The Bible clearly teaches that the devil, and demons, are real, and that we should be on our guard against their influence. Today, we unpack what it means to be on guard against the forces of evil, including a reminder that the authority of Jesus is far greater than all evil power combined.
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Peter uses the phrase “be sober” three times in this letter: once at the beginning, in 1:13; once in the middle, in 4:7; and now here at the end. Sober is, of course, the opposite of drunk. If you are drunk, you are not really in control of yourself. People who are drunk are often silly, and they typically make very poor decisions, saying and doing things that they wouldn’t otherwise do. Their judgment is impaired. When people are drunk, it is easy to take advantage of them, or trick them, or manipulate them.
Though several modern English translations say “sober minded,” the underlying Greek just says “sober.” Just like in English, it can mean both literally sober, and also serious-minded. I think both meanings are intended here. So, the first thing Peter means is that followers of Jesus should not get drunk. This is reiterated elsewhere in the New Testament:
18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,(Ephesians 5:18, ESV)
1 Corinthians 5:11, Titus 2:3, and a few other places also reinforce this teaching. Also, earlier in this letter, Peter tells us that drunkenness should no longer be part of the life of a believer (1 Peter 4:1-6).
By the way, the Bible does not teach that no one can ever have any alcohol. Jesus and his disciples obviously drank wine, and it was common in the culture of Bible times. Paul even tells Timothy to drink a little wine for his health (1 Timothy 5:23). But the message is quite clear that we should not drink enough to affect our judgment or self-control.
Of course, someone who is an alcoholic can not even have so much as one drink, because, in an alcoholic, that will lead quickly back down the road to full-blown addiction. Even if you aren’t an alcoholic, one good rule of thumb to evaluate your drinking is this: if you usually cannot stop after just one drink, you probably have a problem with alcohol at some level. If when reading this you think, “What is the point of having only one drink?” then that is a pretty strong clue that it already has some kind of hold on you. If the Holy Spirit nudges you about this issue, please pay attention.
So Peter’s first concern is literal sobriety. But I believe he also does mean, in a general way, that we are to take our faith seriously, and consider the way we live and the choices we make. We are to live generally in self control – that is, within the limits that God places on us – as Peter wrote in 4:7.
One reason Peter says that a sober attitude (and literal sobriety) are important is because we have an enemy who is looking for any chance to take advantage of us. Peter first describes him as our adversary. He uses a Greek term that is roughly equivalent to our legal idea of a prosecutor: someone who is actively trying to impose guilt upon you, and get you imprisoned.
The next term Peter uses of him is, literally “diabolos,” which you might recognize as similar to the word for “devil” in Spanish. This term actually comes from another Greek word: diaballo, which means “to accuse.” Likewise the name “Satan” comes from a Hebrew word which means “to attack and accuse.”
This is one of the things the Bible teaches that often makes people uncomfortable. The idea of a literal devil, and actual demons, feels sort of superstitious. It doesn’t feel scientific, and at times it even seems sort of childish. Even so, the Bible clearly teaches that there is a real evil spiritual entity which is called Satan, or the devil, and there are other entities, under his control, called demons, or evil spirits.
10 A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. 12 For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.(Ephesians 6:10-18, NLT)
13 Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. 14 Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. 15 For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. 16 In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. 17 Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.
The passage from Ephesians above is one of the most extensive, but there are references to the devil, and demonic powers all over the New Testament. You don’t have to read very far in the gospels to see that Jesus encountered demonic powers, and those powers knew who he was.
Another thing you might notice about the encounters Jesus had with demonic powers is that none of them was able to withstand his presence. The Bible tells us that the devil’s power is not even remotely a match for God’s. In the book of Revelation, when John has a vision of the battle that took place in the spiritual realm, Satan was not even a match for one of God’s angels. Jesus sent out some of his followers, and they found to their amazement that through them, the power of Jesus could drive out demons. He makes it clear that when we belong to him through faith, the devil cannot overcome us:
17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”(Luke 10:17-20, CSB)
18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like lightning. 19 Look, I have given you the authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy; nothing at all will harm you. 20 However, don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
So the Bible teaches that the devil and demons are real, but also that Jesus has overcome them, and when we belong to him, we need not fear them. Even so, Peter tells us in our text to be careful, to watch out for the devil.
What exactly are we to watch out for? The very first thing is lies. Any power the devil gains over a person, he achieves by telling that person lies. If the person believes those lies, the devil can use that as leverage to gain more influence on the person. Jesus said this of the devil:
He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.(John 8:44, ESV)
Revelation chapter 12, in a picturesque metaphor, describes the devil as a dragon. One of the titles given to him is “deceiver:”
9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.(Revelation 12:9, ESV)
In Revelation 13, it describes the work of the two “beasts” who serve as agents of the devil. One of their main functions is to deceive people – that is, to get them to believe lies.
