament passages. Therefore, Jesus’ remarks about Satan in John 8:44 are more than helpful, they are authoritative and should be interpreted as shedding light on the identity of the tempter in Genesis 3.

genesis 3 serpent part threeIn his response to the Pharisee’s verbal assaults, Jesus states that they were imitating their (spiritual) father, the devil (John 8:44a). Their refusal to listen to Jesus revealed that they were not children of God, but of the devil, who is described as a murderer and liar from the beginning (8:44b). According to Gerald Borchert, Jesus’s “reference is obviously to the Garden of Eden text where the deceit of the serpent led to the ‘death’ of Adam and Eve.”[16] Likewise, Page explains the connection made in John 8:44 between Satan and the serpent,

The appellation of Satan as a murder in John 8:44 likely alludes to the fall in Genesis 3.  The fall of Adam is specifically interpreted as the occasion for the introduction of death into the world in Romans 5 (vv. 12, 15, 17; cf. Wis 2:24; Sir. 25:24), and a reference to Genesis 3 would be consistent with the later description in verse 44 of Satan as the father of lies, which probably alludes to the fall as well.  Apparently, Jesus identified the serpent in Eden with Satan and regarded him as the original murderer because the serpent robbed Adam and all of humanity of eternal life.[17]

In this rebuke of the Jewish leaders, Jesus, who withstood Satan in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11) and recognized the work of Satan in Judas’ betrayal (John 6:70), identifies those leaders with Satan, and Satan with the serpent of Genesis 3. Any attempt to minimize the direct connection Jesus makes between Satan and the serpent must discount the authority and knowledge of the Son of God.

Satan and the Serpent in 2 Corinthians

In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul warns believers to not be tempted nor led away from their devotion to Christ (11:3). To illustrate the threat the church faced, the Apostle reminds them of the way in which Eve was tempted and led into sin by the serpent (11:3; cf. Gen 3:13). Additionally, he warns that the false teachers, who are seeking to pull them away from Christ, are pawns of Satan (11:13-15).

Ernest Best contends that Paul’s comments about Satan in 2 Corinthians are dependent upon Jewish legends which describe Satan as concealing his true identity in order to deceive.[18]  He goes on to suggest that these legends taught that Satan disguised himself in order to charm Eve rather than terrify her.[19] Although his theory, which claims that the work of Satan in deceiving Eve is based on Jewish legends, is marred by his presuppositions concerning the source of the legends, Best is helpful in connecting the passages in question to the Jewish understanding of the serpent’s temptation of Eve. Unfortunately, he ignores the possibility that these so-called legends could be based on a well-developed Jewish theology of Satan that was the result of centuries of reflection of Jewish religious leaders. Paul’s reference to the serpent in 11:3 is not based on extra-biblical sources, but on Genesis 3:13. Furthermore, Paul’s comments in 11:14 are meant to connect the activities of the false teachers to one source—the deceiver who has been at work since the beginning (11:3). It comes as no surprise that Paul, a highly trained Jewish Pharisee would display a clear understanding of the work and nature of Satan and directly connect the evil one with the serpent of Genesis 3.

Satan as the Serpent in the Apocalypse

Fittingly, the last reference to Satan in the New Testament is in the apocalyptic writing of the Apostle John. The immediate danger in drawing an interpretive conclusion on any passage in the book of Revelation is deciding whether the persons, places, or things in any specific verse are to be understood literally or figuratively. The interpreter must resist the pull towards sensationalistic eschatological interpretations of every character and event and allow the text to speak for itself. Nevertheless, what may be clear from both Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 is that John purposefully identifies the devil of the New Testament with both the Satan of the Old Testament and the serpent of Genesis 3. By using multiple titles to describe the dragon, John is connecting one primary player to all the evil in human history. Further explaining the identity of the dragon, Paige Patterson argues that the multiple titles assigned to the evil one are meant to convey his absolute evil nature.[20]

