The Trail of the Serpent
Donald J. Duff
Many of you know that I lived for a while in Grand Junction, Colorado. If you know about the Colorado National Monument, which was in my back yard, you may have thought, when you read the title of the sermon tonight, that I was going to tell you of the great trail, called the Trail of the Serpent, that winds down the eastern end of the Monument over various strata of sandstone until it reaches the bottom of the canyon and bedrock granite. I would love to tell you sometime about that trail, or better still take you for a walk on it, but this evening I want to speak of a different trail of the serpentnamely, the trail of that old serpent, Satan or the Devil, through the course of human history.
We have come to that season of the year when we remember in a particular way the birth of Jesus Christ some 2,000 years ago. So important is this event that we date every other event according to it. Either an event occurred BC (before Christ) or AD (in the year of our Lord). Thus, whenever we speak of any date we acknowledge its position with regard to the central point of human history, the birth of Jesus Christ. Not only is Jesus Christ the center of human history, he is also the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He it is of whom John speaks when he says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that has been made" (Jn. 1:1-3). He is also the end of all things, the one who is to come again and bring everything to consummation and completion.
As Christ is the beginning, the center, and the end of all things, so he is also the one of whom the Scriptures speak. In a very real way the Scriptures are the book of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament tells of the creation of the world and the preparation that God made in history for the coming of the Messiah. The New Testament tells of the birth and work of Jesus Christ in the Gospels; then in the rest of the New Testament we have the authoritative interpretation of the significance of this work. From the beginning to the end of the Bible, there is one person with whom the Scriptures are concernednamely, Jesus Christ.
Besides being the story of Jesus Christ, the Bible also includes the story of another person who is seen in constant rebellion and conflict with the Messiah. That person is none other than Satan himself. Throughout the history of mankind, Satan has been waging a constant struggle to win the upper hand and to defeat the purpose of God. While it may seem somewhat strange at Christmas time to speak of Satan, nevertheless I want to take some time this evening to point out how this one, who is an adversary, has worked throughout the ages to defeat God's purposes and how, in the end, he is surely defeated by the one whose birthday we remember at this season of the year.
In the opening chapter of Genesis, we are told of God's creation of the world and especially of his creation of man as a person made in God's own image. Man was made a moral creature. To him was given a covenant which he could either keep or break. If he obeyed, he would inherit eternal life. If he disobeyed, he would receive eternal damnation. The choice was his to make. You know the story of how Satan, in the form of a serpent, tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. In turn, she gave some to Adam and he ate of it also. Thus our first parents fell from the state of righteousness, and sin and death entered the world. It seemed as if Satan had triumphed. The man and the woman had listened to him rather than to God. They, the crown of God's creation, were his servants rather than God's servants. Now they and all their descendants were reduced to bondage to Satan. He had managed to snatch them from the very paradise in which God had placed them. Satan seemingly had won a resounding victory.
But in the 15th verse of Genesis 3, even as God pronounced a curse upon the serpent, we read these words: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will bruise you on the head and you shall bruise him on the heel." Here, in the first indication of the gospel, God discloses that there will be a Redeemer for fallen and sin-cursed man, while on the other hand he also makes clear that Satan will continue to be active in his role as the Prince of Darkness. God clearly indicates the battle is not over yet. Satan may have seemed to have won the first round, but the struggle is just joined between the seed of the woman and that of the serpent. In a real sense we might say that this is what the rest of earthly history is about. It is certainly what the Bible is about.
From Genesis (the first book of the Bible) I should like to turn your attention to Revelation (the last book of the Bible). Let us look at Revelation 12. Here once again we have a conflict between a woman and the great red dragon. In this chapter we have described for us a splendid woman (arrayed with the sun and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars). This woman is about to give birth to a child. Before her stands a great red dragon with seven heads, ten horns and a tail that sweeps away a third of the stars. He stands waiting for the birth of the child so that he might devour it.