Now, what sort of lies does the devil want us to believe? There are three broad categories that might be helpful to consider. First, lies about God. When he tempted Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3) he tried to get them to believe that God was withholding something good from them. He portrayed God as deceptive and manipulative. He convinced them to take control of their own destiny, even if it meant sinning, rather than trusting the goodness of God. He tries to do much the same to us today. He distorts the message of the Bible. He portrays God as weak, manipulative and even evil. He tries to get us to believe that God is not trustworthy. If possible, he tries to get us to reject God altogether. He twists the message of Jesus either into legalism (“You must do a, b, and c, or you will burn in hell”), or license to sin (“God is loving, so you should do whatever you feel like doing. Sin doesn’t matter any more”).
The devil also lies to us about ourselves. He tries to get us to believe that we are unlovable, hopeless, past redemption. He tempts us to agree that we are really just worthless pieces of slime. If that route doesn’t work with some people, he goes the opposite direction: He tells some people that what is really most important is themselves. He gets them to agree that what they, personally want is more significant than what God wants, more imperative than whether or not it is sinful, or how it affects other people. “The most important thing,” he whispers, “is to be true to yourself above all else.”
He tells us that if we just keep drinking, we’ll feel better. Or maybe, just take that pill, and we won’t have to worry about anything. If we just have that affair, we’ll be happy again. If we need to cut a few ethical corners to get rich, it’s no big deal, because when we have enough money, everything will be all right. Especially, the devil does not want us to believe that God loves us, and that Jesus has saved us. He wants us to doubt both of those things.
A third category of lies the devil tells us are about other people. He gets us to believe the worst about others. He tries to get us to believe that they do what they do, or say what they say, simply because they are hateful, or spiteful, or trying to manipulate things. He wants us to think: “The only reason she could possibly have to say that is because she wanted to hurt me, specifically.”
If he can’t get us to believe that people are worse than they are, he goes the opposite way. He tries to convince us that some people are so much better than us that we should just give up. They have perfect lives, and ours is a mess. We are hopeless. Now, all this is made more difficult by the fact that sometimes people are mean and spiteful. And perhaps sometimes, some people really are doing pretty well, compared to us. However, human beings are complicated, and illogical sometimes, and if you find yourself thinking “this is the only reason they would do that,” you might be listening to a lie.
The way to fight lies, of course, is with the truth. The bedrock of truth is the Bible. It tells us the truth about God, about ourselves and about other people. The better we know the Bible, the more easily we will be able to recognize the lies of the devil.
In addition to lies, the devil does wield some sort of influence in the spiritual realm. Sometimes, this is hard to perceive, because even though we are spiritual beings, our own sin and our imperfect flesh get in the way of our spiritual understanding.
I hesitantly say that we usually notice this kind of spiritual opposition as negative feelings. For instance, sometimes, it might feel like we just have a strong aversion to going to church. Perhaps some of that is just “natural,” but it is possible that there are spiritual forces trying to cut us off from the encouragement we would receive from being with other believers, and worshipping together. Maybe at times we say something that is actually pretty hurtful, and afterwards we think, “what in the world made me say that?” Perhaps you were being influenced. Sometimes it feels like following Jesus is really quite difficult, and we wonder “why that should be? Shouldn’t life be easier once we line up with God’s will?” Maybe, although Jesus himself tells us we should expect trouble. Here, and elsewhere, the Bible says that there are spiritual forces that oppose us when we try to follow Jesus. It isn’t that we just happen to have a bad day when it is time to go to church. It’s not always a coincidence. It isn’t a coincidence that we always get sleepy when we try to pray, or that something always seems to get in the way of reading our Bibles. Sometimes, maybe more often than we think, we are being opposed by spiritual powers.
About half a dozen times in my life, I have encountered demonic powers in a way that was quite clear. Just for a little while, during those times, my eyes were opened, and I could see beyond any doubt that I was dealing with spiritual forces of evil. On the one hand, those were obviously unpleasant, sometimes even creepy, experiences. On the other hand, once those powers were revealed, they were defenseless against the power of Jesus, and of his name. I, and those with me, ordered those powers to leave in the name of Jesus. For some reason, it usually took about a half an hour until all sense of evil was gone, but in each case, the outcome was certain. In one particular case, the same demonic influence seemed to be shifting from person to person, and so kicking it out of one person did not stop the activity; instead, the same thing showed up again in a new person. I asked a friend to pray with me every day about that particular demonic influence, and he did so. The influence ceased within a week, and did not reappear in anyone after that.
Believe me, I know that what I just wrote sounds weird – it was weird. But it is also perfectly consistent with what the Bible tells us about the devil and his demons. This is why Peter tells us to be sober (and sober-minded), and to keep watch. We are still in the middle of a spiritual war. The victory is already assured, but the devil is still trying to pick off as many people as he can, in order to spite God, before the end.
Peter makes it clear, however, that in Jesus, we have the power to resist the devil, and that our future is assured through Jesus:
9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.(1 Peter 5:9-11, ESV)