Is the Satan of the Apocalypse the same person as the serpent in Genesis 3?  Patterson believes that John uses the phrase “ancient serpent” (Rev 12:9; 20:2) to identify Satan with the serpent of Genesis 3, and directly links him to the deception of Adam and Eve in Eden.[21] In addition, he declares that Revelation 12:9-10 “contain several expressions that explain who the dragon is.”[22] After identifying him as the ancient serpent, the dragon is referred to as both the devil and Satan, which Patterson argues, “indicates that John believed the snake in the Garden of Eden represented the devil in some way.”[23] John further solidifies the connection between Satan and the serpent by describing the dragon as the deceiver of the entire world (Rev 12:9). In the same way that he led Adam and Eve astray in the garden, and until his final defeat, the devil is actively seeking to deceive the rest of humanity.

Finally, the pronouncement of devil’s defeat connects him to the Satan of Job and the serpent of Genesis 3. John declares that “the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (Rev 12:10). In doing so, John links the devil, who has been actively accusing the saints from the beginning, with the Satan of Job (12:10).  Furthermore, Satan’s defeat stops both the accusations and the opposition. The ancient serpent who, from the beginning, has been opposed to humanity if finally defeated as promised in God’s declaration of judgment in Genesis 3:15. The book of Revelation, however difficult to interpret, identifies one primary agent who has been behind evil from the beginning and will ultimately be defeated in the end (12:9; 20:2ff).

Conclusion

The evidence in both the Old and New Testaments will not permit the interpreter to view the serpent of Genesis 3 as merely an animal who acted alone. The conclusion that the serpent was either a pawn under the direct control of the evil one or was Satan himself is based on the witness of both testaments. The appearances and activities of Satan in the Old Testament (Job 1-2; 1 Chr 21:1; Zech 3:1-2) are consistent with the character and work of the serpent (Gen 3:1-5). Furthermore, the activity and work of Satan in the New Testament (Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13; 22:3; John 6:70; 13:2, 27), the reference made by Jesus (John 8:44), and the writings of the Apostles Paul and John (2 Cor 11:3, 14-15; Rev 12:9; 20:2) identify Satan with the serpent. The conclusion, therefore, of this article is that the serpent in Genesis 3 was either a creature under the control of Satan or Satan himself.

Footnotes:

[1]Examples include: Wisdom 2:23-24; 2 Enoch 31; 3 Enoch 12; Life of Adam and Eve 12-15; 25:35; 38:1-2; 44:1-5; and Jubilee 23:29.

[2]Page, Powers of Evil, 87.

[3]Ibid., 98–99.

[4]Ibid., 88.

[5]Ibid., 88–89.

[6]Due to the similarities between Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the temptation of Jesus, I have chosen not mention Luke’s account other than to state that he rearranges the order of Satan’s challenges to Jesus, likely for theological reasons (Luke 4:1-13).

[7]Page, Powers of Evil, 91.

[8]Craig Blomberg, Matthew, ed. David S. Dockery, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 86. Blomberg writes that “interesting parallels emerge between Jesus’ three temptations and those of Eve and Adam in the garden (Gen 3:6- good for food, pleasing to the eye, desirable for gaining wisdom).”

[9]Robert H. Mounce, Matthew, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 29.

[10]John MacArthur, Matthew 1-7, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 90.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Page, Powers of Evil, 99.

[13]Robert H. Stein, Luke, ed. David S. Dockery, vol. 24, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 536.

[14]Page, Powers of Evil, 126–27.

[15]Ibid., 127.

[16]Gerald L. Borchert, John 1-11, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 25a, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 305–06; See also, John MacArthur, John 1-11, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 2006), 371–72.

[17]Page, Powers of Evil, 125–26.

[18]Ernest Best, Second Corinthians, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta, GA: J. Knox Press, 1987), 107–08.

[19]Ibid., 108.

[20]Paige Patterson, Revelation, vol. 39, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2012), 352.

[21]Ibid.

[22]Ibid., 39:215.

[23]Ibid.

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