Then we read of the birth of the child. It is a son, a man-child, and a mighty king. This is one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. As he is born, before the dragon can devour him, the child is caught up by God to his throne and the woman flees into the wilderness. A great war breaks out in heaven between Michael and his angels on the one side, and the dragon and his forces on the other side. The dragon, who is identified as "the Devil and Satan the deceiver of the whole world," is defeated and cast to the earth. Nevertheless he does not give up. He begins to persecute the woman pouring water from his mouth in an endeavor to drown her. He also continues to make war with "the rest of her offspring who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus" (Rev. 12:17).
Thus in Genesis 3:15 and in Revelation 12, we have prophetically described what is historically recounted in Matthew 2:1-23. Here is the birth of "the seed of the woman," the man-child, who is the great king. Here also is Herod, the ruthless king and almost the embodiment of the great dragon himself, attempting to devour the child-king when the child's life had barely begun. Herod, the cunning, deceitful king who had his wife's brother drowned while bathing and who had executed his favorite wife and her two sons along with a host of other people he suspected of being rivals for his throne, seemed to be the ideal instrument for carrying out the designs of the Devil in doing away with the Christ child. So Herod devises a stratagem to have the wise men reveal this possible rival to the throne. When that fails, he vainly attempts to do away with the young king's life by slaughtering the children of Bethlehem.
In doing this, Herod was demonstrating but the latest expression in the hostility of the realm of darkness to the kingdom of God. Many times before Satan had attempted to quench the line of the Messiah by his fiery darts. He had almost succeeded in the time of Noah when he so ruled the hearts and minds of mankind that their hearts were only evil continually and the Lord said he repented that he had made man. Only one man and his family were left, but this family was spared in God's ordeal-judgment upon the world. Satan, who had almost succeeded, lost another battle.
Satan tried again in Egypt when the people of God were brought into bondage and slavery. Pharaoh, at the instigation of the dragon, commanded that all the male children of the Israelites be destroyed at birth. If the Devil had had his way Israel would have died in the slavery of Egyptian bondage; but God once again intervened and in a supernatural way delivered them bringing the serpent's efforts to naught. Matthew makes reference to that great deliverance in 2:15 with the words of Hosea 11:1 "When Israel was a child, then I loved him and called my son out of Egypt."
The adversary never gave up. He seemed to have triumphed when he led Israel and Judah into sin and as a consequence the Lord brought upon the land the curse of captivity of the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The Kingdom of David was defeated and in ruins. The Israelites were scattered. Had the Devil had his way, Judah, like the ten northern tribes, would have been engulfed in heathenism and the true light would have been extinguished. The deportation of the Jews by the Babylonians was an extremely cruel one. Jeremiah, the prophet, set forth the great sorrow of Israel's desolation by picturing Rachel, their ancestress, disconsolately weeping over the barbarities of the Babylonians as they assembled the captives and led them past her tomb in Ramah on their way to a strange land. He says, "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she would not be comforted, because they are not" (Jer. 31:15). Seemingly all is lost and yet the Lord in that same passage in Jeremiah had told him to "refrain thy voice from weeping and thine eyes from tears" (Jer. 31:16). The prophet goes on to say that the captives would return from the land of captivity. There was hope for the future. So it was that, after seventy years of captivity, a remnant returned and once again all the schemes of the Devil had gone awry.
Centuries later Israel's state was exceedingly low. Matthew clearly shows us that the line of David the King was almost extinct; reduced to a carpenter and a humble virgin betrothed to him. In these circumstances, in the fullness of time, through a great miracle the woman's travail brought forth a man-child. Here is the seed of the woman as well as Emmanuel (God with us). Now the dragon must make a desperate attempt. When the Magi came to Jerusalem looking for the new born king this seems to be the opportunity the dragon was waiting for. Even when the Magi fail to report back to Herod there is still the last ditch effort to destroy the child in the slaughter of the innocent male children of Bethlehem. But once again, while the serpent almost achieves his goal, the purposes of God cannot be defeated. The child is caught up to God and to his throne (Rev. 12:5), but not before Rachel is once again seen as weeping for her massacred children even as she wept for them at the time of the Babylonian captivity. Here we have the first casualties in the warfare that was to be waged between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God and of his Christ. Remember, this is but a small insight into the great war that Revelation lets us see; a war that goes on between the hosts of Heaven and the great dragon.
The young king, however, was safe in Egypt. From there he would once again come to bring his people out of bondage; this time, not simply the bondage of slavery in Egypt, but this time from the bondage of sin. He, the Second Adam, would meet Satan in the wildernesses and there he would successfully withstand all his temptations. Satan would be wounded but not defeated. During Christ's earthly ministry, he would throw all his demons at Jesus. In the end, he would enter the heart of Judas (Lk. 22:3), who would deliver Jesus up to his enemies to be crucified. On that gloomy Friday afternoon, Satan must have rejoiced. Finally he had triumphed. Now he would reign supreme. His adversary had been destroyed. How he must have gloated when the body of the Lord was removed from the cross and buried in the tomb. Here is one who has come under the curse of death and the grave. But Satan's joy was short lived. On the third day Christ rose triumphantly from the grave. The power of sin and of death was shattered once and for all and within forty days the risen Savior ascended into heaven to reign supreme. The heel of the seed of the woman had been bruised, but now the head of the serpent was crushed. The mortal wound had been struck. In the death throes, the serpent still can be dangerous. He still is active with his hosts in the world in which we live but his days are numbered. It is only a matter of time until the dragon is cast into the bottomless abyss of fire and brimstone eternally and Christ rules supreme over a perfect kingdom of righteousness.
The Devil was fully aware of the great importance of the first Christmas. He saw the cosmic significance of the birth of this baby in Bethlehem. He knew the meaning of the words of the angel to Mary when he said, "You shall call his name Jesus (Savior) for he shall save his people from their sins." Satan knew all these things and it terrified him for he knew he was in a desperate state.
The terror of Satan however at the thought of the advent of Christ must be our joy. We celebrate the birth of a Savior from sin and death. We celebrate the triumph of our almighty God. No wonder the angels broke forth in songs of praise to God at the birth of the child. Can we do anything less? This evening we will sing four hymns. One, based on Isaiah 40, speaks of the comfort found in the advent of Christ. One is taken from Psalm 2 which describes the triumphant Son to whom has been given a rod of iron to rule the nations. Here is the son of the radiant woman of Revelation 12 and all the nations are called upon to render homage to him. Two of the hymns speak of Satan. We began our service with the great Reformation hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is our God." In this hymn we sang of the total triumph of "the right Man" who is "on our side" and we said:
That though this world with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear,
for God has willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure for lo! his doom is sure;
One little word can fell him.
We will end our service with a great hymn concerning the advent of the Lord: "O Come, O Come Emmanuel."We will sing, "O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan's tyranny; from depths of hell thy people save, and give them vict'ry o'er the grave." When you sing this think of the first coming of Jesus Christ and what that means for us. Remember the words of the great voice in heaven as recorded in Revelation 12:10-11: "Now is come the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God; for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, who accused them day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony." When you sing our final hymn, sing it also looking forward to and praying for the second and final coming of Christ as he comes to bring all things to consummation under his rule. Think of that time when "the Devil is cast into the lake of fire and brimstone and tormented day and night for ever and ever" (Rev. 20:10). May your voices be part of the great chorus in heaven of Revelation 11: "The kingdom of the world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ: and he shall reign for ever and ever." No longer will Rachel be seen weeping for her children, for the time of weeping and sorrow will be past. At that time our Lord will have delivered the true Israel of God out of Egypt and will bring them into the land of eternal rest and gladness.
Then we will join with the four and twenty elders who fell on their faces and worshipped God, saying, "We give thee thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who art and who was; because thou hast taken thy great power, and didst reign. And the nations were wroth, and thy wrath came, and the time of the dead to be judged, and the time to give their reward to thy servants the prophets and to the saints, and to them that fear thy name, the small and the great; and to destroy them that destroy the earth" (Rev. 11:17, 18).
O Come, O Come Emmanuel and Ransom Captive Israel.
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania